And We Stay Book Review

  1. Spoilers ahead!
  2. . I really didn’t like the book. Click away if either will irritate you.

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard didn’t work for me. I took it out of the library four or five times before I was able to power through. All the things I loved about the other novels I’ve read recently: complex characters, pacing and plot, use of time or flashbacks, and magical realism didn’t come together in And We Stay.

9780385740586The most interesting and relatable part of the story, Emily Beam and Paul’s relationship, was told through flashbacks. The book started out with Emily attending boarding school in Amherst, Mass. Through flashbacks the readers learned that her boyfriend Paul Wagoner brought a stolen gun into the library of their high school where he threatened Emily and then killed himself. As the story progressed, readers learned that Emily was pregnant and planning to have an abortion, which she ultimately does. Paul’s disintegrating relationship with Emily was one of the reasons he ended up with a gun in the library.

At the boarding school, Emily wrote poems to soothe her soul and deal with the trauma she went through. Inspired by Emily Dickinson, Emily Beam’s poems were interspersed throughout the book. One of the main reasons the book fell apart for me had to do with all the added poetry. Emily Beam wrote numerous poems during her time at boarding school printed on the pages of the book, but they did not resonate with me. They seemed superfluous and superficial. I skipped over many of them to get on with the story. If the author limited the number of poems, the verse would have been fine, but the poems happened often.

For example

PALL

Oh, yes, she could feel it/even though the bullet/had never stabbed her skin./ The bright white heat/ burned at her core/ where two lives/ beat, and if he’d aimed/ there and pulled the trigger,/red would have crested/ like a broken dam/ over her hands/ as her last word rushed/ up to her throat– Paul– / a sound that took no time and also lifetimes” (Hubbard 39).

It could my personal writing or reading style, but both the inclusion of the poems and the poems as written failed to engage me as a reader.

Emily also developed a quirky connection to Emily Dickinson, and the author supplied hints that the dead poet has returned to help modern Emily cope. Due to Emily Beam’s fascination with the dead poet, readers learned a lot about Dickinson’s history. While as an English teacher, I love knowing about poets, as a reader I wasn’t interested because it broke the flow of the narrative.

Finally, the connection to Emily Dickinson was supposed to be further demonstrated through magical realism, but the magic, lights turning on and snow falling, didn’t make a significant impact Emily or her poetry.  This was an area that could have been significantly improved and the magic intensified so that readers would be able to connect how Dickinson was helping Beam get through the turmoil she dealt with.

In addition, the characterization of modern-day Emily was weak and lifeless. I understand that the author wanted to portray her as depressed, but she came across as one dimensional during much of the book. I actually preferred Paul’s character better in the flashbacks because he realistic and emotional.  Her friends at the boarding school were also rather poorly drawn. The readers never really knew any of them in depth so they became stereotypical. Her offbeat roommate. K.T., filled the role while other characters came in as the artist, the jock, the rebel, etc.

Finally, the pacing was glacier slow. Nothing happened at the boarding school for most of the book other than Emily drinking coffee, writing poems, going to class, and trying not to make friends. Over all, I would not recommend the book as it was very forgettable.

I wanted to end with a positive note. The writing itself was beautiful. Jenny Hubbard is obviously a talented author who crafted beautiful prose and descriptions. “During Trigonometry with soft-spoken, square haired Mrs. Frame, Emily imagines all the identities she could invent” (Hubbard 49).  I loved the way that I could visualize that clear, initial impression of each character. I only wish that initial impression could have deepened as the book progressed.

 

 

Hubbard, J. (201$). And We Stay. Random House: New York, NY.

Everybody Sees the Ants Review

I recently finished Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King and enjoyed it. Beware spoilers ahead…

It begins with Lucky Linderman, an ordinary high school student, except that he was being bullied. Badly bullied. Growing up, he rarely felt like he fit in, but did okay, skating under the radar, until he developed a questionnaire about suicide for a class project. Then it wasn’t only teachers who took notice, but the bullies as well. Lucky became the target of Nader McMillan. The abuse finally went too far at the town pool during the summer when McMillian crushes Lucky’s face into the asphalt.

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McMillan was not Lucky’s only problem. His mom was a squid. She swam obsessively to deal with her problems, but once out of the pool pretended everything was fine. His dad was a turtle, retreating from problems, rather than dealing with them. One of those problems had appeared in Lucky’s dreams. Lucky’s father was severely impacted by the fact that his dad, Lucky’s grandfather, never made it back from the Vietnam War. Every night throughout the novel, Lucky’s grandfather showed up in his dreams as he slept.

Lucky attempted to save his grandfather each night, and these escape attempts helped him cope. In his dangerous, wartime dreamscape, Lucky was strong and heroic. I constantly questioned, was it only a dream because Lucky woke up with more than memories. Items such as cigarettes and chewing gum were at his bedside when he awoke.

The protagonist had another secret as well. Ants. The insects helped him cope with life and provided advice. They were his cheering squad, his conscious, and the inner voice that allowed him to successfully navigate the harsh realities around him.

After Lucky’s last run-in with Nader at the pool, his mom rushed him away to her brother’s house and the rest of his summer was spent in Tempe, Arizona. There, Lucky bonded with his Uncle Dave, until he learned his uncle was not the stellar man he pretended to be, cheating on Aunt Jodi who turned to pills to cope. He also met an older, wiser teen, who he crushed over. She faced problems of her own, but her situation finally allowed Lucky put his life into perspective.

What I loved about the book was the reality and complexity of the characters, family dynamics, and the plot, which is why I spent so much time outlining it above. Often, I parents are made out to be cliché in books about teens, but all the characters were realistic and believable in Everybody Sees the Ants. I especially liked how Lucky’s mom was portrayed. As a reader (and mom), I could see how much she cared for her son even if she didn’t know what to do about the bullying. While all the characters displayed shortcomings, which only made them more realistic, the relationships came across as truthful and loving. At the end, there was hope for a better future.

It was interesting to view the world through Lucky’s eyes, giving the reader a truthful teen perspective. He disliked his overbearing, pill-popping aunt until he realizes she was coping with a cheating husband that everyone in town seems to know about. Once Lucky realizes his aunt’s life is as complicated as his own, he shows empathy for her situation and develops a connection with her.

The pacing was exceptional, and I enjoyed how the author took Lucky away from the bullying for a while so he could examine life and find himself. Ants was an intense story, but it could have been much darker. Removing Lucky from the bullying gave the reader much needed levity because even though the reader is removed from the day to day bullying, they learn about how truly heinous the situation had become for Lucky. When he shares the “real story” to his new friends it was emotional. I guessed the twist early on, but still felt the impact of it, when the truth was told.

The use of magical realism remained excellent throughout the story. It could be hard for a reader to suspend disbelief if the magical realism doesn’t ring true enough, but I had no problem believing the magical realism of Lucky’s dreams and loved how at the end, Lucky brought his grandfather’s wedding ring to his dad. Magical moment. Tears. Throughout the novel, the author also used the dreams as a way to help Lucky escape from reality. In the dreams, he was both physically fit and mentally strong. By the end of the story, Lucky realizes he brought those same qualities to his day to day life.

My critique of the story centered around the fact that it read a little dated. Even though it was written in 2014, there were no cell phones. This left me confused. In addition, the ants, a figment of Lucky’s imagination, also left me a little chagrined. While I was able to embrace the dreams as magical realism, the ants were a little harder to accept. At points, I wondered what their role was in the novel.  These were minor faults in a stellar read.

Five ants!!!! Over all, a great read and one I would highly recommend to students.

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Using Creative Writing Creatively

One of my proudest moments in high school English class was when my extremely strict, Catholic nun-of-a-teacher handed me back a short story with a large A enshrined in a circle. She was often stern and sometimes downright scary, but also let us read A Patch of Blue by Elizabeth Kata about Selina D’Arcey, a blind girl living in a squalid apartment with her abusive, prostitute mother Rose-Ann and alcoholic grandfather Ole Pa. Selina has no friends and rarely ventures outside until she meets Gordon Ralfe, an educated and soft-spoken black man. Not your typical Catholic high school summer reading, but I loved it, and rode the short story grade high for a long time.

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My worst high school English class memory comes from senior year when students memorized and recited lines from Macbeth to the rest of the class. I purposely did not memorize the lines. I would have gladly taken the F, but my teacher forced me up to the front of the room anyway. Hands shaking, students laughing, I stumbled through Lady Macbeth’s speech.

I’m not sure if remembering these events shaped my classroom pedagogy. It could as easily have been my love of writing or my years of work as a teacher, but creative writing should become be a bigger part of every English class. My own class included.

True, teaching creative writing isn’t easy. 

31-K4eNCoTL._BO1,204,203,200_According to Rebecca Wallace-Segall’s article “A Passionate, Unapologetic Plea for Creative Writing in Schools” in the Atlantic.It is not easy to teach creative writing within the confinement of school. It is not easy to tackle the issues that arise, and it’s not easy to learn how to teach fiction and memoir writing well.”

But it needs to be done.  It’s interesting that high school teachers put so much value in the novels they read with students, spending the year sharing authors’ valuable themes, use of literary devices, symbols, and conflicts, and yet never teaching students how to create their own literature. Does it not make sense that if we want students to understand theme, they need to immerse themselves in it, creating themes for their own works of art. 

Segall goes on to say, “There’s a reason fiction and narrative nonfiction outsell all other genres in the U.S. It’s the same reason there are 56 million WordPress blogs and 76 million Tumblrs. Human beings yearn to share, reflect, and understand one another, and they use these reflections to improve the state of things, both personal and public. If we want our students to have this kind of impact, we have to teach them to express themselves with both precision and passion.”

I used to teach Senior Writing Workshop, anelective for students getting ready to venture off to college. For most of the course we completed typical assignments: a research reports, a rhetorical analysis, and expository writing, but sometimes we ventured into the more creative with personal narrative and satire, and it is those types of writing that students respond to the most. 

In their end of the year course summaries, students wrote: “There were new things I learned, and I actually got interested in one, which was the satire” and “The papers that I am most proud of are my personal narrative and satire papers. These papers really let me express myself in a way that I never get to do as just another English student…”

But what really stuck with me was the student who said, “I came to this class dreading to write another paper and left wanting to write more.” 

What teacher does not want to read that?

The question then becomes how to intersperse creative writing into an already rigorous curriculum overflowing with literature, standardized testing, and thesis-driven essays. Creative writing can be done through mini-lessons or simple units. Often time, exposure to a topic will have students experimenting on their own.

  1. Personal narrative through college essay. Cover exploding moments, descriptive writing, thought shots and snap shots
  2. Flash fiction and short story writing through mentor texts in comparison to novels. (The “Pedestrian” as compared to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)
  3. Creative journalism through narrative nonfiction, blogs and vlogs, book reviews, satire and opinion pieces.
  4. Dialogue and script writing through the study of drama.  Craft a conversation. Teach dialogue, dialogue tags, realistic vs. real dialogue.
  5. Poetry, rap and song lyrics in reaction to social and personal issues examined through literature.  

zodiac

https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/a-passionate-unapologetic-plea-for-creative-writing-in-schools/263212/

Sadie by Courtney Summers

Intense and emotional. I couldn’t put the book down.  Author Courtney Summers’s novel will haunt readers after they’ve turned the final page. While the ending will not leave some (ME!) entriely satified, the book tackles themes that every parent hates to think might happen to a child, especially their child. This was not an easy book to read with many possible triggers including drug addiction, sexual assault, and child abuse, but so well done that readers will be reaching for tissues or living the anger Sadie, the protagonist,  emotes.

34810320._SY475_Sadie’s first person point of view is  interspersed with West McCray’s podcast. Both gather clues. Sadie want’s to find one of her mother’s boyfriend and get revenge for a horrible thing he did. McCray wants to find Sadie. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the disjointed narrative, but it never felt that way.  Instead, I loved how the pieces of the narrative puzzle connected by the end.

Sadie jumped off each and every page. She damaged and seeking revenge. She doesn’t understand how amazing she was for taking care of her sister Mattie, she still searches for the good and gentle when her entire life has been anything but that. “I would let his gentleness take me somewhere else,  let myself pretend what it might be like to belong to someone” (91). Because she still has hope for a better future, so do readers. This is also why there is a special place in my heart for Javi and Ellis, two minor characters, who show Sadie that the world is not all bad. 

The writing is wonderful from the details describing characters to the imagery.  “I swallow hard, lick my lips, the ghost taste of the shot still on them” (91). The characters aren’t flat or stereotypical. Many aren’t likable, but they come across as entirely realistic. That means you will meet plenty of assholes and liars along the way.

While considered young adult, Sadie was not written for teens. It connects to all people, no matter what age. While I love this book, I’m still struggling with the end. I NEED MORE. If you want closure, be prepared to be disappointed, but the reader gets enough that the book feels both satisfying and complete. Cliffhanger, not really, but maybe. Closure. No. Read it anyway.  Five huge, bright stars.

Need more about the ending? Check out http://wendythesuperlibrarian.blogspot.com/2019/02/epic-spoiler-review-sadie.html