Book Review: Summer Bird Blue

summer bird blueSummer Bird Blue
by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Queer YA
373 pages
Published September 2018

This is the second YA_Pride book club chat I’ve participated in – the last one was The Summer of Jordi Perez and the Best Burger in Los Angeles. (Which was great.) Summer Bird Blue was just as good, but where Jordi Perez was a lovely, lighthearted beach read, Summer Bird Blue is a tearjerker that you’ll want to read in private so you can sob the entire way through the book. Or at least that’s what I did.

Gorgeous and evocative are both words that could be applied here. Rumi’s grief over losing her sister is profound. She feels abandoned by her mother, sent to live with the aunt she barely knows in Hawaii. Rumi has absolutely lost everything – her sister/best friend is truly lost. She feels like she’s lost her mother, her home, any semblance of normality, and her musical ability. It’s a lot for a kid to deal with.

In the middle of all that, she’s trying to figure out her sexuality – she might be ace or demi; she spends most of the book questioning and trying to make sense of it. As we discussed in the Twitter chat, even if she doesn’t come to a conclusion on what her sexuality is, even having “questioning” as a sexuality is so important in YA books. Showing that you don’t need to have everything figured out is really important.

I loved Rumi’s relationships with the neighbors, both Kai and Mr. Watanabe. I wish Rumi had been nice to Mr. Watanabe in the beginning, but she comes around eventually. And she was dealing with A LOT, so I’ll give her a little slack. She was beginning to try my patience near the end of the book, though.

The one real disappointment I had with this book is that while Rumi is portrayed as this awesome musician whose lyrics and melodies are really good – the other characters say so – I don’t like her lyrics. Of course I have no way of knowing what her melodies sound like, but I just don’t think her lyrics are that good.

Other than that little quibble, this book is really, really good. But also really, really sad. Prepare to cry.

From the cover of Summer Bird Blue:

Rumi Seto spends a lot of time worrying she doesn’t have the answers to everything. What to eat, where to go, whom to love. But there is one thing she is absolutely sure of – she wants to spend the rest of her life writing music with her younger sister, Lea.

Then Lea dies in a car accident, and her mother sends Rumi away to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she deals with her own grief. Now thousands of miles from home, Rumi struggles to navigate the loss of her sister, being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of music from her life. With the help of the “boys next door” – a teenage surfer named Kai, who smiles too much and doesn’t take anything seriously, and an eighty-year-old named George Watanabe, who succumbed to his own grief years ago – Rumi attempts to find her way back to her music, to write the song she and Lea never had the chance to finish.

Aching, powerful, and unflinchingly honest, Summer Bird Blue explores big truths about insurmountable grief, unconditional love, and how to forgive even when it feels impossible.

Book Review: Clock Dance

clock dance book clubClock Dance
by Anne Tyler
Contemporary Fiction
300 pages
Published July 2018

Clock Dance was the second pick for Barnes & Noble’s  nation-wide Book Club. (The first was Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, back in May.) Like the first one, it was contemporary fiction, which I’m pretty meh about. When I learned it was set mostly in Baltimore, and written by a local author, I became more interested. I’m originally from Oregon, but Baltimore has become my home, and I enjoy reading about it. We had a slightly larger group than last time, but I was the only returning attendee besides the store employee, Sam, who led the discussion.

Sam opened the discussion with the same question that she started the last one with – “Did you like the main character?” It’s an interesting question because most people ask “Did you like the book?” which can have a different answer. I don’t usually read books in which I don’t like the main character, but that’s usually because I choose my books. I’m not choosing my Book Club books, so it’s a good question. Unlike last time, I did like Willa. I disagreed with her judgment when it came to husbands, but I still sympathized with her. I mentioned that I didn’t like that she just floated through most of her life without any real ambition, but to be honest, I’ve done that too. I’m not a very ambitious person – or my ambitions are quite low. I think that, perhaps, is the difference. I find a lot of fulfillment in being, effectively, my husband’s personal assistant. It’s fun. Willa did not seem to find it fulfilling, she just – didn’t want to rock the boat.

I like how we saw each of Willa’s “defining moments” – the book opens on her as a child, her volatile mother having stormed out of the house during an argument. Her mother really does a number on her as a child. I think it’s why she hates to rock the boat so much. From here, we fast forward to college, and Willa’s boyfriend proposing to her after gaslighting her about an event that happened on the plane. Willa’s mother disapproves. Vehemently. I think that’s part of why Willa accepts. Our next view of Willa’s life is the accident that takes her husband’s life, and its aftermath.

Then we finally start into the real meat of the book, twenty years after the death of her first husband. Her sons have grown and moved away, she has remarried, and both of her parents have passed. Her husband is a little distant, and she seems rather untethered. Then she gets the strangest phone call. It turns out her eldest son lived with a woman (Denise) and her daughter for a little while in Baltimore; he has since moved on, but “Sean’s mother” is still a phone number on Denise’s emergency contact list. So when Denise is shot in the leg and put in the hospital, a neighbor lady sees it, assumes Willa is the grandmother of the child, and calls her to come take care of her. It’s a little convoluted, and Willa can’t even adequately explain to her husband why she’s decided to fly to Baltimore to take care of a child she has no relation to, but she does so anyway.

This is where we get to Baltimore, and, in Anne Tyler’s own words, “when her story changes to Technicolor.”

I actually live just outside Baltimore myself, but one of my best friends lives in Charles Village, and I could SO EASILY envision Willa’s neighborhood as a street of rowhomes. (Turns out it’s probably based on a neighborhood in Hamilton, according to the Baltimore Sun.) I was even mapping locations in Willa’s house to my friend’s rowhome! Anne Tyler really captures the spirit of Baltimore, and now I want to read more of her books, even if they are contemporary fiction!

Overall I enjoyed Clock Dance; Anne Tyler is very good at subtle character growth, which is quite realistic. People don’t often change all at once. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of being told what to do before finally waking up to what you WANT to do.

From the cover of Clock Dance:

An inspiring novel of one woman’s transformative journey

Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother’s sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she years to be a grandmother but isn’t sure she ever will be.

Then, one day, Willa receives a startling phone call from a stranger. Without fully understanding why, she flies across the country to Baltimore to look after a young woman she’s never met, her nine-year-old daughter, and their dog, Airplane. This impulsive decision will lead Willa into uncharted territory – surrounded by eccentric neighbors who treat each other like family, she finds solace and fulfillment in unexpected places.

A bewitching novel of hope, self-discovery, and second chances, Clock Dance gives us Anne Tyler at the height of her powers.

Book Review: The Female Persuasion

the female persuasionThe Female Persuasion
by Meg Wolitzer
Contemporary Fiction
454 pages
Published April 2018

So this book came to my attention through an ad on Facebook for Barnes & Noble’s first official book club meeting. I tossed around the idea of going – I haven’t had good experiences with book clubs (nor bad ones, just – ambivalent experiences) – but we wound up at a Barnes & Noble on Sunday, because we were bored, so I decided to snag the book and read it. And then I went to Book Club on Wednesday! We had a small turnout at my Barnes & Noble – only four of us, including the employee leading the discussion. But after seeing a couple photos of larger turnouts, I’m glad for it – I wasn’t afraid to speak up in the small group. I’m a pretty shy introvert, a bigger group would have led to me being pretty quiet.

I feel like I was more intrigued by our book club members than the book! S., who led the group, was a natural at it, and really got us talking. I.R. opened the meeting with “I want you guys to change my mind about this book” but wouldn’t tell us her original opinion of it! And T, who was the oldest of us, brought a completely different viewpoint to the discussion, which was invaluable. (I’m pretty sure IR and S, like me, are millennials.) At the end of the discussion, T revealed she has a Ph.D. in Sociology, specialized in Gender and Sexuality, and she’s writing a book! We all agreed we wish the Book Club was monthly instead of quarterly, so S. is going to talk to her bosses and see if we can’t do a monthly book club at our location, which would be AWESOME. She also said Barnes & Noble was hiring and encouraged us to apply, and – not gonna lie – that was tempting. It’s a bus ride and a short walk away, though, and while my health and energy levels are improving drastically, I’m not sure they’re quite up to holding down a job yet. Not and get anything done around the house.

Anyway. On to the book! The Female Persuasion was billed as a feminist novel, and in some ways it is, but we all agreed it’s not REALLY about feminism. The main character, Greer, works for a feminist foundation, but you could have changed what the foundation’s purpose was, or made her work for a corporation, and the essence of the book would have been exactly the same. It was only tangentially about feminism. It was about women supporting each other, though, and the mentor relationship between an older woman and a younger woman, so in some ways, yes. If I was asked to make a list of books about feminism, though, it certainly wouldn’t make the cut.

All of the characters have some major flaws. Greer is selfish, and doesn’t understand when things don’t go according to plan. Cory’s life gets entirely derailed by a tragedy he couldn’t prevent, but in some ways he lets the derailment happen. If he’d really wanted what he said he wanted (and perhaps he didn’t) he could have fixed his trajectory. Zee is a little brash and headstrong, but the most likable character in the book. Faith – oh, Faith. Faith is the older feminist mentor who turns out to be far more jaded than expected.

I have lots of conflicts about Faith. She is one of those feminists who doesn’t seem to care for individual women – she can’t even remember most of the women who credit her with changing their lives – but she keeps her eyes on the big picture. And as I brought up in book club, the movement does need people who see the big picture. Those people are important – but they still need certain principles that I think Faith lacks.

IR mentioned that Cory was a good foil to all the female characters in the book, and he needed his flaws, because otherwise he would be the perfect feminist boyfriend. And no one is perfect.

We were all a little disappointed with the ending; it felt like Wolitzer skipped a whole section of the story. How did Greer get from point A to point B? (Well, really, it’s more like the book covers Points A, B, C, and E. And skips D.)

I think one of my favorite quotes from the book (I misattributed it to Faith at the book club, it turns out it came from Greer) was the one about being given permission:

“I think that’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be. Many of you here in this room…..had someone like that, didn’t you? Someone who gave you permission. Someone who saw you and heard you. Heard your voice.”

I think that really sums up mentorship, in some ways. Women are often still socialized to not trust their own instincts, to lean on outside opinions for validation. (I know I was.) To be given permission and encouragement to trust yourself can be a life-changing event.

I really enjoyed this book. I saw bits of myself in all four characters – Faith’s practicality, Greer’s impressionability, Zee’s idealism, and even a little of Cory’s foggy despair and lack of ambition. I wouldn’t call it a feminist classic. But it was a good book.

From the cover of The Female Persuasion

Sometimes the person you admire most recognizes something unusual in you and draws it out, opening a door to a bigger, electrifying world.

Greer Kadetsky is a college freshman when she meets the woman who will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a pillar of the women’s movement for decades, a figure who inspires others. Hearing Faith speak for the first time, in a crowded campus chapel, Greer feels her inner world light up. She and Cory, her high school boyfriend, have both been hardworking and ambitious, jokingly referred to as “twin rocket ships,” headed up and up and up. Yet for so long Greer has been full of longing, in search of a purpose she can’t quite name. And then, astonishingly, Faith invites her to make something out of her new sense of awakening. Over time, Faith leads Greer along the most exciting and rewarding path of her life, as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory, and the future she’d always imagined. As Cory’s path, too, is altered in ways that feel beyond his control, both of them are asked to reckon with what they really want. What does it mean to be powerful? How do people measure their impact upon the world, and upon one another? Does all of this look different for men than it does for women?

With humor, wisdom, and profound intelligence, Meg Wolitzer weaves insights about power and influence, ego and loyalty, womanhood and ambition into a moving story that looks at the romantic ideals we pursue deep into adulthood: ideals relating not just to whom we want to be with, but who we want to be.