We Were Liars

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God. This book.

The setting pulled me in. Rich cousins on a private island off of Massachusetts? Yes please. Love developing between two childhood friends? I’m a sucker for that.

“He was contemplation and enthusiasm. Ambition and strong coffee. I could have looked at him forever.

The voice was so well done, lots of sentence fragments filled with bits of beauty. It could have come off oddly in the hands of a less talented writer, but Lockhart did it wonderfully.

“It is good to be loved, even though it will not last.”

You know from the beginning something bad is going to happen, and then when something does, you aren’t even entirely sure what it is. To find out, along with Cadence, you keep reading. But before you even know the extent of Cadence’s struggle, you admire her strength.

“I’d a million times rather live and risk and have it all end badly than stay in the box I’ve been in for the past two years.”

“I lie there and wait, and remind myself over and over that it doesn’t last forever. That there will be another day and after that, yet another day. One of those days, I’ll get up and eat breakfast and feel okay.”

And oh, Cadence and Gat.

“When blood dripped on my bare feet or poured over the book I was reading, he was kind. He wrapped my wrists in soft white gauze and asked me questions about what had happened. He asked about Dad and about Gran—as if talking about something could make it better. As if wounds needed attention.”

“Someone once wrote that a novel should deliver a series of small astonishments. I get the same thing spending an hour with you.”

And the end. I did not see it coming, though in retrospect there were so many clues. That’s a real accomplishment, as an author. It was so good and so devastating. Think first-time-reading-Fault-in-Our-Stars levels of sobbing.

“They know that tragedy is not glamorous. They know it doesn’t play out in life as it does on a stage or between the pages of a book. It is neither a punishment meted out nor a lesson conferred. Its horrors or not attributable to one single person. Tragedy is ugly and tangled, stupid and confusing. That is what the children know.”

Go read this book. Now.

Good Books (as of late)

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I get asked for book recommendations a lot. Mostly because I read like a fiend. (And maybe because I have decent taste.)

My goal with this blog was to post glowing reviews after every wonderful book I read. But I read fast, and I review more slowly.

So here is a super-abbreviated version of reviews of the books I’ve read this summer, in case you’re looking for something good. I am only listing the ones I gave at least a 3-star review. Not a ton is accomplished in writing negative reviews, in my opinion. If you didn’t like something, why give it more attention? So I don’t write negative reviews (though I do give out the appropriate amount of stars–If you’re curious as to the books I didn’t like, you can check me out on Goodreads.)

5 stars:

We Were Liars, E. Lockhart (YA, Drama) Wealthy teenage cousins (and a step brother) on a private island over several summers with their fucked-up families. Unusual but beautiful prose, compelling voice, completely devastating. You’ve been warned.

The Secret Place, Tana French (Fiction, Mystery) It’s no secret I’m obsessed with Tana French. The Secret Place is like her others: perfectly-drawn characters, beautifully-written sentences, a compelling mystery, and ultimately heartbreaking.

Love Letters to the Dead, Ava Dellaira (YA, Coming of Age) I actually got around to writing about this one. If you loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you’ll love this.

The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer (Fiction, Literary) I also got around to writing about this one! I adore stories about groups of friends, and how they come together and apart over the years. I adore awkward characters. I adore good writing. This book is light on plot, heavy on amazingness.

This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper (Fiction, Literary, Humor) This book made me laugh out loud. Tropper’s a beautiful writer and this story manages to be both sad and vulgar and hilarious and real. I heard the movie wasn’t as good, but I’ll be judging for myself.

4 stars:

Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell (YA, Coming of Age, Romance) What differentiates this from other YA romances? The characters are not conventionally beautiful; they are awkward and flawed and just so real. Why only 4 stars? The ending bothered me. But still well, well worth the read.

Delirium Trilogy, Lauren Oliver (YA, Dystopian, Romance) I liked these books very much. Lauren Oliver is a beautiful writer, they move along at a pace that makes them unputdownable. If I were to rate individually, I’d probably give Delirium and Pandemonium 4 stars, Requiem 3. Delirium did a great job of setting up the characters and the world and the romance. Pandemonium was my favorite, with the switching between past and present. Requiem fell a little flat after the other two, though still worth the read. All three were rather predictable, but the plot and the prose make them perfect escape novels.

Wild, Cheryl Strayed (Nonfiction, Memoir) I don’t read a ton of nonfiction, but I really liked this one. My favorite books make me want to insert myself inside of them, and after reading this I definitely want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed is such a compelling writer, I felt like I was right alongside of her the entire time.

The Rules for Disappearing, Ashley Elston (YA, Mystery, Suspense) A surly teenager and her family in the witness protection program. I like surly teenagers, I like mysteries, I like characters who stand up to the mean kids at school. The ending seemed to verge on the unrealistic, but I’ll still be picking up the sequel at some point.

3 stars:

We’ll Always Have Paris, Jennifer Coburn (Nonfiction, Memoir) I read this for book club; like I said, I primarily read fiction. This was the story of a mother traveling with her daughter over the years. It was cute and well-written. Not especially life-changing. Excellent if you’re in the mood for a wanderlusty, light read.

I hope to write full-on reviews of each one of these at some point. In the meantime, if you have any further recommendations, please let me know!

On Becoming an Expat

La Vire in Autumn

Welcome to your beautiful new home! You know no one. Enjoy.

A new girl started at my office last week. She’s from Germany, and she’s wonderfully enthusiastic about everything. However, she just told me a story of how after going on a $300 Trader Joe’s shopping spree, she got to the register and her bank card wouldn’t work. She had no food, no phone, and now no money, and she just broke down at the register and started crying.

She’s fine now, of course. Her story got me thinking about my own first few weeks as an expat, and how incredibly difficult they were. So if you’re thinking of moving to a new country (especially if you’re doing it alone, as I did) here are some tips I hope will help.

Before you go:

1. Get your shit together This part is boring and annoying but so necessary. Save your money. Learn about the place you’re going. Pack what you need. Get all your paperwork in order. Ensure you have the necessary documents to get the things you need in your new country. (Moving to France? They need every document ever created about you since birth just to rent you an apartment. Have fun with that.) But be thorough, and get it done. Your future self will thank you when you’re not wandering the streets with your giant suitcases with nowhere to stay because you didn’t know you needed your birth certificate.

2. Research Ask people you know if they know anyone in the area, or at least within visiting distance to the area. Moving to the middle of nowhere, Normandy? Maybe someone knows someone in Paris. No one knows anyone? Look up organizations that are relevant to you–book clubs, running clubs, expat-in-France get-togethers. Correspond with people before you leave via social media. It’s scary to be alone in a country where you don’t know a soul. Acquaintances are better than no one–and the thing about these acquaintances, they can turn into friends.

3. Bring books Or something you can escape into during your stressful move, and upon arrival when life in your new country is inevitably lonely and overwhelming and scary.

When you arrive:

4. Find the grocery store (and wine store) Nothing is worse than being lost, exhausted, and also hungry. Buy food before you unpack. There was a point when I first arrived in Saint-Lô that I would have sworn a Nutella crepe and glass of kir literally saved my life, or at least my resolve not to run straight back to America. Food to fill you, wine to help you calm down.

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My first friends in France.

5. Walk Just walk around. Look at things, and not just the museums or landmarks that make wherever it is you moved to special. Wander into coffee shops, bars, down a country lane. I know all you want to do at this point is sit in your new apartment alone, emailing everyone you’ve left behind, but this doesn’t help. Trust me.

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My second friends in France. Par for the course in Normandy.

6. Talk to strangers So hard for introverts like me, but so necessary. Talk to your waitress. Your bartender. The person behind you at the grocery store. The overall friendliness of people depends on the location, but you will often find that there are at least a few people who won’t look at you like you’re insane (even in NYC!) If you’ve made contact with people before leaving, make plans to get together with them ASAP. Other people help immensely.

And the most important thing of all:

7. Don’t Leave You’ll want to so badly at the beginning. You’ll miss your old life. But like everything in life, acclimating oneself to a new environment takes time. Moving to a new country alone, leaving behind every single person and place and thing I’ve ever loved, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But also one of the most rewarding.

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I miss these guys.

Love Letters to the Dead

Start reading LOVE LETTERS TO THE DEAD today!

I loved this book.

This book is often compared to The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which is one of my top 10 books of all time). In fact, Stephen Chobsky was Ava Dellaira’s mentor (how did she manage that? Can he mentor me too?)

The similarities are pretty striking: shy teenager (though in Dellaira’s case it’s a girl) writing letters to a person/people who don’t or can’t write back, spilling out her heart in poetic prose as she navigates her first year of high school. Like in Perks, she’s suffered a loss recently, and there are also hints to something that happened to her that you don’t find out about until later.

I’m a sucker for lost teenage protagonists. Maybe it’s because the first time I read The Catcher in the Rye it was the first time I felt like someone understood me. Maybe it’s because I will never forget what it’s like to be an angsty teenager. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown into an angsty adult. Whatever it is, books like this tug at me.

Epistolary novels are tricky what with the balance between show and tell (I just tried writing one myself, and gave up). But Ava Dellaira makes it work. Some of the exposition is a little awkward–she’s writing to these famous people and telling them how they lived and how they died, like they wouldn’t already know. But her beautiful prose overshadows any flaws.

Another thing: as much as I love angsty teenager books, I find it a little overdone that each teenager has to have had something horrible happen to them in the past to make them the way they are. You can be an angsty teenager without having a tragic past. I understand tragedy makes you sympathize with the character faster, but I’d like to see a book like this where the lost protagonist has basically had a normal life. (Maybe that’s why I’m writing one.)

Regardless, you should read this book. Here’s why:

1. Ava Dellaira is a beautiful writer:

“And if you wear leather pants, and have a beautiful body, and drink lots of expensive wine, and if your voice sounds like the edge you strike a match on, then these things are blocks that you have given them to build the person they want.”

2. She understands exactly why I became a writer:

“So maybe when we can say things, when we can write the words, when we can express how it feels, we aren’t so helpless.”

3. She has also taken the sum of my shy adolescent self, and summed it up into one sentence:

“I want people to know me, but if anyone could look inside of me, if they saw that everything I feel is not what it’s supposed to be, I don’t know what would happen.”

Go read this book!

On Themes

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I’m nearly done with The Secret Place. It’s one of those books that you want to rush through and savor at the same time. Rush through, because you just want to know what happens, savor because Tana French is just such a beautiful writer and her book worlds are so well-drawn and heartbreaking you don’t want to leave them. And I know it will probably be at least a few more years before I have the pleasure of delving into one of her stories again. Genius takes time!

Without spoiling anything, I just wanted to record my musings on a recurrent theme in Tana French books: friendship, the real kind, and how incredibly powerful it is. I’ve written about this before, but the best part of Tana French books are the relationships between the characters. And the most powerful relationships in these books, in my opinion, aren’t romantic or familial; they’re the relationships between friends. I think it’s a kind of love which is underrepresented in storytelling–I mean, just think about the amount of romances or family dramas out there.

Friendship love is powerful and precious, especially for the young. And it’s true that something so powerful can also be dangerous, how the threat of losing it drives people to do horrific things.

I can’t wait to finish this book. And I don’t want it to end.

Zen Pencils

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The other night I was talking to a friend of mine about wanting to quit my corporate job and write full time. It’s a wish I’ve had for years, that always ends with me talking myself out of it, because of money, stability, grass-is-greener syndrome, etc. So he sent me this.

It really struck home.

I am now a huge fan of this guy. Do yourself a favor and check out his stuff, if you haven’t already.

Wanderlusty Wednesday: Berlin

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Berlin is one of my favorite cities in the world. Why haven’t I written about it until now? Mainly because I don’t have many great photos from my time there.

Berlin is not the most beautiful city in the world. However, it’s definitely in the running for the most interesting.

Reasons to go to Berlin?

1. The people are incredibly friendly. On our way into the town center from the airport, we struck up a conversation with a couple on the train. They invited us to a house party that very night. In the  spirit of carpe diem, we went. I honestly believe there’s nothing like seeing a new place from the eyes of a local. And that night, we boozed it up with several.

2. It’s incredibly safe. We were warned before we left not to jaywalk in Berlin. Why? Because since there’s virtually no crime, the police have nothing better to do than ticket jaywalking tourists. Seriously. There are no homeless people (because there is an abundance of abandoned buildings for squatters) and prostitution is legal. Don’t jaywalk! You’ve been warned.

3. The beer. Self-explanatory.

4. It’s mind-blowingly fascinating. If you go, do yourself a favor and go on this tour. You know how city tours can be such overpriced tourist traps? This is the exact opposite. 

It started at our hostel (which I will not recommend for a variety of reasons, although they do give you free beer upon check-in). This twenty-something British guy named Barnaby was offering eight-hour walking tours for a pittance. I’m not sure what possessed us to sign up–it was February, cold and snowing–but we did. We spent eight hours stomping around in the cold listening to this man who taught me more in one day than I learned in a year of history class. He took us to the Berliner Dom, which predates 20th century history. He spent a while educating us on the early life of Hitler. He took us to Checkpoint Charlie and explained everything about it that was fake. We saw the remains of the Berlin Wall, the Jewish Memorial, the memorial to the Nazi book burnings. We walked from East Berlin to West Berlin, and everywhere in between.

The tour ended in a parking lot. “Why are we here?” we asked. There was no monument nearby, no memorial, no markings in any guidebooks we’d seen that would have brought us here. Nothing but an inconspicuous plaque on the edge of the lot–informing us that we were standing over Hitler’s bunker.

“You’re standing over the spot where Hitler lived with his family throughout the duration of World War II,” Barnaby said. “And over there”–he pointed–“is where they started building the Berlin Wall.”

We were standing on what is arguably the most historically important patch of land in terms of twentieth century history. And we never would have found it on our own.