Book Review: “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf

Book Review: “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf

The first book that my book club chose for the year was Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I had never read any of Woolf’s works prior to this year, so I was excited to dive into her writing.

My excitement was tempered after I started reading the first chapter. As I struggled to read through the pages, I told myself that this was a good thing. I should take my time reading each sentence, paragraph, chapter. But as I got to the second chapter, then the third chapter, I realized that I was wholly unprepared for Woolf’s writing style.


2017-01-01-11-04-24-1Her writing style is described as stream of conscious, and the narrative flowed between charters seamlessly. Almost too seamlessly, for me. I had difficulty determining which character’s POV was which, even keeping track of some of the characters. I would go back a page or two to try and pick up where the view switched. The further I read into the book, the easier it was to determine who was who, but I still had difficulties.

Despite being unable to easily track the characters, there were beautiful descriptions. Many of them I went back to reread not because I missed it the first time but to immerse myself in the description one more time. The first one that jumped out at me was on page 20:

“It was as if the water floated off and set sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land, and gave to their bodies even some sort of physical relief. First, the pulse of colour flooded the bay with blue, and the heart expanded with it and the body swam, only the next instant to be checked and chilled by the prickly blackness on the ruffled waves. Then, up behind the great black rock, almost every evening spurted irregularly, so that one had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came, a fountain of white water; and then, while one waited for that, one watched, on the pale semicircular beach, wave after wave shedding again and again smoothly, a film of mother of pearl.”

Another section that didn’t make me halt while reading but was mentioned at the book club meeting was this on page 33:

“He was safe, he was restored to his privacy. He stopped to light his pipe, looked at his wife and son in the window, and as one raises one’s eyes from a page in an express train and sees a farm, a tree, a cluster of cottages as an illustration, a confirmation of something on the printed page to which one returns, fortified, and satisfied, so without his distinguishing either his son or his wife, the sight of them fortified him and satisfied him and consecrated his effort to arrive at a perfectly clear understanding of the problem which now engage the energies of his splendid mind.”

There are many, many more beautifully worded passages, particularly in the second part, titled “Time Passes.” The sentences, as you can tell from the above passages are long and winding. This made it difficult at times to catch the meaning in the passage, and that might have been why I missed the accurate description of looking up from one’s reading, as seen in the latter of the passages.

I finished the book three weeks ago. I’m still not sure of everything that I read. The more I read about the book and think about the characterizations, the more I realize that this is a book that I will need to read one, maybe two more times before I fully understand what I have read. Some people might see that as a bad thing, reading a book over and over to fully absorb the text. But I don’t.

I mentioned at my book club that I might prefer reading Woolf’s short stories, as I bought one collection at Myopic Books a couple weekends ago. Maybe reading more of Woolf’s work and becoming more acclimated to her writing style will allow me to return to reading To the Lighthouse with more perspective.

On the back of the paperback copy that I borrowed from the library, the description ends with this: “There are very few exceptional and miraculous novels that have the power to change their readers forever. To the Lighthouse is one of them.” For me, that was not the case, but perhaps I’m not in the right place to be changed by this narrative. Maybe in a few years.

Rating: 3/5

 

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How I Got My Reading Habit Back

How I Got My Reading Habit Back

Books have always been my savior. They propel me through the best of times and the worst of times. 

I remember spending hours upon hours at the public library. My mom would take my brother and me regularly in the summers. When I was old enough, I could bike on my own to the library and back. The first section I would go to was the young adult section, start with the A’s, and work my through the shelves to the Z’s, picking any books off the shelf that looked interesting. Then I would meander over to the nonfiction section, particularly the 640s (cookbooks and housekeeping) and the 800s (literature). Each trip resulted in me borrowing a minimum of ten books.

Fast-forward to 2014. My days of hanging out in the public library, borrowing ten-plus books, were mostly over. Since starting college, the only time I had stepped foot in a public library was in Mitchell, South Dakota. It was the summer of 2012, and the apartment I was renting was a block from the public library. Every weekend, I parked myself at a desk in the back corner and used the Wi-Fi to binge “The Office” because my apartment didn’t have Internet. The only books I read that summer (and any other summer) were ones I found at used bookstores or in the book section of Goodwill.

I didn’t have time to go to the public library, not when there were many other study options on campus (when I wasn’t working at student paper or holed up in the J school). I also didn’t have time—nor did I make the time—to read books unless they were required reading for class. I could count the number of books I read each year on one hand. I probably read the most books during the summer of 2013, and that was because I was avoiding the humid heat of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Despite not having much time at all for reading, I had hundreds of books. In 2014, when my mom was packing up our house and donating unneeded items, she took photos of my bookshelves so I could sort which to keep and which to donate. I had nearly 200 books to sort. Meanwhile, at my apartment in Lincoln, I also had nearly 200 books. So I sorted through them and got rid of almost 75 percent of my collection—most of which I donated to Lincoln Public Libraries. I remember driving away after dropping off almost five boxes of books, close to tears. I knew I wouldn’t get to reading all of them. And I sure as hell didn’t want to be moving them around when I didn’t know where I’d end up.

Once my internship in Denver ended and I moved to Chicago, I knew I wanted to get back into reading. One of the first things I did (after setting up our Internet) was walk to the nearest Chicago Public Library and get a library card. Then, when 2015 rolled around, I created a Goodreads account and selected my challenge: fifty books in 365 days. With each book I read, I wrote a review and posted it on this blog. By the end of 2015, I had read fifty-one books and reviewed fifty. So in 2016, I set my sights on reading sixty books, no reviews required. I soared beyond that with sixty-five books, clocking in the final one at just before midnight on December 31.

My passion for reading had returned.

I realized this one day at work when I was waiting on magazine proofs to edit. I had opened up CPL’s Overdrive and was going through the recently added e-books, adding fifty-seven books to my wish list. My to-read list was already backlogged and here I was, adding even more books to that list. As I was handed the next round of proofs and I closed the window, I realized just how much I had missed reading. And how glad I was to have that habit back in my life.

Reading those sixty-five books last year got me through tough times. The first half of the year was rough. The second half of the year, while slightly better, was still a garbage fire (looking at you, 2016 news cycle). So I escaped into whichever book I was reading at the moment—major kudos to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Lord John series. I started a book club—Not Oprah’s Book Club, where we read books not written by cis white men—with my close friends in Chicago. I was so into reading I didn’t want to stop and write reviews after each book, thus the severe lack of writing last year.

Now it’s 2017, and I’m back. This is going to be my most literary year yet. My reading challenge(s) are set, I’m signed up for multiple literary/book-related newsletters, and marked three book events in my calendar for the first part of the year.

First up, my reading challenges. The first one is my Goodreads Challenge: ~minimum~ thirty books read and each book will have a 500-plus-word review, to be posted to this blog. Why thirty books and not, say, seventy? Several reasons. One is that I have a second reading challenge, which will be shared in mid-February. Another is that I have a couple projects that need my attention (*cough*Poynter ACES Certificate in Editing*cough*). Yet another is that I want to slow down, really dive into whatever book I’m reading and devote time to reviewing it.

To help me with my reading challenge this year is Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge. Since picking reading back up, I’ve been looking for ways to expand what I read. This year’s list, with six contributions from well-known authors, is just what I’ve been looking for. There are only twenty-four items on the Read Harder list, so most of my Goodreads Challenge is done for me. The only thing left to do is find the books that fit the categories.

Next, my literary/book-related newsletters. I’ve been getting newsletters from Publisher’s Weekly for awhile now; same with Book Riot. I’ve added Buzzfeed’s Reader newsletter, Women and Children First Bookstore, and Volumes Bookcafé. I’m always looking for new suggestions; I want to read anything and everything I am able to.

And third: book events. The first is Volumes Bookcafé’s “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf,” which will tie in to my book club meeting (we’re reading Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”). The second is Roxane Gay’s “Difficult Women” reading and book signing in March—I saw Gay with Gloria Steinem in 2015, and read “Bad Feminist” as part of my 2015 challenge. Finally, there is Printer’s Row Lit Fest, something I’ve been going to for three years now. It’s the only festival my introvert self can tolerate.

I don’t know what 2017 will shape up to be. All I know is that my reading habit is back for good. Thank god.


Photo credit: kazuend/Unsplash

Days of Softball Past

Days of Softball Past

I wish I had more friends who played softball. And it wasn’t until today that I realized it.

Today was the first day of spring training for Chicago pitchers and catchers. So one of my bosses invited people in our department out into the extremely windy Chicago weather to play a game of catch this afternoon. Naturally, I brought my mitt in to join in the fun (and avoid work for awhile).

Now, I haven’t thrown in nearly four years. And with each throw I made, I realized just how out of shape I was. I felt bad that I couldn’t throw as well as I used to. I don’t have a bad arm, but today it felt like I did. I played softball for almost seven years, and I was throwing like I had only played tee ball.

Dejected, I returned to the office with the others. How could I have let that talent go to waste like that?

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Warming up before a game during my last summer playing softball.

After I quit playing softball almost 10 years ago, I never really went back. I played catch in the backyard a few times with my mom or dad, but I haven’t played a game. I haven’t been on a team, not even as a hobby. I focused on swimming the last few years of high school, and swimming was the only sport I pursued the first couple years of college before the tendonitis became too much of a bother. My attention turned to classwork, the Daily Nebraskan, internships and keeping my sanity. When I moved to Chicago, I started yoga.

Softball has been off my radar for years, but I want it back. And playing catch with one or both of my parents when I go home is not enough. (Plus, trying to play catch in northern Minnesota in November and/or December is kind out of the question.) I suppose finding a recreational softball league is the best option — even if it is playing it Chicago style.

For now, I’ll let my mitt hang out in my office cubicle for awhile. There’s bound to be a few sunny days in Chicago once summer arrives.

Is Valentine’s Day Over Yet?

Is Valentine’s Day Over Yet?

I hate today.

Not Sundays. I’ve got nothing against Sundays.

It’s Valentine’s Day that I hate.

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Every year, I dread its return. It’s the only damper to an otherwise amazing month. I’ve marked it as “Black Hearts Day” in my planners before. I make salty remarks about how Valentine’s Day is The Absolute Worst, much to the chagrin of my roommate who loves love. I roll my eyes at the heart-shaped balloons and the candy aisles filled with pink and red packaging. I crack a smile at some of the valentines floating around Tumblr, but that always turns into wrinkling my nose in disgust. Even when I was dating someone, I hated Valentine’s Day.

The last time I probably truly enjoyed Valentine’s Day was in grade school. Remember decorating shoe boxes and bringing in valentines for everyone in class? I was so innocent then. I know better now. I know know myself better now.

As an aromantic, I don’t want to be with anyone romantically; romantic love is not my priority. I prefer to live a life Forever Alone, and there’s a very, very slim chance that I’ll change my mind. 

When Valentine’s Day nears, I start to doubt that. Maybe I should give online dating another shot. Maybe I should look for someone to be with. I start listening to Frank Sinatra songs and fall into my own Pit of Despair that can take days to climb out of. Perhaps I didn’t put enough effort in trying to be straight.

But then I remember how awful it was when I was trying to fit myself into the heteronormative narrative. I had awful anxiety. Back when I tried online dating, my anxiety went into overdrive. One bout of anxiety last two weeks. That isn’t healthy. I felt like a poser, a fake who would be discovered at any moment.

My roommate made the argument that Valentine’s Day should be about celebrating love, whether it’s for a loved one, friends, family and/or pets. In an ideal world, that would be great. But when I think about Feb. 14, my mind jumps to romantic love and being with someone. I’m sure that’s the first thought in most people’s minds. There’s a reason why Leslie Knope started Galentine’s Day, a day for ladies celebrating ladies (it’s like Lilith Fair minus the angst plus frittatas) separate from Valentine’s Day.

I have wasted so much energy trying to enjoy Valentine’s Day and what it stands for. I’m done. So if you need me, I’ll be in my apartment blasting anti-Valentine’s Day playlists on 8tracks and finishing that bottle of wine from the other night.

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Looking Back on 2015

Christmas tree and Chicago skyline
Christmas tree in Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois.

Can you believe 2015 is almost over? I can’t.

It’s been a long, and surprisingly quick, year. The first half of the year was good, but then the fall of frustration rolled around. Despite the ups and downs of the year, I did amazingly well on the two resolutions I made for 2015.

1. Continue to set three monthly goals. If a goal is completed, write it down on a slip of paper and put it in the green mason jar.

Up until the fall of frustration (looking at you, Mercury), I was doing fairly well with my monthly goals. And even during the fall, I kept setting goals. Making them, however, was the issue. Some of the goals I was able to make were:

– Drank only one cup a coffee per week (March).

– Bought red lipstick (February).

– Filed 2014 tax return (February).

– No takeout (February).

– Go to yoga 2-3 times per week (June).

– Find a new apartment (July).

Nothing too exciting, mind you, but goals are goals. Hopefully in 2016, I can continue to not only set monthly goals for myself but also accomplish them. With a few days left until January, I better start figuring out what those goals will be.

2. Read and review 50 books.

That happened. Somehow. I was worried at some points, namely when it would take me nearly two weeks to write some of the reviews. It has been years since I’ve been able to read a book for fun, let alone 50 in one year. This was the kickstart I needed to get back into reading again (not that I ever needed much prompting in the first place).

When I tell people I finished my book challenge, the question inevitably is, “What was your favorite book?” Then I hesitate, trying to remember all of the titles, wondering if I should pick my favorite fiction book or maybe one of the memoirs I read. So after some thinking, I decided on my top 5 books that I read, along with a few others.

Favorite 5 Books Read in 2015

  1. “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan
  2. “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert
  3. “Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay
  4. “Stardust” by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess
  5. “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

Best Fiction

“The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Runners-up: “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

Best Non-Fiction

“The Children’s Blizzard” by David Laskin

Runners-up: “My Age of Anxiety” by Scott Stossel and “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” by Jill Lepore

Best Memoir

“Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” by Mindy Kaling

Runner-up: “My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff

I’m not sure what book challenge I want to set for myself next year. Perhaps read only book written by female writers? Or perhaps pick a genre for each month? I’ve still got a few days to decide.

2016 Resolutions

So what will my resolutions for 2016 be? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. One will be some sort of book challenge. Perhaps that’s all I really need. Every year that I’ve set multiple, and a lot of times, lofty resolutions, they are either off to a good start only to fail a couple months later or forgotten about until Christmas rolls around again. This is the first year where I’ve faithfully kept up with the two that I’ve set.

Until I get it figured out, I’ll be spending the last week of 2015 traveling to Dublin and London with a friend for my first actual vacation in … I actually don’t know how many years it’s been. Too many, that’s for sure.

So here’s to an adventure to close out 2015 and ring in the New Year!

 

Review: ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

“Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” (8)

Big Magic book coverI’ve been avoiding my passion for writing for a while. It was always easy to pin the blame on classes, on the paper, on internships — you name it. I was writing, but it was never me seeking out writing when I had I had the time. And I never made the time; not really. So what better way to round off my book challenge than to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.”

In her latest book, which was published in September, Gilbert digs into her creative process to share her wisdom and perspective on creativity. She writes about embracing curiosity, letting go of suffering, tackling what we love and facing our fears. The book doesn’t address only writers — Gilbert wrote it for anyone looking to make art, find new ways to address challenges in work, embark on a dream long deferred or infuse our lives with more passion.

After reading “Big Magic,” I realized that I do want to get back to writing, particularly creative writing. I’d been avoiding it for so long that I didn’t think I had it in me. For so long, I had it in my head that I needed to live a tortured life (you know, your basic writer stereotypes) to be a writer. But Gilbert’s positive outlook for pursuing a creative life gave me the kick I needed.

“The arrogance of belonging is not about egotism or self-absorption. In a strange way, it’s the opposite; it is a divine force that will actually take you out of yourself and allow you to engage more fully with life. because often what keeps you from creative living is your self-absorption (your self-doubt, your self-disgust, your self-judgement, your crushing sense of self-protection). The arrogance of belonging pulls you out of the darkest depths of self-hatred — not by saying ‘I am the greatest!’ but merely by saying ‘I am here!’ ” (93)

What I loved about reading “Big Magic” was seeing what Gilbert’s creative process looks like, or how she sees creativity and inspiration. I’ve read three of her books, and the positivity and spirituality that Gilbert has for living a creative life came as no surprise. The book is called “Big Magic” after all. One thing that I noticed among all of her stories was that she never gave up on being a writer. Sure, there were ideas that didn’t come to fruition, rejection letter after rejection letter came, etc. But she stuck with it. It’s inspiring to read about her tenacity and her decision to be a writer and eat the “shit sandwich that comes with it” (150).

For anyone seeking to live a more creative life or needing a little magic to get back in the swing of things, “Big Magic” is a great place to start. I can’t wait to buy my own copy to add to my collection of books so I can pull it out and seek out comfort and inspiration.

“The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust — and those elements are universally accessible. Which does not mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible.” (158)

Review: ‘Those Who Save Us’ by Jenna Blum

those who save us_book coverWhen I finished my second book of Thanksgiving weekend — “Brooklyn” — I silently cursed myself for not bringing my Kindle with a couple more reading options. Then I rolled my eyes — I was in a house full of reading options. I got my love of books somewhere, right? I scoured my parents’ (really my mom’s) bookshelves for reading options. One of those was “The Children’s Blizzard” and right next to it on the shelf was “Those Who Save Us.” Pulling the book out, I saw the old photo of a girl in a pink coat and flipped the book over to read the back:

“For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer. Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life. Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.”

A historical fiction book about Germans during World War II and part of the book is set in Minnesota? I was sold. So on the early early (like, 5 a.m.) flight back to Chicago, I cracked open the book and barely put it down until I took at nap later that morning (3 hours of sleep only gives me so much energy). Four days later finishing the last page, I’m sitting in my living room trying to write this review. There’s so much I want to say about this book, but for some reason my mind isn’t putting words in the right order.

As I read this book about a mother protecting and caring for her daughter, I remembered a film I watched in my final semester of German in college. It was called “Deutschland bleiche Mutter (Germany Pale Mother),” and it told the story of a couple who marry just before the outbreak of World War II. While her husband fights on the Eastern front, Anna must care for their daughter, moving to Berlin to live with family after their home is destroyed in the bombing. Reading this “Those Who Save Us” reminded me of that movie and just how much mothers went to protect their children during the war. Anna Schlemmer in “Those Who Save Us” was no different.

The book opens at the funeral of Anna’s husband and Trudy’s stepdad, Jack, in 1993. You can feel the distance between mother and daughter throughout the chapter as Trudy brings her mother back to the farmhouse to prepare for the wake, which no one comes to. Then the book begins with Anna’s story, jumping back in time to 1939. As the story progresses, the book jumps forward in time to Trudy in 1996. Because of Anna’s silence about the past and Trudy’s growing curiosity, this is the only way to tell this tale. By the end of the book, the reader knows Anna’s entire story and Trudy is only beginning to see just how much her mother did for her and for the Resistance in Weimar, Germany.

Blum’s writing is beautiful and carries the reader effortlessly through each woman’s tale. Though the entire book is written in third person, you can easily tell when you’re reading Trudy’s section and when you’re reading Anna’s section. Blum’s use of German words is not overwhelming and can be easily understood within the text. Though I did study German for nearly eight years, it was a little bit rusty and I was able understand the words without having to stop and search for a definition within the narrative. My only qualm is the lack of quote marks with the dialogue. By the end of the book, I had gotten used to it, but it was difficult to differentiate the dialogue from the narrative.

I haven’t read many adult fiction books about Germany during World War II, so I can’t say this book is the best of all of them. The fact that I read the entire book in less than a day says something, though. “Those Who Save Us” is a book I would recommend to those who might not know much about German history and/or enjoy reading World War II historical fiction.

Review: ‘The Children’s Blizzard’ by David Laskin


The Children's Blizzard book coverI thought I knew what is was like to be cold. I’ve spent so many minutes, hours, waiting for buses, whether it was for grade school or the delayed 73 bus that would take me to the El stop a mile away. I’ve walked across the Nebraska campus and through wind tunnels to make it to the one class of the day. One of the few snow days we had in high school was because it was “too cold” (a balmy 10 below), and I ended up driving to go see a movie.

But I’ve never known cold. After reading David Laskin’s “The Children’s Blizzard,” that became woefully apparent. This nonfiction book retraced the days leading up to the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard on Jan. 12, 1888. As I picked the book off of the shelf in my parents’ house, I remembered reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter.” I was corrected in the first section of the book, where Laskin mentioned Wilder’s book and how it referenced the Snow Winter of 1880-1881. The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard was different; it was worse. Laskin writes that the blizzard left a great mark on the families of that region, and of the country’s perception of prairie living as a whole. I thought I knew cold, but this book reminded me that I definitely did not know cold. Not even close.

Some of the review quotes on the book cover use words like “heartbreaking” and “terrifying” — The Washington Post wrote that it was “a terrifying but beautifully written book.” And I have to agree. There were moments where I had to pause, especially when I tried to picture how the children’s limbs looked after being out in the storm for hours. Or when I tried to imagine what I would do if I were stuck in that blizzard. Would I have tried to walk from the schoolhouse to the closest farmhouse? Would I have stayed home that day, even though the warm weather seemed like the January thaw was beginning? If I was one of the weather “indicators” or forecasters, would I have sent out a cold wave warning at midnight on Jan. 12? Hindsight is 20/20, and this hindsight is haunting.

There was one passage in chapter two where Laskin describes just how cold it was:

It’s hard to find vocabulary for weather this cold. The senses become first sharp and then dulled. Objects etch themselves with hyperclarity on the dense air, but it’s hard to keep your eyes open to look at them steadily. When you first step outside from a heated space, the blast of 46-below-zero air clears the mind like a ringing slap. After a breath or two, ice builds up on the hairs lining your nasal passages and the clear film bathing your eyeballs thickens. If the wind is calm and if your body, head, and hands are covered, you feel preternaturally alert and focused. At first. A dozen paces from the door, your throat begins to feel raw, your lips dry and crack, tears sting the corner of your eyes. The cold becomes at once a knife and, paradoxically, a flame, cutting and scorching exposed skin.” (64)

This cold, this blizzard is terrifying. In another section of the book, where Laskin is going into the scientific details of the elements that created this blizzard, he writes about how the snow was was “hard slick-surfaced crystals that bounced off each other as they swirled around” and the snow “was hard as rock and fine as dust” (120). He writes that saying the snow “fell” gave the wrong idea: “The plates and needles and columns billowed out of the bases of the clouds in huge streaming horizontal veils, as if the bank of icy clouds had descended to earth and burst apart in the gale” (120). Survivors of the blizzard talked about how they saw a black cloud coming toward them — the storm had smaller particles of debris such as pollen, dust, salt crystals, shredded spiderwebs. It’s terrifying to picture. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.

Another passage caught my attention: windchill. I never really understood what windchill meant. I knew that it indicated that it felt colder than the temperature actually was, but that’s as much as I knew. But after reading the following passage, I know exactly what it means:

Television weathercasters like to say that windchill is what the weather feels like. Using the 2001 windchill index, when the wind is blowing 30 miles per hour at a temperature of 25 degrees, it feels like 8 degrees. “Feels like” is a fuzzy term for an exact transaction. What windchill means is that it’s irrelevant that the thermometer reads 25 degrees: If the wind is blowing at 30 miles an hour, the exposed parts of your body are losing heat at the rate that they would if the temperature were in fact 8 degrees.” (185)

Laskin spends huge passages toward the end describing what the body goes through in extreme cold temperatures like this 1888 blizzard. It’s horrifying what the cold will do to the body; I’ve never spent much time thinking about it. I’ve never had to.

Another terrifying part of the storm was the warm weather that came just before it. Fathers were outside with sons, letting out the cattle. Children were walking to school without their heavy wool coats for the first time in weeks. Everyone thought a thaw was coming, but they were wrong. Laskin details horrifying accounts of children trying to find their way home from the schoolhouse. Some children huddled in haystacks, some of them made it to houses with luck on their side, and some never reached their destination. Laskin writes haunting accounts of what the children must have experienced, so much so that I would put down the book to check my phone, to get my mind away from the narratives if only for a second.

Laskin’s book is a haunting, heartbreaking, beautiful and mind-opening read that looks closely at a terrifying natural disaster. It was interesting to see just how far we’ve come in meteorological science since then, and after looking at all the information about the events surrounding the blizzard, Laskin writes that “the fact remains that no one in a position of authority had the imagination or the will to combine science and technology and take action” (105). This book is a non-fiction must-read, whether or not you’ve grown up in any of the Plains states. It’s a history I think everyone should know about.

Review: ‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn book coverI have a habit of starting a new book in the evenings, usually a couple hours before I go to bed. If I make it far enough into the book, I don’t stop reading until it’s finished. I can’t go to sleep until I know how the book concludes. And that’s what happened with Colm Tóibín’s “Brooklyn.” I started reading it so I wouldn’t have to watch the Packers vs. Bears game. Then next thing I knew, it was just after midnight and I had finished reading it.

In the hard years following World War II, Eilis Lacey is given the chance to travel to America to live in work in a neighborhood “just like Ireland” — Brooklyn. She leaves behind her mother and her sister to work in a department store and take bookkeeping classes at Brooklyn College. She begins to fall in love with Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, but heartbreaking news from Ireland threatens her new life in Brooklyn.

“Brooklyn” is a beautifully written book. I felt as if I were in Enniscorthy, Ireland with Eilis as she wrapped her mind around being the one who had to go to America to find work instead of her sister. There’s a moment early on in the book where Eilis does not allow herself to conclude that she did not want to go to America. Sometimes the thoughts came anyway, thinking that someone else could take her place and her suitcase so she could stay in Enniscorthy with her mother and sister.

Even though she let these thoughts run as fast as they would, she still stopped when her mind moved towards real fear or dread or, worse, towards the thought that she was going to lose this world for ever, that she would never have an ordinary day again in this ordinary place, that the rest of her life would be a struggle with the unfamiliar. (31)

Sometimes I think about if I were in a similar position, where I had to be the one to immigrate to another country, would I be able to do it? Would I be strong enough to make it? Or would I give up after a few weeks and return home? Eilis’ journey brought those thoughts back to the forefront of my mind. She does have moments of homesickness, which her brother Jack had hinted about when she asked him about moving away from home to Birmingham. She described it as such: “It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again” (73). I’ve lived away from home since I went off to college, and have lived in five states since then. I never really felt homesick, not like Eilis, but this was nearly sixty years ago. The only communication she had with her mother and sister were letters; they weren’t a quick phone call away and going home meant about a week on a ship across the Atlantic. If I were in the same circumstances as Eilis, I, too, would probably suffer from homesickness.

One thing that I was hesitant about during the book was her relationship with Tony, and those hesitations didn’t really arise until she decided to return to Ireland for a month once her exams were over. [Spoilers ahead; you’ve been warned.] Tony, afraid that she wouldn’t return home to Brooklyn because she might stay to care for her mother, asked her to marry him. He told her that no one would have to know, it wouldn’t have to happen in a church and they wouldn’t have to live together — they could decide to get married in a church when she returned. I wasn’t sure how I felt about him asking her to do that. If he did love her and trusted her, I don’t think he would’ve have need to ask her to do that. But she agreed, and went to Ireland telling nobody that she was married. When she was in Ireland, after being convinced to stay an extra week for her friend’s wedding, she had an affair with Jim Farrell. She began to think that perhaps she didn’t love Tony after all, that she should stay in Ireland with Jim instead. She ignored Tony’s letters and kept them in her drawer, telling herself that she would respond to them. In the end, she returns to Brooklyn, breaking it off with Jim by leaving a note for him as she heads out of town. I wonder what would’ve happened if Tony had not asked her to marry him before she left for Ireland. Would she have returned to Brooklyn? Would she have allowed herself to be with Jim?

Tóibín leaves the ending open to the reader — we know she returns to America but that’s all we know. A part of me hopes that there is a sequel, and another part of me doesn’t want there to be a sequel. That way, I won’t be disappointed in how the sequel will turn out. I can create my own ending for Eilis. I told myself not to go see any movies for the rest of the year, but now that I’ve read “Brooklyn,” I’m tempted to go watch the movie. I’ve just got to promise myself that I won’t compare it too closely with the book. Because as we all know, that will only end in heartache and frustration.

Review: ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’ by Sophie Kinsella

Confessions of a Shopaholic coverSometimes I wonder if I’m a shopaholic. It’s usually after I walk out of Target or H&M with new additions to my wardrobe. I know I’m far from being a shopaholic, seeing as I hole myself up in my apartment if I’m not at work. Spending is a nerve-wracking thing, especially if there’s a large student loan debt looming over you. But sometimes, when the debt is so great, what’s another $10 or $20 or $200 spent, right?

Sophie Kinsella’s “Confessions of a Shopaholic” follows Becky Bloomwood, a debt-ridden financial journalist living in London’s trendiest neighborhood. Though she is up to her eyeballs in debt and overdraft fees, she continues to spend, spend, spend. She ignores the letters sent from the bank and credit card companies, and gives excuses such as breaking her leg or that her aunt died. She attempts to reign in her spending, but that effort barely lasts a week. Resolved to Make More Money instead of Cutting Back, Becky comes across a story that sets in motion events that will change her life — and possibly her spending habits — for the better.

I really enjoyed “Confessions of a Shopaholic.” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, having only seen the movie a few years ago and not remembering much about it other than Hugh Dancy and Isla Fisher. As a 23-year-old working in journalism who is up to her eyeballs in debt, I related to Becky more than I thought I would. Granted, I don’t go on shopping trips and spend hundreds on items I don’t necessarily need. But journalism doesn’t have a reputation of having one of the highest salaries, and living in London (or any big city) isn’t cheap. To cope, Becky turns to shopping while I turn to binge-watching Netflix shows and never leaving the house.

There were moments where I had to shut the book and distract my mind for a couple minutes. It was usually when Becky would open (more like hide or throw out) the letters informing her of her overdraft fees or that her account would be frozen if she did not pay the minimum fee. I was as nervous for her situation as I am for my own. Some days, I avoid going through my email account and my heart will race if I see a notification from my bank (even though it’s almost always a gimmick email trying to get me to apply for a loan to get a car). When Becky is going through various steps to figure out how to Make More Money — i.e., getting a retail job (that she wasn’t able to hold onto for more than a day) — I recalled the many times I’ve stayed up past midnight trying to figure out ways to Make More Money.

I could also relate to her doubts. In the first chapter, she tells the reader that being a finance journalist is not the career she always wanted and that people got a job writing about personal finance because they couldn’t get a job writing about anything more interesting. After three years in the finance, she says she still knows nothing about finance: “People at the bus stop know more about finance than me. Schoolchildren know more than me. I’ve been doing this job for three years now, and I’m still expecting someone to catch me out” (10). This continues throughout the book, where you see her doubt about her knowledge about finance, which is ironic considering the debt situation she is in. But I know where she is coming from. There are many days when I, too, am expecting someone “to catch me out,” to see that I really know nothing about editing and that I’m a fraud. I think this is common for most women; Sheryl Sandberg wrote extensibly about it in “Lean In.” Toward the end of the book, Becky begins to overcome those doubts.

Throughout the book, I wondered if anyone would confront Becky about her debts in an effort to help her. The only person, really, was Derek Smeath, the manager of Endwich Bank who kept tracking her down to talk to her about her overdrafted account. It was Becky who realized that she needed to stop running from Derek Smeath and her various spending debts. I got the feeling that Suze, her roommate, knew of her money troubles but perhaps not the extent. Becky’s parents certainly didn’t know — she even told them that Derek Smeath was a stalker. Making the decision to confront her debts and find a solution to pay them off was in Becky’s hands.

I’m really interested to see what happens in the subsequent Shopaholic books, as Becky’s debts and shopping habits weren’t completely resolved at the end of this book. The ending was certainly optimistic, but poor spending and budgeting habits aren’t fixed that easily. Once this book challenge is over (four more to go!), I’ll definitely be looking up the next book in the series at the library.