Book Review: You by Caroline Kepnes

[5 stars]

You by Caroline Kepnes is creepy . . . and riveting.

My book club discussed this gem last night, and we had a lot to say about the characters, as well as the topics of stalking and social media.

Readers are in the first person viewpoint of Joe, who directs his narrative at “you” (his obsession, Beck). Joe is clever, interesting, and charming. He’s also a nutcase stalker. He sets his sights on Beck and determines to make her his own, no matter the obstacles. He uses social media (easily) to track her, watch her, and manipulate her.

Beck is not a total victim, however. That’s what I love about this book. The characters are complex: Joe is both relatable and a complete psychopath. Beck is both naive and devious.

In an interview, Kepnes describes the pair perfectly: “Joe is living adamantly analog, selling paper books. Beck, meanwhile, is using Twitter to construct a version of herself that she might become were she not preoccupied with the presentation. Neither way works.”

My book club discussed the arc of the story, and the means by which Joe orchestrates his relationships (both romantic and platonic). I loved how Kepnes gives us just enough of Joe’s background regarding past obsessions and childhood memories to help us understand him a bit — but not enough to fully explain away his behavior.

Without giving away any details, I will just say that this book is an engrossing trip through Joe’s warped brain. Kepnes does an excellent job of creating a character so real that I feel like I might bump into him on the street. Her creation of character depth in general is so perfect that I think about and reference ancillary characters (Peach, Ethan), like they are real, too.

The ending was also completely satisfying for me, which is hard to manage with a plot like this. And I really don’t want to compare other books to Gone Girl, but I will say I felt the same sense of, “How does a sweet-looking author such as (Flynn/Kepnes) come up with such sadistic (and amazing) stories?”

Overall: Completely enthralling and wonderful. 5 stars.

Book Review: Stitches by David Small

[5 stars]

In an interview, Small noted something that really struck me:  he said that children live an in innocent world — a world that simply does not understand the hypocrisy of the adult world.

His point was that he has to look at his parents’ actions through the perception of adult eyes. To his younger self, his parents were psychologically abusive, and his innocent self could not comprehend such behavior.

His adult self, however, can logically understand that his parents wrestled with their own demons, and that was why he was treated the way he was.

Writing Stitches: A Memoir, Small said, was his therapy.  It was his attempt to reconcile his adult understanding with his damaged self.

The result is both harrowing and heartening.  In his memoir, Small has brilliantly captured through drawing and prose his childhood and teen years living in a home where he was emotionally and physically silenced.

To cope, Small turned to his more imaginative side and leapt into the world of art and imagination:


 But after enduring a surgery to remove a growth on his neck (a surgery that left him voiceless for nearly a decade), Small required more…


Inspiring in its brevity, this graphic memoir left an indelible impression, and has reminded me of how much can be said in the seeming silence of image and negative space.

The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler

[5 stars]

Gendler achieves with The Book of Qualities something truly amazing: she captures the ineffable.

I had no idea this little gem (published in 1988) even existed — until my mom gave me a copy. I read through the entire list of qualities, and then went back and annotated and pondered each one.

Each page is poetry, helping us understand truths about ourselves in unique and inspiring ways.

“Fear” was a particularly interesting one, with his “large shadow” that belies his actual smallness. I love how Gendler paints fear as insecure, but with a “vivid imagination.” The cure for fear, she hints, is to “talk to each other” about him.  Thrusting fear out of its hiding place and exposing his fragility is empowering. “Startle him,” Gendler writes, but ultimately “win his respect,” and he will “never bother you with small matters.”

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Another favorite is “pleasure,” and how Gendler paints her as both “wild and sweet” and not necessarily something to be afraid of or to deny yourself, but something to cherish. Pleasure is nurturing, not distracting, and something to be valued:

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I feel like I “get” Gendler’s style, and I find so much joy, wisdom, and truth in this little book. It’s a comfort to turn to in happy and difficult moments.

I loved it so much, in fact, that I quoted snippets of it in my speeches to my graduating seniors this year<3

Book Review: Blankets by Craig Thompson

[5 stars]

What an amazing reading/viewing experience.

Deceptive in its simplicity, Blankets portrays in subtle, black strokes an incisive tale of the author’s childhood and teen years.

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To label this novel a YA only—or a “first love” only—story would discount the complexity of the memoir, and how expertly Thompson balances prose with pictorial to convey the heart wrenching details of growing up in an oppressively religious family, enduring abuse (non familial), and grappling with the euphoria (and anguish) that comes with love.

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Thompson expertly conveys the tenderness and rawness of each moment, and how these moments beg a present mind, even as they simultaneously push toward big picture growth.

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I was a little sad as I turned the last page — I wanted to know more about the author’s life — I wanted to see more of his life, more of his ability to grow and accept and adapt. But at the same time, I was also supremely satisfied in the narrative arc that Thompson provided, and the unidealized nature of the final few pages.

Very highly recommend — especially for those new to the whole graphic novel / graphic memoir genre.

Review: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

I finished You by Caroline Kepnes quite some time ago, but I am waiting to review it until after my book club discusses it (although I will say that I absolutely loooooved it).

I then started a graphic novel kick. First, I read Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel:

[4 stars]

One of my AP English students was recently accepted to Duke University and her summer reading list includes Fun Home. I was intrigued and read it over the weekend.

I can see why Duke has incoming freshmen read this particular story: it’s like the graphic equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” — rife with literary allusions begging analysis and discussion.

Bechdel is a sophisticated storyteller and cartoonist, and I very much enjoyed the combined aspect of artwork and prose. Overall, I was fascinated by the author’s childhood, and her ability to portray in ways both subtle and glaring the dynamic of her family. I couldn’t put it down.

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That said, Bechdel does something a bit different with her memoir. Instead of just recounting memories, she provides an insane amount of reflection.  I’ve never read anything quite like this, with such a high level of self-reflective understanding (or attempt at understanding). Kirkus noted that Fun Home is “penetratingly insightful,” and I have to agree.

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At the heart of the memoir is Bechdel’s relationship with her father–a man who may or may not have committed suicide, but was most definitely “a barely closeted homosexual” (Kirkus) who was both high school teacher and funeral home (or “fun home”) director–and how this dynamic shaped Bechdel as a writer, as a thinker, and as one who herself identifies as homosexual.

Bechdel expertly weaves a non-linear tale, acutely conveying the many parallels that exist between her and her father, and the tragedy inherent in their inability to ever connect and commiserate over shared passions and struggles.

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While I thought the final literary allusion and parallel between Bechdel/her father and Homer’s The Odyssey was a bit heavy-handed, I do think Fun Home is a brilliantly crafted story worth telling and worth reading. 4 stars.

More graphic novel reviews a comin’….Which graphic novels are your favorite?

Happy World Book Day!

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I was an undergrad student when I happened upon this copy of Amy Hempel’s work. I was in a random bookstore and felt compelled to buy it even though I had never heard of Hempel before. My life was forever changed. I read the entire compilation in one day and felt an intense desire to share it with others. When asked for book recommendations (especially for short stories), I without hesitation recommend Amy Hempel. I have been teaching her for years to my high schoolers and I’m always amazed at each student’s unique interpretation of the stories. I think Chuck Palahniuk said it best when he wrote, “You go there, and almost every other book you ever read will suck.” He’s talking about Hempel’s story “The Harvest,” and I could not agree more.

Happy reading & happy World Book Day :)