An elephant-sized mystery

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult (2014)

Opening Line: “When it comes to memory, I’m kind of a pro. I may be only thirteen, but I’ve studied it the way other kids my age devour fashion magazines.”

It’s probably not a surprise that anytime I’m in an airport, I’m bound to spend at LEAST a half hour in the cramped book store, perusing all the new books. Ever since becoming a junior high librarian, my perusing shelves of books (particularly adult books) has significantly declined. All through the school year, my TBR stack is like the Mount Everest of tween and teen lit, so the only time I really peruse is in the airport! And that’s where I first read the dust jacket for Leaving Time.

Combine reliable Jodi Picoult and elephants, and you’ve got a book I will probably enjoy.

This one focuses on Jenna Metcalf, 8th grader whose mom disappeared 10 years ago after a horrible accident at the elephant sanctuary owned by her family. One woman wound up trampled and one woman (Alice, Jenna’s mom), disappeared without a trace. Since then, Jenna has been struggling to put the pieces together and find out what happened to her mom. She seeks out the help of two people: Serenity Jones, a used-to-be-famous psychic, and Virgil Stanhope, one of the former detectives on the case who has changed his name and his career path. These three misfits have a lot of questions about that night a decade ago, but the answers are not what they expected.

I was totally surprised by the twists in this book, although I had the distinct feeling that I shouldn’t have been after they happened. Summer is a great time for mysteries, I’ve decided, because you can stay up late reading/listening, and keep listening as you are doing all the mindless things you have to do in the summer, like mow the lawn (which I did for the first time tonight!), or, as I tend to do in the summer, pack up your entire life and move. I also loved learning all about the elephants, obviously. Elephants are my favorite, partly because, as she shows in this book, their personalities and emotions are so similar to humans. Jodi Picoult did a lot of research for this novel, including spending time at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. And guys, they have live Ele-Cams! Bookmark it! (Pro Tip: don’t try to watch at night, because it will be dark.)

As I said, I can always count on Jodi to pull out an emotional and heart-felt story, and this one was no exception. 2 stars

“Sad words are just another beauty…”

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave (2008)

It took me like a gazillion days to read this novel, because I kept being interrupted by children’s books like Nate the Great and The Golden Compass and (UGH) Nancy Drew, although under normal circumstances, I would have blown right threw it. Because it’s easy to get lost in Cleave’s exquisite prose.

Through the voices of two women, one Nigerian and one English, Cleave tells a story of inexplicable connections and tragic circumstances. A story, that despite its horror, somehow makes you feel a little hopeful.

Sarah is a successful editor of a women’s magazine, mother to a four year old who refuses to take off his Batman costume, and wife to a man she has given up on long ago. Little Bee is a young woman growing up in a violent, warring country, fleeing to a land as foreign to her as sand is to a polar bear. And the only thing she has brought with her is the driver’s license of Sarah’s husband, Andrew.

Little by little, through alternating chapters, we learn how Little Bee came into possession of the license, why Sarah’s missing a finger on her left hand, and what happened to make Charlie insist he is a superhero. We also learn how single days can turn the world upside down, and what it means to save someone. Cleave’s artful way of building sentences, paragraphs, pages made me forget where I was and quite nearly took my breath away.

However. I know I was only there for four months, and I know that I am a very white American, but whenever I read a book set in Africa by a non-African, my hackles get raised. Because it seems that, more often than not, these portrayals end up being ones of horror or pity, and Cleave didn’t disappoint. And when authors (film-makers, journalists) do this, it feeds the world’s misconceptions. Instead of picturing the powerful waterfalls, the colorful fabrics, the beautiful smiles, we see AIDS, civil wars, refugees.

So even though I was blown away by Cleave’s writing and taken in by every character, I couldn’t quite love Little Bee.

Gentle and heart-stopping, 2 stars.

Dreaming of My Secret Agent Lover Man

Weetzie Bat, by Francesca Lia Block (1989)

What a strange book this is.

Another one on my long list for YA Lit, Weetzie Bat is one of the weirdest books I’ve encountered in a long time. And yet, I really liked it. I mean, take this pulled quote, for instance:

“In between kisses My Secret Agent Lover Man made films of Weetzie putting her hands and feet into the movie-star prints at Graumann’s, serving French toast at Duke’s, dressing up in Fifi’s gowns, rollerskating down the Venice boardwalk with Slinkster Dog pulling her along, Weetzie having a pow-wow and taking bubble baths. Sometimes he filmed her surfing with Dirk and Duck, or doing a reggae dance with Ping while Valentine and Rapahel played drums.”

And this is what the whole book is like. All 109 pages of it.

The story starts with Weetzie Bat (daughter to Charlie and Brandy-Lynn Bat) and her gay best friend Dirk palling around late 1980s Los Angeles, drinking lemonade and swinging rubber chickens out of windows while driving down the street. Sometimes they hang out with Dirk’s grandmother Fifi, who lives in a house that I picture as the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel. Pink and sugary.

I tagged this as a fantasy story, but really it’s only slightly fantasy. And actually, it would be better categorized as “fairy-taley”, if that were a category. Right before Fifi dies, she gives Weetzie a “golden thing” that produces a genie when Weetzie tries to polish it. The genie gives Weetzie three wishes: “a Duck for Dirk, My Secret Agent Lover Man for me, and a beautiful little house for us to live in happily ever after.” And so it happens. Exactly as she wishes for. Dirk soon falls in love with a guy named Duck, and Weetzie snags a fella named My Secret Agent Lover Man. And Fifi leaves them her house in her will. Together, all four of them (with a couple more additions), live and love in Fifi’s old house in L.A.

Block addresses a combination of issues through her unique characters, in a time when many of these things were still left unsaid, including homosexuality, blended families, divorce, drugs, and AIDS. And actually, she addresses all these without actually writing any of those words. They are dealt with, confronted, but not the central focus. Like we all face in life, Weetzie and her strange family deal with some really tough stuff, but instead of dwelling on that, they “choose to plug into the love current instead.” Basically, Block agrees with the Beatles. All you need is love.

Charming and strange, in all the right ways (think The Little Prince).

2.5 stars

Who knew labor could be so hilarious?

It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita by Heather B. Armstrong (2009)

I have finally finished this glorious book. It took me several weeks, because I was consumed by reading other things where plot was much more the focus, rather than this one that lives on HILARITY, but I’m glad I let it last so long. A little bit each day did a lot for my moods. I feel bad, because I’m sure my neighbor could hear me laughing late into the night from my cozy bed.

Heather Armstrong, the creator of what is supposedly the most popular personal blog on the internet, dooce.com (also hilarious, check it out), put together a captivating memoir of her pregnancy and first nine months with her first daughter, Leta. What  resulted for the reader was a strange collision of excellent birth-control (I NEVER want to experience hemorrhoids!) and an enormous desire to have a baby RIGHT NOW (how else am I going to smell that sweet baby smell?).

Although it’s obvious how much she loves little Leta, Armstrong doesn’t gloss over the not-so-pleasant points of pregnancy and new-motherhood. In fact, she is quite blunt with all the struggles she encounters. With a history of clinical depression, Armstrong is forced to lay off anti-depressants during her pregnancy and nursing period, which almost (literally) causes the death of her. She ends up spending some time in a treatment facility, getting back on drugs, and as a result becomes a much happier person, wife, and mother. Through the roller-coaster 18 months, and punctuated with a letter to Baby Leta each month (a tradition she still continues in her blog, 72 months later) the reader gets a glimpse of what being a mother really means.

With capitalization to emphasize her truly hilarious points and chapter titles like “Labor to the Tune of Janet Jackson’s Nipple” and “You Have to Feed the Baby…Through Your Boobs,” Armstrong keeps you laughing till the very end, a rare and incredible talent.

Three stars, absolutely.