Monthly Archives: September 2014

Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

BelzharJam is so in love with Reeve that when he dies, she cannot function any more. She loved everything about him: his British accent, his sense of humor, and the secret meetings he arranged in the library stacks or on the soccer field. After almost a year of therapy and support, Jam’s parents admit that she’s not getting any better, so they decide to send her to The Wooden Barn, a special school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers.

Jam’s first class is called Special Topics in English, a very exclusive class with only four other students. Mrs. Quenell chooses the students for this session each semester, and she plans to retire at the end of this session. The students will read only one writer, Sylvia Plath, for the entire semester, as well as writing in their beautiful, red leather journals. Alumni of the class have always called it “life-changing.” At first, the class wonders whether Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide, is really the best choice of authors for a bunch of people who have already been unsuccessful in dealing with their own issues. However, as Mrs. Quenell has asked them to “look out for one another,” they grow into a very close group. Soon, they are having intense experiences that they never expected, and eventually they realize that the only people they can talk to are the other people in that class.

Jam, short for Jamaica (a reference to Plath’s hometown), is what is called in literature “an unreliable narrator,” and I thought I was so done with unreliable narrators these days. However, Jam is not trying to deceive the reader; rather, she is deceiving herself. During the story, each of the students is forced to deal with the pivotal point in his or her past, and is faced with the decision to stay in the past or to move forward. Jam’s turn comes last. By the time she gets there, the reader may have an inkling of what’s to come, but Wolitzer spins it out so beautifully that we’re eager to go for the ride. Wolitzer uses magical realism to achieve her ends in this novel, quite unexpectedly, yet wholly effectively. Belzhar (Get it? Bell Jar?) is a profound coming-of-age story, but it’s for anyone at any age, because really, who has completely arrived?

I had never read Meg Wolitzer before this book, although I heard her speak at the SLJ Day of Dialog at Book Expo in May. She is wryly humorous as a speaker, and I identified with her somewhat as we are much of an age, whereas most young adult authors are, well, young adults. In Belzhar, Mrs. Quenell is also a woman of a certain age, but she is authentically wise, not just old, and in a realistic way, unlike a mountaintop guru. She sometimes questions herself, and she is extremely respectful of her students’ privacy.

Beyond the story line of the students’ struggles, however, is a paean to the power of the written word. I had forgotten how simple yet compelling Plath’s poetry could be, if I ever knew it. I appreciate poetry much more now than I did when I was young. Furthermore, a great deal of the change that the teens needed was effected as they wrote in their journals. So whether we’re reading someone else’s words or creating our own, powerful forces are shaping our interior lives in ways that we cannot predict. This is why literature classes are so essential to the lives of every human being. At one point, Wolitzer challenges the current compulsion to push students into STEM (math and science) careers, and away from English lit. classes. Do we really need another way to communicate even faster to even more people, if we really have nothing to say?

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I cared deeply about all of the characters, particularly Jam. The writing was great, of course, and I found myself putting the book down for a few minutes, especially toward the end, just to think about what I’d read. I reread several passages so that I could take in the ideas and emotions more fully. Meg Wolitzer has also written adult novels, and I have added all of them to my “want to read” list.

Very highly recommended to everyone.

Disclaimer: I read a (signed! yay!) advance reader copy of this book. All opinions are solely my own, and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Let’s Get Lost, by Adi Alsaid

Let's Get LostLeila is driving across the country, headed to Alaska to see the Northern Lights. On her way, she meets up with four other teenagers and becomes an integral part of their lives for just a few days—or will it be forever?

Hudson is a mechanic’s son who tunes up Leila’s classic red sedan for the long trip. They go on a treasure hunt together, but Hudson is focused on the next day, when all of his scholarly excellence will be needed during an interview for medical school. Next, Leila meets up with Bree, a free-spirited hitchhiker who instructs Leila in the fine art of shoplifting and grand theft auto. The third person she meets is ’80s film buff, Elliot, who thought his public declaration of love to his best friend would go off like a movie scene, only to find that she really did just want to be friends. In his heartbroken state, Elliot walks into the path of Leila’s oncoming car. The fourth stranger is Sonia, bridesmaid to her dead boyfriend’s sister. Sonia is riddled with guilt because she has fallen in love with another boy only seven months after Sam’s death.

The last section of the book tells Leila’s backstory. Even though we have ridden all the way to Alaska with this girl, we really don’t know much about her. Sometimes she just deflects the conversation to the other person, but sometimes she is an unreliable narrator, and in this last part, we find out that she has her reasons for that. Leila’s father had told her mythological stories about the Northern Lights, and Leila is sure that if she can just see them for herself, all of her life would be put back together.

I love a road trip story, and this book was highly touted at Book Expo America in May. It has garnered starred reviews and high demand. I have to admit that although I liked it, I didn’t love it. Each of the five stories was creative, and the writing was very good overall, but I had a hard time believing some of the plot devices. Is it possible to fall in love in twelve hours? How many people, however depressed, would jump into a car with a perfect stranger and drive across national borders? Several times? The main character herself was difficult to believe. Leila skipped through the book as a combination of Manic Pixie Dream Girl and wise guru, and everyone seemed to invest their full faith and trust in her. How can that be, especially with what we learn about her in the end?

All that being said, and I realize that it’s a lot, the five stories were very enjoyable and fun. Each character is someone worth spending time with, and I look forward to reading more from Adi Alsaid, a young man with a great future in writing.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, obtained at Book Expo America. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Maze Runner, by James Dashner

Maze RunnerThomas doesn’t remember anything before he found himself waking up in a huge, metal elevator box opening out to a desolate world populated entirely by other teenage boys. He quickly finds that there are leaders and occupations. The Glade, as it is called, includes a working farm, a forest with a graveyard, a homestead, and a mess hall. There is also an intriguing locked building in the middle of the square called the Maproom. Most shockingly, the entire settlement is surrounded by four huge stone walls, covered in ivy vines, with a large opening in the middle of each side. At sunset, runners come through the doors, completely exhausted, and then the walls slide shut for the night.

The other boys tell Thomas that they are surrounded by a gigantic maze, and while most of the boys work in the Glade to keep the group alive, a few boys run into the maze each day, trying to map out the twists and turns so that they can find a way out. They’ve been working steadily at this for two years, but the walls inside the maze change each night, so they are continually foiled. Thomas decides at once that he wants to be a runner, but then a leader shows him a window into the maze at night, and Thomas sees the hideous Grievers, half-animal/ half-machine creatures who roam around looking for boys to destroy.

One day, the box comes up into the Glade on an unscheduled day. Inside, there is a teenage girl, the first girl ever to arrive in their world. For some reason, Thomas feels that he knows her already. As the days go by, Thomas and Teresa are more and more certain that they were sent to the Glade to set off the “end of things,” and they struggle even harder to regain their memories and find a way out of the maze.

The Maze Runner has recently been released as a movie, and as I had neglected to read it when the book was first published, I decided to catch up. There is now a series of books, and the second one has just been optioned for another film. The books have always been popular, and now even more so, and I am happy to say that their acclaim is well-deserved. Teenage boys and girls would revel in the non-stop action and brain-challenging puzzles James Dashner serves up here. The story is not candy-coated, and some of the characters die, so the reader never feels complacent. The boys are rough and sometimes harsh, even though there is no profanity in the book, except for the word “bloody,” which Americans seem unable to comprehend as quite a serious curse in England. Otherwise, the guys make up their own lingo, which Thomas falls into almost immediately. Characters are well-developed, and there is even some emotional depth in their interactions. At the end of this first volume, several questions have been answered, but many puzzles are still unsolved, and the last few pages introduce a terrifying twist.

The Maze Runner is highly recommended for teens and adults who enjoy a fast-paced, science fiction brainteaser. Read the book before you see the movie!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Notes from Switchfoot Nation

Switchfoot Edge of the EarthA couple of years ago, David got into my car and exclaimed, “Are you still listening to Switchfoot?” Hey, it was a different album than the last time he was in my car! As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, they are my favorite band. I have listened to three other bands this week (really!), but it’s true that the inside of my car is, indeed, Switchfoot Nation.

Of course, I follow Switchfoot on Facebook, and I was elated to see that they had new music out this week! Since Fading West came out not too long ago, I was surprised, but it turns out that this EP, The Edge of the Earth, contains previously unreleased music from their recent film, also called Fading West. Now, I don’t have a lot of money to throw around, but I went to Amazon to see if I could sample some of the songs, and the entire album was only around seven dollars— and even less after my Amazon download credit. Sold!

Switchfoot has been doing some interesting things with song and album titles lately. The first song on The Edge of the Earth is “Fading West,” which did not make it to the album of that name. I am so glad not to have to keep listening to it on YouTube! My favorite song (so far) on the EP is called “Skin and Bones,” but those words do not occur in the song. I read that they were originally part of the chorus, but had been cut, but they still liked it as the title. Okay, their call. I could not make out some of the lyrics, so I Googled “lyrics Switchfoot skin bones,” and ended up with the lyrics to “Where I Belong” from Vice Verses with the line “this skin and bones is a rental.” No relation. Thankfully, I found all of the lyrics to all the songs on Edge of the Earth, along with background commentary by Jon Foreman, on the Jesusfreakhideout website. Click on the first song, and then you can click right through all of them.

Fading West surfing chadNow, as if all of this excitement were not enough, I also read in the Facebook comments that their movie, Fading West, is now available on Netflix streaming! I’ve watched it twice. The story behind the movie is that the guys started thinking, “Hmm. We are not teenagers anymore. We are not even twenty-somethings. We are husbands and fathers who leave our families for long stretches of time and travel around the world to sing for adoring crowds. Are we doing this right?”* So, in order to find the answers to life, the universe, and everything, they did what you and I would do and went surfing in all of the most awesome and terrifying places on earth. “Switchfoot,” if you didn’t know, is a surfing term for putting your “off” foot forward; in other words, doing things differently or in ways that are not the most comfortable. They decided to play concerts along the way, to record a new album, and to have surfing gurus meet them on various beaches, like Bali, New Zealand, and South Africa. The landscape and ocean footage is gorgeous.

Unfortunately, the trip turned out to be much more difficult than expected, as they had to meet those questions about being a father halfway around the globe head-on. In some of the most poignant scenes, Jon’s brother, Tim Foreman, sings the lead for the first time in a song about the purpose of suffering. Like all of their music, the movie is very thought-provoking. Lest you think that it is depressing, though, there are hilarious episodes, such as when they are star-struck by some metal bands and when they discover that the South African surf is startlingly cold and full of sharks. It is mostly great fun and, of course, full of amazing tunes.

I can highly recommend, in my completely biased opinion, both the Edge of the Earth EP and the Fading West movie. Switchfoot always connects me with my better self and leads me away from the busyness of life today.  If you like great music, deep thinking, beautiful scenery, and lots and lots of salt water, you will love them.


*This quotation is totally made up, but it was something along those lines.

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She’s Still Waiting. Here’s Why.

Zora Off to Kindergarten

Zora Carlin’s First Day of Kindergarten

Remember the battle we all fought last spring to legalize cannabidiol (CBD) extract for the children suffering from intractable epilepsy? Remember how exhilarated we all were when the governor signed the bill into law on July 3rd? We thought that was the end of the story, and now the children could line up for their medication and their lives would blossom into health and hope.

Well, the devil is in the details.

As soon as the bill was passed, amendments were added that required clinical trials at our local university hospitals. Now, that is not a bad thing in itself, as trials are important to establish the efficacy of new medications, but pilot studies and clinical trials are expensive, and the hospitals were reluctant to front the money. Doctors, with an eye to legal entanglements, were reluctant to prescribe a medication that had not passed tests. It’s a Catch-22. There has been a trial in New York using a European brand of CBD, but only the children in the study are able to access the drug.

The salient point for the families of children with intractable epilepsy is this: even though CBD is now legal in North Carolina, it is not available! Three hospitals are supposed to participate in a broader trial in a few months (UNC, Duke, and Wake Baptist), but the total number of patients tested will be 40—worldwide! Furthermore, this trial will be limited to Dravet Syndrome patients only; children with other forms of intractable epilepsy will not be part of the study, and will not have an opportunity to receive the drug. After the trials are over, there is no guarantee that the FDC will approve the drug, and even if they do, it could take years.

Unfortunately, synthetic variations of CBD are being manufactured by pharmaceutical companies. These synthetic CBD preparations do not have the success rate of the natural substance, and some unscrupulous companies are actually selling “watered-down” CDB oil as the real thing, as you can read in this article. However, there is just so much space in Colorado for growing Charlotte’s Web, the hemp strain from which CBD oil is extracted, and it is illegal to grow it here in North Carolina.

So, how about the kids? What was this all about, anyway? Did we pray, write to our representatives and senators, have difficult conversations with young congressional staffers, and relentlessly push all of our friends and relations to do the same so that doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies could hem and haw, worrying about their legal fees and their bottom lines? No! We wanted these suffering children to get help, and it turns out that those who were supposed to help them have suddenly realized that it is much easier to talk about saving sick children than it is to wade through red tape or take legal risks.

Charlotte's Web logoHowever, we are not without hope. Realm of Caring (RoC), the non-profit organization in Colorado that has been growing Charlotte’s Web and processing CBD for the past few years— as well as staging its own clinical trials and publishing the results— has established a liaison with Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pennsylvania), Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee), and Rep. Paul Broun (R-Georgia) to introduce a federal bill to legalize Charlotte’s Web. The goal of the bill is to establish what has been shown in state legislatures to be the simplest way to legalize cannabidiol: refine the definition of marijuana so that industrial hemp and cannabidiol do not fall under the current marijuana laws, since they are both just plant products that do not have psychotropic properties. This bill is called the Charlotte’s Web Medical Hemp Act of 2014, and is now H.R. 5226 in the US Congress. If the bill passes, it will be legal to grow and process cannabidiol anywhere in the US, greatly increasing the supply and availability. I won’t even begin to discuss the boon this would be to agriculture everywhere. Dwindling tobacco allotments? Not a problem anymore.

The Realm of Caring has posted the bill online and created a way for you to send a message to your federal representatives. Please click on the link for the bill above and let them know that you are in favor of getting this medication to suffering children all over America. After letting them know your thoughts, you can track the bill here. Can you see that it has a low expected success rate? That’s because not enough people have responded. Even if you drove your state representatives crazy with all of your phone calls and emails, your representatives in Washington, D.C, know nothing about this issue and will need lots of education. They need to know that their constituents care passionately about a topic that may seem esoteric to them. Don’t worry about bothering them; from the state of things, it doesn’t seem that they’re busy accomplishing anything else.

As you can see from the photo at the top, Zora has started kindergarten, with help from a wonderful team. You can follow Zora’s journey on her Facebook page. Thank you so much for caring.

Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed are just that: opinions. They are solely my own and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the families of children with intractable epilepsy.

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Treading, Shredding, But Not Much Shedding

2014-09-06 19.24.05I know that all of my readers have been breathlessly awaiting an update since my August 13th post about our new treadmill and my resolution to Spartan Up! First of all, I want to let you know that I love my new Skechers Go Walks! They fit like a glove, and they’re as cool and light as advertised. I just pull them on and I’m ready to go. No socks, no lacing. I’m not sure whether I’ll want to switch back to socks and my big ol’ walking shoes when the weather gets cooler, but we’ll see.

Along with walking, I’ve been trying to do push-ups and crunches. I figure that aerobics and these two exercises will cover all of my needs. Since I’ve been working in an office, I’ve noticed a big difference in my arms. I’m sure that this has nothing to do with the years streaking by, but my forearms have turned to moosh. The only work my forearms do now is help to support my hand while it clicks a mouse—and that’s only my right hand. If you squeeze my forearms, you get moosh and bones, that’s it. After just a few weeks of push-ups, my arms seem to have more substance.

After a week or so, I realized that I wanted to make sure that I did my push-ups correctly, since I’m doing them lady-style, that is, from the knees. I went on YouTube and searched for “push-ups women,” and found a very informative video that showed me that, yep, I’m doing it right. I’m learning a whole new lingo, though. During the demonstration, the guy instructor said, “Remember that the belly-button is engaged.” I beg your pardon? My belly-button is not engaged. If it were, it would certainly have told me so. Legally speaking, my belly-button is married to my husband’s belly-button. I’m pretty sure that’s how these things work. In any case, every time I exercise, I stay aware of my belly-button. So far, it hasn’t tried to run off and elope.

2014-09-06 19.22.29I do my crunches on the exercise ball that my sweet niece gave me a couple of years ago for Christmas, which now has squatter’s rights on the seat of our family room rocking chair. When I do give it a shock by placing it on the floor, it makes it so much easier on my back. No more excuses to avoid crunches. I do have to put it beside the sofa, though, so that I can grab the arm when I’m losing my balance. So far, I’ve only flipped over once, although it was a terrifying experience. There I am, crunching away, when suddenly I’m seeing what’s behind me, upside down. Twirling my arms in the air didn’t help, but I finally found a way to twist to the side and slide off that way. I was so embarrassed, even though I was by myself! I will not be posting a video.

Treadmills are so awesome in one way, in that you can exercise like mad without leaving your air- conditioned home. I decided to walk for 30 minutes—about a mile and a half—on weekdays, increasing to two miles on weekends. I wonder what our hard-working ancestors would have thought about sweating through two miles of walking uphill, yet still remaining in the same place. What could possibly be the purpose?

2014-08-12 21.46.52David finally made it onto the treadmill last week, in the mornings while I was getting ready for work. Friday morning, a persistent noise was making its way through the floorboards, and as I went up the stairs, it became more and more distinct. Bap! Bap! Bap! “What is that?” I asked. “Oh, it’s nothing,” puffed David. But then I saw something whipping around the end of the treadmill, and he had to admit that the belt was shredding. Oy! There is some force in my house that targets and destroys treadmills. Fortunately, it is possible to purchase a new belt for this model, although it is not cheap. Naturally, we had to try that universal cure for all ills before springing for a new belt, so David coated the top and bottom of the tear with duct tape. I was downstairs reading yesterday evening when he was effecting this repair, and I looked up curiously when he came down the stairs and out the back door with a flashlight. After coming back in, he confessed that the treadmill did not appreciate the duct tape under the belt, and had tripped a breaker. Fortunately, it did not burn out the motor, so I was able to walk a bit today once he removed the bottom layer of tape.

Pink scale

How cute is that? I want one.

So, after all this effort, have I been dropping those pounds like mad? Not a bit. I dropped three pounds right away, put two back on, dropped one, gained it back, and so on for three weeks now. As of this morning, I had lost almost six pounds, but tomorrow morning I could gain it all back. Who knows? I’m trying to give myself that whole pep talk about how the exercise is causing me to build up muscle, and muscle weighs more than fat, so really I’m losing fat. Yeah. So really, I have gained forty pounds of lovely muscle, which will soon start burning all that fat, and I’ll look like a body builder overnight some night. I’m not sure that’s what I was going for, to tell you the truth. And no, my clothes do not feel as if they’re about to fall off, either. If I had wanted to maintain my weight, I could have done that while eating sugar-free homemade ice cream and snacking in front of the television every evening. Believe me, I know this from experience.

On the other hand, I do have another tool to measure my health: my glucometer. Every morning now, I take my fasting blood sugar, and it is doing soooo much better. I had gotten up to a morning bg (blood glucose) between 110 and 115, which is not where an unmedicated Type 2 diabetic wants to be. Since I’ve quit the evening snacks and started exercising, it’s usually around 100, and often in the 90s. Happy day. This is a better indicator of what’s going on inside than my scale. Once it even fell to 89, and my glucometer was so concerned that it asked me if I wanted to make a note. (This is what happens when you have smart appliances. They get all emotional.) Glucose Buddy logoI have also found a new app for diabetics that I like much more than the old one I had that suddenly got all nosy and wanted me to join a group. I uninstalled that one. This one is called My Glucose Buddy, and it seemed to get the highest reviews of all the Android apps out there. It’s free, too! It can keep track of all your stats, and it’s very organized and easy to use. If you have a smart glucometer, you can download your info directly into it, and when you’re ready, it will fax a report to your doctor. That’s great, because I never could figure out how to email a report to my doctor with the last app. I’m looking forward to the day that I’ll have a very impressive graph to show her. I downloaded it from the GooglePlay store on my phone.

My whole extended family is working out and getting fit. My son is running with the “Couch to 5K” app, and my sister has started a kick-boxing class. Not that she needed to get more exercise; she swims every day, walks, and plays tennis like a pro several times a week. We’ve been talking about how weak Americans are compared to, say, the Israelis. With this new class, though, she has a surge of confidence. If the terrorists show up, she can yell, “Look out! I can jump rope for three minutes!”

Skip, skip, skip….

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Marina, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

MarinaOscar attends a boarding school in Barcelona, but when school is over for the day, he wanders through the streets, particularly drawn to the abandoned mansions in an old quarter. One day, he is lured into a crumbling home by beautiful singing, and upon entering, picks up a lovely antique watch sitting on a table beside the phonograph. When an old man rises from his chair by the fire, Oscar is so startled that he runs from the house and is all the way back to his room at school before he realizes that he is still holding the watch in his hand. Compelled to return it, he meets the old man’s granddaughter, Marina, and a tragic friendship begins.

As they spend time together, Marina leads Oscar to an old cemetery, where they wait for a mysterious, veiled woman in black who comes to visit a certain grave every week at the same time. When they try to follow her, they discover the edges of a macabre mystery that leads them deeper and deeper into a complex history of horror and madness.

Marina was written in 1999 in Ruiz Zafon’s native Spanish, but has just been translated into English and published in the United States. All of the starred critical reviews considered it his greatest work “since” The Shadow of the Wind, even though it was actually written two years before that great novel. In a note before the book begins, Ruiz Zafon reveals that he somehow knew that Marina would be his last young adult novel, and by the time he finished it, he realized that he had written that genre out of himself completely. Although this book has teenaged protagonists, the plot and theme are very complex, and keeping the characters straight is sometimes confusing, making the novel somewhat difficult for younger readers. Older readers, however, will enjoy unraveling layers of mystery and soaking in the rich atmosphere of his beloved Barcelona.

On the other hand, Marina just can’t live up to The Shadow of the Wind. I have read other adult and young adult novels by Ruiz Zafon, always waiting for that same experience, but even though they are good, my heart belongs to Shadow. I bought a copy of the original American edition and had it signed when I met Carlos Ruiz Zafon at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh (Support Your Local Independent Bookstore!) years ago, and you will be happy to go out and buy it when I tell you that he is a really, really nice person. Where does all this darkness come from? However he did it, The Shadow of the Wind is a monumental achievement, and I know many people who consider it the best book they have ever read.

Marina is recommended to older teens and adults who love a gothic mystery with dark twists and heart-pounding passages. Strong stomachs a requirement, and keep the lights on.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of Marina. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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