About Erica Danielle B

Book lover, dog lover, and a lover of all things sweet. Unlike most of the book community, I fell in love with reading later in life, writing being my first love. Friends label me a workaholic; I just like to keep busy. I’m in the middle of completing my first novel to be submitted for publication, studying/saving for graduate school, and creating my first book blog. Reading is nourishment. When I’m not reading, I’m not happy, and the same goes for writing. A few more fun facts about me: I’m an angry baker, a hiker, painter, recipe book hoarder, and garage sale shopper. When I’m not reading/writing, I’m in an anime marathon. Follow me on Twitter @myhermitsanctum, if you feel so inclined, or write me at myhermitsanctum@gmail.com to submit any of your book recommendations. Please check out my Book Review Policy first.

The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

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“Amanda Palmer…the one from TED Talks?”

I really didn’t know what to make of Amanda Palmer other than being this eccentric creature submersed in her artwork. Neither had I listened to any of her music prior to reading her memoir nor did I stay religiously up to date on her revolutionary upheaval of the music industry. Amanda Palmer’s memoir The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help replaces the unknown I previously had about her, capturing Amanda Palmer both as an artist and a person. Famous for successfully using Kickstarter as a means of crowdsourcing to release an album and continuing this way of practice in promoting and selling her later work, she confesses her insecurities in this memoir: from asking her fans for donations to her fear of being seen as a narcissist, self-serving poser.

To encapsulate, Amanda Palmer is a musician whose art is best described as eclectic; she uses different instruments and incorporates unique, experimental styles to form these raw and tonal sounds. Plus, she plays the ukulele. The Art of Asking is the unabridged version of her 2012 Ted Talk as well as her band’s war against her record label. The memoir delves into her relationship with famous author Neal Gaiman and her lifelong mentor and friend Anthony, who was living with cancer during the book’s conception. Most of the book, however, is a descriptive catalog of astonishing—but not always—instances where Palmer asks her fans for help and not just in the form of currency (housing, food, venues, etc.) Palmer leaves herself incredibly susceptible to the generosity of others. Although Palmer has witnessed the capacity of human kindness through her art and openness in accepting whatever the fans are willing to offer, she has to contend with being heavily criticized and occasionally painted as a shameful beggar in mainstream media. After reading her memoir though, she’s anything but a beggar and more of an entrepreneur.

Palmer explains that much of what she learned came from her years as a performance artist, her days as a living statue. While she originally did it to be her own boss and still be able to do art, remarking on the conundrum of having a liberal arts degree but not having an itinerary in pursuing a career in the arts, she engaged with her audience on an personal level through mostly an unspoken language and penetrating eye contact, conveying that she had truly seen them versus only looking at them. Palmer realized that finding that connection, even a tiny exposure of intimacy, is what most anyone needs, and she is ready to give it.

Is the Art of Asking a smooth and tired joyride of one person getting exactly what she wants?

No.

Make that a hard no.

Palmer struggled with finances along with her own pride; her memoir illustrates this in the case of her husband. After Palmer assembled a new band and wanted to go on tour, she tried to figure out how she would come up with the money to pay everyone. Her husband offered to loan her the money (though he didn’t expect her to pay him back) but this made her extremely uncomfortable. She had already accepted money from complete strangers, however, accepting money from her husband felt like it would be violating her feminist principles. Only when she sets her pride aside does she recognize the hypocrisy. Then there are times when Palmer doesn’t receive any help even after asking. After Palmer hurt her ankle while running, the three people she asked for help didn’t offer any assistance other than to call an ambulance, ergo, treating her like someone else’s problem. Living a life where you put your faith in others has also landed her in unfavorable sometimes disconcerting situations. One of her fans stole her favorite ukulele at one of her shows. It’s eventually returned but not after Palmer mourned over its loss for two weeks. At another show, a fan shoved a hand between Palmer’s legs while she’s crowd surfacing–and in a not so accidental way. Despite this, Palmer treats each mishap and break in trust as an isolated incident instead of empirically; she doesn’t apply one instance as a universal reason to mistrust everyone nor does she ever seem to hold a grudge.

Palmer’s lifestyle, willing to ask people for help for anything, is an extreme case, but it reveals what most of us are reluctant to do, even when we find ourselves in trouble, even when it’s irrational not to. Most of us are resistant to the idea of putting ourselves in someone else’s care because of its implications. That they are weak, incompetent. A failure. Or when we want something, such as asking for a raise or help changing a flat tire, we synonymously treat ‘asking’ like ‘begging,’ which Palmer is quick to clarify the difference: begging happens out of fear and desperation whereas asking occurs out of need and compassion. Palmer’s memoir captures the general goodness of people if you open yourself to them—but she’s not insisting everyone do this. She’s been lucky, and she knows it.

What we find is something remarkably rare and beautiful in this memoir, leading us to believe that maybe opening ourselves to others isn’t as scary or deadly as we feel it is. Then again, as Palmer puts it, if it were so easy, then everyone would be doing it.

 

The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter–and How to Make the Most of them Now

The defining decade

My dad asked, “you actually read books that talk about that stuff?”

I nodded. “Of course…”

We were referring to Meg Jay’s book The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—and How to Make the Most of Them Now, a book that obviously falls into the genre of Self-Help and Personal Development. I wanted something I could read during my business trip to Virginia with some much needed guidance because

  • I had never flown solo before.
  • I had never done a week long interview for any kind of job before.

To say the least, I was stressed. The Defining Decade kept things in perspective for me, helped remind me that the overwhelming thing I was doing wasn’t crazy but actually good for me, my mind, and career.

The introduction put me at ease. It wasn’t a guide of how you should be living, which, admittedly, is a problem a lot of us feel in our twenties, that we’re expected to reach something at a certain point. We see our friends with successful careers or they’re getting married and going on to visit the baby factory. And Facebook doesn’t make this any easier, subjecting us to Instagram photos of our friends’ ostensible perfect lives, forgetting that said friend is probably sleep deprived from spending all night with a crying baby, unbalanced between career and family life, or struggling with their self-worth because the last time they probably had a true minute alone was before the mom turned into a human incubator (don’t worry, I’m not planning on having children.)

What really grabbed my attention was Jay’s emphasis on young adults putting their lives on hold with the lag causing long-term consequences. It’s one of the things my own dad tried to instill in me when I was in my earlier twenties, advice I ignored partially because of Depression (because, really, who thinks about a 401K when you’re suicidal?) and the other thinking that the future wasn’t a real thing. The future was just something you thought about but never could engage with since it felt like a galaxy, far, far away. You could only live in the present, which I interchangeably treated as ‘living in the moment.’ The funny part? I was not that person in college.

I was always working towards something with the end goal feeling abstract but shiny and full of lots of potential. I felt secure when I was working towards my degree. No matter how terrible my commencement speech was (he might as well have been a loan shark), everything made sense and felt like things were falling into place. When I received my diploma, I blithely walked down the stairs, not a thought in my head of the future.

We end up becoming desensitized to the word future, printed on every career brochure and banner, crammed into commencement speeches and counseling talks, using the term at least a 100 times; the familiarity of the word, its constant presence on campus, and the very idea that since you’re in college you’re already working towards your future, makes us immune to the depths of its meaning, Then college ends and the nice, contained space where you knew where you were going is gone and you feel like you’re navigating with a broken compass.

Being stuck in limbo, whether it’s your career or love life, is lethargically miserable; it just StuckCatis. Conveying it to family and friends who seem to have their lives all figured out is worse because you can’t really talk to them without spilling out every thought in your head and leaving them to pick through the rubble of all your what-if future ambitions. If you don’t have a plan within a certain time frame, then comes the advice. Even if it’s coming from a place of good intentions, it’s still frustrating and often comes off as condescending. Of course you’ve updated your resume, checked out that firm, talked to that guy, volunteered at that sheltered, contacted that old boss of yours for a recommendation letter, etc.  Chances are that whatever they think you should do is probably something you’ve already tried before, the impulse to yell or rip their hair from their roots suddenly not sounding so crazy.

Jay’s book recounts her sessions with twenty-somethings trying to find what they want out of life. The pieces will generally resonate with most twenty-somethings who feel lost or don’t feel like they’re living up to their potential, but the content is not formulaic. She’s not telling everyone that getting married and having children equates to instant gratification. Having goals toward the future tends to feel more self-satisfying and enables you to pursue other things in life.

She discounts the myth that our twenties are throw away years, the idea that, because we’re young, we have all the time in the world to do things that have no effect on the future (if you’re about to board a flight to Europe—just ignore this and do your thing.) The problem occurs that after leaving college that twenty-somethings treat the present as dislocated time, the impression that things now are temporary  and they’ll magically change.

They don’t.

Jay doesn’t lecture with ‘get a job’ but supports with evidence and statistics of people leading more satisfied lives when their working towards goals. Much of the book contains individualized stories involving twenties who are indecisive, incredibly afraid of choosing the wrong path, avoiding making families because of their own damaged lives, not networking enough because their safe in their small groups, lacking discipline to stay in a job that will lead to other opportunities (been there,) working a job they hate, and just not engaging with the consequences of delaying plans for a later date (waiting till your forties to have a child for instance.) This book primarily discusses issues about pursuing goals and adjusting to adulthood, which I know many of us tend to see as a graveyard of dreams but it’s not.

With all that said, the book tends to overlook circumstantial issues influenced by ethnicity, economics, and sexual orientation. She points out, however, that those issues can fill a book by itself, which I sincerely hope she gets around to writing. The book also has the problem of not covering other life alternatives such as choosing not to marry or never having children.

The book is written for twenty-somethings, not to the parents trying to get their twenty-somethings to move out of their house. It maturely speaks to twenty-somethings despondent or lost in their lives, but provides the needed incentive to go out and change things.

You don’t have to feel like you’re a kid stuck on the high board at the pool with everyone’s eyes trained on you, waiting for you to make a choice (based off a true story.) It gets better.

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Book Series Edition: The Unwind Series, Part 2

Undivided

I’m ambivalent about the Unwind series. It contains an interesting dystopia concept and plenty of political and medical criticism, but it’s far from being a perfect book. Actually, several parts felt like hiccups, so acutely off rhythm that you can’t help but notice them. Unwind struggles with character development and maintaining a propelling plot. While the series is interesting, the peculiar plot choices and the passivity of the female characters makes me reluctant in fully recommending this series, even though books one and four are definitely worth a read.

Unlike part one, the following comments below contain spoilers:

That Creepy, Creeeeeeeepy Scene:

What happens when someone is unwind? Many theories get tossed around about this one with everyone choosing to believe that a person is sedated and then put to sleep. If only.

Patients are awake during the unwinding operation! While the patients are sedated, they simply watch as every part of them is harvested, like Hannibal Lector eating your brain while you’re awake. How is this kind of operation possible? Well, science—I guess.

Unlike others, I wasn’t at all prepared for this passage. After reading it, I had to put the book down to process. Unwind isn’t known for its writing, but this particular passage illustrating a teenager’s unwinding is truly one of the most disturbing things I’ve read in a while.

Like, OMG! Girls Chasing Boys! Like. OMG. Girls Chasing Boys?

Risa Ward is smart. She knows fighting is a last resort. Connor quickly picks this up too, allowing him to become the leader of the Graveyard and later represent the ideas of the unwinding resistance movement. Connor matures, as he should, but instead of Connor adopting Risa’s resourcefulness, which would add to their dynamic duo, Connor subsumes her role as the team’s strategist while being leader, but Risa is sidelined as the helpless, stuck in yet another love triangle, girlfriend; her being belongs to everyone but her own.

Unwind robs not only Risa of potential badassery, but many of the other female characters, most who remain in supportive and/or love interest roles:

  • Miracolina; Lev’s love interest.

Although she has all the workings to be this tenacious force in the series (she’s arguably far more committed to her own convictions than Risa), she doesn’t stay in the rotating cast of character for very long. She’s actually the only third-person narrator to drop out of the series. We see her at the end just in time for her to start a long-distance relationship with Lev–because this is what every girl wants after pining for a guy for supposedly two years.

  • Bam (Bambi): She’s in love with Starkey.

Unlike the other girls in the story, Bam’s happy ending doesn’t involve ending up with anyone. She’s Starkey’s second in command and also secretly in love with Starkey. Only when Bam discovers Starkey’s secret harem does she decide to stage a mutiny against Starkey—but she has to have help. Hayden is the brains of the operation and orchestrates the entire kidnapping (and dumping) of Starkey. She’s been Starkey’s second in command for months and a leader in her own right, but she had to go to Hayden for a plan, which wasn’t even a complicated one: drug everyone including Starkey, drop him in the middle of nowhere, and relocate the Stork troops while Starkey’s out cold. She apparently had to go to him.

Every girl has a romantic partner. Even Una, who tragically lost her fiancé, ends up finding love in a guy that has her deceased fiancé’s  hand—and I wish I were kidding

Unwind ascribes stagnant roles to women that only draw emphasis to the male characters. Every significant step forward is made by a man. Connor takes down the flying harvest factory. Lev sacrifices himself on national television, waking people up to the issues of unwinding. Let’s not forget that Risa also was on television two years earlier, outing the corruption of Proactive Citizenry, but no one paid attention to this apparently.

This is a story about people being treated as just a bunch of parts, which subsequently is how the story treats its female characters. The Unwind series represents only a singular, if not poor, interpretation of women.

Change Takes Time

Unwind’s ending delivers promise to a better world. Because of Lev’s stunt—faking a terrorist-clapper bombing so people would shoot him dead—makes the world reexamine the moral consequences of unwinding teenagers.

When Connor, having been rewound, shows up in Washington ready to diplomatically fight the problem, it shows just the beginning of the solution. Rebuilding. Reconstruction. Proper Representation. Laws.  These are things that were introduced and make the ending somewhat satisfying.

Overall, Unwind had its entertaining moments, and made sure everyone in the end got what they ‘deserved,’ but it falls to pieces in its plot and character departments. Although not a well-known series, Unwind does belong on someone’s shelf of dark dystopia, but it is, perhaps, too ‘morbid’for some too read.

Blogger Note:

So sorry for the infrequent posting. To say the least, a number of issues have marred me in the last couple months: Lows, online class, sickness, and horrrrrible reading dry spells. The good news? Online class shall soon end, the sickness is going away, and OMG, I’ve got my reading groove back! Yay! I should be back to posting regularly soon.

Book Series Edition: Unwind Series; Part 1

Unwind-Neal-Shusterman

By now, you’re so done with YA Dystopia books, set in familiar worlds and navigated by unruly, heroic/vigilante/anarchist protagonist characters. And, if it’s YA, there’s definitely a plot to overthrow the tyrannical government or upend a scientific experiment attempting to ostensibly improve humanity. I was done too until I heard about Neal Shusterman’s Unwind series, four books (plus some short stories) that are unnerving: young people made into organ donors—while they’re still alive. To put it mildly, Unwind isn’t for the faint of heart.

In the four-part book series, we mainly follow the characters Connor, Risa, and Levi in a world highly invested in Unwinding: a scientific breakthrough that makes every organ and tissue viable for harvesting and accessible to anyone. People aren’t using the organs from recently deceased people, however. Unwinding uses fresh ingredients from living, young adults between the ages of 13-18. No one’s being hunted, of course. This is all conducted appropriately. The parents give the order to Unwind their child. Some children, called Tithes, are even bred for it. Who would do that? Tired parents. Selfish parents. Uneducated parents. Gullible parents. Basically humans.

Connor is one of the many whose parents have decided to sign the Unwind order and have his organs harvested, except Connor doesn’t go willingly. He escapes from the Juvie cops (special task force that locates Unwind AWOLS), takes a Tithe called Levi hostage, subdues a Juvie cop (which later bites Connor in the ass), and meets the street-smart, orphaned Risa Ward, who’s also sentenced to be Unwind. When things settle, the three meet Sonia, a member of the resistance group against Unwinding. From there, the three of them are on the run. Connor wants to destroy the system of Unwinding. Risa wants to just survive and protect the ones she loves. And Levi wants to find purpose with his life.

The Unwind series omits the distant-future pretense found in other YA Dystopias and is set in our current world, paralleling our science and technology along with our culture (to clarify: the United States.) To make this apparent, Shusterman incorporates articles from real life—which are all legit—about the black market harvesting organs, babies being abandoned, and abortion clinics being closed. Although it can feel like padding at times, the articles remind us of one of our more pressing social issues. In the Unwind universe, a war broke out between the factions of Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. Right now, especially with the presidential campaign, the topic of abortion is more than heated (especially when you have a red-beaten hog insisting women be punished if they have an abortion). There’s certainly a verbal war that’s been happening for years, but it’s not only just talk. We see countless political agendas manifesting in laws, hospital-building regulations, and insurances policies to restrict and deprive women in having the choice to abort fetuses. This wouldn’t be the first time the United States went to war over human rights. What’s to say that won’t happen over women’s choice to terminate pregnancies? Unwind provides us with a terrifying alternative by subjecting young adults to cruel ends. This might seem impossible to imagine, but it’s probably more real than you think.

The Unwinding process and order isn’t necessarily the problem but actually how beneficial it is.  No matter how inhumane it seems (it is), there’s a lot of good that happens when there’s a replete of body parts at our disposal. We’re talking about kids who are paralyzed that could receive new spines and walk again. New pair of eyes for the blind. Amputee veterans who don’t have to use prosthetic limbs. Genetic diseases that could be avoided just by replacing the isolated, affected area (maybe? Still on the fence with this one). These are truly wonderful benefits of Unwinding. It’s also a system that preys on people’s body insecurities and vanity. Plastic surgery becomes obsolete when you can just pick what nose you want on your face. Exercising is beneath anyone who can afford to purchase toned abs (even though I think the science behind this is a bit flakey). The system easily morphs into a corrupt industry perpetuated by profits and people’s egos.

Similar to how I reviewed the Harry Potter series, I’ve included some of my commentary below. Unwind wasn’t a series I consistently enjoyed. There are parts that I didn’t agree with or I thought weren’t executed well. Books one and four had a gripping story and descent characterization; however, books two and three (mainly three) liken to white noise. I will discuss more of the series in Part 2.

The Heartland Wars: Pro-Life and Pro-Choice

I implied earlier that Unwinding was the solution to abortion between the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice factions during the United States’ second civil war named The Heartland Wars. Unwinding actually helped put an end to the war and was invented by a scientist that simply wanted to help people (usually the case). Unwinding prevents overpopulation which the world will need because, after The Heartland Wars, abortions are illegal, thereby, more babies. A woman doesn’t have to keep the child, however. This is what is known as Storking, a law passed that rarely makes anyone’s life happy.

Storking is when a woman leaves her baby at someone’s home and that home is required by law to take custody of the child. The only stipulation that would require the woman to keep the child is if she’s discovered in the act of dropping the baby off. As you can imagine, several families have at least five to ten children per a household, leading to higher stress, not to mention, the financial costs in raising those children. Because abortion is banned, families are forced to adopt children they don’t want.  Kids end up being resented and isolated from the family. In most cases, Storks are given up to be Unwind. Storks are dropped into these circumstances with no rights in a system that is rigged against them.

Unwind points out the problems in having children if we’re only going to expose them to a miserable life and treat them as burdens. I don’t have children and probably never will, but, to me, that type of treatment is damaging to kids and isn’t something they’ll just grow out of. We’re looking at adult-kids feeling ashamed and unwanted, parents feigning affection, and people forced to become parents who may not be parent material (maternal instincts don’t come with the uterus, folks.)

The series discusses just what happens when women do not have any say in their medical choices. Everyone makes different choices—but it’s fairly lousy to have kids suffer that kind of abuse because you were forced to have them instead of wanting them.

Excessive Narration: Filling In Every Gap and Beating Me With a Hammer

When the character Starkey was added, Shusterman created this interesting dichotomy between Starkey and the lead protagonist Connor.  Starkey wasn’t about preserving the peace. In the second book, he’s running from a Juvie Cop, but unlike Connor who knocks out the Juvie cop in book one, Starkey kills the cop. From then on, we study the characterization of these two in terms of hero versus icon. Shushterman employs this similar character contrast with Lev, a fallen Christian, and Miracolina, a devout Christian. These are things I wish were employed more frequently in the series and does reflect Shusterman’s penchant in developing characters.

But then the narration takes a sharp turn and becomes extraneous. The narration broadcasts everything from the viewpoint of a gardener witnessing an attack on a a harvest camp, a girl hiding in the corner before blowing herself up, to, and, I kid you not, an old military plane. I just don’t need that much information.

Creating additional characters to narrate these moments feels like lazy editing in the sense that you haven’t presented enough information and clues to the reader to fill in the gaps. The prose is excessive and encumbers much of the story. It’s by far what makes book three so hard to read. Make use of the characters you already have and expect that they’re not going to know everything. Not everything needs to be said. Let my brain do some of the detective work.

To be continued in Part 2.

 

 

 

 

Chick Lit and Gender Disparity

Gender-Disparity-Chick lit needs to go away.

Whenever I read the term Chick lit, I instinctively recoil. I bristle when people come to its defense; my brain can only register it like an undermining compliment. It sounds nice but you just know something is wrong with it.

I don’t actually have a problem with the content in Chick lit. Bring on all the tropes about single ladies contending with their overbearing bosses and agonizing, 30th birthdays! At first the term ‘Chick lit’ appears innocuous until we analyze the connotations of the name and its implications. Identifying a genre by its audience is problematic in itself (ergo Grip Lit), but the interchangeable treatment of women’s stories as lighter or fluffier is egregious and is another kind of sexism that’s nuanced but, nonetheless, damaging.

Chick lit is defined as a subgenre of Fiction, not Romance, created exclusively to encompass female authors’ works usually involving a young, modern, single-female protagonist who’s struggling romantically or with her career. Chick lit, however, reveals a systemic problem in how women and their works are categorized. If there’s a female protagonist (in love usually), several women occupy the story (dealing with love troubles), or female problems (menstruation and pregnancy for example), then it falls automatically under Chick lit, but women’s stories are not always light despite what the name Chick lit implies. The name nearly blankets all female-oriented subjects and leaves a misleading impression about women’s issues being less than other folks, which translates as half the world’s population being less significant. Not only does the subgenre’s name misconstrue female stories but pairing the words Chick and lit boxes these stories into a niche that can end up excluding people from reading them.

By segregating the works of men and women, we’re presupposing a distinction that fosters gender disparity in how we perceive and recognize women’s literary works. Part of the reason so many harbor this myth is that they believe men and women are innately different. There are differences (especially under the belt) but this is where the problem occurs. It’s not that men and women are different but that women’s works are somehow secondary or less to their male counterparts. As DJ Donnell writes on the subject of Chick lit “whatever lit is, it is certainly not literature. It is much lower on the food chain, something light and unimportant.” Even when men write on virtually the same subject except with a male protagonist, there’s no subgenre made called Dude lit. Men’s stories are treated as a default; they’re automatically put into the genre of Fiction, thus, revealing a double standard in the publishing industry. Separating the works of men and women doesn’t bring emphasis but is polarizing and actually encumbers women receiving equality in terms of how their work is received and regarded. Women’s works are not being assessed by the same criteria that are applied to men’s works, a criteria that causes many women to pander to a set of standards established predominantly by a history of white, male authors (another whole bag of problems). Enforcing these distinctions can only harm our understanding of masculinity and femininity by perpetuating stereotypes of gender. This can discourage male readers from reading these works but can also misinform young women (I know it did with me.)

As I said before, Chick lit needs to go away. It’s the one area of my life—my reading and writing life—that I get to escape to and not be reminded how prevalent sexism is. I’m sure we’ll move passed it, when everyone recognizes the problem, and there is definitely a problem.

Women and Light are not synonymous.

 

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright PlacesJennifer Niven’s novel All the Bright Places will be the novel I recommend to anyone desperately in need of the feels. Its subject is not without its controversy and emotionally hard to process, but Places is beautiful and finds the extraordinary in everyday places (and being a Midwestern native who knows our hills are more like lumps—I should know.) It makes us reexamine our current criteria of living, if we’re really ‘awake’ or just going through the motions. Violet and Finch meet on the ledge of a bell tower for similar reasons with different purposes. The novel examines two young adults both caught up in their own struggles. While Finch is obsessed with death, Violet is just looking for a way out. Although this sounds like the worst pairing, both of them rediscover passion and excitement, but even love is not enough to keep someone going. Places is a reminder that amid loss and death, people somehow solider on.

Before I continue, this post contains content on mental illness and suicide. Be advised. Also: SPOILERS.

Theodore Finch spots Violet Markey on the ledge of a bell tower the same day he’s tempting to jump off of it himself. He ends up talking himself out of jumping and keeps Violet from doing the same. From there, everyone believes Violet is a hero for saving Freaky Finch: mercurial, manic, a new guy every week. Former cheerleader Violet is the opposite of him or at least she was before the accident that killed her older sister. Violet has been left stranded in what she calls ‘extenuating circumstances,’ and just wants to get the hell out of Indiana. During a class assignment about discovering new places in Indiana, Finch volunteers to be Violet’s partner, giving the chance for them to grow closer and fall in love. Behind Finch’s tenacity is more than just persistence but an ominous, pervasive feeling tearing Finch down. Finch is quickly unraveling and despite everyone knowing about it, no one intervenes, and it’s too late.

Places  delivers a straightforward story about a girl and boy meeting and quickly falling in love. The opening passage quickly sets up the story within the first several passages by introducing Theodore Finch and his disturbing, dry sense of humor on suicide, exemplified by his conveyance of the pros and cons of death via jumping off a building. The narration switches over to Violet Markey, who’s sensible and less enthusiastic about flinging herself off a building than her counterpart; however, she anchors the story whereas Theodore adds comedic relief to a bleak storyline, thus, creating this complimenting effect. The changing narrations help the boy/girl plot, but, admittedly, still contains several tropes from the Teen Romance genre, which explains why it’s so often compared to The Fault in Our Stars (yes) and Eleanor and Park (just no.)  An eccentric boy appears in a girl’s life and changes her complete outlook on things, but in the case of Places, it’s not as one-sided. Each of these characters imprints something on the other, bestowing us with beautiful metaphors and nuggets of wisdom perfect for young adult.

The characterization in this novel sharply imagines teens dealing with real, complex problems and doesn’t exploit characters with mental illness. The crazy, flirtatious banter between Finch and Violet is irresistible, especially in part because of Finch’s compulsive behavior to deviate from the mundane and lighten the mood. Finch’s story is very much about trying to find something to complete him than it is about finding the perfect way to die, though this might just be one of the many caveats of the story. He’s surprisingly hyper sensitive of what people think of him while being incredibly resilient to his peers’ castigation. When the manic episodes dominant his waking hours, his character begins shriveling. The reduction of this larger-than-life character painfully illustrates Finch losing his agency and the underbelly of mental illness, showing us how he departs gradually, boxing himself into smaller spaces until he’s gone. Niven carefully describes Finch and his descent. She distinguishes the two by showing off the intrepid Finch and when he’s lost control. The distinction reminds us of how mental illness is just a condition and doesn’t subsume a person’s identity.

Violet, although is burdened by her previous life and does everything to break away from the past, is characterized as a normal girl. With a character like Finch, it’s easy to overlook Violet. Her story appears minor but contains its own interesting problems. Like Finch, she’s in the public eye but with everyone’s attention trained on her. She is loved, so everyone panders to her circumstances because they know she’s still grieving. She even has supportive parents who are also grieving. She has so many people trying to be there for her but no one that’s capable of helping her transition. Her people are all super sensitive around her and trying to push her back to a place before the accident, but Violet starts to recognize that death isn’t the end but a trigger for change. When she suffers two devastating losses, the theme of the story is punctuated. She survives but is left behind and for someone to have to lose two people she loved in such a short amount of time, this leaves her with survivor’s guilt. Niven also thematically concentrates on the aftermath of loss and shows Violet piecing her life together and trying to make sense of Finch’s death. With Violet, her story isn’t about wanting to find an end but how to restart.

Places never lets go of the challenges of existing in the presence and valuing our lives. Finch, despite his fast-track spiral, was about the liveliest person because he lived each day like it was his last. And Violet wanted to save him—just like he did on top of that bell tower for her. Places does good work in breaking our hearts but doesn’t leave us broken. It reassembles all our parts leaving us with an important message: be there as much as you can. Love the people closest to you. Don’t live according to everyone else’s idea or for your family’s convenience. We’re born and then we die. Not to have lived even one moment is a waste.

Afterword:

Yes. I’m going to do the thing where I tell you things that you have heard on a bunch of public service announcements. If you feel suicidal, contact someone. I know. You don’t want to. You feel like a bother. No one can handle you. You’re too much. If you talk about it, then someone knows just how crazy you are. You’re worried what they’ll think afterwards or what they’ll do with you. Some might worry that person will take you home. Others might try and send you to a psychiatric facility. How do I know this? Three times I’ve tried (and obviously it didn’t stick) but there was someone to intervene—by sheer luck. I got lucky. Eventually I found out that I didn’t want to be lucky. I wanted to feel less lucky. I wanted to be in control.

There are resources available to you, and I get it: the last thing you want to do when you’re in this state is sparse through research or have to wonder about the cost of treatment, which is why reaching out before you reach critical is good. Talk. Cry. Talk. Ramble. I’m sure my SO would tell me my episodes were nonsensical and incoherent, but I felt better afterwards, and I’m very grateful that there’s a person in my life for that.

Tid Bit: Don’t wait fucking ten years to seek help like I did. We are complex creatures who need to converse awkwardly, sometimes in between sobs or through clenched teeth to find our doughy parts again. It’s better than feeling mean and hard.

So. There’s my public service announcement.

Dear Patient Readers: Personal Growth Corner

Dear Patient Readers,

On February 24, I expressed that I would be taking a week off from writing any posts to deal with the imbalanced, brain chemicals that were interfering from my actual living. It’s now March 14, nineteen days after I said that. I’m acutely aware that this is more than a week.

Besides the Mt. Olympia Low that I suffered, I got sick and guess how I got sick? Yup. By not taking care of myself. To summarize two weeks of misery: fever, no appetite, smoker’s cough, and saturnine. And to no surprise, I had another Low because lying in bed for four days and watching even more Gilmore Girls (my wheelhouse) is a 100% guarantee that you will feel like shit and declare that you’re just meat expiring.

Something interesting did happen while I was recovering. I was accepted into the English graduate program in Western Washington University, the fat bold lettering of CONGRATULATIONS louder than the thrumming of blood and pent up bodily fluids in my head.

I got in. Me. Erica Brown. I never actually believed I would. I’m not being humble or self-deprecating. These are feelings I carry with me to keep my hopes contained. I’ve been rejected before. I mean, if you haven’t, then you’re not a person. You’re an alien inhabiting your own planet (but, hey, let’s be friends!) But let me clarify: I’m not going to Western Washington University. I’m not enrolling into their English Graduate program. I’ve decided not to go.

Before everyone gasps and thinks I wasted a great deal of energy and time on this, I don’t think so. I did something scary. I went after something with a very high chance of being rejected. The last time I did that was never. I’ve avoided programs because of this fear. I bowed out of going to an Ivy League school because of the pass or fail admission process. I changed majors to avoid the pass or fail exit portfolio (but turns out, this worked in my favor because I’m actually a better writer than an artist.) I’ve lived under this stiffening pressure of the exclusive need to succeed because failure was like the roof and floor collapsing all at once. I’d have to start over. Rethink all my choices. Rebuild that stupid roof and floor to have a place to stand again. I’ve always been perceived as this person with their shit together, an adult who says what’s on her mind, calm, abnormally impassive, but generally knew what she wanted out of life. Psh, please. I’m 27, folks. I’m talented, artsy, dog lover, and an amazing baker, but I seriously am not some kind of prophet of my own life. I’m figuring stuff out too. While I love the idea of going to English grad school—that’s about it. My support team (who I want to thank because they had to listen to me for the last week flip flop on this decision) has insisted that I’m smart, which I am, and how well I would do in grad school, the people I would meet, and the things I would get to study, but there are so many things I want to do that aren’t contingent on earning a degree, which, by the way, has a scary paucity of academic jobs for anyone interested in being a Professor. I’ve spent most of my life admittedly sheltered. The summer I graduated high school, I went to community college and then to the university. I worked two part-time jobs during school and in the summer. I made just enough to pay for gas and groceries. I had no life except school, and, frankly, to throw myself back into that doesn’t align with what I feel now. I still think education is important, but I was cocooning myself in it and preventing myself from experiences. I don’t have the passion or fortitude for the academics and that’s okay. I’ve got stamina for other things. Writing and reading are my great loves and having an M.A. isn’t some kind of icing to me, but, if it were, it would be worth $60,000, plus interest. It’s just padding for something I really don’t feel I need. I’ve learned more outside in the ‘real’ world than I’ve learned in school.

When I finally realized this, everything in me snapped back into place. My gut was happy again—eh, sort of. Did I mention that I was sick during this whole deliberation? McDonalds. Wendys. I waited another several days to make sure it was the upset stomach talking.

Thank you for your patience dear readers and for putting up with some of my narcissism. Now I’ll get back to writing that post because this has definitely left me red in the cheeks, chagrined from the late revelation. After all, I am a book blogger. Yay books!!

Sincerely,

Your Local Resident Book Hermit