everything-you-want-me-to-be_mindy-mejia

Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia

Hardcover, 352 pages
Expected publication: January 3rd 2017 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books
I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This review contains spoilers, which are noted within.

There’s a lot to be said for being a teenager today. Of course, every era has its modern innovations and social expectations to contend with, but it’s rare that we get to see this from the inside looking out, through the eyes of a teenager living in the center of it all. What do they see and how do they feel about it? Does that societal pressure produce a diamond, as the saying goes, or does it crush us under the weight of its expectations?

Everything You Want Me to Be aimed to be that mirror for us, to shine a light in the dark recesses of the life of a teen-aged girl who was struggling to have and be it all, to exude perfection while finding what it was in life that mattered to her most. At any age, that’s a tall order, but Mindy Mejia’sEverything You Want Me to Be strives to take us there, to put us front in center in that girl’s shoes. However, I didn’t find it to be all that it was cracked up to be, and it wasn’t nearly all that I’d hoped.

The entire novel was about playing a part, pretending for onlookers and living a secret life that no one knows about, yet it didn’t delve deep enough to evoke any real feelings about it for me. Honestly, Miss Hattie Hoffman didn’t seem to be going through much more than the average city teenager, and the small-town aspect wasn’t brought to life nearly enough to truly juxtapose this in some startling way. And even that would have been completely fine if Hattie’s layers had been more defined, more fine-tuned, peeling deeper down. But I always felt that I was just skimming the surface of this girl behind the smile. She started out a Mona Lisa, and while we learn what she was thinking behind that sly smirk, true enough, I didn’t feel affected by the truths and realizations once Mona Lisa had been unwrapped. I didn’t feel the tension that the author was going for. The countdown to 18 seemed uneventful and rushed so that, when it came, I was underwhelmed and unimpressed for most of the read. The last fifth of the novel picked up, but it didn’t make the previous eighty percent feel especially worth it for me.

I recently said to someone, “It’s so true that we rate books based on how they make us feel, and how they make us feel is based off of our own life experiences,” and this is a novel that makes that statement truer than ever. Some will love following Hattie. They’ll find her particular brand of drama to be shocking and stimulating, but Everything You Want Me to Be didn’t go deep enough. It didn’t set Hattie apart from every other girl yearning to leave the small town and hit the big city. **SPOILER ALERT** Oh, and if you were planning on leaning on her love affair as that crutch that made her stand out, that it thing that made her different, try that somewhere else: that story’s too played to take us anywhere shocking now on its own. It wasn’t enough to make this a five-star read. **

What I will say is that Mejia did a good job of affecting a high schooler’s voice. Hattie came off as genuine; her voice was completely plausible. Her needs and desires totally matched that of a seventeen-year-old girl. But the other characters didn’t live up to their own potential. They were less well-rounded, affecting and impactful than they could’ve been by a long shot. Everything You Want Me to Besomehow managed to read both melodramatically and underwhelmingly simultaneously. Yet, in the background was a story that was decent. A story with an interesting premise that could’ve been richer, that could’ve been…more. The highs and lows melded together to end up being a bit blah with just a hint of salt to season it here and there.

I didn’t see the drama of the “fractured” pretender that Mejia was trying to paint. Instead, I saw a normal girl, written by the hand of an author who wants to assume that all kids are just kids, that they aren’t complex or individual in their own way, thus making Hattie some remarkable mystery (which, to me, she wasn’t). **Spoiler Alert** Except for the affair with her teacher, which has become almost less than a taboo with the shocking number of occurrences in the media these days, so that needed to be pushed further—made exceptional —to stand out as the shocker that it was intended to be.**

Maybe this novel should’ve been set in the 50s, so that the “innocent girl with a secret” plot would be more poignant.

The entire time that I read Mejia’s Everything, I could see where she was trying to take her reader; I just never quite got there. Often this novel was on the verge of being adrenaline-inducing, but it was always just shy of the mark for me, and for that I give 3 stars ***

white-trash_nancy-isenberg

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

Hardcover, 480 pages
Published June 21st 2016 by Viking

“If this book accomplishes anything it will be to have exposed a number of myths about the American dream, to have disabused readers of the notion that upward mobility is a function of the founders’ ingenious plan…”

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is a kamikaze of research and hard-hitting assessments of our country’s attitude toward the “poor” and “shiftless” masses. It delves into the historical inaccuracies and missteps of a nation, our nation, and is a read to be savored and thoughtfully digested.

Isenberg commences from the stance that she is addressing the fallacious and glossed-over condition of class relations in the U.S., because many Americans (truly, the world) genuinely believe in America as a classless society of un-threatened upward mobility potential. Firstly, if there is, in fact, someone—anyone—out there who honestly believes that class relations don’t exist front and center in America then 1) you need to run and grab this book (and 10 more just like it immediately, now, on your lunch break even!) and 2) might I ask, “What rock have you been hiding under?”

Nancy Isenberg’s survey of American culture from Plymouth Rock to Sarah Palin offers something for everyone. Here she unravels history and popularized tales of John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the “cracker” president, and even Pocahontas has her Disney-romanticized “diva” status stripped away and re-examined. Isenberg methodically tackles the rise and fall of the Confederacy, the eugenics craze that swept America for decades (still seen today in the form of modern-day dating websites such as eHarmony and Match.com), “The New Deal,” LBJ’s “Great Society” policies, desegregation and shifts in American culture that led to the rise of modern-day “white trash reality TV.” And while I did feel a bit leaden down with the dozens of pages of historical facts on these former presidents in Part I, when I was more interested in the meat of the argument, the task of setting the foundation for her argument was achieved and Part II onward flowed seamlessly. Historical documentation, photographs and illustrations also helped to set the scene and illustrate her assertions in a way that was easily digestible.

With White Trash, Isenberg demands us to ask ourselves, “What really is the American dream? Does it really exist? And if not, what truly stands in its stead?” These are the questions that you will explore, sometimes overtly and sometimes not. She offers some truly eye-opening observations and threads together the fabric of our American history into a full picture for readers to take a step back from and justly scrutinize. Within these pages, you’ll find humor and biting wit, punchlines that sink deeply into your psyche and assertions that are backed by meticulous research.

Isenberg takes a clear and definitive stance in White Trash, writing specifically from a poor-white-centric lens, and honestly, that really appealed to me. Thankfully, she strips away the politically correct, granola pedagogy that we Americans like to think of as good manners and gets straight to the point of her argument: that the idea of American classlessness is a fanciful notion that never truly existed, and that poor whites have always been a significant force at the center of the debate. From the annihilation of Native Americans to the freeing of slaves, poor whites have always factored in, in some way, to the persistent class struggle at hand.

For both those who feel securely aware of the condition of the world around us and for those not as confident in their versing of the historical foundation of the very American soil that we stand on, take a trip down this historical rabbit hole, because here you will find a detailed chronicle to expand upon your current understanding and opinions. You’ll find an analysis that is as ripe with raw insights as it is well-researched. Isenberg takes a blunt stance, a no-nonsense stance, and that always wins the day with me as long as the claims are buoyed in verity. She did that here, and her White Trash gained a strong 4 stars in the process. ****

*Thanks again to Viking for reaching out to me and sending me a hardcover copy of this book!

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The Empress of Tempera by Alex Dolan

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Diversion Publishing, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Paperback, 282 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Diversion Publishing

The Empress of Tempera is the tale of Paire Anjou, a 20-year-old Maine native running from her past turned art student in New York City. Two years after fleeing her traumatic upbringing, she has successfully reinvented herself and bagged a famous artist boyfriend, has landed a job at an art gallery and become obsessed with the gallery’s main attraction, a vivid painting by a Chinese artist whose flash of fame was all too brief and mysterious. In finding herself and understanding her obsession with The Empress, Paire becomes entangled in dangerous artistic heists and embroiled in uncovering the story of an artist shrouded in as much shadowy family history as Paire herself.

All in all, The Empress reminded me of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos more than I’d hoped to admit (I’ve also reviewed that novel here), the first half of the read at least. While I’m sure that some will call this unfair, to be honest, there was the same young woman running from her past, a painting that captivated her, a link between two distinctly different time periods and cultures. There were art galleries and soliloquys on brush stroke techniques and how the painting in question, the novel’s namesake, stood apart from others of its time period. Add to that a dash of danger, a few scenes of violence and a 20th century Chinese artist (rather than 17th century Dutch) and you’ve got yourself an Empress of Tempera.

But, sigh sigh sigh, the main thread that definitively connected these two reads in my mind was that Alex Dolan’s Empress also offered the same vaguely clinical tone narrating it all, like a nasally, monotone fly buzzing in my ear throughout. The characters were borderline flat, though I could tell that they weren’t intended to be so. They had motivations, but I didn’t always buy them, and even when I did, they weren’t as affecting, dramatic or climactic as they were meant to be by a long shot. Even the effect that the painting, The Empress Xiao Zhe Yi, Seated, had on its viewers, the very foundation for this novel, seemed manufactured, inauthentic.

It didn’t seem feasible that someone would stab themselves over that painting (view spoiler). Fainting at the painting’s feet. Swooning at the sight of it. Why? Is it foretelling the coming of Christ? Is it depicting a cultural phenomenon; has it become a Mecca-like beacon for radical jihadists? SOMETHING? No, it was just a portrait of a beautiful woman, seated. That’s it; that’s all. Show’s over folks. Nothing to see here. Nothing. It was just there. And I, in turn, was just bored.

The passively omniscient narrator’s voice sounded unmistakably amateur, guessing as to why the characters’ motives were what they were. “Paire suspected Kasson had chosen this time because he knew Mayer wouldn’t be there.” Every other page it was, “She suspected this.” “She probably did it because of this.” As a reader, I felt cheated of learning what made the characters tick, a novice mistake in a writer’s hand, if you ask me. “At this point Kasson must have understood that she was not going to help him.” Smh and the soul of writing slowly dies.

Dolan’s Empress was slow and arduous for the most part. And not particularly in a poignant, character-peeling sort of way either. There were a few times that I skimmed and several times that I considered putting her down. But, like a true reader, I just had to press on, to see if a turn would re-ignite my fire. You know, I just had to go into the haunted house, even though my subconscious was telling me not to. But it didn’t work out the way I’d hoped. (Does that ever?)

I won’t even delve into how the artistic heists were all borderline pointless, definitely juvenile and founded on motives shaky at best. I won’t harp on how you could run a freight train through the plausibility of them. Five days to plan and execute a heist, really? You want me to believe that? I mean, I guess. And, yawn, the damaging family history that was the thread of mystery holding the story together ended up not being worth the hype. That was all? That was nothing! I myself know people who have been through worse than that!

So, with that in mind, I started to give The Empress 3 stars, to say that it was average. But it’s only fair that I stick to my grading scale, isn’t it? And this one didn’t quite make it into the “Liked” pile. Instead, I’ll give it a “Meh” and a half. 2.5 stars. **

Dante's Inferno

The Inferno: The Definitive Illustrated Edition, Dante Alighieri

Kindle Edition, 192 pages
Published June 22nd 2016 by Dover Publications

This edition of The Inferno offered visual artistry and a deeper understanding of this text. Dante’s Inferno has been on the must-read lists of schools and universities for decades, but this edition really brought it to life, both highlighting its wondrous darkness and magnifying the mystifying interpretation of hell, redemption and baptism by fire that Dante Alighieri painted for us all those centuries ago. However, I wish that the illustrations had included color. Color can work wonders that this one fell short of. Still, The Inferno is a classic and remains so.