Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Favorites: Help Yourself - by Louise Tripp

I spent most of the afternoon attempting to come up with a topic for Friday Favorites but was having a lot of difficulty, which I attribute to the crazy-busy weekend I have ahead. But finally, it hit me - that I should write about my favorite "self-help" book. The kind of book that offers an idea of how to balance the chaos of living and juggle the things you want to do with the things you need to do. 

I've never read a lot of self-help, mind you. Most of those books always seemed too hokey and full of advice tailored to nitwits with zero common sense. Harsh? Probably, but that's how I saw it - until, of course, I was hit with a depression so black I had trouble seeing my way out.

So I started browsing books at the library or taking my friends and my then-therapist up on their recommendations. I read portions of some books, but there were two I actually read cover-to-cover. Not your typical idea of "self-help" nonfiction, my two favorites nevertheless helped me in ways that were invaluable:

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff - Hoff uses Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends to explain the philosophy of Taoism. This book made me breathe - or reminded me to. It made me slow down instead of rushing to "save time," which is actually impossible but something I'd still been trying to do without even noticing.

"A way of life that keeps saying 'around the corner, above the next step' works against the natural order of things and makes it so difficult to be happy and good that only a few get to where they would naturally have been in the first place - Happy and Good - and the rest give up and fall by the side of the road, cursing the world, which is not to blame but which is there to show the way. 
 - from The Tao of Pooh

Radical Sanity by Elizabeth Wurtzel - Filled with thoughtful quotes from musicians, etc. and what she calls "common sense advice for uncommon women," Wurtzel's departure from memoir (Prozac Nation) is a diamond in the self-help rough, if ever there was such a thing. In the introduction, the writer admits of herself, "I am not the happiest person. In fact, in the battle between joy and misery, I'd say the latter often seems to prevail." Small enough to re-read in a day, her book doesn't skimp on advice that maybe should be "common sense" but, in our wound-up and self-depreciating lives, is probably the stuff we don't allow ourselves to realize as often as we should. Things like: Save Yourself (meaning don't expect someone else to do it) and Use All Available Resources. Then there are some of my personal favorites: See Lots of Movies and Eat Dessert - oh yes! She ends it with something I have often said but, I think, actually have trouble believing - Anything Is Possible. But even when I am not sure I agree with her advice, I am charmed by her wit and candor and happier just to see things differently for the moment. 

Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library. You can read her regular blog at

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review: Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love - by Lindsay Moore

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Journey for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert is another book that may have just been added to my top 10 list. Some of you have seen the trailer for the upcoming movie based on the book, which stars Julia Roberts. *insert squeal* I had heard several great things about the book before the movie even came into play but have just recently gotten the chance to read it. And I was the farthest thing from disappointed. 

With everything from a prophesizing guru to an old American man in India who always speaks in “bumper sticker” to a no carb left-behind mission, Gilbert has one hell of an adventure and comes up with one hell of a story to show for it. The conversational tone of the book was enough to make me love it from the start. I love reading a book that makes it seem like the author is talking directly to you and in their own style and voice. That’s why I read a lot of autobiographies and “Based on a True Story” type deals which is exactly what this book is. Eat, Pray, Love documents Gilbert’s world travels and her journey towards personal and spiritual contentment following a nasty divorce. One must understand the rule of thirds and the importance of the trinity to truly appreciate this book. In the Introduction, Gilbert makes sure to explain an Indian tradition known as the 109th bead, and the importance of the number 3. The novel is divided into three “books”, each composed of 36 stories, pertaining to her adventures in each of the three countries listed in the title.

Gilbert also incorporates her brilliant use of anthropomorphism into several circumstances throughout the novel. My favorite being the “cops,” Depression and Loneliness and the conversation she has with them all leading to her being frisked and interrogated.
Gilbert definitely makes me feel better about the notion of talking to myself to help when I am stressed or in panic mode. She even writes to her inner voice in a private notebook. And I thought I was the only one that did that! The whole book itself seems to be a self-dialogue to help her cope with the personal troubles. And I like that. And I hope you will too.

Lindsay Moore is a junior communications major from South Carolina with a passion for reading and writing. She hopes to one day work for a magazine in Charleston and open her own bookstore.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Cover of the Week - by Louise Tripp

J'adore old books and their covers. They're often so simple and always seem to reflect the era they came from with their fonts and images. A few years ago, I picked up this browned-with-age copy of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's at the now-closed City Bookshop in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. It made me giddy to find it - in safeguarding plastic wrap and with Audrey Hepburn smiling coquettishly. Eventually I'll have to get a newer copy so I can actually re-read the book, because this one feels like it should be displayed and not touched. Nevertheless, it was such a fabulous find that it reminds me why I love used bookstores. 

Challenge: Recreate this cover in photographs and I'll post it here next week.

Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library. You can read her regular blog at

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How I Became A Reader - by Louise Tripp

It is said that reading to a child promotes motivation and a love for stories, reading and learning and is a bonding experience. I agree with this position wholeheartedly because I am living proof. I've been fervently reading and writing since I was a wee child, “knee-high to a duck” as my mother used to say, thanks in part to the storytelling habits of my mom and my older sibling.

As you can guess, books have been a huge part of my life for as far back as I can remember. Even before I could read, my sister would tell me Pippi Longstocking stories to coax me to sleep (for the longest time, I though she made them up herself). My mother was still my favorite storyteller, though. I loved my mom's voice – the way she read with different inflections for different characters. Nearly every night for a fair portion of my childhood, I begged her to read Puff, The Magic Dragon cover to cover (she always relented, or else made my sister read it).

By age five, long before anyone else in my kindergarten class, I could read – and well – and, for probably the only time in my life, loved to be called on in class to do so (unusual for such a reticent child). At six, I started the children's abridged edition of Oliver Twist and was completely enthralled, but before I could finish it, my three year old brother ripped the book to shreds (no vindictively, of course - he was only a toddler, after all) and left it for me to find. To this day, censorship and the destruction of books still makes me irate (don't even get me started on Amy March!) and I often wonder if this extreme passion can be traced back to this instance.

In fourth grade, I remember getting my first Sweet Valley Twins book at the school book fair, along with a copy of The Baby-Sitter's Club's series opener Kristy's Great Idea (I loved the way the characters looked on the cover) and the first book of the Sleepover Friends series (ditto; and was that a poster of Corey Hart?!). I think these books pretty much sealed the deal that I was going to be a reader for life. From that point forward, I was obsessed. That next Christmas, my mother bought me every Sweet Valley High and Sweet Valley Twins book she found at the nearest Waldenbooks, in Chesapeake, Virginia, along with a couple of Baby-Sitter's Club books, Marilyn Sachs' Amy & Laura and Sylvia Cassady's Behind The Attic Wall. It remains the best holiday I've had so far – and that's after thirty-three years.

Occasionally, trips to our family doctor also led to bookstore excursions and once I even got my mom to buy me The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell at Farm Fresh, a local grocery store, of all places. After my brother, following in my footsteps, became an avid reader as well, my dad put his foot down in regards to book-buying: money was tight! We needed clothes and food, not books! So in response, my mom marched us to the local library and got us library cards.

That's where my addiction was fed and libraries became as comfortable to me as home, which makes it especially lucky that I work in one.

In my life, there are other little book-related biographical facts: in the sixth grade, I became a master at navigating the way from class to class with book in hand (something that, today, would likely cause me injury). And one year at a school Christmas party, my “secret Santa” even gave me a book – so clearly, my fanaticism had not gone unnoticed.

These days, I still read whenever I can – though I balance my habit with writing, work (at the aforementioned library), etc. - and I still read all kinds of books, though it should be no surprise that stories featuring youthful characters are still closest to my heart.

Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library. You can read her regular blog at

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Favorites: Ariel Gore's Excellent Tips For Becoming A Famous Writer (Before You're Dead) – by Louise Tripp

How To Become A Famous Writer Before You're Dead
by Ariel Gore

I've gushed about this book to numerous people – other bloggers, writing group members, friends and family. Basically, anyone who would listen got an earful of how wonderful Ariel Gore's How To Become A Famous Writer Before You're Dead: Your Words In Print And Your Name In Lights was. As I read it, I felt excited. I felt inspired. I putting it down and writing, which I think is the one essential impulse that a book on the subject should invoke.

The book opens with a fantastic quote from Jack London: “I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than it be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.” That is actually a great summary of the tone of the book – because nonfiction can have a tone, too, and this one arouses enthusiasm. Each section begins with quotes such as this and the book includes unorthodox advice like: “develop a superhero alter ego,” “discover your lineage,” and “make a fool of yourself.” Of course, Gore goes into further detail about what she means when she suggests such things.

Also included are interviews with all kinds of writers, from published and world reknowned to self-published and cult-followed. She talks all about being a self-promoter (because to be published, she says, you kind of need to be one) and how to get an agent. There's so much here that I suggest buying it (from your favorite indie bookstore) to re-read sections over and over.  

Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library. You can read her regular blog at

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Happy Thursday!

It's been a week of sparse posting. The end of July has proved busy for the lot of us, but now it's time to get back to the business of regular blogging. Here is a bit of what to expect in the next couple of weeks:

  • A Friday Favorites discussion of the most motivating writers' reference books of the last decade.
  • A Book Cover of the Week honoring children's book covers.
  • A review of Gail Caldwell's upcoming memoir Let's Take The Long Way Home.
  • Reviews of classic novels we love!
  • Bloggers waxing nostalgic about being bookworms from a young age – their first literary loves, etc.

Stay with us!

On a side note, anyone who would like to contribute book-related essays, reviews, anecdotes, etc. is welcomed to do so. You can email your work for consideration to

Monday, July 19, 2010

Diane Wood Middlebrook's Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath - A Marriage

Direct to you from my review:

Someone on Amazon said that Middlebrook shies away from talking about the dissolution of the Plath/Hughes marriage as to seem impartial. I don't agree, really. I think that, yes, she was being impartial, but I felt she addressed the subject objectively and at length. 

While there were certainly things that made me bristle, I actually think Middlebrook did a good job explaining how both Plath and Hughes could be difficult, could be brilliant and passionate and how neither of them were entirely at fault, but both of them were at fault. I think the parts that bothered me were more about my feelings for Sylvia than at the facts and ideas as they were written - and while I have never fully blamed Ted Hughes for her demise (as I know some people do) nor fully not blamed him (hey, he was a walking contradiction and he did do some despicable things - but yes, I know, so did she), I actually became even more compassionate toward him in the reading of this. All in all, it plunged me back into my old obsession and amazement at Plath's genius and my wonder at the creative symbiosis of the early part of their marriage.

Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library. You can read her regular blog at

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Cover of the Week - by Louise Tripp

The cover of Lost Summer by Alex McAulay is the perfect picture of where I'd want to be on a day like today - a 90 degree July day in Chicago: a girl lies in the warm, gritty sand on the cusp of cool, foamy ocean waves. The sky and the water are a gorgeous shade of blue. 

But look closer. There's a shadow looming nearby - a figure watching the girl, who is lost in thought, her eyes shut to sun. Well, that's creepy.

This book just happens to be in the small stack I currently have checked out from the library, with plans to read soon. It takes place in the Outer Banks of North Carolina (near where I am from), which is what drew me to it. And it's a teen novel - my favorite kind of "guilty pleasure" read. It seemed the perfect "cover of the week" to end such a steamy, sticky, humid week.

Challenge: Recreate this cover in photographs and I'll post it here next week.

Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library. You can read her regular blog at

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday Favorites: Volumes I Hold Dear - by Louise Tripp

A book – the actual physical object. New models have tried to replace it. The Kindle, as cool as it may be, will just never hold a candle to the real thing. Crinkly new or musty yellowed pages; the scent of ink; the feel of it in your hands and the option of making it your own – highlighting phrases, beloved lines; notes in the margins.
Even people who don't read much (and thus, should be very, very ashamed – heh, kidding) have books they remember fondly. Books that they might even keep around for some reason – nostalgia, posterity, maybe even just to look more intelligent.

The books I own vary in meaning to me. Some of my most cherished ones have been signed – either by their authors, whom I've worshiped the way that some people do rock stars, or by friends or family, tokens of love and appreciation from those who have meant a great deal to me at different stages of my life. Here, I wanted to share the kept volumes that mean the most to me.

My copies of Little Women and Heidi were given to me by my nana, who passed away when I was fourteen. A former math teacher and seamstress, she always stressed the importance of books and stories.

The copy of The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore that adorns my shelf is fairly new, having been bought by my mom in December, 1997 – the winter before she died. I can't be certain why she felt the impulse to buy a children's book, but I assume it was the same reason that I occasionally buy new copies of the books I loved as a child. In the front, she wrote her name and the date.

My younger brother gave me Charlotte's Web on my 10th birthday, drawing a fat pink birthday cake with ten candles on the inside cover. A piece of the book's cover has since been ripped off and I have no recollection of how that happened. But I still love this copy of the E.B. White classic for the fact that my sibling, very young at the time, was already so thoughtful.

When I became obsessed with Sylvia Plath's life and poetry in a community college English class, my best friend at the time gave me a nifty, green-and-gray hardcover edition of The Bell Jar and jotted a little note inside.

And then there are the books I've had signed by the authors. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie was signed when I attended his reading at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, Illinois back in 2007, I believe. Sadly, I didn't get a chance to actually talk to him while he was signing it – it was done in a sort of assembly-line fashion. We gave our books, with our names on little sheets of paper tucked inside, to B&N employees who gave them to Alexie to sign and then brought them back to us. Nevertheless, just having it made me happy.

My former, Pulitzer nominated professor, Luis Alberto Urrea (probably one of the best teachers I've ever had) signed my copy of his book, The Devil's Highway for me and drew a little cactus inside.

And both, my copy of Valencia and my copy of The Chelsea Whistle were signed by Michelle Tea from two different Sister Spit performances at my favorite Chicago bookstore, Women & Children First.

One of those nights, I also had my picture taken with the author.

And then there are the nifty used books I've taken into my loving care: a beautifully bound copy of Emily Dickinson's poems or this old copy of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get The Blues with an inscription inside that I can't help but wonder about. It reads: “To Billy from your first mate on the ship of life. Hahahohoheehee.”

There are other books, too – copies of favorites I've bought to cheer myself up during a difficult time, books given to me that I never thought I'd like and ended up loving, books that were birthday or Christmas/Yule gifts, books that were such a surprise to find for cheap or free at bookstores, bargain sales, etc. Always, always I will look forward to the books to come – books to treasure and love, because they will forever be my favorite gift.

Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library. You can read her regular blog at

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Review: Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard - by Little Willow

Once upon a time, there were five little girls. These little girls were very different, but they still became friends. Best friends forever . . . or so they thought. One night in middle school, after a slumber party, one little girl - Alison, the most manipulative and controlling of the group - disappeared, and the four girls who were left behind - Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer - became Pretty Little Liars.

By the time they reach high school, the girls are no longer close. Everyone still knows everyone else's business, of course, that's how their suburb operates, but they don't socialize. Each girl excels at something, be it art, athletics, or fashion. Each girl looks to be leading a happy, healthy life, but each girl is also hiding something from her friends and family - something she thinks no one else knows.

Then messages start appearing on cell phones or computer screens, short notes threatening to spill their precious little secrets. All of the messages are signed by "A." But who is it? Is it one of them, or is Alison back? How does whoever it is know all that's going on behind closed doors?

These books are addictive. Really addictive. Other than the first book, every book in the series has had a one-word title, but they could also be titled "I Know What You Did Last Summer, Gossip Girl." Seriously. Lying, cheating, murder, shoplifting, eating disorders, bad choices, deadly consequences - these books have it all.

Each of the girls has a distinct look and personality (and it should be noted the depictions on the covers of the books fit them perfectly) but they are not cookie-cutter rich girls. Author Sara Shepard has taken what could be yet another story about superficial girls and twisted it, making it into a dark mystery saturated with guilty pleasures that will intrigue older teens and adult readers.

The books should be read in order:
Pretty Little Liars

These books inspired the television show Pretty Little Liars on ABC Family.

Read the interview with Sara Shepard here.

(this review was originally posted at

In real life, Little Willow is an actress, singer, dancer, and writer, but online, she is known primarily as a freelance journalist and webdesigner. For book reviews, booklists, author interviews, and more, please visit her book blog, Bildungsroman:
If you are interested in hiring her to design your website, please email littlewillow(at)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Vampire Chic: Revisiting Poppy Z. Brite's Vampires - by Louise Tripp

First of all, I want to say that I realize I am a little behind in talking about the Twilight saga. I should explain, but it's a bit embarrassing. You see, I was and am a bit in love with the series. Okay, more than a bit. For several months, I was so deeply engrossed in these books that I would actually spend time in therapy gushing over their contents and characters (my therapist being about the only other respectable, intelligent person I could find with whom I could share this mad addiction). I can see that just admitting to this has probably lost me the respect and attention of half my audience already. You're walking out the door as I speak. Shutting your browser. Writing me off. I've actually avoided the topic like the plague seeing how so much of the intellectual community just about seethes and writhes around at the mere mention of the series or their author. The few times I've let it slip about my rather severe addiction, I've gotten people coming out of the woodwork just to snark and sneer or to check if I was drunk or something.


Nevertheless, I thought I'd give stepping outside my anxiety a shot in order to clear the air and talk about a pre-Twilight vampire novel. Unlike the well-known, for-teens saga, this lesser-known book was brim full of gorgeous, sensuous sentences about New Orleans, the goth scene, North Carolina and some of the most vicious vampires ever to grace a page.

When I was just a teenager, I came across a blurb in the now-defunct (and much beloved) Sassy magazine on a budding writer whose former resume included being an exotic dancer and caring for the mice in a cancer lab. The red haired Louisiana-born, North Carolina-raised writer was named Poppy Z Brite and at the time, she was penning gothic horror novels with plenty of blood and gore – not to mention, gay sex. As a cult author, Brite mostly stayed on the indie fringe of literary fame – unlike Stephenie Meyer’s ubiquitous vampire series, flocks of teen girls did not swoon over her characters. Just the occasional weirdo, like me.

Lost Souls, my personal favorite Brite book, like the Twilight series (spoiler alert!), included a bloody birth that posed a threat to the womb – a vampire baby ripping its way out. But besides vampires and their spawn, the two don't share much in common. Brite, who has long-since given up writing about vampires in favor of queer chefs and pre-Katrina New Orleans, has always been able to turn a phrase that practically bled (no pun intended) with color and details so vivid, they're almost brutal. In Lost Souls, her debut novel, Brite takes us to New Orleans and fictitious Missing Mile, North Carolina (Brite herself spent part of her childhood in Chapel Hill, North Carolina) and introduces us to a landscape of dirt roads and climbing kudzu, to lush descriptions of color and heat. Brite's writing is very visual. One early snippet tells of Mardi Gras in Louisiana:

"Strings of bright, cheap beads hang from wrought iron balconies and adorn sweaty necks."

Brite is also sardonically witty at times:

"The child who finds a pink plastic baby in his slice will enjoy a year of good luck. The baby represents the infant Christ and children seldom choke on it. Jesus loves the little children."

The title of Lost Souls refers to a band formed by two recurring characters in Brite's early novels: Ghost and Steve. Their band Lost Souls? plays goth music to a crowd of disenfranchised youth, often clad in black and obsessed with the supernatural (much like me in my adolescence). Ghost is clairvoyant – powerfully so – and Steve is deeply troubled, to put it mildly, just out of a relationship with a woman named Ann and sorting through his anger issues. Other characters of vital importance include a boy named Nothing who is bookish, sad and looking for somewhere to belong (though he hangs out with a crowd of bisexual punk rockers, who he occasionally fools around with, he still feels empty – oh, the plight of the goth boy!). There is Wallace, who is still coming to terms with the fact that his daughter is never coming back – not to mention that vampires exist. Finally, there are the vampires themselves: Christian, who owns a bar in New Orleans, drinks chartreuse and only reluctantly feeds on human blood. Zillah, Molochai and Twig, more malevolent vampires, also roam the fringe of the story, all too happy to kill for survival. In Brite's world, vampires do not become so by being "turned." Instead, they are a completely different species – sometimes able to mate with humans, always able to feed on humans, but not able to change humans into vampires.

These days, you can still find Poppy Z. Brite updating about her recent projects (writing and other) and her chef husband's restaurant at her Livejournal. Writer Harlan Ellison once said that her "talent gives off thermo nuclear vibes." Even now, long after her vamps have been put to rest, I'd have to agree.
Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Dorothy Allison - by Ammie Brod

There are a lot of reasons I read books. I read to learn new things, to relax and distract my mind, but also to keep my brain on its toes; I read because it’s fun but also for the sheer joy of feeling words resonate inside of my head. There are also a lot of types of books that I enjoy—scientific narratives, history, poetry, cookbooks, and novels have all fallen prey to my restless and roving eye. But the things that stay with me the longest, the ones that keep me up at night and make me clench my teeth together because goddamn, they have this feeling to them that I’ve never been able to define as anything other than a feeling of truth. I don’t mean nonfiction; the feeling I’m talking about defies genre. I secretly (or not so secretly now, I suppose) believe that you can tell when something has been written from a true place, when there is no bullshit going on, when the person who was writing was speaking from somewhere inside of themselves that they absolutely believe in and so was able to let down some of the walls between themselves and the outside world. True writing feels vulnerable, but at the same time it’s so unbearably strong.

A few years ago I picked up a copy of Dorothy Allison’s completely lovely book of short stories, Trash, at a used book sale. I’d read the book years earlier in college, a time in my life where I perhaps unfortunately read a number of fantastic books and failed to understand them in almost any way; I was a very literal reader, trained by my public education to find symbolism irritating and the beauty of prose ignorable to the point where I read Lolita and was merely bored and grossed out instead of shattered into pieces by Nabokov’s writing. Graduating from college was probably the best thing that ever happened to my reading life. Anyway, so I picked up this vaguely-remembered book and brought it home, and damn if it didn’t break my heart in the best way possible.

Reading Dorothy Allison is a very specific feeling for me. The word I want to use is bitter: reading Dorothy Allison is the taste of crushed aspirin, acrid and lingering, something you can feel in your bones long after you’ve swallowed it down. When I read her in college she scared me, and so it’s no surprise that one of the stories I remembered best from my early perusal of Trash was a series of vignettes about food and relationships titled A Lesbian Appetite; it was a favorite in large part because I remembered it having an element of humor that was more apparent than it is in many of the other stories. Now I realize that Allison is often funny, just in a way that makes you want to bite your tongue until you draw blood.

A Lesbian Appetite was not as humorous as I remembered it, or rather the humor had more depth, more edge. The story mixes food and sex in a way that is so visceral and violent and sensual that I can’t think of anything else I’ve read that raises such conflicting feelings of hunger and anger, want and rage and denial. It's specifically about the food that poor white trash Southerners eat and how terrible and wonderful it is at the same time. You can taste what she's writing about—the bacon fat, the bubbling gravy, the biscuits, the pan-fried green tomatoes—and in between the reminisces about her mother's cooking, she talks about her lovers and the food that they either ate together or didn't, and the sex they had, or not. There's a scene that I love where the health-food girlfriend is forcing the narrator to slice and salt eggplant, and the narrator starts rubbing eggplant slices all over her to salt it with her sweat, and they have sex and fry the eggplant up with garlic and tomatoes and eat it together. It just... It makes me want to eat and have sex and lick grease off of my fingers. I want that salt and sweat, that laughter and tender force and finally the flesh and sharp tang of tomatoes in my mouth.

But what really gets me is this food nostalgia that she writes about. The food that she ate as a child and young woman is, in many ways, still reflected in negative ways in her present-day body. She has numerous health problems caused by her former diet; in fact, one section of the story details how, after a seventh-grade teacher informs her class that the children of the poor are lacking in intelligence because they are deprived of vitamin D in childhood and it keeps their brains from developing properly, she starts obsessively eating dairy to try and catch up, to make her brain strong so she can get out of where she is. Twenty years later, a doctor tells her she has a slight dairy allergy that has caused her to have an ongoing stomach problem, and she just laughs and laughs.

But despite all of this, despite the wreckage caused in her body, she daydreams and dream-dreams about the food of her childhood, about baking biscuits and cooking beans with onions and pork fat and the sweat on her mother's neck when she prepares these things, about how she knows how to make these foods but she can’t because, well, she is living a different life in a different place. But she wants them. There is such a sensory glut of taste and scent and smell that I feel a longing for these foods I’ve never tasted, just so I can think of them that poignantly. I remember being vegan and home for Thanksgiving and how hard that was, and I think about all the vegetarians I know who still eat turkey that one day of the year, and I think about the power of comfort food. It's so wired into our heads, what we do and don't want to eat and why. What we eat is literally a part of us, not only our bodies but our minds, our tongues, our sense of the past and our position in the present. It ties us into who we are. It’s family and geography and history, and sometimes you just want that taste on your tongue to remind you of who you are.

Ammie Brod spent most of her childhood trying to come up with a profession that would allow her to do nothing but read all day, but when that failed to pan out she became a classical musician and florist instead. Her fifteen minutes of fame, now passed, involved a google image search for the phrase "naked girls and me." You can read more of her writing at

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The New Sweet Valley - by Jessica DiMaio

Since discovering that Random House is reissuing (as well as revamping) the Sweet Valley High books, I am going through a major bout of junior high series nostalgia. I remember my very first Sweet Valley was Sweet Valley Twins #2, the one where the sixth grade twins take ballet class and the teacher likes Elizabeth better because she's the nice one and Jessica is a brat and it's totally unfair because Jessica is a better dancer. The ghostwriter stresses that Jessica really is the better dancer, and how when she dances, suddenly she is transported to a world of fluffy pink clouds. Then by the next book, she's over it and doing something else, probably going to extra meetings of the Unicorn Club. In any case, this was my gateway to Sweet Valley. My mom bought me Sweet Valley High #1 when I was sick. I don't know if she realized what she was getting me into. I got made fun of a lot when I was a kid for reading all the time, but my Sweet Valley collection was still the envy of my class.

Now the twins are back, poised to compete with the Gossip Girl books, and whatever other crappy series about snotty rich kids is popular right now. I found teaser chapters and it's just bizarre to read. SVH was as 80s as you can get, and I can't wrap my mind around Elizabeth writing a blog instead of a newspaper column, and Jessica glued to her cell phone. Of course, the big controversy right now is that the perfect twins have gone from a size 6 to a size 4. This has pissed a lot of people off, but I think the furor is a bit silly. These are the fucking Wakefield twins, people! All these books ever did was beat you over the head with how flawless they were. The sun-dappled blonde hair that never needed highlights or got dried out from swimming in the ocean, the aquamarine eyes that did things like "dance" and "sparkle" and "shine", the perfect tan skin, the one lone dimple in the left cheek. You all know the drill, say it with me!

Honestly, when reading the updated chapter, what stood out to me is that the in-depth analysis of their amazing beauty was shortened a lot. The prose is much less flowery. Yes, they still make it as clear as they can that these girls are goddesses on earth, but it's down to one paragraph instead of three pages. I get the feeling that the 11 yr old girls who will be reading these now are okay with sizing, but would really gag on the Odes to Wakefields that we lapped up at that age. Another thing I noticed was how much younger they seem. When I was a kid, I knew the characters were 16, but they felt much older than that, more like mid-20s. Reading the new chapters, they really do seem 16, and these days 16 is like a baby to me. Is this because I've gotten older? Or is it because the new ghostwriters are a bit more savvy with teen-speak than the ones in the 80's were? The previous Wakefields were always more of an adult's idea of a teenager than an actual teenager.

Mostly I'm wondering if they're actually re-writing the whole series from top to bottom, or if they're just going to do that with the first few books before moving on to some new plotlines after that. Those books had some pretty 80's-tastic moments that I don't think would translate to Millenials. Like remember when Jessica decided she wanted to look different from Elizabeth and she dyes her hair black? (A plot twist held very dear to every girl with dark hair, by the way.) Not only does she dye it black, but she suddenly decides that she's French and uses bad French phrases as much as she can. She goes shopping with Lila Fowler and buys horrendous outfits that include a lot of leopard print and snakeskin. She only eats salads, which isn't necessarily a bad thing since everyone in Sweet Valley only consumed burgers and shakes from the Dairi Burger (size 6, my ass!). I'm wondering if in the updated version, Jessica will be emo instead of French. Maybe she'll start wearing all black and sit in her chocolate-colored room listening to the Droids and cutting 1BRUCE1 into her arm.

And will there be sex in this new series? I know nothing about the Gossip Girl books, but I'm assuming those girls are getting around the bases more than Jess and Liz ever did. Sweet Valley relationships started and ended with kissing. Kissing that read like sex. Long, lingering kisses that made toes curl and hair stand on end and body parts tingle (not those body parts though). With kisses like that, who needs sex? Even boy-crazy Jessica never let anyone get to second base. Hell, Todd was lucky that Liz even let him get to first base. It's up to debate if she ever let him slip her some tongue. Not that he would have tried, the wuss.

I stopped reading them about the time I got to high school. It would have been too embarrassing to walk around as a 14 yr old with SVH #145. Plus I was done with all series books by that time anyway. I was tired of Every Single Book spending five pages telling me in great detail how knock-out gorgeous the Wakefield twins were "but that's where the similarity ended!" I was tired of Jessica's personality swinging from shallow bitch to loving sister from book to book. I was sick to death of Elizabeth and Todd. Personality wise I should have identified more with Elizabeth...the shy, sensible writer...but she was so boring and preachy and acted like a 45 year old in a (fabulously flawless) 16 yr old body. Jessica was a sociopath, but at least she was fun to read about. I also hated how they never left junior year of school. It wouldn't have bothered me so much if Francine Pascal's legions of ghostwriters hadn't kept slipping in multiple Christmases and proms and Halloweens and other major events that apparently happen 13 times a year in Sweet Valley. Yes, eventually the books graduated the twins to senior year and even college, but that was well into the 90's and I had moved on to Weetzie Bat.

I read an interview with Francine Pascal a few years back in Bust magazine that made me like her. One thing that always bothered me about FP is that before "creating" Sweet Valley, she wrote some books that were actually good. Remember these? Hanging Out With Cici, My First Love and Other Disasters, and Love and Betrayal and Hold the Mayo. These books center on Victoria, who is the polar opposite of a Wakefield. It's told in 1st person, so you never hear about Victoria being this 14 yr old bombshell. She just moans about her chicken legs and her knobby knees and her hair that never comes out right and her greasy skin and the huge pimple she just got. She fights with her mom, makes a fool of herself in front of boys she likes, stays out late and goes "too far" (wink and nudge), gets drunk at parties and even smokes a little pot. After finding those at the library, I couldn't handle the airbrushed world of Sweet Valley anymore. I wondered what the hell happened to Francine Pascal to make her sell out so hard. But in the interview, she actually comes across as a pretty down to earth person. I think she knows the books are terrible, but they made her a mint, so what can you do? She even made fun of Todd, calling him boring. Paraphrasing: "So we got rid of him and gave Elizabeth a new boyfriend who was just as boring. But all the readers wanted us to bring back the first boring one, so we did." Damn! New respect for Francine! I guess that sums up Sweet Valley if you think about it...the readers are really the ones in control. If they miss Todd, the Captain Cardboard of Sweet Valley, he will move back home from Vermont, even if there was a Super Special edition in which he and Liz decided to just be friends. If they think Jessica is too bitchy, she will tone down, until they decide she's gotten boring, in which she'll get her bitch on again. If they're not going to buy that these "perfect" girls are a size 6 when Lindsey Lohan is a size 0, by god, the twins will drop a size!

Jessica DiMaio read far too many trashy series novels when she was a kid, and now enjoys reading other people's snarky nostalgia blogs about them.
You can read more of her stuff at

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday Favorites: Pam Conrad's Taking The Ferry Home - by Louise Tripp

  Each summer, from the time I was 13 until into my twenties, I found myself on an island. Dune Island, populated by the kind of people who own summer homes and the kind of people who worked for summer homeowners. The setting of Taking The Ferry Home by Pam Conrad, a New York-born writer. I stumbled upon the book on one of my regular trips to the library in the next town over, drawn in by its almost mysterious cover: one girl with a faraway look sits on the grass in the foreground. Another stands at a distance in the background with the skirt of her dress blowing in the wind, a pristine Cape Cod-style house and shadowy trees behind her. To my thirteen year old self, the cover echoed with loneliness. It was electric with sorrow – I could just feel it – and it struck a chord with me, I had to read it.

It begins with a girl named Alison who has elected to join her father at a cottage he's rented as a writer's getaway – he's a novelist – and on her first night, she sneaks into the neighbors' pool. It's their summer home and Alison assumes they won't be arriving until later, so she can take one quick dip. There she meets Simone, their daughter, who is “beautiful, completely beautiful, and she wasn't even nice.” Their encounter leaves Alison “choked with jealousy,” but as the story goes, the rich girl gets what she wants and what Simone wants is for she and Alison to be friends. So begins the tale of a very “fragile friendship,” as the book's bright green back-cover declares.

Simone Silver is not a one-dimensional character, though – not in the least. In fact, when I look back at all the times I've read Taking The Ferry Home, I am struck by Simone as the character whom I feel the most compassion for and kinship with. She's many-faceted: ravishing, privileged and yet, haunted by a traumatic event from her childhood. She reads Tarot cards and makes bracelets of shells, listens to Springsteen (even now, when I hear “Dancing In The Dark,” I think of it as her song). Darkly, quietly troubled characters have often bewitched me in a way that your run-of-the-mill dysfunctional protagonist could not quite pull off. Conrad manages to create a rich, engrossing character who mostly lives in her own head (something I've been trying to manage for close to a decade to little avail). I wanted to know Simone, let her read my fortune and string up shells for me.

The water was a character all its own. It churns, black and murky, beneath the ferry that takes Ali and Simone around Dune Island. The first summer I read it, I dreamed of being on that island – that island, with all its secrets and sadness. I dreamed of water and even had a bookmark with a picture of foamy waves lapping at the sand.

For me, my real passion for books – the kind of books I read now, anyway – begins with Taking The Ferry Home. Pam Conrad died of breast cancer in 1996, at the age of 48, but this one of her many books for children and young adults transformed my life. It will always remain in my list of favorites because it's one of those that formed who I am and how I want to write. Perhaps another re-reading is long overdue.

Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Book Cover of the Week - by Louise Tripp

Working as a shelver in a public library, I tend to derive a certain amount of glee from book covers that make me giggle. More often than not, pulp novels are the objects of my amusement. For instance, this one: Another Kind of Love by Paula Christian. The blurb on the back begins with this telling sentence:
"The moment Laura Garraway shares a forbidden kiss with Hollywood starlet Ginny Adams, she discovers a missing piece of herself."

It goes on to describe the "cigarette-and-martini-drenched gay bars of the Village." Oh, yes.

Is it just me or does the cover remind you of the female characters from Mad Men?

Challenge: Recreate this cover in photographs and I'll post it here next week.

Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Beach Reads: Completed Summer Reading (So Far...) - by Louise Tripp

This week I managed to complete another book on my year-long reading list and it turned out to be a really wonderful book for the summer, being set at a beach-front vacation home. Rescuing Patty Hearst by Virginia Holman is a memoir that takes place very near where I grew up, in a city that I, in fact, have spent a great deal of time: Virginia Beach, Virginia. A scene in which she, her sister and her mother are driving through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel was especially familiar.

We are inside the tunnel. It's a filthy place, like a big yellow-tiled bathroom with soot on the walls and bad lighting. I wonder if the tunnel ever leaks and how I will get out if it begins to flood.

I couldn't help feeling a sense of recognition when I came to this; I, too, used to get frightened traveling through the tunnel. I, too, used to wonder about the water leaking through. Truth be told, I still do, though it's been almost six years since I've been there.

This is not the only part of the book in which Holman's prose feels dead-on, though. Even when I couldn't relate per se, I could completely empathize. Though the back cover and the critic blurbs on the book boast of its incredible portrayal of schizophrenia – Virginia's mother, in the summer of '75, began showing signs of the illness- it is actually about a child's eye view of life as she grows up in a world of unreliable adults. It begins with her mother stealing her and her baby sister, Emma away to the family beach house in Kechotan, Virginia. She believed that she was being called upon to set up a hospital for orphans in preparation for the “secret war” to come. In reality, the author's mother was hearing voices. There at their vacation home, she enlisted her eldest daughter to help sanitize their surroundings and paint the windows black. All the while, to their closest neighbors (Holman's uncle and aunt and their children), she tries to appear normal.

Virginia Holman's novel spends much of the time showing how such a young girl makes sense of her mother's acute illness: at one point, she thinks that if she could be baptized it would clear away her sins and make her life (and subsequently, her mother's life) okay again. While it probably sounds depressing, it's actually a story fill of hope and eventual compassion for the mother who made life a nightmare for her children and husband. And there is much light through the cracks – beautifully written scenes of Holman and her cousins running around the beach, picnics with the family during the good times, a thrilling, terrifying description of a hurricane and more. Holman's memoir of resilience is definitely worth the read.

Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Teen Scene: My Favorite YA Fiction - by Louise Tripp

It's no secret that I enjoy reading (and writing) young adult fiction. I've often been asked to recommend teen fiction and so I thought: why not compile a list of some of the best YA novels I've ever read? Without further ado, a few of my favorite things ( that you can find in the "teen" or "young adult" section of your local library or bookstore).
  1. Taking The Ferry Home by Pam Conrad – My all-time favorite teen novel that I must have read fifty or so times, it takes place on an island where two girls – one priviledged, one the daughter of a recovering alcoholic novelist – spend the summer keeping secrets from each other. Evocative language and one character's dark past make this an especially memorable novel. (More to come in this Friday's Friday Favorites column).

  2. The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Pop culture, letter-writing, mixed tapes, Rocky Horror. All of these serve as a backdrop for Stephen Chbosky's novel about being socially awkward and the secrets we keep, even from ourselves.

  3. Girl by Blake Nelson – Another of those books I've read on repeat, Girl tells the story of Andrea Marr and her discovery of thriftstores and grunge rock in '90's Portland, Oregon. The narrative voices is a pitch-perfect copy of authentic teen-speak, with lots of "and thens" and a barrage of supporting characters – an incredibly fun, smart novel.

  4. LESBIAN FICTION – Okay. I know, I know. This is not just one novel, but a slew of them. Or rather, a group – I wouldn't say "slew" as that would seem to indicate there are a lot. Teen lesbian fiction is few and far between (and most are "coming out" stories). I happen to think there need to be more. Here, in this sub-category, are a few I think are the best: (1) Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden– Because it is a classic. Because it was banned. Because no one dies or gets beaten or raped. Because neither character decides she'd be better off with a guy. Because it is a wonderful novel about two girls who fall in love. (2) Keeping You A Secret- One of those aforementioned coming out stories, this one follows Holland as she realizes her sexuality after meeting already-out teen Cici. She dumps her boyfriend and turns her world upside down to be with a girl. Things aren't perfectly rosy by the end, but there's a feeling of hope that sticks with you and it's written by one of my current favorite YA fiction authors, Julie Anne Peters. (3) Hello Groin – Protagonist realizes she's in love with her best friend and spends the book trying to hide it, only to find out by the end that – spoiler alert! - her best friend is in love with her, too. Written in thoughtful, believable prose by Beth Goobie, who uses the novel Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates as a device for her young characters to discuss and discover who they are. (4) The Cat Came Back by Hilary Mullins – Released in 1993, this was one of the first teen lesbian novels I ever read. Written in a diary format, it follows a girl named Stevie who attends a Connecticut boarding school and is having an affair with Rik, a teacher. He's using her, of course. Meanwhile, a new girl on her hockey team, Andrea has made an impression on her. Before long and through her feelings for Andrea, Stevie finds herself able to ditch Rik. (5) The Bermudez Triangle – A group of three friends who have grown up together loses one of their threesome to an academic camp for the summer. While she's away, the other two...shall we say hook up? (6) Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger – This one comes in at #6 only because it is more about a boy named John than it is about his lesbian friend, Marisol, but it's a terrific book. John falls in love with his Puerto Rican zinester best friend, who is, unfortunately, not that into him – because she likes girls. (7) Far From Xanadu – Another from Julie Anne Peters, this tells the story of a tomboy named Mike (yes, Mike's a girl) who falls in love with the new girl in town, Xanadu. Xanadu likes the attention she gets from Mike, but really likes guys. It's a sad, all-too-common story – bi-curious teen girl pretends to be into gay girl and then, not-so-much (and people wonder why that ubiquitous Katy Perry song makes me so irate!) – and the characters in Peters' novel are, as always, entirely realistic and relatable. AND that ends my shameless plug for the best teen lesbian fiction I know of. More to come, I hope.

  5. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume – Queen of the teen novels, Blume has managed to shape the lives and formative years of pretty much every woman I have ever met. These are probably the two of her books that had the most profound effect on me, personally (though I remember snippets of several of her other books as well – Just As Long As We're Together and Forever come to mind). In Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, the title character stumbles into puberty longing for her period to start and her boobs to grow (anyone else recall "we must, we must, we must increase our busts?). Here, Blume mixed humor with real-girl worries about being "normal" and I don't know anyone who couldn't, in some way, relate. Tiger Eyes was somewhat darker. A girl named Davey is grieving the loss of her father, who was shot and killed in a convenience store robbery. Following the funeral, depressed Davey spends a great deal of time in bed (in discussing the book with my sister a few years ago, we found that we both most remembered a snippet of narration in which Davey describes how she has come to like her own unwashed scent). Feeling a change of scenery is in order, Davey's mother moves the family to New Mexico. There, Davey feels more alone and her only friend for awhile is an alcoholic girl – but what's especially interesting is that Davey goes to work as a candy striper in a wing of the hospital mostly used to care for the terminally ill. Interesting because it seems a way of dealing with death that forces a person to face it, too, and in the barest way possible. I recall the tone of Tiger Eyes being sad, but hopeful and Blume's language is lovely, crafted so as to expose the world in the distilled way that teenagers see it.

  6. I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier – From the beginning, Cormier's novel is mysterious and fast-paced. The protagonist is riding his bike "furiously" and immediately there is the sense that he is fleeing something. The story comes together in flashbacks as it approaches a surprise ending that, when I was young, I recall taking my breath away. 

  7. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levathan – A more recent read for me, Cohn and Levathan tell a "he said, she said" story of two snarky, music-obsessed teenagers out on the town, trying to locate their favorite band and forget their terrible exes. It's one of those books that makes you (or, at least, me) wish to be younger again, out on the dance floors and streets of the city until sunrise and just getting to know someone who, in an instant, you know will change your life.

  8. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld – I read this last year and was blown away by the intelligent, original story. Central character Tally lives in a future where, until their sixteenth birthday, people are known as "uglies" because they have not yet undergone the operation to make them "pretty" (which, in their world, means their faces are perfectly symetrical and everyone looks about the same). The collective logic is that it will make everyone equal – no one will be treated differently for not being as beautiful as someone else. But then Tally becomes friends with a girl who wants to forego the operation and join a hidden resistance – and she begins to question what it means to be "ugly" and "pretty" and why the government forces the operations in the first place. Uglies is a heart-pounder and feels almost cinematic (I would love to see it made into a feature film).

  9. The Pigman by Paul Zindel – To this day I can find no other author who understands what it means to be a weirdo better than Zindel does and if I'm going to get personal, I should say that this was the first book ever that I can remember making me cry. I remember finishing it up in my parents’ kitchen back in North Carolina, my vision blurred by tears, feeling a love like I'd never felt for a piece of writing before. Mind you, I was 12 – but I read a lot as a child. In this one, Lorraine and John are high school misfits – he sets bombs in the school bathroom, she feels estranged from her own mother, who works long hours. Together, the two play pranks, one of which leads them to a lonely old man who collects ceramic pigs. Before long, Lorraine, John and Mr. Pignati are friends – he's the only adult they've ever trusted. Oddly enough, they are the ones who betray his trust.

  10. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson – I read Speak during one of my life's rough patches and the character really spoke to me – no pun intended. It's both, touchingly funny and painfully grim and begins with a girl named Melinda on the first day of high school. She talks to no one, makes references to how her friends are still not speaking to her and observes how everyone around her seems to be clueless, hypocritical or liars. As her story unfolds, we get bits and pieces of a puzzle that come together to form an agonizing truth – the reason why she no longer had friends...and another underlying truth that leads to the dark secret she's keeping. 

    Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library.