Review: ‘The Broken Earth’ Series

I did not know what to expect when I started The Broken Earth series, but I was not disappointed. The series started popping up on my Bookstagram feed (@keepitkassual) in the late spring, and I knew that it was something I needed to get my hands on!

The glossy Hugo Award pictured on each cover is more than well-deserved. Author N.K. Jemisin presents some of the best storytelling that I have ever read with shifting points of view and poetic, poignant prose. You are constantly on the edge of your seat as you read, concentrating on every word as you learn about Essun and her story.

 

The first novel, The Fifth Season, starts with the statement that the world is ending. The story begins at the start of a Season, a series of catastrophic climatic changes that the inhabitants must survive through. We learn that the protagonist, Essun, lives in the Stillness, a supercontinent, and has just found her three-year-old son, Uche, dead in her living room. Her husband, Jija, and her daughter Nassun, have vanished. She knows that Jija has killed their son and taken Nassun, and she knows why. Jija has learned their secret: They are orogenes.

Orogenes are a specific race within the Stillness with a power called sessapinae, giving them the ability to control tectonic activity within the earth. Also referred to as the derogatory term, roggas, orogenes are oppressed, feared, and hated beings; they are seen as the “Other” within the Stillness. Essun, an orogene herself, kept this secret from Jija. She believes that Jija has taken Nassun somewhere to kill her, so she sets forth to find them and seek revenge on Jija. That is the premise of the story. Essun’s quest to find her daughter. What readers are presented with is so much more, however.

What I liked about The Broken Earth series was that the books shed light on many important social topics, including environmentalism (the Earth seeking revenge on the beings that destroyed it), systemic racism, and classism. The books aren’t just limited to those themes, however. They also explore individualism, resistance, LGBTQ relationships, and gender equity. These topics are important, and they are impeccably intertwined throughout the books.

The first book was my favorite, for it seemed the most organized.  I enjoyed the shifting points of view. Essun’s story is told in the second point of view, so, you, the reader, are Essun. You are the protagonist. The Fifth Season also follows the stories of Damaya and Syenite, two other orogenes. The ending of the book will leave you feeling exhausted and duped … but in a good way.

The Obelisk Gate has the one thing that a reader of the fantastic enjoys: world-building. Hundreds of pages of it. So much that it almost came across as disjointed and hard to follow. This might be because I don’t enjoy lengthy world-building, but it’s high fantasy, so I should have been prepared for it. I do read and enjoy Tolkien, don’t I? He loves to talk about trees. 

The Stone Sky, the final book, can be read quickly because you don’t want to put it down once you start. Jemisin’s writing is entrancing. The mother-daughter struggle is profound as you discover that Nassun’s powers go beyond what Essun could have ever imagined. This difficulties that they face stretches to the very end. The finale is truly heart-wrenching and fast-paced. You’ll finish feeling heartbroken yet satisfied. You will find yourself experiencing a complex array of emotions. That’s because it’s such a complex series.

In The Broken Earth series, Jemisin presents readers with the following question:

What are we willing to sacrifice to avoid positive change?

The Broken Earth series is a profound glimpse into our present and our future. It’s important now, more than ever, to have conversations about climate, race, and human rights. We must make sustainable change. We have to save our world.

. . . . .

N.K. Jemisin was the first writer to win three consecutive Hugo best novels awards for science fiction and fantasy. As a Black writer within the fantastic genre, her books feature strong Black characters struggling and combating important social issues. 

You can learn more about N.K. Jemisin and her work here.

 

 

 

 

How to control the unknown: Journaling during the pandemic

Recently, I rediscovered my love for journaling. I currently have two journals: a bullet journal where I track my bookish creative needs, and another journal where I focus on mental check-ins before bed and other writing.

With the recent pandemic sweeping the globe, I noticed my journaling habits dwindling. I have been glued to my phone, scrolling through Twitter and Facebook to try to make sense of it all. I couldn’t believe what I read, but seeing that everyone was facing the same issues somehow made me feel less alone. The issue with this, of course, is that people don’t always post the most encouraging or factual things on social media, so those notions of connectivity also brought panic, uncertainty, and a lot of anxiety that I could not curb.

I decided to unplug — to only focus on the positive things — and pay more attention to books (more than I already do). I am working to exercise daily, eat healthily, and be mindful of what I can control. I slowly started journaling again, readying myself to write down what I was feeling. I realized that I was avoiding journaling because it was easier to harbor anxiety and fear rather than see it on paper. It’s been a few days now, and I am enjoying the process and act of journaling. It has helped to record my thoughts and activities during this time and work through them rather than avoid them.

I found myself this Sunday morning scribbling in my journal, feeling much like Jo March when she has a moment of inspiration and needs to get it down. I wrote six pages of free prose, mostly detailing what is happening, how I feel, and how my husband and I are coping during these troubling times. I wanted to share some of it with my readers, for I feel like this is how we might all feel. I also want to start sharing more of my writing with others, which takes a lot of courage.

Here are my favorite snippets:

As a homebody, this is certainly a lifestyle that I am used to, but I find myself gripping to my humanity more and more as we encounter outside individuals on our walks or in the grocery stores. As someone who is so introverted, I find myself craving extroversion. Technology is keeping “us” connected through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat…Google Hangout, FaceTime and Zoom and “we” are having virtual Happy Hours and game nights. Families are joining each other for dinner in their respective living rooms. Why haven’t we done this before? Last week, my friends and I got together for a virtual chat. We laughed and caught up. One friend said: “We should have been doing this all the time anyway!” It’s true. Why wouldn’t my friends and I schedule regular time to do this? When we can’t get together physically, why don’t “we” embrace technology and still be together socially?

I hope that we all appreciate the simplicities of greetings: a smile, a handshake, or a “hello, how are you?” as we pass each other on the street. Why did we lose that in the first place? Ian and I went for a walk the other day, and every person looked at us and said “hi,” as if they were also craving that social interaction. Before, we wouldn’t get a glance from half of the people we crossed paths with. Where did humanity go? Does it take us to all be locked in our homes to strive for politeness when someone passes by?

I hope we learn to appreciate each other more — that we continue to take better care of one another and of ourselves. What about our planet? What about appreciating those on the front lines all of the time? Or asking those “what about them?” questions when things go wrong? I hope we don’t lose sight of that — taking care of each other.

After this is over, I hope that we continue to pick up more books, appreciate the small things like getting an iced coffee or an ice cream cone. I hope more people browse bookstores or work to support small businesses. I hope that we call our friends more, FaceTime with our grandparents regularly. I hope that we exercise and crave to go outdoors and take care of it. These things were always options, but now it’s something that we want to do and share.

I hope that we rediscover hobbies during this time- our love of books, favorite movies, playing or creating music. I hope that we are creative – that we paint, write, draw. I hope we are OK if we do none of those things but take time to look within ourselves and know that we are resilient … that we are strong and we can regain control and maintain that control when the world seems to have lost it. I hope we can just “be” and know that if we do anything, it is good enough. Enough with comparing ourselves on social media, thinking that we are not good enough. Enough with the drive for money and the greed to be successful. Can we continue to check in with one another? Can celebrities and musicians continue to share their talents?

I hope we act silly; that we dance. That we come out of this stronger than ever.

I am so excited to see all the creative work that comes from this. I can’t wait to see all the art, read all of the prose, and listen to new music. I hope to create my own work, academic and personal, during this time. I hope to learn how to be OK with my work, breathe slowly and be patient with my craft — to continue being diligent as a writer. I want to be loud; I want to praise others for their talents and help others feel safe and not alone. It’s time to be there for each other.

Interview with Juliet Grames, author of ‘Stella Fortuna’

In November, I met Juliet Grames, author of her debut novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna. We met at an event held in my home state where she talked about her novel and her family. I even had dinner with her! It was an unforgettable experience, further deepening my love for literature and becoming an author.

I read her novel last month and was deeply moved by it. From immigration to feminism, this book has every topic that can interest a reader. There is so much history, and as a Connecticut native, like Juliet, I was interested to learn more about my own family’s emigration to the United States.

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Book synopsis

From Calabria to Connecticut: A sweeping family saga about sisterhood, secrets, Italian immigration, the American dream, and one woman’s tenacious fight against her own fate.

For Stella Fortuna, death has always been a part of life. Stella’s childhood is full of strange, life-threatening incidents—moments where ordinary situations like cooking eggplant or feeding the pigs inexplicably take lethal turns. Even Stella’s own mother is convinced that her daughter is cursed or haunted.

In her rugged Italian village, Stella is considered an oddity—beautiful and smart, insolent and cold. Stella uses her peculiar toughness to protect her slower, plainer baby sister Tina from life’s harshest realities. But she also provokes the ire of her father Antonio: a man who demands subservience from women and whose greatest gift to his family in his absence.

When the Fortunas emigrate to America on the cusp of World War II, Stella and Tina must come of age side-by-side in a hostile new world with strict expectations for each of them. Soon Stella learns that her survival is worthless without the one thing her family will deny her at any cost: her independence.

In present-day Connecticut, one family member tells this heartrending story, determined to understand the persisting rift between the now-elderly Stella and Tina. A richly told debut, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a tale of family transgressions as ancient and twisted as the olive branch that could heal them.

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The interview

How long was this book in the making?
A long time–you could say since 2011, when I first wrote down Stella Fortuna’s name and earnestly started research and note-taking. Or you could say since 1988, when I was five years old and realized I was already haunted by what I didn’t know about my grandmother’s life story. I spent the thirty years in between then and now trying to learn more about her, about the faraway world she came from, and about other immigrant women in her generation, trying to fill in the blanks. In the end, I couldn’t fill them in, so I wrote a novel about a fictional Italian immigrant woman, instead.

Can you talk about your literary pilgrimage to Italy? I know you did a lot of research for this book—how did it change the book itself, and how did it change you?
Yes, I did a lot of research in many different formats, but one of the most important pieces of the puzzle was the month I spent in Ievoli, Calabria, the village where my grandmother was born a hundred years ago. I showed up in Ievoli knowing no one, only with an overwhelming feeling of crazed, high-pressure joy, terrified that my Italian wasn’t good enough, that I would disappoint my grandmother’s legacy, that I’d never be able to reconstruct her life from what she’d left behind so long ago. My terror was unjustified on all counts. I was welcomed with open arms. Total strangers (who turned out to be third cousins, of course–it’s a small village) insisted I live in their home, fed me and drove me around to their favorite sights and introduced me to anyone they could think of who might have helpful information for me. I spent a transformative month absorbing everything I could about their mountaintop lifestyle, their food and folksongs and proverbs and superstitions, and realizing how much of it was already familiar to me, cultural residue of my time with my grandmother. I left knowing so much more about her, and so much more about myself–and knowing I would go back.

Your book is about your family and their struggles. Can you tell me about your experience writing about something so personal?
Although my inspiration for beginning this book was my grandmother–and just as much her sister, my great aunt–it is, in the end, a work of fiction. Because my grandmother was lobotomized when I was five years old, I never felt I understood who she really was as a person before her brain injury, despite the many hundreds of hours I spent with her (she lived to be 98 years old). I tried to write a biography of her many times, but I could never wrap my head around her motives or choices. In the end, I only felt free to write and finish a book inspired by her by inventing a fictional woman to write about instead.

Not only does your book shed light on Italian culture, but it also puts a spotlight on immigration and the struggle that those who emigrated faced (in America and the families back at home). What did you hope to get across writing about this topic?
We are at a pivotal and violent moment in American history. I am especially grieved by the vitriol toward immigrants in the press and among politicians, especially considering the very vast majority of Americans are descendants of immigrants who would not have been allowed legally into the United States under current restrictions. I would dearly love to see us rehumanize the conversation around immigration by remembering our immigrant grandparents and imagining how their–and our–lives would have been altered if they had faced the immigration conditions in place today.

This book is truly a feminist novel. What do you hope readers take away after reading Stella Fortuna about women, specifically women from that era?
Thank you. It would make me happy to know that a reader of my novel was inspired to reappraise their own foremothers–grandmothers, mother, aunts. For those (many) of us with a grandmother who has been written off in family history as mean, boring, aloof, short-tempered, drunk, stingy, or a difficult woman of any specific adjective, I hope the book inspires the question but why? Why was she a difficult woman? Usually, there is a very, very good reason–an untold story of what she went through to survive or protect a loved one.

What was your hardest scene to write?
If you’ve read the book, I bet you can guess. It was so difficult to write that I knew it would be difficult to read, and I struggled mightily over whether to keep it in the text. But the whole reason I wanted to write this book in the first place was to acknowledge the traumas of our foremothers, which are so often buried in order to protect the legacies of our forefathers.

What’s your favorite underappreciated novel?
Oh no, this question is the hardest one here, since when you really love a novel no amount of public appreciation is enough! I’m going to choose The Last Nude by Ellis Avery, set in 1920s Paris, a fictional reimagining of the life of the young American woman who ended up becoming the model for painter Tamara de Lempicka (as well as her lover). It came out in 2011 and I loved it so much I was eagerly awaiting the author’s follow-up–only to find out last spring that she passed away at age 46 of cancer. She was such a powerful and sensitive writer that I hope many others will discover her and feel compelled to spread the word.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I think the most fatal flaw among aspiring writers is getting so caught up in the idea of publishing that they drive themselves into despair, when in fact writing should be an art practice that brings them joy. Publishing and everything to do with it is almost entirely out of a writer’s control–it’s a classic situation of not pinning one’s happiness on third parties. Of course, it took me 15 years of working in publishing to feel this zen about it, but I know intimately how the sausage is made. Whatever else is happening in the world, a writer should need to come back to the page and keep striving to attain their highest artistic ability, whether anyone else ever reads it or not. That’s the real goal of writing.

What’s next on the horizon?
I’m working on a novel set in 1960 in Italy, a crime novel about a naive young woman who travels to an isolated village on a charity mission only to realize that she has vastly underestimated the complexities of the locals’ struggles–ranging from emigration to political corruption to the legacy of World War II on a tiny community–and that she’s being pulled into their drama as a sort of amateur detective.

A giant thank-you to Juliet for the interview. You can learn more about her book (and purchase it) here.

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2020: The year of ‘Self’

Happy New Year, everyone!

I’m a little late to my 2020 theme post. Actually, I’ve been later. Did you notice I didn’t post one last year? Neither did I. I don’t even know if I had a theme in 2019, and it sure did prove to be a tough year for me.

Not only are we welcoming a new year—we are also welcoming a new decade. As I reflect on my life the past 10 years, I see tremendous growth: I met my husband, graduated with an undergraduate degree, traveled to places around the world, had many rewarding jobs, got married, got a cat, went to graduate school, won an alumni award, and rediscovered different hobbies like theater and avid reading and writing. Life has been good to me!

If there’s anything that I’ve learned this past decade, and continue to relearn, is my self-worth. It’s something we all have (not to be confused with self-esteem) and I’ve worked hard to combat those negative thoughts.

What I have noticed throughout the past year is that I have been super negative. From looking in the mirror and picking at my face, my body, and overall image, to writing and calling myself incompetent or worthless, I’ve really pushed myself down this year. I feel as if I can never say a good thing about myself. I’d like for that to change in 2020.

Writing a master’s thesis and starting a new job at the same time is extremely stressful, but they are both very positive things. I’ve become so stressed that I’ve been sick since October. I haven’t been eating well, and I haven’t exercised as much. It’s taken a toll. It’s time I start to become more positive and erase those negative thoughts that constantly swirl in my head telling myself that I am “not enough.” As a perfectionist, these thoughts occur often, and it is affecting my overall health and happiness.

In 2015, I learned that there is a key difference between resolutions and habits. Resolutions just don’t work. If you say you want to eat healthy, you aren’t really creating something that is SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based). If you really want to succeed in your goals for the next year, try to form habits.

In 2016, I took it one step further (all inspired by Gretchen Rubin, a happiness expert) and declared a theme for my year, which was Health. In 2017, I created a theme of Improve, and in 2018, my themes were Perform and Travel. This year, my theme is “Self.”

Coffee, Food, Drink, Hottest, Leaves, Winter, Cold

I was trying to find the perfect word to describe what I wanted to achieve this year, and I found that one of my friends has the same goals for 2020, calling 2020 the year of “Self.” So, inspired by her, that will be my theme!

Now, along with a theme, you must create goals that correspond with that theme. Then, you create SMART habits that will help you achieve your goals.

Here are my goals for Self:

GOAL: Become more mindful: Do you every feel as if your mind doesn’t stop? My mind has raced constantly and I cannot concentrate and complete everything on my to-do list.

Habit: To achieve mindfulness I will use my Stop, Breathe, and Think app once a day and meditate throughout the year.

GOAL: Be organized: From my full-time job and writing my master’s thesis to side gigs and a social life, I have found that I have lost touch with my organizational side (a side I took pride in). I want to be able to juggle all my tasks—from my blog and bookstagram posts (follow me @keepitkassual on Instagram) to my work meetings and academic projects.

Habit: Purchase a monthly/daily planner and a bullet journal and regularly update both items once a week, on Sunday mornings. Sundays will be your day to be organized for the week and start the work week recharged and focused.

GOAL: Prioritize fitness: This one is pretty straightforward. When I exercise, I am not only physically healthy, but mentally healthy. I am energized, confident, and can concentrate and complete my other tasks with a positive attitude.

Habit: Go to the gym 2-3 times a week, incorporating regular strength training with cardio (spinning on Saturdays or using the bikes at the gym on weeknights). I also plan on putting the gym in my planner to hold myself accountable and not move it if other things were to arise.

I am hopeful that these goals will be achieved this year! If I am mentally and physically healthy (mindfulness and exercise), I will feel organized and energized to complete my other tasks. I also hope to prioritize writing not only for my thesis and other academic projects and read slowly, enjoying the books I want to read rather than rushing through them. With the help of achieving these goals, I will truly be able to focus on myself—mind, body, and soul.

What about you? What are your “themes” or goals for 2020? Share in the comments below, and wishing you and yours a Happy New Year!

Goodbye, 2010s: The 20 books that made my decade

It’s hard to believe that we will be saying goodbye to another decade next week, but here we are!

As I sit here thinking back to the books that changed me, my brain did some kind of ping…or boink! I’ve read so many books of all genres and fell more in love with literature (if that was possible!).

In 2014, I earned a Bachelor’s degree in journalism and English, and since 2017, I’ve been working towards earning a Master’s in English, currently spending my “spare time” writing my master’s thesis. The final countdown, or so they say!

I’ve read a lot of books during my academic career—from memoirs to fiction to scholarly articles and theory, I’ve achieved a higher level of awareness about the impact that literature makes on society, and I’m excited to share my work with the world in the future.

Anyways, to the fun part. I wanted to share books that shaped me, made me feel all the feels.

Here they are, in no particular order.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This book changed my perception of race, class, and justice at a very young age. It’s a book I’ve read three times since high school and will continue to press as a book that everyone should read.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Oh, Coraline. Need I say more? Coraline, despite being a dark, spooky book, has helped me when I am in dark moments. Her bravery and cunning strength have inspired me since I was a little girl. She almost made it into my thesis, but I know we will meet again in the academic realm real soon.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
This is one of those books that I read a few years ago that really made an impact. I love the blend of historical fiction with the fantastic. It was a magical book that made me smile and cry and there’s really nothing else to it!

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Mental health, and specifically, how women who struggle with mental illness are treated, has been a topic of fascination to me for some time. I read The Bell Jar for the second time in college, and I’m glad I did and was able to appreciate it more. This book was phenomenal, and I’m glad I get to study it more as I work on a scholarly article this winter.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
This is an important book to fully understand pre- and post-colonialism, cultural difference, masculinity, tradition, and much more. This book is insightful and offered so much opportunity to learn about a world that is entirely different from our own. Perspective, people. Perspective.

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
Speaking of perspective. This book, as the kids say, “shook me.” As a person who never got into the TV show, Atwood’s dystopian novel offers insight into a world that no one ever wants to see. The book explores a totalitarian world where women are subjugated, but they resist and work to establish independence. I actually need to reread this one this year.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
For those who know me outside of the blogosphere, I have trouble shutting up about Little Women. This is my favorite book of all time. Jo March is my favorite literary woman of all time. She also makes an appearance in my thesis as the OG tomboy, the one who really set the standards for a young girl to achieve her dreams. This story is beautiful. I love it so much.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Not a favorite of all time, but what made this book significant is that it is the book that my now-husband and I connected on. In 2010, I was reading this book over winter break and posted a status on Facebook about it. A boy who I thought was super cute commented on my post saying that it was a good read, and then we started talking over IM and text. The rest is history.

Don’t get me wrong—the book is also really good!

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
This book is thought-provoking, tragic, riveting, you name it. It made me sick to my stomach and cry but it also presented beautiful moments of love and hope. Read this book.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
I’ve read the Harry Potter series five or six times in the past decade, and I always find myself enjoying the third book of the series the most. I love the Marauders and wish that Rowling would write an entire series about them. I also love Sirius Black so much it hurts.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Bilbo Baggins is one of the best literary characters ever. Don’t @ me. But seriously, this book has it all. Adventure, courage, fantastic elements, humor, poetry and song. It’s really a masterpiece. And…that’s all I have to say about that (Forrest Gump voice).

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Yes, I’m THAT person who gets mad if you pronounce her name wrong. I read this book for a college course in my undergrad and really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the romance, the heartbreak, the emotions that Anna experienced throughout her journey and her sad train ride. It’s one of those classics that you have to read. Warning: You will lose track of names. It’s inevitable.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
I clapped when I finished this one. Angelou’s books and poetry always overwhelmed me by its poignancy and beauty. What a life she lived. I am in awe of her strength and appreciate her sharing her story. This book helped me understand trauma and how to overcome it and shed light on racism and its history.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
In my latest post, Katniss plays a large role (perhaps a larger role than the other heroines I examine) in my thesis. Katniss and I have always had a strong bond. I’ve loved her since the beginning; her strength and resiliency, and her dedication to her family and friends. I read the entire series in three days instead of wrapping up my finals during my junior year of college. I didn’t regret it then. Still don’t. I am excited to write about her and to even present on her this upcoming March at a national conference in Boston. Lit nerds, unite!

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
I was just discussing this book with another bookworm on Instagram. We were talking about how lucky we are to have books like this one, for it offers a wealth of knowledge about medicine, race, class, and other social issues. This book left a profound mark; it’s a book about injustice and justice. It’s truly fantastic and one of my favorites from Picoult.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
This book was everything I wanted: romance, iconic Hollywood, struggle, triumph, heartbreak, control, and other contemporary issues—it had everything in there. It was one of those books you didn’t want to finish. I discovered Taylor Jenkins Reid this year and I will read all of her books.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This book. Where do I begin? It’s truly a masterpiece. Another young girl that I can relate to in so many ways. Kya is sensitive, intelligent, and resilient. There were twists and turns along with romance and murder. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Educated by Tara Westover
Speaking of one of the best books I’ve ever read. This. Memoir. I even got Ian to read it, and he devoured it in two sittings. This book made me think about my circle of home, and what it could mean to break out of it. Tara’s story is beautifully told, and you wonder how she became the person she is today. There’s no debate. Read it.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Much like Crawdads, I found myself identifying with Leni and aspects of her childhood. I feel like these two books were similar but profound and impactful in different ways. It’s another book about the journey through adolescence with its own twists and turmoil. Leni is one heck of a fighter, and one heck of a good person.

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Y’all saw this coming. I feel like this book was written for me. Historical fiction. 70s rock n roll. Fleetwood Mac. Stardom. Music. Podcast-like dreamy Audible experience? It was truly fantastic. I heard some people struggle with the print version. Pop in those earbuds and turn on the audiobook; you can thank me later.

Did any of my books make your list? Share in the comments!

‘Mastering’ the thesis: A student’s journey

For those who don’t know, I am currently earning my master’s in English—a very rewarding and fulfilling area of study for me. It’s been a whirlwind these past two years; working full time and switching jobs all while going to school full time can be stressful!

My project has many layers, but to simplify it, it focuses on the female heroine in fantasy literature. The fantastic as a genre offers readers the opportunity to explore the impossible, and because of this, authors of this genre are able to introduce readers to worlds beyond our imagination.

The genre itself also opens up doors for protagonists to do what might not be as easy to do in reality. A heroine establishing their autonomy and fighting solely to save the world they live in has unfortunately not been a storyline commonly produced by authors from other genres throughout the centuries. That’s what I ultimately argue; the genre and its elements allow these heroines to be who they truly are.

Since I was a child, I’ve been drawn to fantasy simply because of its availability of heroines. From Lucy and Susan Pevensie to Coraline alike, I have always admired them and been inspired by their valor. Growing up and entering academia, it’s easy to say that feminist theory has been the foundation of my research and a number of research papers at the end of each semester.

So, I spent the summer reading the fantastic (doesn’t that sound awful? ;)). Here’s what I read:

-Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (reread) – Lewis Caroll

-The Princess and the Goblin -George MacDonald

-The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

-A Wrinkle in Time -Madeleine L’Engle

-His Dark Materials -Phillip Pullman

-The Hunger Games (reread) -Suzanne Collins

-The Harry Potter series (reread, focusing on the development of Hermione Granger) -J.K. Rowling

-Coraline (reread) -Neil Gaiman

After reading all of these books (and a billion pages of scholarly articles), I found something inspiring about the heroines depicted in these stories: they all control their narratives (except Meg from A Wrinkle in Time…did anyone like that series?).

I found, overall, that each heroine works to control their narrative in their story and rebel against forces working against them.

I immediately decided that this was my project, but I couldn’t write about every single heroine (at least not yet).

I decided to take a contemporary approach and focus on three beloved heroines: Lyra from His Dark Materials, Hermione from Harry Potter, and Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games.

After more research, I began to dive deeper. I soon discovered that these three heroines not only establish their autonomy in their stories, but they also bend their gender.

I then studied the topic of tomboys and concluded that each Lyra, Hermione, and Katniss display different tomboyish characteristics, therefore separating them from the regular heroine: Katniss, the hunter, and Lyra, the rascal, and Hermione, the bookish and unkempt.

Further, they all own their identities, and even if they sometimes represent femininity in their stories (Lyra being dressed up by her mother, Katniss being dressed up for the Games, or Hermione dressing up for the Yule Ball), they do it as a choice and perform femininity without losing their core, tomboyish essence. They remain in control throughout their stories.

The fantastic offers endless opportunity, and because of the genre, authors can bring these heroines to the forefront; these lovely, amazing, gender-bending, rebellious heroines that we all love so much.

I am now in the final stretch: writing my master’s thesis. This past month, I submitted my first chapter for review.

IMG_4620Right now, I am focusing on my Katniss chapter. I am very excited to write more about one of my favorite heroines (and arguably, one of society’s favorites). And, I’m even more excited to present my project on Katniss at a national conference in Boston this March.

I bet you’re wondering how a person working full time has the time to write a master’s thesis? She doesn’t, folks. She just doesn’t.

It’s been a really tough process. Lots of tears, lots of therapy sessions. It’s hard to leave work and keep that creative energy to last beyond after-work gym sessions or making dinner/spending time with my husband.

It’s hard to say no to plans, to move plans around, or cancel plans to write or research. Heck, it’s hard to sit down and write. But, I wanted to be honest with those who are wondering, and an ally to those who might be going through the same thing as me.

This is what I love to do, and I’m excited to share my love of writing and the topic and genre I love so much with the world.

Thanks for reading! Has anyone taken on a project this large? Any advice? Want to just rant about it to a safe, open space/person? Feel free to comment below!

 

Top 20 books of 2019

As 2019 winds down, I can’t help but be super excited about all the amazing books that I read this year. It was January of this year when I decided to focus more on sharing my love of reading, and what started with me tracking the books I read on my Instagram stories resulted in my “regular” Instagram turning into a Bookstagram account.

Since the summer, I’ve grown over 800 followers by posting engaging and aesthetically pleasing book content. I’ve posted current reads, to-be-reads (TBR), and book reviews, showcasing my love for literature. I’ve met amazing people on this platform—some who have become close friends beyond the screen.

It’s now time for me to reflect on my favorite reads of 2019, and since I’ve read close to 70 books this year, I’m having trouble narrowing it down. From audiobooks to print books, I’ve developed a very extensive bookshelf, and have read from historical fiction and memoirs to fiction and thrillers. I’ve loved them all. Even if I did not enjoy one book as much as the others, I appreciate literature and the escapism that it offers bibliophiles from the noisy world that we live in. Reading has always brought me solace, and I am forever grateful to writers for sharing their talents with the world.

Now it’s time for the fun part: my top books of the year (in somewhat order. I’d say my top two are legitimate) The breakdown will be book and author, stars, and a brief explanation of why I loved the book. Here goes!

 

 

 

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Stars: 5/5
This was the book I wouldn’t shut up about this year (last year was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens), so this must be my top book. I did the full audiobook for this one and then bought the physical copy. I did not read the print version, but the audiobook is one of the best audiobooks I have ever listened to. It sounds like an actual podcast, and the performers were outstanding. I love the rock n’ roll era and history of the 70s. I love this story. I love the characters and the story about a band’s journey to stardom. It’s truly a remarkable book.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Stars: 5/5
I discovered TJR this year (thanks, Reese!) and I’m so glad I did. This book brings Hollywood and glamour to heartache and trauma in a beautifully-wrapped package. It’s about ruthless ambition, the devastation of stardom, and lifelong romance. It is truly a beautiful story about resilience. Evelyn Hugo is a kickass woman who is beautiful, frustrating, and loveable all at once. I did half audio half print, and I plan on rereading in 2020.

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames
Stars: 4.5/5
I stumbled upon this book when I met the author at a book event at a quaint bookstore in my state. Juliet was warm and kind and spoke about her grandmother, who inspires this story. I read this book for a buddy read and gobbled it up in three days. What I loved about this book were the women. Despite being under the patriarchal grasp of their husbands, these women were powerhouses and did what they could to establish autonomy in their lives and their households. This is truly a feminist novel about the emigration to America, the American Dream, and Italian culture. If you want a book that will shake you to your core, pick this one up.

Lock Every Door by Riley Sager
Stars: 5/5
I was new to the Riley Sager train, and now I’m obsessed. I read this book for a buddy read and I’m pretty sure I finished it in a day. There’s no way you can’t. I was on a big thriller/mystery kick this year, and this book didn’t disappoint. It had its twists, ones that I saw coming, but then Sager knocked you right on your you-know-what with an ultimate, creepy one. I’m not going to give anything away, but if you want an engaging page-turner set in a creepy, beautiful apartment building in New York City where everyone goes missing, read this heart-pounding thriller.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Stars: 5/5
I read a lot of new authors this year, and Kristin Hannah did not disappoint. I heard this one was a lot like Where the Crawdads Sing, and it was, which is why I loved it so much. It’s about a girl entering and exiting adolescence who experiences turmoil and comes out resilient despite all the odds…in the dark, dangerous middle-of-nowhere Alaska. If you lived Crawdads, you’ll love this one. I did half audio, half print. I love Julia Whalen, and she did a great job narrating. I loved it so much that I bought the print version and finished it in one evening!

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
Stars: 5/5
Witches. I picked up this beautiful read this October and fell in love with the older Owens sisters. A lover of the movie Practical Magic, this was a highly anticipated read. I did full audiobook for this one and was enamored by the story that Hoffman created. It has magic, romance, drama, and heartbreak. Hoffman’s prose shone throughout the book, with lines about the smells of the city (chocolate or newly brewed tea) and growing up with the Owens family was like getting a front row seat to a special secret. I never wanted it to end.

Circe by Madeline Miller
Stars: 4/5
That was my first reaction reading this book. I had a little trouble with the writing style in the beginning of the book, but once it got going, I adjusted and read this book quickly. It was an amazing story about Circe, a feared and beautiful Goddess of witchcraft, and I found myself spellbound by the author’s amazing storytelling and writing at the end. This book was suspenseful, beautiful, and triumphant.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
Stars: 5/5
I am a sucker for historical fiction novels; I think that they are fascinating and offer readers a “fun” way to learn about history. What I love more: Stories about amazing women during WWI and WWII. This story is about courage, redemption, and resilience. While I didn’t entirely love the story of Charlie, Eve Gardiner’s story made this book earn five stars. Eve is fearless. Even months after reading this book, I still find myself thinking of Eve and her strength during times of strife. I love books like that.

Educated by Tara Westover
Stars: 5/5
This is another book that my husband and I cannot stop talking about. I listened to the audiobook version (because Julia Whalen), and I was in awe of Tara’s story. I was, and continue to be, inspired by her story. This is one of the few books this year that left me speechless. My only advice is that everyone should read this memoir. It is written like a fictional story, but it is so far from fiction. Get this book now.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Stars: 5/5
Oh, Eleanor. Sweet, sweet Eleanor. I love her. This was a laugh out loud read for me. Her quirks; her sass. I loved everything about this book. This is one of those books that leave you changed. You find yourself connecting deeply with the protagonist; you’re laughing with her one minute, and angry at her the next, but you can’t help but love her either way. Get ready for an amazing story about family, friendship, struggles, the whole gamut. And yes, Eleanor is COMPLETELY fine.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
Stars: 5/5
WOO! Talk about a debut novel. This book was intense, exciting, and messed with your head. I was exhausted after reading this book (not just because of the content; I finished it in one day). It was one of those books that you had to keep reading—you didn’t want to miss anything, and you couldn’t think of anything else other than this book and what happened to Alicia. Grab yourself a glass of wine (and lock your doors) and dive into this amazing book.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Stars: 5/5
Want a book that terrifies you but entrances you with its beautiful prose? Without giving too much away, this book makes you think about the world that we live in and what would happen if a pandemic hit. How would we cope? What I loved the most about this book was its appreciation for the arts and literature. Though I still had some questions (I always do at the end of books), I loved this one.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Stars: 5/5
I will read anything written by Madeline Miller—down to her grocery lists. This book was one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read. Miller has such a talent for reconstructing Greek myths into modern fiction. This is one of the steamiest love stories I have ever read! I loved it from beginning to end.

The Institute by Stephen King
Stars: 4/5
After much anticipation, I immediately downloaded the audio version of King’s newest novel (I call them epics because they are so long) and got ready for an adventure. This was so different from other novels I’ve read from King, and I really enjoyed it. Though I felt there was some disconnect between one of the main characters and the main story, it made my top books of 2019. It’s King, after all. It had sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and mystery all in one. It was a detailed, scary as all hell, and one I would recommend.

His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman (Trilogy)
Stars: 5/5
I had to bring some fantasy in here. Everyone needs to read this series and fall in love with Lyra as I did. Lyra, an inspiration for my Master’s thesis, is one amazing heroine. She owns her narrative and does not let anyone control her. It’s so mature for a children’s fantasy, and Pullman created an incredible world. I know I’ll be rereading this series for a long time.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
Stars: 5/5
Brené changed my life. Simply put. I listened to this book (read by the author) at a time where I felt weak, scared, and hopeless. After reading this book, I felt hopeful, confident, and learned how to understand and embrace vulnerability. This book was powerful and helped me in my career, marriage, and my own self. I am forever grateful for this book. I recommend this book (and all her books) to everyone.

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
Stars: 3.75/5
This book. This story. It is beautiful and raw and heartbreaking. We need more stories like this this one. I read this in a few days and loved it—with a few small setbacks. I felt that this story was unrealistic in many ways (supportive parents, the travel, etc), but it offers a wonderful story about family, triumph, and unconditional love. This is definitely worth a read (so we can discuss!!)

 

What were your favorite reads of 2019? Please share in the comments!

Book Review: ‘The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna’

Since I’ve finished Juliet Grames’ debut novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, my mind has been in somewhat of a haze. This is a good thing. That’s how I know I’ve read a really good book.

IMG_3374.JPGThere is so much to this novel; so much heartbreak and power. It will be hard for me to eloquently explain how much I loved this book, but I will do my best!

My introduction to this book started by being introduced to the author herself. One chilly evening, I drove from my workplace in downtown Hartford to Breakwater Books in Guilford, Connecticut, to meet and have dinner with author Juliet Grames.

 

I didn’t know much about her debut novel, so I spent the days before the event reading and researching. I read the novel’s positive reviews and the impact it has made on Italian-American women and families. I read about how it effectively portrays what Italian immigrants faced when they emigrated to America, and what the women faced in their small villages in Italy after their husbands left them behind.

Synopsis

From Calabria to Connecticut: A sweeping family saga about sisterhood, secrets, Italian immigration, the American dream, and one woman’s tenacious fight against her own fate.

For Stella Fortuna, death has always been a part of life. Stella’s childhood is full of strange, life-threatening incidents—moments where ordinary situations like cooking eggplant or feeding the pigs inexplicably take lethal turns. Even Stella’s own mother is convinced that her daughter is cursed or haunted.

In her rugged Italian village, Stella is considered an oddity—beautiful and smart, insolent and cold. Stella uses her peculiar toughness to protect her slower, plainer baby sister Tina from life’s harshest realities. But she also provokes the ire of her father Antonio: a man who demands subservience from women and whose greatest gift to his family in his absence.

When the Fortunas emigrate to America on the cusp of World War II, Stella and Tina must come of age side-by-side in a hostile new world with strict expectations for each of them. Soon Stella learns that her survival is worthless without the one thing her family will deny her at any cost: her independence.

In present-day Connecticut, one family member tells this heartrending story, determined to understand the persisting rift between the now-elderly Stella and Tina. A richly told debut, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a tale of family transgressions as ancient and twisted as the olive branch that could heal them.

The event

At the event, Juliet, a warm and gracious person, spoke of her novel and how it is based on her grandmother and her family emigrating to the United States. I couldn’t believe that a woman could have that many near-death experiences, but Juliet and her mother (Stella’s only daughter) confirmed!

Juliet read one of her favorite passages from her book. It details what Juliet’s great-grandmother (named Assunta in the book) had to do to survive with three children while her husband was in America. As she read, the Italian-American women in the room nodded with tears in their eyes (from laughter and sadness), saying that it reminded them of stories from their mothers and grandmothers. I sat there in awe after hearing this powerful passage (removing some spoilers):

“This was how the years passed. Assunta tended her three living children…she stitched their clothes and scrubbed them, washed out their diapers and kept them fed with bread she baked from the flour she ground from wheat she grew in the garden she tended. She preserved and pickled and salted and stored so they would never go hungry, even when there was nothing. To keep them warm through the winter she gathered firewood on the mountain and carried it home tied up in a linen cloth she balanced on her head, with Giuseppe strapped to her chest, Stella holding her left hand, Cettina her right. Assunta dug her own stones out and turned her own soil and pruned her own trees and drew her own water from the well five, ten times a day to cook and clean.

This was the trouble with emigration—it dismantled the patriarchy. Because really, what did Assunta, or any woman, need a husband for, when she did every goddamn thing herself?” (43)

Once I heard this, I knew I had to buy this book. Feminist tropes? Strong women? Yes, please. Plus, her family emigrated to Connecticut and lived a block from my office in downtown Hartford. There were many interesting ties. I read it in three days. I spent each night staying up way past my bedtime, and I never wanted it to end.

The review: 4.5/5

It’s hard to believe that this story based on real women. Juliet’s grandmother did have an accident that caused her to never speak to her sister for the rest of her life. This is her family’s story. This is what women and families faced, and continue to face. It is an important story about culture, family, and emigration.

albumtempHardship and trauma are such hard topics, but ones that we must read about. It helps establish our character, create perspective, and keep us far from ignorance.

I was intrigued by the patriarchal values that were, and still are, instilled in Italian culture and many cultures. I was enamored with the woman portrayed in this novel—the strong, raw story of Assunta and the life that she lived in Italy. The trauma and turmoil that Stella went through during her childhood and adulthood, married to a man she did not want to marry, constantly put in situations that shook her to her core. Not to mention, the physical trauma that she went through with her near-death experiences. It was gut-wrenching at times, but sometimes, you can’t turn away from the stories that make you uncomfortable. These women didn’t turn away; they persisted.

This book brought raw emotions. It brought tears and heartache, and I found myself having trouble disconnecting when I closed the book for the night. These are real people who went through so much struggle just to live the American Dream that many take for granted. There is still a struggle; there is still injustice. The women in Juliet’s family faced such strife, from poverty to heartbreak to the patriarchy. It was a remarkable book, and I’m so grateful to Juliet for sharing her family’s story.

If you’re interested in buying The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, you can buy it here on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Reflections: My experience as a “solo traveler”

My husband had just pulled away from the local bus station in Massachusetts when I felt an immediate sense of panic. I remember thinking: “How am I going to do this by myself?”

I walked through the sliding doors and purchased my one-way ticket to Logan Airport. I sat down in the plastic seats and began calling my family members for a sense of comfort.

I was traveling to London to meet a friend who was studying abroad. I was going to get on a plane by myself, get off the plane and go to my Airbnb by myself, travel to meet my friend by myself, and sleep by myself. I had never done that before, and the thought was both frightening and exhilarating.

The plane ride went fine. I watched Sherlock, attempted to sleep, and I stepped off the plane feeling confident. I went to the woman at the train station, asked how to get to Potter’s Bar, and confidently got on the wrong train. Panicking and tearing up while I looked at how to fix this mess, a super helpful couple helped me get to Victoria Station, which then led me to King’s Cross station, and I got off at Potter’s Bar on time to check in to my BnB.

Potter’s Bar—let me tell you. If you want to see a quintessential English sleepy town, you go to Potter’s Bar. The town’s epicenter is the train station. Other than that, it’s cottages with smoking chimneys and commuters making their way to the station. I walked out the doors, I immediately turned to my maps on my phone to get to my BnB.

I walked along the quiet streets filled with anxiety. “Where was everyone?” “Am I in danger?”

I wasn’t in danger. Potter’s Bar is a sweet, safe town. My anxiety was getting to me, but I had to tell myself a few times to breathe, relax, and pack less on my next trip because wheeling this suitcase up a hill in a cute English town was a little too much.

When I made it to the Airbnb, my host welcomed me graciously. I stayed in a refurbished shed in the back of her house, fully equipped with a kitchen, bathroom, comfortable bed, and Apple TV (which I took advantage of!). I was in love!

I got inside, sat down, and immediately felt loneliness sweep over me. I cried, I almost called my husband and said I wanted to go home. In fact, I did call my husband, but only to tell him I was safe. I’d never been alone like that—I knew what it was like to feel hollow and hopeless.

I wrapped myself up in blankets, sat on the couch, and took out my journal. I started writing down an entry filled with “I don’t think I can do this” and “This is WAY out of my comfort zone.” But then I stopped. I thought, “I can do this. I am so capable of doing this!”

That’s when I took this picture of myself:

 

This was taken exactly one year ago today. This is me: exhausted, unfiltered, messy-haired, scared, anxious, determined. I decided to shake off those scaries and get my butt to King’s Cross Station. I had to explore. I had memories to make. I thought, “I have growin’ to do.”

And that’s what I did. I conquered my fears; I tried something new. I learned how to navigate the metro, how to get back and forth to my Airbnb with little-to-no-fear (walking by myself at night was eerie at first). I calmed myself to sleep when I felt super vulnerable and alone, and I did it. I just did it.

I loved every second of it. I learned that I loved being by myself. It was a great way to unwind after a long day in the city. I learned self-reliance, determination, and my own strength. I learned what it was like to feel lonely, but that I was not alone in my own company. I am proud of that trip and proud of the person I became.

If you have the chance to be a solo traveler, try it. You’ll unlock strength that you didn’t know you had within you!

An interview with Ruth Ware, a psychological thriller novelist

Hey, book nerds! I have super exciting news! A few weeks ago, I wrote a post where I ranked Ruth Ware’s novels. For those who don’t know Ruth Ware, she is an incredible British novelist who writes thrilling psychological mysteries. Since I read her first book, The Woman in Cabin 10, I have been hooked! So, I decided to take a risk and reach out and ask for an interview. Why not, right? After a few weeks, I was able to ask her a few questions and learn more about her journey as an author, her characters, and what books she is reading! Check it out!

1) Your books are centered on strong, female protagonists. What made you decide to write about strong, female characters in this specific genre?

I don’t think it’s something I consciously decided to do – and I don’t think my main characters are particularly strong in fact. They are stronger than they know, but they also have all the same fears and anxieties as the rest of us. Like most people, they’re capable of more than they realise when they’re pushed. I think my goal is just to write about realistic people – so far that’s generally been women in the main role, probably because I know more about what it’s like to be a woman.

2) As an aspiring writer, I always ask authors about their writing rituals. Do you have your own “space?” Do you have a prescribed set of practices that you follow?

I have a little study but I’m not particularly precious about where I write – except that I have a bad back, so it has to have a proper, adjustable chair and a desk at the right height. Aside from that, my only routine is to switch the computer on and start typing. I don’t need special music or anything to get me in the right mood.

3) What books are on your nightstand, and why?

A huge stack – everything from Patrick O’Brian, to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, plus a bunch of proofs I’ve been sent in the post. The one on top is What Would Boudicca Do? (Published as What Would Cleopatra Do? in America) which is fun for dipping in and out of as it’s short vignettes about interesting women. I never have less than about ten or twelve books stacked up at any one time. They’re a mix of things I’ve recently read, things I’m in the process of reading, and things I’m intending to get to.

4) What have you learned about being an author after you published your first book? How has that changed your writing style and process?

I suppose the main thing that has changed is that it’s now a job – I have to write whether I want to or not, and I try as far as possible to treat it like a job – I have office hours, and I turn off my writing computer at night and in the evenings. I don’t know if that was something I learned exactly. I had worked around books for years before becoming published so not much about the actual publishing process was a surprise to me.

5) So far, who is your favorite protagonist and why?

I don’t think I can answer this – it’s like being asked which of my kids is my favourite! I love them all for different reasons.

 

A big thanks to Ruth’s publicists (in the UK and US) for making this happen. And, a big thanks to Ruth for not only her insightful answers but for sharing her talent with the world! Hope you all enjoyed reading!