Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Review of "Eleanor & Park" by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park is one of those books that kept making me think this is nothing like my life, and yet it’s exactly like my life.  So even if your high school years were filled with unrequited love and bad music like mine were (I owned every Jessica Simpson album at the time) you’ll still find yourself nodding along as Rowell tells you the story of two teenagers trying to fit in, and realizing that fitting in is an illusion.

There are a number of reasons to love this book, but I was sold on the cover alone.  Red headed girl?  Sign me up.  While Eleanor’s unwieldy red hair does get some well-deserved page space, there’s so much more to admire.  For instance, the way Rowell doesn’t rush the relationship between Eleanor and Park, but instead allows it to grow organically, the way a real relationship often does.  Although the reader is immediately thrown into the middle of Park’s heartache at the beginning of the book, we’re quickly taken back to when the two see each other on the bus for the first time, and the author lets the story unfold from there.  I appreciate that Rowell trusts her reader to stick with the characters as they move through the painfully awkward obstacles of high school dating.

In addition to the well-paced plot structure the book is also structured through the dual narratives of Eleanor and Park.  This is an effective choice because the reader can get both Eleanor and Park's unique take on a shared moment, as well as gaining insight into their personal lives and the moments they don't share.

Also of note is the ensemble cast, consisting mainly of Eleanor and Park’s families and peers.  Each character is fully developed, and I have to say that Park’s mom, Mindy, is one of my favorite fictional characters that I’ve come across in a long while.  Furthermore, the fact that I found myself clenching my teeth during the scenes with Eleanor’s stepdad also demonstrates that Rowell knows how to write a good asshole, which is as important a literary skill as any I’ve ever known.

Rowell also knows how to create atmosphere, setting the plot against the neon landscape of the 1980s with references to The Smiths, walkmans, waterbeds, and even Matlock.  Growing up in the weird spillover period where the 90s still felt like the 80s, Rowell’s descriptions instantly triggered sense memory after sense memory for me.  With my Northwest Indiana roots, I could also bask in the Middle Americanness of Omaha, Nebraska.  In many ways I was reminded of Joe Meno and the way that it’s often the simplest of scenarios that are inevitably the most complicated and therefore have the most heart.

So suffice it to say that I highly recommend Eleanor & Park.  I’m looking forward to reading Rowell’s other books Attachments and Fangirl, as well as her forthcoming novel, Landline due in 2014.  You can also follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.  Her tweets and posts are often self-deprecating, and always humorous and insightful.  What’s not to like?

Oh, also, I was watching a Youtube video of Rowell and she referred to Attachments, which is written as a series of emails, as an “E-pistolary” novel.  So basically I want Rainbow Rowell to be my new best friend. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

An Update from Your Friends at Reading Under the Covers

I thought this blog was done for, to tell you the truth.  Standing at the halfway mark of my MFA, the burden of a blog (talk about your first world problems) seemed like too much of a nuisance considering my coursework and teaching schedule.  Additionally many of the books I’ve been reading as of late don’t lend themselves to reviews either because they’re books of theory, or they don’t fit into the mainstream aesthetic of this blog.  However, I’ve been able to read a fair amount of popular fiction during winter break, and I’ll be sharing my thoughts on as many of them as I can during the next few weeks.

In addition to Reading Under the Covers, I’ve set up a Tumblr page called Clothes for Left Handed People, which is also the working title of my Master’s thesis.  Although my thesis, a collection of essays about my family and growing up in Northwest Indiana (at least that’s the plan for now) will have a coherent theme, I can assure you that the new blog will be a demimonde of debauchery. 

So read on, read well, and read what you love.  I’ll be posting a review of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park in the next day or two.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

“It’s about cells!” my professor gleefully said when I asked her for a brief synopsis of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Oh god, I thought, it’s about science.  My gut reaction was to tune her out, but I had to pick a book to use in my Writing & Rhetoric course, and the clock was ticking.  I had to choose a book that incorporated primary and secondary research in a creative way, and this seemed to be as good a choice as any.  Needless to say I didn’t begin the book with the highest of expectations.

The book surprised me.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks made me think about science and creative nonfiction in a whole new way.  Author Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black tobacco farmer who developed cervical cancer and was treated at John Hopkins in the early 1950s.  While at Hopkins, tissue was taken from Henrietta’s tumor, and from that tissue came the first ‘immortal’ human cells grown in culture.  HeLa cells would be used in developing the Polio vaccine, cancer research, and the cells were even sent up in the first space mission.

Henrietta and her family were never told.

In fact, Henrietta died shortly after the initial sample was taken, and it wasn’t until the mid-70s that her family discovered what scientists had done with the cells.  To this day, the family has never made any money off of HeLa, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Lots of people, myself included, learned about HeLa cells in freshman biology class, but few people ever stopped to consider where the cells came from: that’s where Rebecca Skloot comes in.  Skloot spent 10 years writing this book.  The book is full of meticulous research, interviews with the Lacks family, and Skloot’s own experience of uncovering Henrietta’s story.  With an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Skloot is able to tell the story in an informative and engaging manner that no one has been able to do before her.  Even my students, who had been nonplussed with my previous reading selections, enjoyed the book.  Rather than traditional research papers, my students had to write ethnographic inquiry essays and the book became a model for writing about a question related to a community/culture, uncovering the answers, and telling the reader about it in a personal way.  

I was lucky enough to meet Skloot during a talk and signing with Mary Roach at the Harold Washing Library last month.  During the talk, Skloot said that she never considered becoming a writer, and only took a creative writing course at her undergraduate university because it fulfilled the school’s foreign language requirement, which in some ways makes perfect sense.  Anyway, Skloot gave up her dream of becoming a veterinarian and began writing.  She’s now working on a new book regarding the ethics of animal testing.  During the signing, Skloot was patient, talking to everyone who got a book signed, including me.  I was delighted to see that she signed all the books with a purple fountain pen.

So even if science makes your eyes cross, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  You’ll find that the book is about much more than “just” cells (and even those end up being pretty cool too).

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

I’ve been on an academic/paranormal kick these days.  After finishing A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness which I’ll review later, I picked up Katherine Howe’s 2009 novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  After reading both books back to back, I have to say that “Physick” is my favorite of the two, despite the global popularity of “Discovery.”  Although both books deal with the subject of witchcraft, Howe’s novel is more subtle, but even eerier than Harkness’s “Discovery” due to its understated quality.

“Physick” shifts seamlessly between two worlds: 1991 Massachusetts and 17th century Salem where the witch trials have reached fever pitch.  In the present, doctoral candidate Connie Goodwin is preparing for her oral exams in Colonial and New England History.  Howe was also studying for her oral exams when she first began her imaginings of “Physick” and the scene in which Connie sits for her exams could only have been written by someone who has gone through the ordeal.  I even found myself breaking a sweat as Connie answers painfully intricate questions about New England history that only the most diligent scholar would know. 

After her exams, Connie is made caretaker of her grandmother’s old home in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  Again, Howe drew from personal life, having moved to Marblehead with her husband in 2005.  The home has been vacant for years and has no electricity or telephone service.  As Connie fixes up the house, she comes across a hollowed out key which holds a fragile piece of parchment with the name “Deliverance Dane” scrawled on it.  Like all good academics, Connie is curious, and so begins her search for Deliverance Dane, a possible victim of the Salem Witch trials that perhaps was not as innocent as the other men and women who senselessly lost their lives.  In fact, Connie herself might possess powers that not even she is aware of. 

I should note here that another interesting twist in Howe’s own story is that she is related to Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe who were both accused of witchcraft.  Elizabeth Proctor was released from prison in 1693.  Elizabeth Howe was hanged along with four other women on July 19th, 1692.

Woven in with Connie’s quest to discover the identity of Deliverance Dane is a power struggle with her academic advisor, Manning Chilton, whose interest in Connie’s research might be more for his own gain than hers, as well as a romantic entanglement with a local steeplejack which gives some enjoyable lightness to the book.  Howe also shifts back in time to examine the lives of Deliverance Dane and her heirs who had to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the trials.

Howe’s work is a prime example that academics can also be creative.  She develops a complex plot with witty dialogue, and pulls from personal experience to create an engaging story.  I haven’t had the honor of meeting Howe, but I have watched several interviews and follow her on Twitter, and she is absolutely delightful.  Being an academic, she is able to give a good deal of historical context regarding the choices she makes in her work.

If you enjoy The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, you’ll want to check out Howe’s second novel, The House of Velvet and Glass.  I haven’t read it yet, but it’s been receiving excellent reviews and is set shortly after the sinking of the Titanic.  Howe is also working on a third novel that I am eagerly awaiting.
For more information about Katherine Howe and her books, you can visit her website:, Facebook page:, or Twitter:@katherinebhowe

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Slouching Towards Grad School

So all the neuroses were for nothing.  Despite wondering if my acceptance letter had been sent to me by accident, I have completed my first semester as an MFA candidate in Columbia College Chicago’s Creative Nonfiction Program.  As I write this, I look at a picture of two new friends, Adry and Naomi, and I at a party making the duck face.  I wish someone could have shown me that picture on those sleepless nights in late August.  However, I had to relearn the old lesson that things rarely turn out as disastrous as I imagine.

I was guided through this semester by good friends, professors, and family who held my hand every step of the way.  Mom picked me up from school every Wednesday night because I would have had to wait two hours for the train.  Jenny, David, and Suzanne taught me how to read carefully, write effectively, and teach passionately.  My peers coaxed me out of my shell and invited me to study sessions, readings, and parties. 

This semester I had to relearn the benefits of discomfort.  Susan Sontag said, “A free life is one in which you are willing to be uncomfortable some of the time and insecure some of the time.”  I’d have to say I lived about as free a life as I ever have these past three months, experiencing various degrees of anxiety from the end of August until my second essay went through workshop on Halloween.  I would rather have gum surgery than repeat that process again, but I grew more in those two months, as well as this past month, than I did in the last two years.  I learned that the fulfilling life is not one where you take the easy way out, but the one where you do something you might fail at. 

My writing was not as good as I thought it would be, but still better than it’s ever been.  I’ve learned that not every essay has to read like a novel, and that it’s ok to write about that time on the train, or losing your friend.  I have also relearned the importance of surrounding myself with people more intelligent and more talented than I am, because they all taught me how to be a better writer.  I am finding my own voice by looking for the voices of my peers and professors in their writing.

My work is praised and my confidence rises: I am becoming a better writer.  My work is critiqued and my ego is bruised: I am becoming a better writer.  One professor said that workshop is a great place to crash and burn, and I have.  My friends have shown me how to put the pieces back together.

So the next cavalcade of anxieties is waiting around the corner.  I will be teaching some unsuspecting undergrads next semester and I will be submitting new work to new eyes for new praise and critique.  I will have to relearn the old lessons.  I am terrified and I am elated.