The Impossible (to put down) Knife of Memory

Cover art for The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Get this book. Read it now.

I have a bit of a problem. The problem is that I think that I have some super power that allows me to read multiple books at once.

In some ways, I can. I usually have a minimum of two or three books going simultaneously: One or two for work, one or two for pleasure. Multiple books means that I have choices depending on my mood, and depending on whether I’m allowing my workaholic-ness to extend past 10pm.

The problem is that two or three books quickly multiplies into six, then eight, then a dozen books. I have no less than ten books on my nightstand right now–all in various stages of being read. And yes: I do plan on finishing them all.

So part of me knew, when I began re-reading the classics for fun, that I was being unrealistic. The chances that I would cruise, uninterrupted, through Of Mice and Men, blogging gamely all the way, were slim to none. Still, I told myself it would be different this time. I told myself that once I got sucked into these stories, they would be too hard to put down.

And then the mail arrived, and I got my copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s new YA novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory. The world stopped. Of Mice and Men? Um…yeah, what’s that again?

So I’ll be getting back to Steinbeck. I really am enjoying the quiet tragedy of the American dream, played out in the lives of George and Lennie. But for tonight, and this weekend, I’m with Hayley and her broken father and her OMGCANHEBEMINE? boyfriend in Anderson’s heartbreaking new book.

I’d write more, maybe urge you to get a copy for yourself ASAP, but…did I mention I’m in the middle of reading?

Of Mice and Men(sch)

Ask the Recap logoSometimes, synchronicity happens. Sometimes you’re reading a book for fun, and a desperate teenager writes to you, because the book is giving them fits. I’ll be back with Of Mice and Men chapters three and four tomorrow, but for today, I leave you with my response to one very distressed teen. What can I say? I’m reading the book for my own enjoyment, but I’m still an English major at heart.

Of Mice and Men…and beans

beansFriendships are forged over cans of baked beans. Well, some are forged, and some are rekindled. In George and Lennie’s last little piece of Paradise in Chapter One of Of Mice and Men, the two friends sure up the bonds of brotherhood over cans of beans:

“[George] drove his knife through the top of one of the bean cans, sawed out the top and passed the can to Lennie. Then he opened a second can. From his side pocket he brought out two spoons and passed one of them to Lennie.

“They sat by the fire and filled their mouths with beans and chewed mightily. A few beans slipped out of the side of Lennie’s mouth. George gestured with his spoon. ‘What you gonna say tomorrow when the boss asks you questions?’

“Lennie stopped chewing and swallowed. His face was concentrated. ‘I…I ain’t gonna…say a word.’

“‘Good boy! That’s fine, Lennie! Maybe you’re gettin’ better. When we get the coupla acres I can let you tend the rabbits all right. ‘Specially if you remember as good as that.’

“Lennie choked with pride. ‘I can remember,’ he said.”

So much meaning in one can of beans. In Steinbeck’s hands, the shared meal represents a fleeting moment of comfort and camaraderie, even as the beans dribbling from Lennie’s mouth convey the fragility of George and Lennie’s dream. With each escaping bean, can’t you feel the friends’ shared vision of a little plot of land slipping from their grasp? Tragic. But as is typical in Steinbeck, hope and heartbreak go hand-in-hand in this passage. Over food and full bellies, anything still seems possible.

Are beans a meal that magically binds us? I didn’t know about George and Lennie’s repast during an ill-fated camping trip the summer before seventh grade, but I found a similar camaraderie—and hope—over my own can of beans.

We were lost—a dozen of us teenagers and two counselors who weren’t much older. We’d missed the turn-off in the trail, and thunder rumbled in the distance. Being the responsible 18-year-olds that my counselors were, they decided to trespass on an abandoned property and hole up with us in a dilapidated barn until the storm passed.

No one was in a good mood. We were tired after the 14-mile hike the day before, and then a night spent sleeping under relentless, icy rain. Now, we had at least 10 miles back to camp, and only two foodstuffs left: a can of Spam, and two cans of beans.

No one was in a good mood, and no one had the energy to dig through hiking packs for utensils or a can opener. Out came my counselor’s trusty Swiss Army Knife. Like George, she sawed through the tops of the cans of beans in no time. Around they went—each of us digging in with dirty fingers, shoveling beans into our mouths. It was disgusting: the beans cold, and kind of slimy. But something changed between us as the cans circulated. Camaraderie filled the barn. We grinned at each other with messy mouths and laughed at the girl who practically licked the final can clean. By the time the beans were eaten, we’d begun singing camp songs. And when the skies cleared, we went hopefully on our way. Maybe the trail back to camp wasn’t so long after all.

Like George and Lennie, we were naive. But at least we had two cans of beans to fortify us on the endless road home.

Of Mice and Men: Chapters One and Two

Of Mice and Men by John SteinbeckI cheated a little. I cheated a little on this first book in my quest to blog—and read—the classics for fun by picking Steinbeck. I’ve never read Steinbeck for fun, but if there were an author in the canon I’d read for fun, Steinbeck would be my guy. The man writes like an angel. OK, as I type this, he’s staring up at me from his author picture with a penetrating gaze and half-smoked cigarette in hand, so I’d better revise. He writes like a god. His perfect verbs make me want to cry. He doesn’t waste a single adjective.

Given Steinbeck’s mastery of the craft of writing, it was very difficult for me to turn off my English major’s brain as I re-read the first two chapters of Of Mice and Men. I kept seeing references to the Garden of Eden, and man’s swift fall from grace. Once I slapped myself a few times, though, I began enjoying this book in a different way than I had before: as a buddy story.

The buddy story usually follows some very simple rules. The buddies have to be opposites. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in The Heat. They have to hate each other on some level, but also be utterly devoted to each other. And at some point, one of them needs to perform a totally unnecessary tracheotomy with a butter knife. Oh, sorry. Flashing back to The Heat again.

Steinbeck’s George Milton and Lennie Small definitely have the yin/yang thing going on. Physically, mentally, emotionally, they’re about as opposite as you can get. They’ve got the requisite love-hate relationship as well. What I’m liking most on this reading, though, is the way George’s devotion to Lennie seems to keep him human, to give him a heart. I know this ties in to Steinbeck’s theme about the power of the bonds of brotherhood, but setting that aside, there’s something so poignant about the way Lennie’s innocence helps realistic/pessimistic George to hold on to his dream. The dream of owning a little piece of land is, quite literally, a bedtime story that George repeats for both of them. But through Lennie’s childlike eyes, it takes on dimension and possibility—at least for a moment.

Of course, because Steinbeck is a master, Lennie isn’t just the prism for the dream; he’s also the dream’s undoing. The moment the guys leave their riverside campsite behind for the ranch, the cruel reality of the real world rears its fanged head. By the end of chapter two, trouble is already brewing: Curley, the son of the boss, is angling for a fight, and Lennie’s all too taken with Curley’s wife. Like in any good buddy story, George promises to protect Lennie. But this is Steinbeck, after all, not some Hollywood buddy comedy. Funny enough, even though I know how Of Mice and Men ends, now I don’t want to put it down.

Blogging the Classics: An Introduction

Cover art for Of Mice and Men by John SteinbeckThere’s something I haven’t told you. It’s embarrassing, really. For four-and-a-half years, as the face of 60secondrecap.com, I’ve smiled and pretended that it hasn’t been true. But it is true, so here’s the shameful and well-hidden truth: Though I’ve read thousands of books, I’ve never read a single piece of classic literature for fun.

All those books you read in school? Sure, I read them. I enjoyed them the way a die-hard English major does—as riddles to be solved, and puzzles to be worked out. I willingly deconstructed them in class, wrote papers about them, then went on to champion them for 60second Recap. I liked them intellectually. I saw their value.

But I did not find them fun. As in, these were not the types of books that I would willingly check out of the library and read on a Saturday afternoon. I read an abridged version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in third grade. I can still remember the pictures, and staying up late to finish it with a flashlight under the covers. But that was the first and last of such experiences…until now.

For 60second Recap, I’ve led the crusade of classic literature’s relevance, because that’s where my heart has been. These books have endured for a reason—because their lessons are universal and, in many ways, immortal. They speak in a language that crosses barriers of time and culture—yes, even today’s increasingly anti-literate culture.

Now I want to do something more. I want to find out for myself why these books are also good stories. Books I’d be as excited to read as this one, or this one. Books that deserve a place on my shelf not just because I’ve conquered them on behalf of high school students everywhere, but because they’re stories I’ve actually loved…and might even read again.

Those of you who already read Dickens and Hemingway and Hawthorne for fun may be wondering what the big fuss is. Clearly, I won’t be the first to discover that classic literature has plot, character, and story value that makes it worth picking up outside the classroom. From what I can tell, though, I’ll be the first to blog about it, in real time, in all honesty, with my reputation on the line.

So come back tomorrow, when I begin my first totally-for-fun tango with classic literature. (Is that ironic, given that I’m starting with a well-known tragedy, Of Mice and Men? We’ll see.)

I hope you’ll join me for the ride—er, read!

Reading Rituals: Books for When You’re Brain-Dead

When you feel like this, only one kind of book will do.

When you feel like this, only one kind of book will do.

As much as I love to read, there are a few weekends each year when I hit a wall. Predictably, these are post-filming weekends, when I’ve just come off of shooting a dozen or so Picks of the Week–a major push, even when I’m reading steadily all the time.

Such was the case last weekend, after I spent Friday filming Picks for the entirety of the summer. Come Saturday afternoon, I was in the mood to read again–but only a very specific kind of book. A book that required little to no intellectual engagement, little to no emotional investment. A book with a decent plot and decent characters, but not the kind I’ll necessarily remember in great detail several years from now. Yes, I needed a brain-dead book–something I could read while lying in bed, glassy-eyed and mostly immobile.

To be clear, brain-dead books are not the same as “fluff.” I may have resorted to Archie and Veronica comic books during my childhood when I wanted a brief vacation from my regular diet of Jean Craighead George and Elizabeth Enright. But today, even when I’m in the mood for something lighter, it still has to have meaning–a message. The brain-dead book still has to give me a reason for spending time with it.

I found my brain-dead book last weekend: a humorous (but mildly thought-provoking) quick read, 45 Pounds (More or Less). In it, 16-year-old Ann struggles to lose, yes, 45 pounds before her aunt’s wedding, while simultaneously navigating friendship and family problems, and learning a little bit more about herself in the process. It was everything I wanted in a book last weekend, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read, and the related rituals.

Reading Rituals, Part 4: Brain-Dead Books

Ritual #1: Assume the position. Brain-dead books are not for coffee shops or park benches. They are not even necessarily for your favorite reading chair. They are for prostrate positions almost exclusively. Definitely your bed. Possibly a lounge chair on the beach, or a floating raft in the pool. But really, bed is best. That way, if you pass out while reading, no one gets hurt.

Ritual #2: Skim. I am not a skimmer by nature. I’m a savor-every-sentence kind of girl. But brain-dead books are different. Once you get the idea of the role each supporting character plays in the main character’s emotional trajectory, you can skim whole chunks of dialogue. Once you know that Grandma always gives the pep talks, you can allow your eyes to glaze over and to skitter over the surface of her time onstage while mentally you repeat, “Pep talk. Pep talk. Pep talk.” Same goes for the BFF and potential BF. The point, with brain-dead books, is to get the gist: That’s all you really need for a satisfying reading experience.

Ritual #3: Tune back in for the last few chapters. And this is an important nuance with brain-dead books. You can’t read them, in their entirety, while you’re mentally checked out. You have to save the last few chapters for when your eyes can register all the words on the page. You have to re-engage for the final emotional wallop.

I finished the final 30 pages of 45 Pounds on Sunday afternoon–just in time to savor the heaping helping of self-knowledge, crowned with a dollop of romance. Not bad for a brain-dead book. But this weekend, I’m ready for something that requires more of my IQ.

Of Pop Stars and Protagonists

The portal to my favorite childhood fantasy.

The portal to my favorite childhood fantasy.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve told myself stories. And also as far back as I can remember, every one of these stories has featured two elements:

1. Me as the protagonist.

2. One of my current obsessions.

Lest you think me completely narcissistic, I’ll add here that one of the first things every writer learns is to write what you know. Hence the protagonists that spring forth from our own experiences–shaped by what shaped us, be it positive or negative.

As a child, though, I wasn’t so concerned about shaping an emotional trajectory for myself within my story. I was concerned with living out the dreams that were too grandiose, or unrealistic, for real life. Which is why, at age 11, a recurring storyline from my imagination featured me beating out my childhood nemesis for a coveted spot in Wilson Phillips, a singing group of early 90s fame.

The early 90s were a pre-YouTube era, so what I knew of the group I’d gleaned from the flimsy, folded booklet that accompanied my Wilson Phillips cassette tape. It was, however, fodder enough for my imagination. To 11-year-old me, Wendy, Carnie, and Chynna (we were on a first name basis) seemed impossibly sophisticated and utterly cool. Add to that my burning desire to triumph over my nemesis in the context of something major (I was tired of her winning our elementary school’s yearly speech competition), and a story was born.

There was a lot of singing in front of the mirror with my hairbrush/microphone during this period, especially the lyrics of this song, which the Wendy, Carnie, and Chynna in my head told me my voice was “perfect for.” There may have also been a few lines of dialogue in which I humbly informed my musical idols that even though I’d been inducted into the group, “You don’t have to change your name to Wilson Phillips Sawyer.”

Though I can’t say I’m still obsessed with Wilson Phillips, these memories resurfaced this week when I read this article, about a little girl who wanted to create a pop star who could be a positive role model for the tween and early teen set. Instead of singing about sex and love and breakups, the slightly-nerdy Catherine Bennett sings about polar bears, friendship, and social issues. And what does she do for a living (besides write pop songs)? She works in a museum, of course.

I dreamed of being a pop star at a time when that meant singing well, not running around in a sequined bikini teaching little girls that the road to fame is littered with all the clothing you were forced to remove. Catherine Bennett rekindles in me the hope that girls everywhere can write themselves into their own pop star fantasies without losing all the wonderfully gawky, awkward innocence of childhood in the process.

5 Things I’m Obsessing about This Week (besides Catherine Bennett and 90s Pop Stars), June 19, 2013:

1. Speaking of childhood, these time-lapse photos of fireflies will blow your mind (and bring back memories of an empty mason jar and hot July evenings).

2. When I was a kid, we liked to make pigs in blankets. But how about pigs in pigs? Freaking adorable.

3. THIS.

4. Holy street views, Google.

5. No one will ever steal your lunch again!

Happy Wednesday!

10 Books for Your 2013 Summer Reading List

Today being the book birthday of two of my most-anticipated summer reads, I thought I’d offer a rundown of a handful of titles I’m looking forward to digging into over the next couple months. Of course, by now I know all too well that you can’t judge a book by its cover–or by its marketing copy. But I offer these summer reading suggestions with the hope that at least a few will make my summer–and yours–a little bit richer in the reading department.

June

wigThe Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher. Release date: June 18, 2013. About: Seventh grade sleuths (and best friends) who either stumble upon–or accidentally fabricate–a quirky mystery. Why I’m excited about it: Reading the blurb for this book made it sound like a cross between Walk Two Moons (in which, in a subplot, a pre-teen’s overactive imagination fuels a hilariously-misguided murder investigation) and Nancy Drew. I’m also a sucker for any book that screams girl power. (Middle Grade)

proxyProxy by Alex London. Release date: June 18, 2013. About: Think The Whipping Boy, set in a dystopia. Knox, a rich kid, commits the crimes. Syd, the poor kid, takes the punishment. But when the teens go rogue together, their carefully-constructed world starts to come apart at the seams. Why I’m excited about it: Having loved The Whipping Boy since I was seven years old, there’s something enticing about seeing the same dynamics play out in a completely topsy-turvy futuristic setting. Dystopian fiction often breaks down for me just a few chapters in, but I have high hopes for this book. (YA)

sidekickedSidekicked by John David Anderson. Release date: June 25, 2013. About: Middle schooler Andrew Bean is part of a secret organization for the training of superhero sidekicks. Too bad he has to keep his powers hidden from the rest of the world. (Good luck with that.) Why I’m excited about it: I have to admit, this marketing copy really hooked me: “Middle school is a drag, even with superpowers.” If the story can live up to the humor, complications, and excitement implicit in that one line, I’ll be a happy reader for sure. (Middle Grade)

lemoncelloEscape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein. Release date: June 25, 2013. About: 12 kids are chosen by game-maker Luigi Lemoncello to participate in a night of games, food, and fun in the new library. But in the morning, the doors are still locked. Time for a reality show, set among the stacks! Why I’m excited about it: If this has all the charm and quirkiness of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the braniac/puzzle-tastic qualities of The Mysterious Benedict Society, consider me hooked. (Middle Grade)

July

mouseThe Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck. Release date: July 2, 2013. About: A mouse who ends up in Buckingham Palace and befriends Queen Victoria. (Who knew she could talk to mice?) Why I’m excited about it: Honestly, I do wish Richard Peck would go back to writing his hilarious tall tales about Americana. (In my opinion, no other author can touch him in that department.) But he’s such a great storyteller that a new book by Richard Peck, even one about mice, is definitely better than no new book by Richard Peck. Plus, who doesn’t love a good animal story? (Middle Grade)

August

boy on bridgeThe Boy on the Bridge by Natalie Standiford. Release date: August 1, 2013. About: It’s 1982, and Laura’s studying abroad in Leningrad while Cold War paranoia is on the rise. So when she meets Russian artist Alexei and starts to fall for him, complications ensue. Why I’m excited about it: I have consistently loved Natalie Standiford’s books, such as this one and this one. Plus, there’s nothing more escapist than a summer book set in a foreign country, especially one with the intrigue of 1980s Russia. (YA)

peacockForgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. Release date: August 13, 2013. About: On Leonard Peacock’s birthday, he plans to bring a gun to school to kill his best friend, and then himself. But first, he must say goodbye to the four people who matter most to him. Cue an emotional odyssey that could change everything. Why I’m excited about it: Matthew Quick’s writing is consistently the most hope-filled of YA lit being published today, so I’m curious to see how he can take a hot-button topic like gun violence and turn it into something redemptive. (YA)

dark betweenThe Dark Between by Sonia Gensler. Release date: August 27, 2013. About: Part mystery, part romance, this story, set in 1920s England, takes the lives of three troubled teenagers and merges it with the spiritualism craze of the day. Why I’m excited about it: OK, I admit: paranormal fiction, and especially paranormal romance, is generally not my thing. What intrigues me most about this book is the setting and era. Done well, this could be some pretty creepy historical fiction–and I wouldn’t even mind the ghosts. (YA)

September

oreosHeaven Is Paved with Oreos by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. Release date: September 3, 2013. About: Sarah Zorn’s plans to spend the summer in Wisconsin are upended when her hippie Grandma invites her on a trip to Rome. No contest there, of course, but even a trip abroad can’t carry Sarah away from the issues she’s facing. Why I’m excited about it: I’ve enjoyed some of Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s other books, especially her humor and characterizations. Looking forward to seeing how she does with a book geared toward a slightly younger audience. (Late Middle Grade/Early YA)

roseRose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. Release date: September 10, 2013. About: Rose Justice is a pilot and amateur poet who’s been captured by the Nazis. Can she survive the horrors of the concentration camp by relying on her art–and by drawing strength from the remarkable loyalty and bravery of her fellow prisoners? Why I’m excited about it: Elizabeth Wein’s first novel, Code Name Verity, was my favorite of 2012. I can only imagine what her new book will offer in terms of another cast of courageous, brilliant, and heartbreaking characters. Sign me up! (YA)

What books are you looking forward to this summer? Let me know in the comments!

Bread, But Mostly Jam, for Jenny

Is there such a thing as too much jam?

Is there such a thing as too much jam?

I guess you could say I’ve always been a little obsessed with jam. Or, if not jam itself, stories about jam.

Before the days when I had the wherewithal to gorge myself on jam, I gorged myself on jam’s next of kin: Bread and Jam for Frances. In this cheerfully didactic story, which is still one of my favorites, Frances the badger has committed one of the seven deadly sins of childhood: She has become a picky eater. She won’t eat eggs, and she turns up her nose at veal cutlets (um, who wouldn’t?). She only wants to eat bread and jam, as recorded in one of her famous jam ditties:

Jam on biscuits / Jam on toast / Jam is the thing / I like the most.

Oh, indeed, Frances. Isn’t jam the thing we all like the most? Not disgusting grape jelly–even as a child, I was more of a jam connoisseur than that. I’m talking actual jam–preferably red, and preferably homemade.

Now that I’m an adult, my jam obsession extends not just to eating jam, but also to making it. Not exactly a complex endeavor, but an exacting (and time-consuming) one, especially given the particulars of my jam process. Still, every year when the season for local strawberries rolls around, I count the days until a trip to my favorite pick-your-own farm pans out (the weather gods have not been kind this June), and then load up on berries.

Ten pounds of berries, to be exact. Eight designated for jam.

OK, yes, eight pounds definitely sounds as though it falls into the realm of obsessive–or maybe excessive–but consider this: eight pounds of strawberries yields only five pints of jam. (That’s ten, 8-oz jars, for those of you keeping track at home.) And by the time I’ve gifted a few friends, and my dad, with their annual jars of “Jenny Jam,” that leaves very little jam to get me through the rest of the year. Especially with all the English muffins, and popovers, and scones, and loaves of bread (i.e. jam vehicles) that come out of my kitchen between September and May.

Yes, carbs are a necessary delivery system for jam, but it’s the jam I really crave. I guess that’s why I can love Bread and Jam for Frances, but not its fundamental premise: You can OD on jam. I haven’t–at least, not yet.

5 Things I’m Obsessing About This Week (when I’m not thinking about jam): June 12, 2013

1. Would my homemade jam tempt Hansel and Gretel? This sugar-filled solarium certainly would. WOW.

2. School’s out, but teachers are still getting the last laugh.

3. There’s a story in here somew(hair).

4. Please die the death of cuteness with me.

5. OK, so the one other thing I might possibly consider eating besides jam is THIS. Yum.

Happy Wednesday!

 

This Week’s Favorite: The Lucy Variations

"The Lucy Variations" by Sara Zarr

Put this on your reading list. Like, now.

Even occasional visitors to 60secondrecap.com may be aware of the fact that I am a bit of a Sara Zarr fangirl. So when I heard–was it eight, nine months ago?–that she had a new title coming out this spring, I put in a request for a review copy IMMEDIATELY.

Unfortunately, due to the timing of the book’s arrival, I didn’t get to read it right away, and by the time I began, there was already a significant amount of chatter on Goodreads about how The Lucy Variations wasn’t living up to expectations, wasn’t as good as Zarr’s previous novels, etc. So while I started the novel with some trepidation, now that I’ve read it, I must begin with a resounding: I beg to differ.

I’ll say up front that The Lucy Variations is a difficult book to discuss without resorting to spoilers. In fact, my only real issue with this book is that I wasn’t totally sure how I felt about a particular relationship that develops toward the end of the story–one which had some questionable subtext, and which I felt ended up being a bit of a distraction from Lucy’s emotional journey.

But rather than talk around what I can’t really talk about–and what was the weakest aspect of the book anyway–let me focus on what I loved, I mean absolutely loved, about this story.

First, the POV. This was Zarr’s first time writing in third person, and though others have criticized this decision, in my opinion, third person was the perfect choice for Lucy’s story. Lucy is a 16-year-old former piano prodigy. When the book opens, she’s eight months past a decision to walk away from a competition (and her piano career)–a choice she initially attributes to her grandmother’s death, but which she comes to realize over the course of the story is something she actually did for herself. For Lucy, being in the constant thick of competition–with all the attendant pressure, expectations, and notoriety–had resulted in the loss of an essential element of her music-making: the joy. This book is really about her journey back to that joy. Which is to say that more so than all of Zarr’s other novels, The Lucy Variations is more about an existential journey than a literal one. In first person, such soul-searching (and, at times, navel-gazing) could have felt claustrophobic. Third person gave the story just enough room to breathe–just enough distance from Lucy that I could empathize with her without getting sucked into that typical pratfall of most YA lit written in the first person: the vortex of angst.

So The Lucy Variations is a book about reclaiming one’s joy as an artist, but it’s also a book about overcoming fear. Sara Zarr wrote a wonderful blog post on this topic, and it didn’t surprise me to discover that part of the writing of The Lucy Variations was Zarr’s own process of working through some personal and professional fears. When it comes to art, audience members and fans see only the freedom of creative expression–the end product, in all its glorious transcendence. But the flip side of transcendence and freedom is angst and mortal terror and fear-induced inertia. I loved that Lucy’s character had to work through this fear of failure, and the way the various people in her life, especially her domineering grandfather, acted as metaphors for the voices (both in our own heads, and in the crowd of critics) that would try to make us believe that it’s not even worth trying, that we’re better off giving up. Being female, and also having achieved success at a young age, Lucy is somewhat of a “good girl”–someone who wants to please, to get it right, to make the people she looks up to happy. Her realization that she can shut out all these voices, that she can turn off this need to please, that she can stand up to fear in any of its forms, is one of the well-earned payoffs of this story, and an exquisite moment.

What else can I say about this week’s favorite? That I also loved the complex relationships between the characters? (I did.) That I loved that Lucy was a flawed protagonist, whose journey required more than a few course corrections? (Yes, I loved that, too.) Mostly, I loved this book for its emotional resonance–quintessential Sara Zarr in that regard. But there was also an emotional depth to The Lucy Variations that I hadn’t encountered before in Zarr’s writing. A depth that was new and beautiful, and yes, fearless.