Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

35621937.JPGWintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson explores the darkest recesses of the troubled mind of a teenage anorexic coping with the death of her best friend.  For a mother of young girls, this was a most terrifying reading experience.

Lia and Cassie were best friends growing up, making a dangerous pact to stay thin and always support each other’s habits.  But after 9 years of best friendship, they stop talking.

When Lia’s parents put her in a treatment center for eating disorders, Cassie’s parents warn her to stay away from Lia, who they perceive as a bad influence.  But what Cassie’s parents don’t know is that Cassie is a bulimic and in very serious trouble physically.  At the time of her death, Lia and Cassie hadn’t spoken in several months, but for some reason Cassie tried to call her 33 times the night she died.

Lia is haunted by obsessive thoughts of her friend, and visual and auditory hallucinations of Cassie encouraging her to stay strong, eat less, and join her.  She can even smell Cassie’s presence.

Obsessive thoughts rule Lia’s existence.  Thoughts of Cassie and thoughts of food.  Everything has a number.  Apple (75) half a bagel (185) 10 raisins (16).  The book is written in a stream of consciousness style that is compelling and painful.  I felt like I was witnessing this girl, this character I cared about, slowly killing herself, and I couldn’t do anything about it.

Her family is desperate to help her but Lia is critical of all their efforts.  Lia believes they are clueless and that they don’t care, but it’s clear they love her and will do anything to make her well.

A starving girl does not make the most reliable narrator.  She is deeply disturbed and in so much pain.  She calls herself names and has such horrible self-talk that it was very hard (as a mom) to read:

::stupid/ugly/stupid/bitch/stupid/fat/

stupid/baby/stupid/loser/stupid/lost::

Her brain is at war with itself throughout the book as she tries to convince herself that she doesn’t need food.  Anderson shows the reader how conflicted she is by using a strike-out technique with great effectiveness.  Here’s an example:

My traitor fingers want that fudge.  No, they don’t.  They want a seven layer bar and some weird muffins and those pretzels.  No, they do not.  They want to squish the marshmallows and stuff them into my mouth.  They will not.”

This is a fabulously written, intensely compelling book.  I love how it doesn’t solve the problem or give any easy answers, because there aren’t any.  It’s such a complicated issue.  Laurie Halse Anderson is an amazing YA novelist who takes on the most difficult subjects.  I’d highly recommend Wintergirls to anyone looking for a book to take over their lives for a couple of days, but most especially to those who deal with teenage girls on a regular basis or who want a better understanding of eating disorders.

This one is excellent.

UPDATE:  I forgot about the ‘full disclosure’ issue on blogs.. about where books come from.  I bought this book on vacation in August when I ran out of books to read. I read Speak by LHA last spring and loved it, and had seen Wintergirls reviewed positively on a number of blogs.  So that’s how I came to own this book, if anyone cares about that stuff!
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Review: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

20484041Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is a compelling YA novella that opens on Melinda’s first day of high school. That’s typically an anxiety filled day for anybody, but it’s excruciating for the girl who called the cops at an end of summer party, getting a lot of kids in trouble. Shunned by her friends and taunted by everyone, Melinda goes through the day and the entire school year mostly alone inside her own head.

Something has happened that has traumatized Melinda and transformed her from a good student with close friends into a withdrawn selective mute- she speaks only when absolutely necessary. Melinda keeps everything inside and it eats her alive. Harassed and tormented by her classmates and mostly ignored by her busy parents, she falls deeper into a depression; cutting class, forgetting to wash her hair, spacing out, gnawing on her lips until they are cracked and bleeding. Even her one friend, a cheery transplant from another school who is desperate to fit in somewhere, finally gives up on her, saying she is always negative and calling her a freak. But no one knows the torment Melinda is going through. As her grades slip and her social status plummets, she finds solace in art class. Her year-long art project is something she can get lost in and ultimately something that helps her heal.

Speak is an excellent portrayal of high school alienation – nothing is sugar coated here. This is an intimate look into teenage depression; emotional, painful, honest, raw. I’d heard the book was great and yet I wasn’t prepared for all the emotions I would go through while reading it. The mom in me was so frustrated with Melinda’s situation and just wanted to hold her and help her. I worried that the book would end with a suicide (it did not) and was grateful when Melinda began to show signs of getting better, becoming empowered through a confrontation with another classmate, and ultimately finding her voice.

The subject matter is dark but it isn’t graphic in any way. Speak came out in 1999 and it is my understanding that it is taught in high schools throughout the country, which I think is great. Laurie Halse Anderson got Melinda’s voice just right- it does not sound like an adult trying to write like a kid. It’s a powerful read; one I would strongly recommend for teens, parents, and teachers alike.

I was fortunate enough to see Laurie Halse Anderson speak on a panel last weekend at the Festival of Books, and she said that many critics are calling her latest book, Wintergirls, her best novel since Speak, or better than Speak. She said it’s a challenge for an author when your first book is your best known work, and she said she was “Miss Crankypants” about that for a long time, but now she is grateful and feels so fortunate to be able to wake up and listen to the voices in her head each day and write down what they say. She is frequently asked what impact Speak has had on her life, and she said it changed everything- in writing Speak she found her voice and she found her “people”.

Thanks to Jill at Fizzy Thoughts for sharing this book with me! I loved it.

UPDATE:  Read my review of Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson HERE.

LA Times Festival of Books and Bloggers!


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Natasha, Amy, Tracy, Ti, Jill, Trish, Lisa

Natasha, Amy, Tracy, Ti, Jill, Trish, Lisa

This weekend I attended a super-fun two day event, the LA Times Festival of Books. That would have been exciting enough for a book geek like me, but what made it super-fun (as opposed to just regular fun) was getting to meet some of my blogger friends in real life.  What a treat!

The plan was to meet in front of the UCLA book store.  As I wandered up to the steps in front, I immediately recognized Jill from Fizzy Thoughts and Ti from Book Chatter from the pictures on their blogs. Hugs all around.  Then pretty soon Amy from My Friend Amy wandered over after passing by and glancing at us suspiciously two or three times, then Tracy from Shelf Life walked over with a big smile, and pretty soon we were all laughing and talking.  Jill and I went to get coffee (she was so nice and gave me a book I’ve been wanting to read- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson- who I would see on a panel later in the day).  When we got back, we saw that Trish from Hey, Lady! (also my partner in TLC Book Tours) and Natasha from Maw Books had arrived.  I spilled my coffee while hugging Natasha (I was mortified and so glad it spilled on me rather than on her cute white jacket!). Trish was telling the story of why she was a little late, complete with colorful adjectives and funny anecdotes and facial expressions and hand gestures.  For those of you who might have been wondering- yes, Trish really is THAT cute and excitable and funny in person!   It was interesting to see how much everyone’s personalities really shine through on their blogs.

Jill and Florinda

Jill and Florinda

The first panel of the day for most of us was the Social Networking and New Media panel.  The very organized Ti had made a spreadsheet for us showing which bloggers were attending which panels.  We knew that Wendy from Musings of a Bookish Kitty and Florinda from 3R’s blog were supposed to be there, but we couldn’t find Florinda and we didn’t know what Wendy looked like.  We were in a big lecture hall and I was standing up looking around and joking that we should call out “Literary Feline!  Where are you?” when I felt a tap on my arm from the woman seated next to me.  “I’m Wendy” she said in this tiny kitten-y voice.  She’d been right beside us the whole time!  We found Florinda just a couple minutes later (she was easy to spot from her picture on her blog, and because we knew she was short height-challenged) and were able to all sit together.

tweet, tweet

tweet, tweet

That panel was a good one, with Otis Chandler (founder of Goodreads.com), Wil Wheaton (author, blogger, twitter-er, and actor from Star Trek: TNG), and Sara Wolf (dance critic-she was out of place).  Otis said he had a theory that reading was “broken” and that in starting Goodreads he had hoped to make reading more of a social experience and provide a place where people could talk to each other about books.  He said we’ve all experienced social pressure to watch tv (like when everyone is talking about who got kicked off American Idol, and if you don’t watch you feel out of it).  He wanted to try to make that true with books, and gave examples like “All the cool kids are reading Twilight”.  

Wendy and Anjin

Wendy and Anjin

The following question was posed to the panel: “What does social media (Twitter) do to readers attention spans?”  Will answered by saying he blames the dumbing down of society on TV, not technology.  Something Will said really resonated with me as a member of the blogging community- “You don’t have to be in the same room with someone anymore to share an experience.” He was referring to internet communities and conversations that go on in places like Twitter, Goodreads, and Facebook.  I think our group could all agree with that!  Another question came up about placing limits on and policing social media- having rules- filtering out spam.  Will and Otis discussed that, saying with social media, users “own” it, they make the rules and define how it will be.  Marketers want to tell us what to do on social media i.e. “Here’s how you can profit if you use it my way”, which is precisely why they fail and are seen as spammers. People will use Facebook and Twitter in a way that’s fun for them and ignore the rest.  Meanwhile, the third panelist didn’t seem to have much of a grasp on what Twitter actually is, and was busy talking about the “constellations” in her dance community on Facebook, and how constellating is so great.  Constellating???  Ok….  

Lunch

Lunch

After a quick lunch together, we went our separate ways to the various panels.  Trish, Natasha, Amy and I attended Problem Child, which was a panel with Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, Winter Girls), Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole-graphic novel), Jacquelyn Woodfin (Hush, Locomotion, Peace Locomotion) and Suzanne Phillips (Burn).  Laurie Halse Anderson said she “feels so lucky to be able to wake up, listen to the voices in her head, and write down what they say.”  The moderator said that one thing their books had in common was that they all have a really strong, immediate narrative voice.  One comment I jotted down from this panel was that most YA-middle grade novels have a “problem child” because they need a central conflict to make the book interesting, but the characters in these books go way beyond the norm.  We’re talking about eating disorders and cutting, mental illness, kids with real issues. This was a great panel but I had to leave early in order to get to my next panel on time, because there was no way I was going to miss seeing Lisa See!

Lisa meets Lisa

Lisa meets Lisa

Several of us went to Fiction: Window on the World with Lisa See (Shanghai Girls, Snow Flower, Peony in Love), Jonathon Rabb (Rosa, Shadow and Light), Vanina Marsot (Foreign Tongue), and Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog)  and her translator.  

I’m a huge Lisa See fan.  She talked about Shanghai Girls, set in both Shanghai and Los Angeles, and said it asks the question “How do we define home?  Is it where you grew up, or in the place that you make?”  An excellent question for a midwestern transplant like me.  She spoke about China City in LA from 1937 until the mid-50s, how it was built to look like a real Chinese city with a mini-Great Wall of China surrounding it, but how much of it was created from Hollywood props and sets.  

Lisa meets Vanina

Lisa meets Vanina

I’m also a new fan of Vanina Marsot, having just finished her book Foreign Tongue a week ago (review coming soon!). I was completely enthralled by it!  Vanina said she wanted to show the non-Disneyland version of Paris, a real city where real people live, not vacation-land. Her protagonist Anna, living in Paris with dual French/American citizenship, is translating a book from French to English.  It’s an examination of both cultures, how things are expressed in both languages, and how some things don’t translate well.  She shared an expression that French mothers use with their children that translates literally into “Stop your cinema”.  Those of us with little drama queens immediately knew what she meant!

Muriel Barbery brought along a translator and was utterly charming.  Jill and Tracy had both read The Elegance of  the Hedgehog and were really excited to see her.  Tracy mentioned later that she had a “girl crush” on her, and I can totally relate.  She was elegant in that effortless French way, hair pulled straight back into a sleek chignon, minimal makeup and jewelry, yet still looked stunning.  She spoke in French and while I couldn’t understand a word, her smile and laugh and sweet tone spoke volumes.  I wanted to buy her book and get it signed but they’d sold out. I did, however, get to say hello at the signing.  She’s adorable.

img_2747I gushed and babbled all over Lisa See!  She signed my beat up ARC of Shanghai Girls (coming out in May) and said that she remembered me from our book club conversation last fall.  Then I gushed and babbled some more all over Vanina Marsot.  She was surprised that I’d already read her book.  I told her the publisher had sent it to me, and that I was a blogger.  She said, “Oh, do you know Jennifer?”  I said, “From Literate Housewife?”  She nodded, and said, “Yes, isn’t she wonderful?”  I, of course, agreed with her (Hi, Jen!) and told her I’d enjoyed her interview on Jen’s blog and loved the pictures. Whatever else I said is a blur.  Did I mention I gushed and babbled?

Amy, Tracy, and I blew off our 4th panel of the day in favor of walking around in the beautiful sunshine, picking up some freebies (mostly bookmarks), and talking. Amy did some shopping and bought gifts for her mom and sister (that’s her with Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark).  

Trish and me

Trish and me

We all met back at the UCLA bookstore, where Trish was once again a teensy bit late, but with good reason, and was oh so excited to tell everybody about the panel she’d attended (she is so darn cute.  I just love her!)  

Then we headed over to Jerry’s Deli in Westwood for dinner.  This is getting really lengthy, so let’s just say a good time was had by all.  Here are a couple pictures from our evening together.  Around the table, starting on the left, we have Trish, Ti, me, Amy, Florinda, Wendy’s husband Anjin, Wendy, Natasha and Jill.  In the last picture, taken outside, we have (left to right) Jill, Natasha, Ti, Florinda, me-Lisa, Wendy, Trish, Amy.  

I went back to the Festival on Sunday for Day 2, but just attended one panel (a middle grade fiction one) with my daughter and did a little shopping.  I picked up some books for my kids and stopped at the Vroman’s booth for The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer (he was on a panel Saturday that I didn’t see, but other bloggers loved!) and The Elegance of the Hedgehog (I was so glad they had it!)  I’ll tell you about my kids’ “adventures in book signing” in another post.

Thanks to all my wonderful new friends for making this a really special weekend for me.  It was a thrill and a pleasure to meet you all and I hope we can do it again next year!

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