Out of the Easy

ImageI fell in love with Ruta Sepetys’ writing when I read her debut novel Between Shades of Gray, a story about a Lithuanian girl’s experience in a Russian gulag. Between Shades of Gray was an emotionally compelling novel with vibrant characters and a setting that you won’t soon forget. Ruta Sepetys’ second novel, Out of the Easy, is just as good, with characters just as vibrant and another unforgettable setting.

Out of the Easy takes place in New Orleans in 1950. Josie is the daughter of a prostitute, and that’s all people see when they look at her. But she is so much more than her mother’s legacy. Josie is smart, resourceful, and hardworking. She has bigger dreams than following her mother’s profession or working in a city that only thinks of her as a prostitute’s daughter. Josie dreams of getting out of New Orleans and attending an elite East Coast school like Smith. But for a girl of Josie’s circumstances, Smith is a pipe dream.

But Josie refuses to give up. She’s a heroine every reader can love and respect. She works two jobs, has loyal friends and an upstanding character, despite her scandalous childhood and her mother. She is smart, caring, and tough, and you can’t help but root for her.

Out of the Easy is full of great characters like Josie, characters that are vibrant whether they are good or bad. Characters like Cokie, an old cab driver, and Patrick, who owns the bookstore where Josie works, are steady and loyal friends to Josie. Jesse, a handsome mechanic with a past like Josie’s, is a good friend who hopes to be more, and Willie Woodley is the savvy businesswoman who looks after Josie when she needs it most. But even the characters who are not so savory add dimension to the story, including Josie’s good for nothing mother and her friend’s uncle who shows more interest in Josie than he should.

All these characters weave together as Josie finds herself entangled in a murder mystery surrounding a man who came into the bookshop one day. Josie tries to navigate life in New Orleans’ French quarter while planning for her future—and a way out of New Orleans—and trying to figure out the truth behind this murder. As the reader, you fight Josie’s battles, hope her hopes, suffer her losses, and finally rejoice at her success. Out of the Easy is not a fairytale. It isn’t a Cinderella story, but it is a tale of how one girl’s hard work and faithful friends can get her closer to her dreams.

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Ruta Sepetys

Just like Between Shades of Gray, Out of the Easy is a memorable story with fantastic characters and an engaging story. As much as I enjoyed Ruta Sepetys’ first novel, I loved this one even more. All of the characters—both good and bad and morally ambiguous—were fantastic, and the story complemented the setting very well. It is definitely a book I would recommend for everyone, no matter what kind of genre you like. Out of the Easy is a well written story that I could read over and over again. Just writing this review makes me want to go reread the book. Maybe that’s just what I’ll do, so if you’ll excuse me…

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Les Deux Magots

ImageThe highlight of my senior year of college had nothing to do with college, though graduating was rather exciting. But the most incredible thing I did that year was travel to Europe for the first time. Emily and I stayed in London for over a week, taking day trips to Oxford and Paris. When we decided to go to Paris, we knew we had to eat in a quintessential Parisian café in order to get the true Parisian experience. And being the literature nerds that we are, we knew we wanted to find a café with literary significance. After all, almost every old café in Paris can boast that it has hosted more than one famous writer, both European and American. After diligent research—which is Emily’s gift—we decided that for our whirlwind day in Paris we would eat in a little café known as Les Deux Magots.

Les Deux Magots is a small café located in Saint-Germain. And before you begin to wonder, the name does not translate to “two maggots”, which would be a terrible name for a place that serves food. Rather, Les Deux Magots means the two Chinese figurine dolls, a name derived from a novelty shop that occupied the space before the café. Since it was founded in 1812, Les Deux Magots has served many famous authors, artists, and notable people, but I will mention two.

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This plaque stands on the street corner where the cafe is located.

Ever the classicist, Emily insisted that we find a café where Ernest Hemingway had frequented while he lived in Paris in the 1920s. Les Deux Magots is one of those cafes, and it was very excited for both of us to eat in a place where that hosted this great American writer. More exciting for me and less exciting for Emily, Simone de Beauvoir also ate at Les Deux Magots. A notable French existentialist, writer, and feminist, de Beauvoir is most famous for her book The Second Sex and her relationship with existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. While I wrote my senior thesis that year—you can read part of my musings on the heroine in British literature—I read The Second Sex and was duly impressed by de Beauvoir’s intelligence and talent in writing. Though as a disclaimer I should say that I disagree with her on many, many points, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way de Beavoir tied feminism into philosophy, psychology, and politics. Anyway, Emily humored my Simone de Beauvoir phase as she handles all my odd phases, and we went to the café of Ernest Hemingway and Simone de Beauvoir.

But besides the historical and literary significance of Les Deux Magots, there is also the cultural atmosphere of a French café—a Parisian café. Emily and I sat at our small little table and ate our delicious sandwiches, soaking in the moment, pretending we were great writers ourselves. It was a wonderful experience; a required experience if you ever plan on visiting Paris. There are many cafés to choose from, and I’m sure they all serve delicious food and wonderful ambience, but Emily and I can personally recommend Les Deux Magots, 6 Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

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A shelf in the famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company that honors Simone de Beauvoir and her book The Second Sex.

For Darkness Shows the Stars

Last week I wrote a post about how culture expects me to love Jane Austen because I’m a girl, an English major, etc., etc. but I am just not the biggest fan. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy her novels or that I don’t respect and admire her. In fact, the first time that I read Persuasion, I was very sad to surface from the book and say goodbye to the characters within it. Persuasion has long been my favorite of Jane Austen’s novels. Perhaps it’s because it is one of the lesser known of Austen’s works, which means that the story has not been adapted and retold about a billion times (I’m looking at you, Pride and Prejudice). But I think the main reason that Persuasion is my favorite is because Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth’s story is a beautiful picture of forgiveness and second chances.

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A retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, For Darkness Shows the Stars is a beautiful story of reconciliation and second chances.

When I heard that author Diana Peterfreund had written a science fiction retelling of Persuasion in a dystopian world, I was intrigued. And once I opened the book, I couldn’t put it down. The premise is thus:

Elliot North lives in a world that was destroyed years ago by an event called the Reduction, when a genetic experiment went wrong and decimated the human population. The only humans who were not affected by the Reduction were the Luddites who eschewed all technology. Now the Luddites are the ruling class in society, and their servants are the progeny of those who were genetically altered all those years ago. Elliot is a Luddite, but has always been curious about the world around her. But when her childhood sweetheart, Kai, who is a servant on her father’s land, asks her to leave with him and go in search of a better life, Elliot refuses and chooses her duty to the estate’s inhabitants over her love for Kai.

Brokenhearted and not always sure that she made the right choice, Elliot is still working to keep the estate solvent several years later. In order to do so, she rents out land to a mysterious group of shipbuilders called the Cloud Fleet. One of her new tenants is Captain Malakai Wentforth (ha, get it?), whom she is astonished to realize is Kai. Kai has done well and has made a name for himself. He hasn’t forgiven her for her betrayal, and seems determined to show Elliot how much she gave up, and what could have been if she had gone with him. While Kai threatens to turn Elliot’s life on its head, the Cloud Fleet harbors secrets that could also turn society upside down, and Elliot has to decide once again where her loyalties lie.

While the world building in this book can be a bit clunky and is sometimes too complicated for its own good, the rest of the book is worth the extra patience required. The pain that Kai and Elliot feel, the longing that they have for each other, and the tension between them are all emotions that pulse through the book and are palpable.

I think the most successful thing about this Persuasion retelling is the fact that Elliot made the right decision to stay, and Kai made the right decision to leave. It is understandable where they are both coming from, and therefore the hurt that they both feel is justified. The way in which Peterfreund sets up the social system in the book means that Elliot is in charge of protecting the people on her estate who cannot protect themselves. Elliot’s father is a cruel, greedy man, and she knows that if she had left with Kai, there would be no one to stop her father from doing irreparable damage to the people who work on their estate. Kai, on the other hand, knows that if he stays on the state then he will never be more than a worker who learns about the outside world from books that Elliot lends him.

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If you’ve read For Darkness Shows the Stars, there is also a prequel about Kai’s time away from the estate. I am looking forward to reading it!

Letters that Elliot and Kai wrote each other when they were younger are sprinkled throughout the book. Because of this, the reader gets to see the sweet, tender love that they had before Kai left. And this make it even more painful to read about Kai’s calculated slights towards Elliot, and the way the Elliot has frozen and retreated into herself. I found myself very invested in their story because I wanted them to reconcile and find a way to begin again.

I, as a reader, had immense sympathy for both of the characters, and was not sure how they would overcome the obstacles put before them. And while Elliot is in some ways a very different character than Anne in Persuasion— since, you know, she isn’t really persuaded by others to stay– Peterfreund does a great job of updating the story so that it fits into our more modern sensibilities. And so I read and read and read, finishing the book in almost one sitting. Is this the most brilliantly executed book of all time? No. Does it tug on your heartstrings? Oh my goodness yes. If you’re looking for an emotional roller coaster ride of a book, look no further. For Darkness Shows the Stars does not disappoint.

Cress

ImageLately, I’ve been enjoying Marissa Meyer’s best selling series “The Lunar Chronicles”. I reviewed the first book, Cinder, Meyer’s debut novel that follows the story of a cyborg Cinderella in a dystopian/futuristic earth. After enjoying this new adaptation of the classic fairytale, I quickly got the second book, Scarlet, from the library. While Cinder is a creative take on the story of Cinderella, Scarlet is an original retelling of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, following the story of a girl named Scarlet, who is somehow connected to the lost princess of Luna (a country on the moon). But even Scarlet doesn’t understand how she is connected to the lost Princess Selene. Scarlet continues the storyline of Cinder while introducing new characters that get caught up in Cinder’s quest to save earth from the evil queen of Luna.

In the Cress, the third book of the series, Meyer introduces another fairytale to weave into her overarching story: Rapunzel. Cress is the story of a girl named Crescent, or Cress, who lives imprisoned in a satellite orbiting earth. After having very little to keep her occupied for the last several years, Cress has become an expert hacker, a skill which her mother figure/captor utilizes as the evil Lunar queen tries to hunt down Cinder. But Cress’ hacking skills have allowed her to learn more about Cinder and her friends than anyone else, and she decides to try to help them. But before she can help them, they must help her. So Cinder, and the friends she picked up in book 2, set out to rescue Cress. Things don’t go as planned and now Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress must all fight to survive, reunite, and overthrow an evil queen.

ImageI think the greatest charm of Meyer’s books are the creative adaptation of the fairytales—Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. Set in Meyer’s new version of earth, each story has clever reinventions. But Meyer honors the original fairytales in old and new ways, like Rapunzel wandering in the desert and her prince/hero being blinded. Meyer’s balance of the original fairytale and her new telling of it make each book entertaining and fun to read.

One issue with Cress that didn’t exist with Cinder is that as the third book, I expected more to be happening plot wise. While I enjoyed Scarlet and the new characters it introduced, the book felt like a tangent from the main storyline introduced in Cinder. With Cress, the plot seemed to return to the main story, but then it seemed to stall. Stuff happened in the book, characters were separated and faced different obstacles, but as far as the main plot point of overthrowing the evil queen, almost no progress was made. So while I enjoyed Cress, and Scarlet for that matter, the plot could have pressed forward a little more. However, I will eagerly await the next book in the series, Winter, scheduled to come out in 2015, and hopefully then the plot will come to a climax and be resolved.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

After the world-wide success of The Avengers, Captain America is back starring in his own movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The film follows Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who during World War II was turned into a super soldier by American scientists. He is faster and stronger than many of his opponents, and is also smarter and kinder– though he had those traits all along. Steve’s one weakness, it seems, is pop culture. Since, you know, he was trapped in ice for decades.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of Marvel’s strongest movies to date, with plenty of action and laughs, but most importantly with plenty of character development.

Steve is working for the law enforcement agency S.H.I.E.L.D., and at the beginning of the film his main concern seems to be catching up on everything that he missed while he was on ice (his list humorously includes Thai food, Star Wars, and Star Trek). Work is routine for Steve, and maybe even a little boring. He isn’t sure where he fits in this new world, and isn’t sure what his role should be. Should he be a soldier and follows orders even when his morals clash with his superiors’ plans? Or should he strike out on his own? And if so, what will he do with his life?

But then a character who has been a fixture of the Marvel movie universe for years shows up at Steve’s apartment after being attacked. This character entrusts Steve with a piece of technology (which Steve has no idea how to use since, well, he was asleep for decades) and tells Cap to trust no one. And then he dies.

Suddenly Steve has to question the motives of everyone around him. Does he trust the cute girl next door he flirts with over laundry (Emily VanCamp)? Does he trust his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agents when it seems very possible that a splinter cell inside the agency could be behind the murder?

Steve decides to trust his friend and ally Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). They go dark, going undercover in order to try and uncover the secrets behind who killed their colleague and friend. A new ally, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), helps them on their quest using skills from his time in the military. What they discover about S.H.I.E.L.D. is much, much bigger than any of them ever imagined. And when an integral person from Steve’s past resurfaces, now called the Winter Soldier, nothing will be the same.

Phew. Now. Let me start this review off by saying that I am a DC comics girl. I don’t read Marvel comics, but I find most of their films to be entertaining if not life changing. I’m not a big Avengers fan, but I loved this movie. Sure, the fight scene in the finale was way too long and reminded me way to much of the finale in The Avengers. But the real reason to watch this film, as with any Marvel film, is the characters.

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One of the most refreshing things about the film is that Steve and Natasha are equals and have respect for each other. Their platonic relationship is also a breath of fresh air, especially in a film industry that usually equates “female lead” with “love interest”.

I have to hand it to Marvel, the way that they have planned out their movie universe is amazing. Characters weave in and out of each film, and they have done a great job of uncovering the complexities and different facets of each main character’s personality. Steve Rogers is, as always, a fantastic character. He is funny, self-effacing, and a consumate hero who always strives to uphold what is right. But the real star of the show is Natasha Romanoff, who has always been a morally gray character. She has a checkered, violent past, and joined S.H.I.E.L.D. in the hopes of redeeming herself. She is tough, intelligent, sarcastic, and always a few steps ahead of everyone around her.

This film does a great job of revealing nuances of Natasha, who is finally (hopefully) getting her own film. She has to make big decisions about whether or not to do the right thing, even if it is detrimental to her personally. And can I just say, it is so, so refreshing to have a female star in a movie without being a love interest. Natasha and Steve have a deep, caring relationship, but it is most certainly a platonic one. A recurring joke throughout the movie is that Natasha is trying to set Steve up with other women. In fact, the relationship closest to a romance is the bromance between Steve and Sam Wilson.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a film that respects its heroine and shows her to be complex, courageous, and witty– as well as beautiful. If there are a few shots that show off her physique in her uniform, there are also plenty gratuitous shots of Steve in his. Black Widow and the Cap are equals, even in that. Natasha makes the movie, which is so fun and enjoyable, a must-see because the respect that she is shown is so, so refreshing. Which is, albeit, incredibly sad. But it’s a step in the right direction. And when Black Widow’s movie comes out in theaters, I will be one of the first in line to see it. Even if I’m a DC girl.

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Anyone else excited about a Black Widow movie?

18 Miles of Books

Wherever Emily and I travel together, we are sure to hit the major bookstores. In Paris, this meant that we went to Shakespeare and Company. In England, we went to Blackwell’s. In Washington DC, we went to Capitol Books. All of these bookstores were like heaven to two book lovers such as ourselves, but one of the best bookstores Emily and I ever went to was The Strand in New York City.

I was lucky enough to go to college in New York City, and Emily, attending the University of Maryland, was able to come visit me quite often. On almost all of her visits, we trekked down to Union Square to peruse the 18 miles of books that is The Strand Bookstore.

The Strand is one of the most famous bookstores in New York. It sells everything from new releases to old classics to rare (like, $5000 rare) first editions and signed copies. With four stories of books, you can find everything from fiction to nonfiction, children’s books to art books, Shakespeare coffee mugs to Jane Austen tote bags. It truly is a book lover’s heaven. Emily and I loved finding cheap copies of new books and beautiful old copies of our favorite classics.

Whenever we would go to The Strand, Emily and I would break off, knowing that we would both eventually end up in the Young Adult section on the second floor. But I had a routine that I always followed. I passed by the classic section to look at beautifully bound copies of Oliver Twist and The Praise of Folly. Then I would meander down the aisles of books to the science fiction section to look for new copies of Lord of the Rings. Because I have a problem buying copies of Lord of the Rings. I have 6 copies of The Lord of the Rings and 5 copies of The Hobbit.

After checking the Tolkien section, I would make my way to the poetry shelf to look for pretty copies of my favorite poets—Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W.B. Yeats, and Sylvia Plath. Next it was downstairs to the nonfiction section to look for more books on Tolkien, because clearly I don’t have enough. Then it was up to the second story to look at their wonderful young adult and children’s section. This is where Emily and I would usually meet up and then we would go up to the third floor to check out the rare and antique books that were well beyond our budgets.

The Strand is one of the biggest bookstores you’ll go to that is not a Barnes and Noble. The books are great prices and you can find fantastic scores—from copies with pretty bindings to books for only $1. Emily and I never went in without coming out with at least one book. Usually more. But even if you’re not buying anything, The Strand is a wonderful place to go and just soak up the aura of books.

Why Jane Austen Isn’t My Favorite Author

keira-knightly-as-elizabeth-bennettOn my first date with my boyfriend, we were walking around Washington DC and books came up as a topic of conversation, as they usually do when I’m talking to someone. This was a particularly important topic for both of us, as we both admitted that we tend to get a feel for other people by what they read. Luckily we both approved of each other’s taste. But one part of that conversation went a little something like this:

Boy: So do you like Jane Austen novels?

Me: . . . I mean, yeah. I like them.

Boy: Are they not your favorite books?

Me: No.

Boy: Do you have a favorite one?

Me: Yes. Persuasion.

Boy: Not Pride and Prejudice?

Me: Nope. I like it, but it’s not my favorite.

Boy: . . . Oh. I just lost a bet with my best friend, I was sure that you would be a fan.

While the exchange was humorous, it also got me thinking about the expectations in our culture. A lot of people assume that all females worship the ground on which Jane Austen once tread, just in the way that a lot of people assume that all women love chocolate (though I, personally, am not the biggest fan). I don’t blame my boyfriend for assuming that I would be obsessed with Jane Austen based on what he knew about me at the time. Here is a little Venn diagram to show what our culture’s expectations are:

 

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Please excuse my lack of artistic ability… But you get the gist.

Because I am female, I’m expected to love Jane Austen. Because I was an English major in college, I’m expected to love Jane Austen. And as a female English major who happens to be a Christian, my idea of an ideal Saturday is supposed to be being curled up with a mug of tea and Emma. But it isn’t.

And whenever I state this in conversation, especially with other females, many people are shocked and dismayed by this fact. They try to convince me that if I reread Sense and Sensibility or watch a film adaptation of Northanger Abbey, I will grow to love Jane Austen as much as they do. Some girls get upset with me when I stand my ground and say that I’d rather not, like I’ve failed some rite of passage.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I like Jane Austen. She was a brilliant writer with a glorious sense of humor. The way that she is able to slyly describe a character in a way that ensures that you know the ins and outs of that character in just a sentence or two? It leaves me in awe every time. I respect her for her well-deserved success and admire her talent. I also wish to emulate her ability to work hard to achieve her goals. I have read all of her novels, and have thoroughly enjoyed them. I watched a lot of the film adaptations at sleepovers growing up.

What I guess I’m trying to say, however, is that I would rather read Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot. This has nothing to do with Jane Austen, and everything to do with my personal preferences and tastes. There are so many books out there and so many characters to meet. I think that we all have old friends that we love to go back to visit– Little Women, Lord of the Rings, A Wrinkle in Time. For a lot of people, Jane Austen’s characters are these old friends.

But I think that we do women everywhere a disservice by trying to fit us all into one mold or trying to dictate what we all must like. So please. It is not a truth universally acknowledged that all girls’ favorite author is Jane Austen. And that’s okay.

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Though even as someone who isn’t a big Pride and Prejudice fan? The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (http://www.lizziebennet.com/) is fantastic.