Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

This book should be called A Farewell to Commas, because holy run-on sentences‼️

(Just working on my literature-based standup. But really, sometimes it’s too much; there’s one sentence in this book that uses “and” 22 TIMES 😵‍💫)

I got this book at the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West last year and am only just getting around to reading it—which kind of worked out great, because I read War and Peace last year, and this was like War and Peace Lite.

All the war, one-fifth the page count.

A bleak tale about war and loss, this novel is based on Hemingway’s real-life experience as an ambulance driver and medic in the Italian army during WWI.

It’s also based on his real-life experience falling in love with an English nurse during the war. And, as I learned on my tour of the Hemingway home, IRL his nurse left him for another man, so he got revenge the best way writers know how: he killed her off in his book.

(Sorry, are spoilers a thing for 93-year-old novels? 😬)

A Farewell to Arms is an unflinching depiction of the horrors of war that likely was much needed in 1929 when people couldn’t see the harsh realities of it daily on TV. And Hemingway’s writing is almost timeless, because his language is too clear, straightforward, and simple to be dated.

Review: ⭐⭐⭐.5/5

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.

—Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
Review: Working on a Song by Anaïs Mitchell

Review: Working on a Song by Anaïs Mitchell

Love!!! ❤️

Imagine the stories of Greek mythology set in a Great Depression Era-inspired, post-apocalyptic world, where the seasons are out of tune, there’s a train to hell, people swig wine out of tin cups, and they hope for spring despite the cold and dark 🌱

Hadestown is a bittersweet and refreshingly original musical written by folk singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell that won the 2019 Tony for Best Musical. It’s my favorite new musical since Hamilton, and I actually like it more — it’s more elusive and poetic, and I feel more things about it every time I see or listen to it.

This is my second time reading this book by Mitchell about her journey writing the music, specifically the lyrics, for the show, and it’s a true masterclass in storytelling through song.

Hadestown started as a folk concept album, and over 10+ years of workshops, feedback, and a few divine jolts of inspiration, the final polished Broadway musical was born. But it was messy along the way; Mitchell had to learn to adapt her folk-writing approach to a dramatic story with characters and plot. She had to make cuts. She had to rearrange. And rewrite. Again. And again. She had to work to balance the poetry with the practical.

And she did it beautifully ✨️

I find Mitchell’s writing journey so inspiring, because when you’re frustrated with your creative output it can be easy to give up — why bang your head against the wall trying to get it right when it seems like you never will?

Hadestown is the answer 🌹

Review: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

What is seen and heard onstage is the blooming flower, but most of the plant is underground. Every line, verse, or chorus—every idea any of us who worked on it ever had, even the ones that never saw the light of day—they’re down there. They’re the roots of the plant, and the flower wouldn’t exist without them.

—Anais Mitchell, Working on a Song
Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The genre: Historical, epic

The gist: Oh boy. Lots of stuff happens to lots of Russians during Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia. It’s big, endearing, and human.

The background: The musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 brought me here. It’s based on only a small section of War and Peace, but I loved the characters so much I wanted more of their story.

1,300 pages later, here we are.

The review: My first Tolstoy!

Finished this bad boy back in October but held off on posting because I have a lot of ~thoughts~ and ~feelings~ …

But first — look how pretty and minimalist this Oxford edition is ✨️📚

So, Seinfeld was kind of right when he joked that Tolstoy’s original title for War and Peace was War…What Is It Good For? Because that’s basically the point of this novel. War is bad. War is dumb. War is started by countless random events accumulating, and it rewards the worst traits in people, like ruthlessness and blind loyalty. Everything is backwards in war: brother killing brother when they otherwise might be friends.

This is a rich tapestry of a tale. Challenging at times, with blocky, philosophy-packed paragraphs and painstaking battle details, but mostly it’s charming and heart-wrenching.

The characters, though ❤️ The characters were the highlight for me. Everyone in War and Peace is so human and multi-faceted, I was sad to be done hanging out with them when I finished reading. I loved Pierre’s constant existential crises, Natasha’s bright, enduring spirit, Nikolai’s earnestness, Marya’s reflective tranquility.

I don’t know that I’ll ever read it in its entirety again—life is just too short 😂—but I know I’ll page through to revisit some of the beautiful writing 📖

The rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

They had evidently both formed the same resolution, the eyes of both shone with satisfaction and a confession that besides its sorrow, life also has joy.

—Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

The genre: Contemporary fiction, romance-ish

The gist: A marriage on the rocks gets a second chance thanks to the help of a magic phone.

The review: Far-fetched but charming 💛

Georgie and Neal fell in love in college, got married, had two kids, and somewhere along the way lost sight of what made their relationship work.

Just when things seem irreparably bad, Georgie finds that her old landline phone at her mother’s house can magically get a hold of Neal in the 1990s, when they were first falling for each other. These calls help her remember her love for her now-husband, and ultimately save their marriage with a little time-traveling weirdness.

As a kid who grew up with landlines and VCRs, I like the idea of finding some elusive magic in analog technology. Because, like, there was something different and more special about a long landline phone chat—where you stood or sat or paced twirling the cord in your fingers, solely focused on the conversation because you were literally tethered to it—than the constant access we have to each other now.

I love Rainbow Rowell’s characters and writing. Their charm and endearment make this wild plot point work.

The rating: ⭐⭐⭐/5

Neal didn’t take Georgie’s breath away. Maybe the opposite. But that was okay—that was really good, actually, to be near someone who filled your lungs with air.

—Rainbow Rowell, Landline
Review: Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

Review: Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

©Balzer + Bray

The genre: YA

The gist: Prequel to The Hate U Give about Maverick, Starr’s dad, as a seventeen year-old.

The review: Just as good as The Hate U Give 👌

This prequel is the origin story of Maverick, Starr from The Hate U Give‘s dad, and it shows everything he went through to become the outstanding husband and father he is in THUG.

Concrete Rose is about a young Black man who faces obstacle after obstacle but keeps pushing, who makes mistakes but bravely owns up to them. He faces the pressures of gang life, poverty, he struggles to keep up at school when he has heavy responsibilities at home. He often feels hopeless and lost, but he never stops trying to be a good person.

Seventeen-year-old Maverick exemplifies what his future wife Lisa says in THUG: No matter what the world throws at you, “the key is to never stop doing right.”

The wrap-up: Everyone should read Angie Thomas’s books.

The rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

Roses can bloom in the hardest conditions.

—Angie Thomas Concrete Rose
Review: On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Review: On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

©Balzer + Bray

The genre: YA

The gist: A high schooler who loves to rap ultimately tries to make it as a rapper to help save her family.

The tea: I love Angie Thomas’s writing.

So far, I’ve only read The Hate U Give and this one, but Concrete Rose is up next, and I’m excited to read anything else she puts out.

Her characters and dialogue are so real that you feel like you’re popping in on actual conversations. Not only that, but her stories show an American experience that not everyone shares, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot from her books.

In On the Come Up, high schooler Bri loves to rap. She deals with racism at school, family drama, and eventually the threat of extreme poverty that causes her to try to make it as a rapper to help her family. On top of that, she’s got normal teenager stuff going on, like crushes on boys and the pressure of getting into college.

Something I really liked was getting to see the thought process behind Bri’s freestyles, seeing her quickly transform her scattered thoughts into the sick burns she throws at her opponent.

The wrap-up: Great author, great book. Read all her stuff.

The rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5 /5

I’m starting to think it doesn’t matter what I do. I’ll still be whatever people think I am.

—Angie Thomas, On the Come Up
Review: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Review: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

©Penguin Books

The genre: Contemporary fiction, suspense

The gist: In 1964, Eileen works at a prison office at a male juvenile detention center, is daughter to an alcoholic ex-cop, and has lots of opinions on both.

The background: My brother used to work at the airport, and in the break room they had what they called their “library,” which was the was the stacks upon stacks of books that got left at the airport on a daily basis accumulated by the employees. Sometimes he’d send me photos and I’d ask him to grab specific titles for me; other times he’d just grab me a random book or two. This was one of the random ones. It’s been sitting on my shelf for years, and it was the perfect read last month during a snowstorm in Chicago!

The tea: I’m really glad this book fell into my lap.

It’s dark in a Gillian Flynn way, and I love Gillian Flynn. It reminded me a bit of Psycho by Robert Bloch, too. The writing in both is shrewd and to the point, and both Norman Bates and Eileen are calmly tortured introverts, who crave social interaction but react kind of…intensely when they really like someone.

Eileen is judgy, resentful, insecure, and slightly delusional. And that’s what makes her such a joy to read. Her humor is dark, witty, often harsh. She reads the people around her to filth in her head every second of every day, but only to avoid facing her own self-disgust.

Again, a joy.

She can be a frustrating contradiction, but so are most humans. We stan a flawed protagonist over a boring one.

I only wish this book were longer! Definitely going to be reading more of this author.

The wrap-up: If you like dark humor and writing that unapologetically explores the morbid side of human thoughts, this book is for you.

The rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

I hid my shameful perversions under a facade of prudishness. Of course I did. It’s easy to tell the dirtiest minds—look for the cleanest fingernails.

—Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen
Review: Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass by Lana Del Rey

Review: Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass by Lana Del Rey

©Simon & Schuster

The genre: Poetry

The gist: Poems about love, LA, feeling lost, and finding yourself.

The background: Not much except that I should probably give a heads up that I’m biased as a fan of Lana Del Rey’s music, so when I heard she was putting out a poetry collection last year I figured I’d like it.

The tea: The poems in this book read to me like the more elevated version of Tumblr poetry—you know, those overly simplistic poems that are more like statements with lots of line breaks that suddenly transform them into something “deep”—but here’s how I actually mean that as a compliment:

I like the accessibility of these kinds of poems. I don’t think a poem needs to be an inscrutable puzzle or have layers and layers of meaning to be effective.

While Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is more mature and insightful than Tumblr poetry, the poems have the same kind of approachability and give you something to latch onto when reading. They’re about relatable situations, like getting over someone, moving to a new city, the current state of the world.

Plus, I like that lines like, “Sugar sugar lips and teeth / fingertips touch emojis” speak to present-day love and intimacy; sure, a letter or phone call is easier to romanticize than pressing a button to send a digital heart to your lover—that’s why I appreciate artists who embrace this aspect of modern living and can make it sound just as romantic.

Accompanying the typewriter-page poems are lo-fi, brightly filtered photos of LA taken by Del Rey. The whole package might come off as artsy hipster overkill if it weren’t so predictably on-brand for Lana Del Rey, and why fix what works? It’s a pretty aesthetic.

The wrap-up: Reading through these reflective and dreamily worded poems while glancing at the hazy LA visuals isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon or two. Especially if you like contemporary poetry or Lana’s music.

The rating: ⭐⭐⭐/5

May my eyes always stay level to the horizon, may they never gaze as high as heaven to ask why

May I never go where angels fear to tread, so as to have to ask for answers in the sky

The whys in this lifetime I’ve found are inconsequential compared to the magic of nowness– the solution to most questions

there are no reasons, and if there are– i’m wrong

but at least i won’t have spent my life waiting

looking for God in the clouds of the dawn

—Lana Del Rey, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass
Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

©Scholastic Press

The genre: Dystopian, YA

The gist: Prequel to the Hunger Games series focusing on President Snow’s formative years and the nascent days of the Hunger Games competition.

The background: The Hunger Games trilogy are some of my favorite books to read again and again—I love Suzanne Collins’s writing, worldbuilding, and characters. So I don’t know why I let this prequel sit on my shelf for months before finally diving in. I think it had to do with the mixed reviews I’d heard, and I was postponing being disappointed. I shouldn’t have been worried; reviews are nothing compared to your actual reading experience, and this was a great one.

The tea: I’m just going to come out and say I loved this book.

As a big Hunger Games fan, I thought this was a satisfying tale that did three things very well: It expanded on the history of Panem and the Games, it gave background and nuance to the eventually villainous Coriolanus Snow, and it made thought-provoking connections to the original trilogy.

The only complaint I could have about this book is the lack of action until about halfway through, and maybe some uneven pacing, but I don’t really care that it’s not action-packed.

It reads as more of a character study on Snow, and Collins spends a lot of time showing how he thinks, how he calibrates and adapts, how he works to keep up appearances, how he meticulously measures the consequences of his words and actions, the risk and the reward. We get to see that he’s naturally calculating and ambitious, but he was raised in the Capitol among the calculating, ambitious, and even ruthless. So, was he always destined to become an evil tyrant, or did the Capitol create a monster? It’s a classic nature versus nurture question, and it’s kind of fun to think about.

Beyond painting a clear picture of a young Snow, the book gives more info on the war that started the Hunger Games tradition and hints at how the Games grew from a bleak event that nobody even in the Capitol wanted to watch (the novel is set during the 10th Annual Hunger Games) to the sparkly, reality show phenomenon it became by Katniss’s time. Plus, it elaborates on a few other things from the trilogy that I won’t spoil here.

While I would read anything Collins wrote set in the HG world, she couldn’t have picked a better character to explore. It’s a twist on the typical villain origin story, giving the bad guy a dose of humanity, but ultimately showing that some villains might be just that.

The wrap-up: I’d suggest those who haven’t read The Hunger Games start with the trilogy first, but The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a must-read for HG fans. I know some have been disappointed, but I think if you go into it ready to soak up knowledge of the dystopian world rather than be hit with a cliffhanger every other page, you’ll have a good time reading.

In any case, it got me excited enough to read through the trilogy yet again, this time with a new lens—and a prequel that enriches its source material is a success in my book.

The rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

“People aren’t so bad, really,” she said. “It’s what the world does to them.”

—Suzanne Collins, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Review: The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell

Review: The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell

©Harper & Row

The genre: Children’s literature

The gist: A fairy tale story about an unconventional, self-made family.

The background: In elementary school, my library teacher (yes, we had a library class. I can only guess every class was about the Dewey Decimal System?) gave my class a list of all the Newbery Honor books. She encouraged us to read as many as we could by the end of the school year, so sure enough it became something of a competition. The Newbery books were flying off the shelves, and one of the first ones I could get my hands on was a peculiarly small, square book called The Animal Family. From the first page, I loved it. The world was so ethereal and utopic that I never wanted to leave.

And I’ve read it over and over again since. As cheesy as it sounds, it still holds the same kind of magic for me as when I first read it as a kid (though I think books from our childhoods can tend to do that). I’m transported every time. It’s not only one of my favorite childhood books, but one of my favorite books. So here’s its much-deserved review.

The tea: 1965’s The Animal Family is a little-known gem.

Authored by poet Randall Jarrell with illustrations by iconic children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, this book packs a lot of punch in a small package.

Let’s talk about Mr. Sendak for a second first: Though Sendak is known for his distinctive character designs like in Where the Wild Things Are, among others, the drawings in The Animal Family are all landscapes or embellishments. A cliff, a forest, an ocean, a cave, some decorative vines. The pretty illustrations show just how wide his range was as an artist, and some of his distinct style shines through in the forest drawings that remind me of the forest-y scenes in Where the Wild Things Are.

The choice not to illustrate any of the characters adds to the magic of the book, so the reader is free to imagine the them however they wish.

Now, the story. The events are simple, but even in prose, Jarrell’s poetic insight lifts the story off the page, and that’s what makes this book truly enchanting.

A hunter lives alone “where the forest runs down to the ocean” and begins hearing a lone mermaid singing from the water. Over time, he befriends her, she decides to live on land, and they soon add members to their makeshift little family one by one, including a bear, a lynx, and a boy. The five-creature family lives happily ever after.

What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in genuine, even wise sweetness. Every time a new member is added to the family, it’s mentioned how they couldn’t believe they used to live without them. Once the hunter has the mermaid in his life, he can’t imagine how he used to live alone. Once the mermaid and hunter have the messy, sweet bear cub in their life, the mermaid remarks, “To think we used to live without a bear!” And when the boy comes into their life, his being found on the beach after a shipwreck fades to less of a truth than the one they tell him: “We’ve had you always.”

It’s a warm hug of a book, without being cloying. It’s a celebration of self-chosen families, of adoptive families, of friends, of the ones you pick to have by your side not out of obligation but because you want and like them there.

Like in fairy tales where you don’t question an enspelled maiden sleeping a hundred years, you don’t question the practicality or realism of a lynx, bear, and human living together, nor the existence of mermaids. But unlike many fairy tales, Jarrell gives the story just enough detail to make the characters real and lovable: in the conversations the hunter and mermaid have learning each other’s language (“Whatever you say has that—that walnut sound,” she says to him); in the specific, thoughtful ways the hunter helps the mermaid adapt, like building a rocking chair for her to remind her of the motion of the sea.

When I first read this book as a kid, it was, and is, unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It’s novel in every sense of the word—the perfect of example of the art form’s namesake.

The wrap-up: Read this book. Read it alone. Read it to your kids. Give it as a gift. It’s, sadly, out of print, but easy enough to find used for a decent price. And there’s always the library. I’m not promising it’ll blow you away like it did me, but I’m pretty sure it’ll warm your damn heart.

The rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

The hunter and the mermaid were so different from each other that it seemed to them, finally, that they were exactly alike; and they lived together and were happy.

—Randall Jarrell, The Animal Family