Author: Trianne

‘Neighborhood Girls’ both sweet and substantive

neighborhood girlsWhen people ask me about Neighborhood Girls by Jessie Ann Foley, I say that along with being funny and sweet, it had substance. Which, in my opinion, is always a good thing.

I tend to shy away from young adult novels. Although I love them as “literary junk food” (hey, we all gotta have it), books in this genre often seem to either only hint at emotional trauma and brokenness, or completely wallow in it. It is difficult to find a book in any genre that balances the two extremes, and for some reason YA is a particular challenge. But for me, Neighborhood Girls had it all. Lighthearted entertainment and teenage drama with unexpected insights of blatant truth, this novel kept me turning pages, laughing, and nearly crying the entire way through.

The story opens with a high school girl, Wendy, finding out the Catholic school she has attended all her life is about to close. Although this seems like momentum enough for the story-line of a novel, we soon find out that this impending change is only the backdrop to a more profound hurt. A few years earlier, Wendy’s policeman father was accused of torturing prisoners during interrogations. This accusation spiraled into a prison sentence, lawyer fees that forced the family to move, and complete alienation in their hometown of Chicago.  In order to deal with her fear and isolation, Wendy attempts to protect herself by becoming part of the most popular clique at school. But deep down she knows that these girls don’t care about her at all.

Through the book, Wendy tries to prepare herself for leaving Academy of the Sacred Heart. She realizes that life as she has always known it is about to end, and there is nothing she can do about it. In the process, she finds herself dealing with the trauma of all that has happened to her family. Although she cannot change the past, she realizes that she dealt with everything poorly. She hurt her family and the friends who tried to be there for her, and she resolves to attempt to make things better. The story is about much more than the brokenness, moving from one funny situation with charming characters to another. It is lighthearted entertainment in true YA fashion. But every so often, Wendy has a moment of truth that resonates beyond the page. She asks difficult questions. She allows herself to fully experience her emotions. And she makes thoughtful decisions, allowing us to follow her inner monologue.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which I expected. But I was completely surprised by the level to which it resonated with me. I truly admire authors who are unafraid to place teenage fears and drama alongside pure human emotion and existential questions. Although this is the only one of her books I have read, Jessie Ann Foley has proven herself to be such an author with Neighborhood Girls. Can we move past family brokenness and find ourselves? Can we cope with trauma in positive ways? Can we find the beauty fractured, un-ordinary lives? This novel assures us that we can.

The Real Housewives of America: ‘American Housewife’ by Helen Ellis

I am not an American housewife. And although I joke that my life goal is to marry strategically, become a trophy wife, and live comfortably on someone else’s money, I am nowhere close to marriage, financially advantageous or otherwise. Despite this fact, I recognized myself in the stories of American Housewife by Helen Ellis. Smart, concise, honest, and a bit creepy, this is definitely the most entertaining collection of short stories I have ever read. (Plus, she’s coming to the Mississippi Book Festival in less than a month!!!)

The women of American Housewife display a wide array of American stereotypes, from the New York socialite to the Southern lady. Stereotypes exist for a reason, so of course these figures are recognizable to me, both as women I know and as myself. But Helen Ellis takes the familiar forms a step further. A neighborly conversation between two lovely and civil women becomes an all-out decorating war. A feminine writer who takes part in a reality TV show finds herself psycho-analyzing her competitors until no one can hide from their faults. A young woman married to a bra fitter questions her husband’s attention span, given the constant temptation in his line of work.

Each story appears to be about normal, stay-at-home women. They are perfectly polite and rather lovely. But as the story progresses, the strange details and heightened emotions escalate until you suddenly find yourself somewhere you never imagined the story could go. An all-inclusive book club morphs into an unsettling hostage situation. The domestic tragedies of an apartment building become more personal and more connected to the lonely, delusional wife. mop segwayAnd Tampax decides that their sponsorship of a woman’s novel warrants extreme “productivity encouragement” in the form of house arrest and abductions. Towards the middle of each story, I began to connect the bizarre details. But every single time, the story went even further, until I found myself whispering, “Ohhhhhh, I didn’t think she would go there, BUT SHE DID.” The story would not end until I was thoroughly unsettled and, frankly, creeped out in the best way possible. I pride myself on my ability to see plot twists from a mile away. With Helen Ellis, I had no idea what would happen in the next five seconds.

American Housewife is hilarious and satirical. It’s more than a little unsettling, and always surprising. And yet beneath the manicured nails, cherry-red lipstick, and unshakable poise, there is a wealth of honest emotion. These women go extreme lengths to protect themselves and the things they value. They choose people to love, and care for them without question. They know exactly who they are and how they want their lives to be. It is rare to find a collection of stories that celebrates strong, feminine characters while embracing the ridiculousness that is being an American woman. We are complex creatures, full of duality, and I appreciate a writer who can portray this with a healthy dose of sarcasm. I enjoy recognizing myself and laughing at the reflection.

Helen Ellis will serve as a panelist on the “Stories from the South” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 10:45 a.m. at the State Capitol in Room 201A.

ms book fest

Ain’t No Cure for the Summertime Blues: Nick White’s ‘How to Survive a Summer’

Books about strange experiences have always been my guilty pleasure. I enjoy reading about things I have never done, events that are unlikely to ever happen to me, because I like attempting to understand the unfamiliar. But I also have a purely entertainment-based fascination with things that seem too bizarre for real life. This is why I first picked up How to Survive a Summer by Mississippi native Nick White.

ht survive a summerWhite’s debut novel is about a man who, as a teenager, went to a gay-to-straight conversion camp in Mississippi. When the story of the camp is made into a movie, the main character, Will Dillard, returns to his roots and finally reckons with his past. The story is told through memories and reads almost like a memoir, as it focuses on emotions and is told primarily through internal dialogue. But the plot–the truth of what really happened that summer–kept me turning pages.

As Will weaves down the Natchez Trace towards the old campsite, he remembers his deceased mother, his unusual childhood, his sexual realizations, and eventually the conversion camp–all in zigzags that lead to one final twist. He encounters a full spectrum of people: a transgender love interest who calls too much, a sheltered librarian whose hospitality is taken too far, and a misguided uncle who once tried to help AIDS victims.

What initially drew me to How to Survive a Summer was the strange setting of a gay conversion camp. But what pulled me in were the real emotions of relatable characters. Each one was involved with the camp for a different reason, and the ways they cope with the past are just as varied. As the narrative progressed, I realized that it is an intentionally villain-less story. Nick White compassionately gives each person reasons for their actions. He paints unique people against the backdrop of one specific tragedy. The result is a reminder that every person comes to grips with his story in his own way, and that outward appearances have nothing to do with the truth inside.

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