Review: Eleanor & Park (JUST READ IT RIGHT NOW.)

If you haven’t read Eleanor & Park, don’t even read this review.  Go read the book.  NOW.  Don’t waste another second of your bleak and loveless life reading my blog when you could have this book on your Kindle within seconds.  But, if you insist (or you’ve read the book), here you go:

Writing a review for this book has been incredibly difficult for me. My first review for it was one word. Just, “Eff.” Then I expanded it to three words, “Holy Effing Eff.” Then I thought really long and hard about it, and decided that this book deserved many, many, many more words.

See, here’s the thing: poverty is very hard to honestly describe. While I was still a supervisor for a homeless shelter, I often looked for books that I thought I could give to our residents to help them pass the painfully long hours of the day, and maybe help them think about their lives at the same time. This was doubly true for the teens, who were hit with the double whammy of being homeless as well as often being years behind in reading. I can still remember the time that I allowed myself to be roped into reading the Twilight Saga so that I could talk books with one of them.

Ye Gods.

I cannot say, with words at least, how much I wish this book had existed then.

Let me say again that poverty is so painfully difficult to describe with any honesty, without sounding psychotic or like you are exaggerating. It’s even harder to explain the complex emotions that go along with poverty, or the way that they shape who you are and change you. To respond to the question, “why do you always seem angry?” with “because I’m poor” sounds crass. To respond to the girls in the locker room teasing your hair for being crap with, “it’s because I’m poor” seems ridiculous. To explain the fact that your clothes don’t fit and you always look weird with, “well, we’ve talked about how poor I am” is just so. Intensely. Lame. No one gets it unless they’ve washed their clothes by hand in cold water using dish soap, or rubbed vanilla behind their ears to cover the smell of lack-of-soap. But Rainbow Rowell paints this incredibly vivid picture of how poverty shapes not just Eleanor’s world but Eleanor as a character, and it is perfect. I mean, this book is the effing Statue of David of books. Rowell is the effing Michelangelo of writers.

I have to admit I’m just the slightest bit bitter, because if I ever publish anything I know it will not hold a candle to the absolute priceless beauty of this story. God help me. I cannot imagine how to do it better.

But back to the story itself. Eleanor is a girl living in abject poverty, having just moved back in with the mother who has lost her sense of self and the uncle who drinks away all the money needed to keep the kids in clothes with bellies full. Top that off with being the new girl in school, and you’ve got a pretty toxic situation that all of the kids back at the shelter know all too cruelly well. But Eleanor’s saving grace might just be the boy who reluctantly lets her sit next to him on the bus, the cool, stable, upper-middle class Park. Their unlikely friendship turns into a bittersweet teen romance which turns so many stereotypes on their heads.

I don’t want to spoil a second of the story, but let’s just say that my favorite moment is the second best Star Wars reference in literature. (The best still belongs to the fabulous Gae Polisner.) This book made me laugh and cry like an idiot at work, and I didn’t even mind because if anyone had asked me what was up I could’ve shoved the book on them in giggly tearful fangirl glory and sat on them until they read it so we could talk about how absolutely perfect it is.

No, really. I’m a college student and a mother of three and work part time and all my money is the most precious money in the world, but I will spend that precious money on spare copies of this book because the next time a student at work tells me that no one really understands what it’s like to be poor and just trying to make your life worth living, and they just want to give up hope, I will give them this book and say, “someone gets it.”

Someone gets it.

Sometimes, that is priceless.

Sometimes, it’s all you need.

This book could not be more highly recommended. Five big fat smacks-you-in-the-feels-and-you-love it stars, but 5 isn’t enough.

Book Review: Zealot, by Reza Aslan

(I received a promotional copy from Netgalley)
link to the book on Amazon

Have you ever really wondered what Jesus was like?

Growing up, I can remember seeing one too many pictures of Jesus as a blondish haired Caucasian man snuggling with a lamb, and thinking, “you’ve got to be kidding me.”  I read through the gospels very slowly, really trying to understand Jesus’s tone.  Not his words, so much, as his tone.  What did he sound like?  What did he look like?  What did he act like?  Who was he, not in the sense of was he the son of God or not, but who was he as a person?  I can remember the first time I told my dad, rather proudly, that a lot of the time I thought Jesus was being ironic.

“What?” Dad replies.

“I think he was teasing the disciples.  Being ironic.”  I felt proud of myself.

Dad laughed and said, “so you think the Messiah had time to joke around?”

Seriously.  How could you walk around for three years being the freaking Messiah and NOT take time to joke around?

All of that to say, I appreciate Reza Aslan’s deliberative attempt to paint a picture of Jesus not just as the Messiah, not just as a person in a historical context (but brace yourself for five exhaustive chapters of that) but as a man, who had a family and friends and kids that he ran around snot-nosed on the street with, and had a tone of voice and a sense of self that went beyond “I’M GOD, YO.”

This book is as intimate a portrayal of a somewhat secretive man that died thousands of years ago as could be done, I would imagine.  The author pored over texts and other historical documents.  He puts Jesus in a setting that is well-fleshed out, and answers a lot of really nagging questions about the use of language and theater that Jesus must have had reasons for.  Why did Jesus call himself the Son of Man?  What in the world was up with riding the donkey, waving the palm fronds, or turning over the tables of the money lenders?  What would life have been like for a carpenter living in Galilee?  Where would Jesus have worked?  Whose circles would he have run in?

While some aspects of Aslan’s work will probably raise eyebrows (for instance, how in the picture was Joseph as Jesus’ father?  Was the virgin birth a literal story or a fictitious cover for the fact that Jesus was really just Mary’s son?) there is a lot of real gold to be found in the midst of the rubble of broken assumptions.  My favorite theme was how much the tensions between the Priesthood, the Romans, and the Messiah really all boiled down to money.  Did Jesus threaten the temple’s ability to fleece the illiterate farm workers?  Was that why they hated him so much?

I thoroughly enjoyed this read.  It’s in depth enough to be really illuminating but short enough to not eat months of your life (you are on notice, NT Wright).  While Aslan does challenge a lot of assumptions his tone never becomes patronizing or flip.  I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who finds themselves curious about the nature of Christ as a person.

I give this book 5 Jesus-Cuddling-Lamb bookmarks.

Highly recommended.