The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Stef Soto, Taco Queen

A taco truck + protective parents + tween angst = Stef Soto’s seventh grade year.

Middle school is a train wreck, no matter who you are. But as a kid, you don’t know that. The popular kids seem to have discovered the key to survival, while you’re fumbling around trying to hide zit on your nose (or in this case, the smell of taco sauce in your hair).

Add one old taco truck and a set of overprotective parents (few things are EVER as embarrassing to a seventh grader as their parents) and you’ve got Stef Soto’s life wrapped up in a tortilla.

As much as I love middle grade fiction, Jennifer Torres’ novel missed the mark for me because I’m not a seventh grader. Torres captured the self-absorption of being a tween so well that I found myself rolling my eyes at Steph. She exasperated me the way that seventh graders often exasperate their parents. Which is perfect, really.

At 12 years old, I would’ve found pieces of myself reflected in Stef Soto, for sure. I knew what it was like to feel wrong so much of the time and to constantly work to throw off the labels my peers had stuck me with. But Stef also would’ve taught me things, like how fragile the American Dream can be. And that sometimes an entire family has to invest in that dream for it to succeed. All eye rolling aside.

Stef Soto is perfect just the way she’s written. She’s honest, angsty, eye-rolling, grateful… She’s learning. And she gives other kids space to do the same.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Little Tragedy

The Little Tragedy presents some big existential questions. And delivers them in a fast-paced narrative that I couldn’t put down.

Ever worry about the state of the world we’re passing along to our children?

Yeah. Me, too.

Which is why The Little Tragedy, by Jeff Haws, freaked me the hell out. Seriously.

It’s science-fictiony and dystopian–and probable enough to be deeply disruptive. This novel managed to make me pick apart and analyze the reasons I chose to have a child, my believes about the sanctity of life (and what actually constitutes life), and whether only having a limited amount of time with my child would change my choice to bring her into the world.

On top of all those existential questions, destiny also plays a significant role in this novel. Can we escape our destiny (either through denial or foolish choices)? To what extent do universal work to ensure we fulfill our destiny? And (probably my favorite) do we ever truly understand our importance in the world?

Haws writes multi-dimensional, believable characters. He creates the kind of scenarios that play out in the world every day–ones that have no clear hero or villain. Just folks acting shockingly human.

Toward the end, the narrative becomes incredibly fast-paced. I skim-read because I needed to know what happened. Like RIGHT THEN.

I was left with some unanswered questions. But it’s impressive that Haws created a novel that made me want to know MORE about the fictional world he created. I like being left with a few questions nagging at my mind. Because that’s the sign of a story that just won’t let go.

 

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Wednesday Wars

Sometimes, my stubbornness pays off. This book is one of those times.

I got through one chapter of The Wednesday Wars– and I wanted to quit.

My passion is middle grades fiction. I adore it. And this book had a Newberry Honor Medal right on the cover. But I was bored. I didn’t take to Holling Hoodhood, the protagonist, right away. He kept prattling on about Treasure Island, which I’d never read & didn’t give a flying fig about. Plus, he seemed kind of whiny.

But I kept reading…

The Wednesday Wars turned out to be one of the most moving, gut-punch real feelings books I’ve read in a while. I will cop to being enamored that much of the book works its way around and through Shakespeare’s plays (the Shakespearian curses–and the big themes, too). It’s set in 1967-68, so the book also reckons with the Vietnam war and the tense political climate (A+.for being historical without feeling preachy or teachy).

I loved all those things… but  most loved that Gary D. Schmidt creates a seventh grade protagonist who likes Shakespeare AND baseball, who says stupid things AND cares deeply that he said them, who is learning AND feeling AND making the reader laugh. (And maybe cry, too.) Schmidt’s artful turns of plot and his ability to narrate with stark honesty and beauty made this book a stand-out.

We need more protagonists like Holling: boys who are sensitive, kind, brave, and real. And seventh graders need more adults who take them seriously, who listen, and who remember how hard seventh grade can be.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Parable of the Sower

Holy Hell Fire.

I haven’t read something that shook me to the core like this since I read The Handmaid’s Tale in college. I wish every person over 18 in the United States had to read this novel. Because it’s scary as fuck. And I wish I didn’t believe Octavia Butler had prophesied our future as a country–but it seems more and more plausible by the day.

I picked up the book simply because I was embarrassed to say I hadn’t ready any of Butler’s books. I picked Parable of the Sower for no other reason than the cover made it clear the protagonist would be a young black woman–she kinda looked like she was going to kick some ass.

By the end of the first page, I forgot I was reading a book. No time necessary to settle into the story or to adjust to the narrator/protagonist. There was just the story. And, Good GOD, what a story.

It’s a futuristic, dystopian novel. Don’t expect to be spared blood, gore, or pain. If you are too fragile–or jaded–to be horrified, look somewhere else. But, if you want what feels like an objective view of our future if we don’t halt civil rights infringements, the ever-evolving militarization of our police forces, rampant racism, and escalating climate change–read on.

Do not read this right before bed. And find someone who will listen as you sort your feelings about this novel. Because you’ll have feelings. Big ones. Necessary ones, I believe.

The Nitty Gritty: A Review of There Goes Sunday School (Alexander C. Eberhart)

I had so many feels about this book, it’s hard to even get them into words. I love LGBTQ Young Adult novels. For real. They’re a gut-punch reminder of what it’s like to be young, falling in love, and figuring out your sexuality… while trying to navigate the impeding (and inevitable) doom of folks finding out you’re gay. Add into the mix that There Goes Sunday School is set in Atlanta… Totally swoon-worthy.

What I didn’t expect was for this YA novel to unearth so many feelings for me. I mean, I didn’t just relate to the protagonist… at one point I WAS the protagonist. Anti-gay upbringing? Check. Conservative Evangelical church? Check. Being told I was for sure gonna burn in hell? Check. But, perhaps especially when it’s rooted in pain, it turns out that representation is just as important at 43 as it is at 13. Watching my own story play out (with some significant plot deviations, of course) was cathartic.

Eberhart wrote believable characters with realistic responses to their surroundings and upbringings. He managed to create a tender novel that didn’t read as over-dramatized or simplistic. And he got in some wins for his characters that, for me at least, are incredibly important to see in print.

Being gay isn’t a tragedy. In fact, coming out and living into your truth is a victory. Even when it’s hard. Being who you are is worth risking everything for. And that’s a truth that everyone needs to hear more of.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Grant Park (Leonard Pitts, Jr)

I didn’t immediately get swept away in Grant Park’s narrative. The cover promised a lot: a thriller that critically examines race in America. The thriller part never quite delivered for me. But the nuanced look at race in America, that rang a lot truer. I’m glad I hung in for it.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote columns for the Miami Herald for years. And it shows. He’s able to write characters that grapple with racial issues (internally & externally)–as well as expose the less noble parts of folks exasperated by the national conversation about race (or lack thereof). He lets you inside the heads of a successful black journalist and a kind-of-successful, white newspaper editor–both of whom are fed up with the racial tableau in America. But, because this is a good piece of writing, nothing about the two men is quite as straight forward as it seems.

As a white reader, I never felt preached at. But I also didn’t feel pandered to. Pitts showed dogged determination in giving his readers an honest look at what it’s like to be black in America. Pitts creates a narrative that demonstrates that no group exists as a monolith–not black folks, not white folks–and that we can still be redeemed. But redemption means wrestling with our own selves first, conquering our own demons. And then listening to each other. One by one. Redemption isn’t wholesale. According to Pitts, the fight might be won one soul at a time.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Dark Places (by Gillian Flynn)

I was simultaneously repelled and sucked in. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I hid from my family to read it over Thanksgiving vacation. So, yeah, it was a pretty good read.

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame), scared the ever-loving shit out of me.

And there you have it.

The story both sucked me in and repelled me. I wanted to know more, to solve the puzzle, to KNOW what happened. Simultaneously, I just wanted to get it out of my head.

It’s grizzly y’all. The scene that plays over and over again is horrific. It gave me nightmares. And I couldn’t shake it, couldn’t stop it from running on a loop in the back of my mind.

But what’s really compelling about the book is that there are no heroes. Everyone (save perhaps one character) is multi-faceted, complex, and far from perfect. The points of view vary, which adds a texture that builds suspense and draws out the mystery. And it relies on the one principle that shoots abject fear through my heart: everything can rest on one decision. One decision can end life as you know it.

But can it really?

Or is there something bigger at play, beneath the surface, in our subconscious, in events that other people set in motion?

I’m not sure this book will answer that question. But it sure as hell will make you ponder it. And isn’t that what horror is supposed to do: make us wrangle with the light & darkness within ourselves and question what really separates the good from evil?

And maybe that line is much thinner than we think.

 

 

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Asimov’s I, Robot

I, Robot. It’s about adverbs & adjectives. I mean, it’s about robots. It’s sci-fi with interesting ethical dilemmas. After you get through the adjectives.

Recently, a friendly stranger proffered boxes of sci-fi and fantasy books to fuel my used bookstore dreams. I know enough to admit what I don’t know. And I don’t, at all, know sci-fi. I told my super-rad benefactor this. “No experience with sci-fi at all?” he asked, quizzically. “Well, I did love Battlestar Gallactica… the TV series,” I offered sheepishly. “Oh,” he responded with relief. “You’ll be fine then. Start with Asimov.”

So I did.

I picked I, Robot for the most basic of reasons: it sounded familiar. My copy (a 1983 edition) features a little girl & a pretty dang benign looking robot on the cover. Cool. I’m fascinated by the concept of robots actually developing feelings—evolving into them. Because can they be feelings, if they’re programmed “experiences”? And how the hell is the robot supposed to know what’s up?

I’m sure there are technical, sci-fi-y ways to describe this conundrum. Of course, I don’t know them.

But I do knowthat I could barely FIND the robots in the book for all the adjectives and adverbs Asimov through at me continuously. So many, many words to describe, well, not too much.

The book took me weeks to complete. Weeeeeeeks. But I learned the 3 Laws of Robotics, which tie the stories about nanny robots, mind reading robots, self-righteous robots, playful & clever robots, and machines together. And, ultimately, I was left with some weighty ethical & philosophical questions about free-will versus the greater good.

But it took so very many adjectives to get there.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars (A Neuropsychologist’s Odyssey Through Consciousness)

The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars is a mash-up of sorts. He loosely chronicles his wife’s end of life journey & his own grief, which he views thought the lens of neuropsychology, philosophy, myth, and atheism.

 

I took an Intro to Philosophy Course in college. I remember the distinct feeling of my brain aching, because it had no solid idea on which to take hold. Everything—ideas, the world, my very self—felt illusory. It was unsettling.

What does that have to do with The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars: A Neuropsychologist’s Odyssey Through Consciousness by Paul Broks? Everything. This book is a mash-up of sorts. He loosely chronicles his wife’s end of life journey & his own grief, which he views thought the lens of neuropsychology, philosophy, myth, and atheism.

“But those are multiple lenses!” you’re probably protesting. Why, yes. Yes they are. And that’s precisely why I could make it through the book without being launched into an existential crisis (although it took me 10x longer than usual).

Broks works hard to make complicated concepts accessible. He tells stories, draws parallels, and guides the reader through an examination of human consciousness—in part using quantum physics of all things. Here’s my favorite bit: 

“There’s a tantalizing pleasure to be had the unfathomability of quantum physics. But what if we ourselves are unfathomable?…[what if] human beings are, to the human mind, fundamentally, intrinsically, incomprehensible. We might get glimpses of what we fundamentally are . . but only glimpses.”

How beautifully…cosmic. The whole book felt like a grand wandering through time & space and the opportunity to get a rare glimpse at the mystery of what makes us who we are. 

Welcome to Remotely Intellectual!

Welcome to Remotely Intellectual! Grab a cup of coffee & let’s discuss life. Parenting? Oh, yeah. I’ll write about that in all it’s messy glory. Recovery? Yup. It’s the basis of everything good in my life. So it comes up quite a bit. Spirituality? Oof. I’m a hot mess on that one. But you can watch my explorations unfold right here! Atlanta? Love it! And coffee.

 

Hey, y’all!

Welcome to Remotely Intellectual! Grab a cup of coffee & let’s discuss life. Parenting? Oh, yeah. I’ll write about that in all it’s messy glory. Recovery? Yup. It’s the basis of everything good in my life. So it comes up quite a bit. Spirituality? Oof. I’m a hot mess on that one. But you can watch my explorations unfold right here! Atlanta? Love it! And coffee. And social justice type stuff–like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. We’re going to talk about it all.

Oh! And I’m reading 43 books during my 43rd year & reviewing them all for you–in 250 words or less. It’s currently one of my favorite projects. Check it out:

I’m super excited about this new space. For those of you coming over from Rocket Fuel, you’ll find the same content but under a much more apt name. Because really, what am I if not remotely intellectual?