Book Snap #116

Title: Roxy

Authors: Neal and Jarrod Shusterman

Date Read: August 3, 2022

Two Snaps!

There are four stories woven into the Shusterman’s brilliantly conceived novel, Roxy. Brother and sister, Isaac and Ivy Ramey, are accompanied as narrators by two anthropomorphized drugs: Roxy (OxyContin) and Addison (Adderall). The siblings recount their experiences with prescription drugs while Roxy and Addison unfold the tales of themselves and their party-going friends who frequent an exclusive club that pits them in a competition to get their ‘plus-one’ into the VIP Lounge.

I very much loved this book, and contend that it is essential reading for teens. North Americans are in the torment of an opioid crisis. Among people aged 12 or older in 2020, 3.3 percent (or 9.3 million people) misused prescription opioids in the past year and opioids were involved in 68,630 overdose deaths in 2020 (74.8% of all drug overdose deaths).1 Until recently, the term “drug use” typically referred to illegal substances like cocaine, heroin or crystal meth. Today’s teens are more likely to get hooked on prescription medication, especially painkillers. Most often teens receive opioid prescriptions after dental procedures and sports injuries. Similarly, adolescent abuse of Ritalin and Adderall is largely driven by the belief that these drugs can improve academic performance. This is more urban myth than reality; it is true that stimulants will heighten energy and focus in the short-term, but after the brain adjusts to the presence of such drugs, these effects are weakened and become more elusive.2

This pervasive problem is addressed in both the dedication: “For those in the throes of addiction, may you find the strength to fight off the demons who pose as gods“; and in the authors’ opening note that reads in part: “It is our hope that everyone who reads Roxy will leave the story with a clearer understanding of how insidious, seductive, and dangerous these drugs can be.”

Isaac and Ivy have relatable teen lives and plausible experiences that lead them to be prescribed opioids. Isaac receives Roxy (OxyContin) after a painful soccer injury, and Ivy takes Addison (Adderall) to help her focus on increasing her failing grades so she can graduate on time. With a popular post-modern nod, we begin at the end: “They tag your toe with the last name on your ID, and your first initial: Ramey, I.”(4) and then flash back through time unravelling how this pivotal moment came to be. Who dies: Isaac or Ivy?

Roxy introduces herself with confident self awareness : “I am so hot right now. And everyone knows it. It’s like I own the world. It has no choice but to yield to my gravity” (16). You enter the party with her, where: “Al greets [you] at the door, a glass of champagne in each hand… Al’s older than the rest of us,” Roxy amiably explains, “been around longer, but he carries his age well” (16). At the bar, you can catch a glimpse of Addison: “He’s dressed in a conspicuous style, like he belongs to a yacht club that his father owns. All prestige and privilege” (17). Also spotted: Molly, Mary Jane, Rita, and the Coke brothers, Charlie and Dusty. Each of them act predictably, like the drugs to which their names nod, and readers get a multi-sensory tour of how they work. For example,  we find Addison sitting at a piano recital with his older sister, Rita, comparatively ordinary next to their cousins: Crys, and the twins, in their “white silk suits and flashy jewelry, lounging in a private booth like they own the world, making the party come to them” (33) they instead, calm kids, help them focus– play the piano flawlessly, or as Rita points to her own ward in the audience, sit still through a performance.

The book is awash in delightful craft moves. There are six character-titled “interludes”, each matched with their molecular formulas (you can Google them– they are hyper-linked in this post for your convenience) and explore further the chemical literature of the National Library of Medicine‘s entries for each compound: Mary Jane (C21H30O2); Dusty & Charlie (C17H21NO4); Lucy (C20H25N3O); Phineas (C17H19NO3); Vic (C18H21NO3) and Hyde (CH2O). On their own, they provide poignant personified snapshots of marijuana and it’s legalization and medical use; cocaine, who boasts of his long historical significance, including once being the key ingredient in Coca-Cola (until replaced by caffeine); the powerful taunting of an acid trip; morphine as the Prince of Palliative Care, vicodin (Roxy’s brother) and even formaldehyde, the final drug used, when the character is embalmed for their funeral.

The chapter headings are a form of cryptic poetry, readers find new words using just some of the letters of a longer word or phrase. Like: Naloxone (alone); Roxy Can’t Contain Herself (oxycontin); or Psychopharmacologisticexpialidocious (malicious). Hyde’s final interlude is written as a poem, straying from the story-telling of the others, and has within it a well-known verse. Not a book for Audible.

This is a must-have title for the shelves of high school teachers and for parents who want to start conversations with their young adult readers at home.

1 Centers for Disease Control and PreventionNational Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2022

2The Right Step | A Promises Behavioral Health Company | Drug Addiction Treatment Centers Texas, 2022

Book Snap #117

Title: Carrie Soto is Back

Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid

Date Read: November 7, 2022

Two Snaps!

A fun inagural read for my book club full of fantastic women with whom I love to read! We had a great discussion about Carrie, tennis, and one of our favorite writers, Taylor Jenkins Reid.

At first, I ignored this book because I didn’t think I knew enough about tennis to enjoy it. But Jenkins Reid gives a fast-paced tutorial on the game, in beautiful passages, which I am familiar with from her previous books which I have enjoyed, like Daisy Jones and The Six (look for the movie adaptation in theatres soon!) and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

Did you know Wimbeldon is a grass court, while the Australian Open in Melbourne is played on clay? Do you know what that means to a tennis player? “Clay surfaces are softer; they absorb more of the power of the ball. Which means everything about them is slower, and the ball bounces higher too, which gives my opponents more time to recat to my shots. Clay cuts into my advantage at almost every juncture.” (Jenkins Reid, 163).

I began to understand the way tennis is scored and played.

“She tosses the ball into the air and serves to the far-right edge of the box. I hit a groundstroke back. We rally for the point, and I take it. Love-15.

Another serve, another rally. My point. Love- 30.

I look up at my father and see a small smile on his lips.

Cortez serves again, this time shorter, tighter. I hit to the baseline. She hits it back soft. I win the point. Love-40. I’m already at break point in the first game. ” (Jenkins Reid, 151).

And, as art often imitates life, the two lead characters: Carrrie and Bowe evoke tennis players that I know only from their celebrity. Carrie is determined, tough and confident– a multiple Grand Slam winner. It would be impossible not to draw parallels to Serena Williams, twenty-three-time Grand Slam title winner coached from an early age by her parents. Likewise, it is Carrie’s father, a former tennis pro who dedicates himself to building a pro out of Carrie. Meanwhile, it was hard not to think of John McEnroe while reading of Carrie’s male tennis partner, Bowe Huntley, who Carrie’s father describes as “a walking tantrum.”

A story telling device employed brilliantly by Jenkins Reid is to intersperse the narrative story with statements made in the press; newspaper articles; and transcripts from sports television commentary. This allows us to hear the public narrative around her comeback to the game, six years post-retirement, to defeat Nikki Chan and reclaim her titles.

Evans: Can the Battle Axe still compete in today’s game?

Wallace: We will see. There’s something else here that I think is important to note.

Evans: And what is that?

Wallace: Soto isn’t just playing an old style– she herself is old. No woman has won a Slam in her late thirties.

Evans: And here is another question: Do we even want her back? She’s not the most… well-liked, is she?

Wallace: Well, they don’t call her the Battle Axe for nothing.”

(from Transcript: Sports News Network, Wild Sports with Bill Evans, October 12, 1994, p. 93).

Carrie Soto is 37 as she comes out of retirement in 1995 to play all four Grand Slam events, television hosts and journalists alike continue to mock Carrie for being too old to play. Interestingly, Martina Navratilova won numerous Grand Slam mixed doubles titles after turning 40. In fact, she collected her final mixed doubles major at the 2006 US Open, just a few weeks before her 50th birthday; Serena Williams won 10 majors after turning 30 and Serena was 36 years old when she returned to the tour after giving birth to her first child, Olympia. So there, it is all possible in real life too!

Carrie doesn’t talk and joke around. She is unflinchingly and singularily focused on being the best.

“The morning of my first match on the Virgina Slims Tour, my father gave me a pep talk before I went in to the locker rooms. “You can talk and joke around with the other players if you have to,” he said, “but remember they are not your friends, they are your…”

“Enemies.”

“Opponents” he said.

“Same thing,” I said.

Carrie Soto is back: and she is determined to show everyone that she is the best. No apologies: just grit, hardwork and self sacrifice– but also acute vulnerability and heart. Another great read from Taylor Jenkins Reid.

Book Snap #115

Title: Lessons in Chemistry

Author: Bonnie Garmus

Date Read: July 29, 2022

Two Feminist Snaps!

Special thanks to my cousin, Susan, for passing this gem along!

I thoroughly enjoyed the time spent with the characters in this book, and I learned some more chemistry along the way as well! “That brings us to the third bond,” Elizabeth said, pointing at another set of molecules, “the hydrogen bond-– the most fragile, delicate bond of all. I call this the ‘love at first sight’ bond because both parties are drawn to each other based solely on visual information: you like his smile, he likes your hair. But then you talk and discover he’s a closet Nazi and thinks women complain too much. Poof. Just like that the delicate bond is broken. That’s the hydrogen bond for you, ladies– a chemical reminder that if things seem too good to be true, they probably are.”

Elizabeth Zott is a wonderfully appealing heroine; a talented and intelligent chemist sidelined by the misogynist and patriarchal limits of the 1960s culture in which she resides. As she explains: “…we’re by-products of our upbringings, victims of our lackluster educational systems, and choosers of our behaviors. In short, the reduction of women to something less than men, and the elevation of men to something more than women, is not biological: it’s cultural. And it starts with two words: pink and blue. Everything skyrockets out of control from there.”

But Elizabeth is too unflinchingly self-aware to let others, especially sub-par male chemists, hold her back. After being fired from her research position, she is depressed and desperate– and she unwittingly becomes the host of a television cooking show, Supper at Six.

Elizabeth is a remarkable feminist icon who would likely eschew the title. Transitioning from chemist to cooking show host– she defiantly swaps out the stock kitchen curios of the TV set for a streamlined lab in which to perform the chemistry of cooking. Listen in: “After you’ve rubbed the steak with a halved clove of fresh garlic… sprinkle both sides of the meat with sodium chloride and piperine. Then, when you notice the butter foaming” — she pointed to a hot cast-iron skillet — “place the steak in the pan. Be sure and wait until the butter foams. Foam indicates that the butter’s water content has boiled away. This is critical. Because now the steak can cook in lipids rather than absorb H20.”

In the novel, Zott’s TV cooking show has a powerful effect on her audience. She treats cooking as a chemistry, which of course it is, and gives her viewers instructions like: “combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride.” She is not only teaching women to cook, she is encouraging them to take control of their lives. So before her tag line sign off, “Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself!” Zott offers a thirty-minute, five-day-a-week lesson in life. And not in who we are or what we’re made of, but rather, who we’re capable of becoming:

“Whenever you feel afraid, just remember. Courage is the root of change – and change is what we’re chemically designed to do. So when you wake up tomorrow, make this pledge. No more holding yourself back. No more subscribing to others’ opinions of what you can and cannot achieve. And no more allowing anyone to pigeonhole you into useless categories of sex, race, economic status, and religion. Do not allow your talents to lie dormant, ladies. Design your own future. When you go home today, ask yourself what YOU will change. And then get started.”

Grab this one, you’ll love it.

Book Snap #114

Title: This is How it Always Is

Author: Laurie Frankel

Date Read: July 16, 2022

Two Sprited Snaps!!

This is how it is: a brilliant fairy tale of the unpreictable, messy, complicated, joyous journey of parenthood and family.

Once upon a time there was Penn, a doggedly-determined and haplessly romantic writer, who willingly sits in the hospital waiting room where Rosie is doing her residency to disabuse her of the idea that a medical student has no time for a boyfriend. “Her shift was twenty-eight hours, Penn sat and wrote for every one of them. They took a coffee and breakfast break together toward dawn. Penn tried every flavor of corn chip in the vending machine.” (p.20). They do fall in love, and marry, and start a family, adding four rambunctious boys to their Wisconsin farmhouse. But Rosie can’t help but want one more try: for a girl.

Claude, their fifth child, it turns out, is not a girl: despite applying a myriad of old-wives tales to her furniture arrangement, eating habits and choice of sexual positions. But Claude is very much unlike his rough-and-tumble brothers: he wants to grow up and be a princess, he wants to wear fairy wings and have his hair long.

Penn continues to weave fairy tales: his boys pick up the adventures of Grumwald (the hero-prince of the bedtime stories first told in the emergency room) — and they help all of them to see themselves for who they truly are. “Bedtime stories were a group activity. And because showing the pictures all around to everyone involved a great deal of squirming and shoving and pinching and pushing and get-outta-my-ways and he-farted-on-mes and you-got-to-look-longer-than-I-dids, Penn often resorted to telling stories rather than reading them. He had a magic book he read from. It was an empty spiral notebook. He showed the boys it was blank so that there was no clamoring to see. And then he read it ot them. Like magic” (p.28).

And sometimes, thoughtful, complicated fairy-tales that buck the Disneyfied arc are exactly the princess stories we need to hear.

“You find out you’re not alone. And so does everyone else. That’s how everything gets better. You share your secret, and I’ll do the rest. You share your secret, and you change the world.”

“It’s not that easy,” Grumwald felt his lungs stiching to become one in his chest. “I can’t just share my secret. It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to understand. It’s complicated.

“Of course it is. It’s life.”

“So how do I do it then? How do I share my secret? What do I tell?”

“Your story.” The witch didn’t even hesitate. “You tell your story. That is what we all must do.”

“That’s not magic,” said Grumwald.

“Of course it is,” said the witch. “Story is the best magic there is.”

p.312

Book Snap #113: The Anthropocene Reviewed

My last post was a year ago. That seems likely, and also sort of sad. It was a long, drawn-out, painful year.

We went back to school hopeful: cheeks shining from summer’s kiss– masks firmly affixed over mouth and nose. It paled in comparison to the promise of the new year: a jumble of in-person learning, quarantines, lock-downs, sickness, and even a strike. My desire to read dwindled in lock step with my depleted energy and my To Be Read pile lay dormant and dust-covered. (1 star).

I, optomisitically, agreed to participate in a book relay hosted by our district literacy leads, but more often had to pass the novel onward at deadline before making it completely to the end. I repeatedly fell in bed exhausted after reading Isaac his bedtime stories, (I could review and recommend a multitude of Gordon Korman’s novels for fourth-graders!) neglecting the books calling to me from my own night stand. However, one of the books offered in the relay was John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. I just purchased a copy, because, like many of the relay titles, I didn’t get to finish before the deadline. But what I did read, I loved! And thinking about it again inspired me to write this post, a year since my last.

When it first arrived in school mail, I had been setting my students up to write reviews of their own. We had been exploring all kinds of mentor texts: we read reviews of songs and albums; video games; movies and TV shows; sports plays; and books. This has always been one of my favourite pieces to write with my students. Two reviews that remain my past-all-time-favourites include one that analysed Matthew McConaughey’s performance in Dazed and Confused. The essay begins with the perfect hook: All right, all right, all right. And second, the review of Steph Curry’s basketball acumen where I first discovered what a G.O.A.T was; and the criteria with which to evalute one. Green cracked open yet another realm of choice and I couldn’t have been more excited to share these ideas with my students.

I had noticed the title in passing (it remained on best-seller lists and was promininetly displayed in many book-selling venues), and wondered: “what the heck is an Anthropocene?” Green explains: “The Anthropocene is a proposed term for the current geological age, in which humans have profoundly shaped and reshaped the planet and its biodiversity” (p.6). Green imparts that having been employed for several years at Booklist, reviewing hundreds of books, he became well-versed in the style and format of a review (they specifically hold a tight word count of 175 words or less.) He then started to notice that “everyone had become a reviewer, and everything had become a subject for review” (p.7). Indeed. I often seek out reviews of: restaurants (hello, Yelp!); vacation ideas and accommodations (hmmm, TripAdvisor?)… A small gripe: 1 star for the review in the Fodor’s guide of Japan (print edition from forever ago when I was there) that recommended (and convinced my genki companion and I) to “slide down” the volcanic ash of Mt. Fuji, which turned out to be terrible, awful, dreadful advice. But I digress. Of course, Facebook and Twitter have become platforms for all kinds of verciferous reviews — of products, services, businesses, opinions, politics, behaviour– everyone is a reviewer and everything is a subject for review!

Green walks through what he knew and what he discovered about review writing, which was powerful in helping my students create strong reviews themselves. When he reviewed books, “I” was never in the review: How many times have students also been told to use this disinterested observer stance? Too many. And the result is wooden writing. It was his wife who {thoughtfully} surmised: “…in the Anthropocene, there are no disinterested observers; there are only particpants… when people write reviews, they are really writing a kind of memoir— here’s what my expereince was eating at this restaurant or getting my hair cut at this barbershop” (p.8). And so, amidst a global pandemic, Green wrote about songs, comets, scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers, Diet Dr. Pepper, teddy bears, air-conditioning, the Internet, sunsets, CNN, whispering, Kentucky Bluegrass, Googling strangers, and so much more of what the anthropocene has to offer. Each essay embodies Green’s quirky vibe, lots of thoughtful details and compelling support, and a final 5-star rating. I highly reccommend you listen to my favourite essay (from what I have had the opportunity to read so far), “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” on John Green’s podcast: The Anthropocene Reviewed; my students and I read this together to inspire our writing. They wrote thoughtful and passionate reviews on all kinds of artifacts from the anthropocene, including: soccer shoes, french fries, napping, roadtrip-playlists, movie scenes, and more!

I offer you my own Anthropocene-inspired reviews using the tight Booklist word count! (A fun quick write exercise for students (or playful writers) too):

This Morning. I was fully prepared to do Teddy’s morning walk: I had a podcast cued up and earbuds charged; a tank top and joggers, left conveniently, on the floor next to my bed– ready to wear collection. But, Teddy-the-adorable-fluffy-personal-trainer is in high demand! He trotted off with Ben before I could get my feet on the floor. Awake, and rested, and presented with new possibilities for the morning, I hopped on my yoga mat. Delicious stretch! Deep, centering breaths. Letting (more) go. Enjoyed a hot coffee with my Starbucks Almond and Oat Non-Diary Caramel Macchiato Liquid Coffee Enhancer (that name is so gob smackingly pretentious, but it’s so delicious!). Got the Wordle in three tries: impressive! Overall, I’d give this morning a solid 4 and half stars (for the missed the walk in the woods!)

Beach vacation. Sand flats, flip-flops, tide is high, salt water, time off, barefoot. Northumberland Strait, lobster rolls, read and fetch, Tomohawks, bonfires, freckles. Marshmallows, peaceful place, reading books, swimming. Breathe the air! Sea glass, local brews (Tatabrew & Leo), poker-face, Isaac’s omlettes, hose your feet, Jerk chicken, tired doggy, lighthouse! Birthday lunch, old friends, haskap berries, sweet earth, doodle duo. Beach vacay? 5 stars! (Writer’s craft move: all evidence, unexplained: A list of what makes a perfect 5!)

Walks with Teddy. It has been scorching lately– 39 degrees Celcius (literally, in the shade.) That calls for a leisurely walk through the woods so as not to overheat Teddy (or me, for that matter), but he is only minimally slowed by heat. Slow walks are for flip-flops instead of sneakers– I like barefoot, or as close to it, as much as possible, all summer. I listen to a podcast (Arm Chair Expert is my clear favourite), moving slowly and feeling part of the conversation. I breathe more deeply; inhaling fresh air, earth, flowers. When coaxed to (finally) slow down, Teddy gets busy sniffing it all in too! Walking with Ted is always 5 stars, although accumulated evidence may vary by season, weather, or location.

Lunch with a special friend. I needed to connect with someone special in person yesterday, because texting doesn’t give hugs, and sometimes you really need them, and I have really missed hugging, and it was truly lovely. The day sizzled but we were cool ladies in sundresses (love an excuse to get a little more dressed up on a summer day!) the waitress complimented us as we arrived. We had a nice umbrella-ed table at The Lighthouse, with a view of the Wolastoq, enjoyed a Tickle Fight and savoured every last morsel of lunch; watermelon salad and flatbreads. We shared recommendations for documentaries to watch and podcasts to listen to. We connected, we talked, we hugged. A blistering hot 5 stars.