Traveling With Books: the Agony and the Ecstasy

by REBECCA, February 27, 2013

Edinburgh Edinburgh


Friends, Tessa and I are jetting off to grand old Edinburgh! Woohoo! Make sure you check back on Friday for Tessa’s post on Edinburgh books!

Travel poses the classic book dilemma. It’s such a good feeling to read an amazing book while being in an amazing place with an amazing friend! So I always want to make sure I bring the right books for the trip. Hence, the dilemma (trilemma?):

1. Do I bring one really long book that will last the whole trip and take up the least amount of space in my bag? I like to pack really light and there’s nothing more frustrating than lugging around five books you never get around to reading. But, but, but . . . what if  you bring the WRONG book and are stuck with only one thing to read and you’re not in the mood for it. AGONY!

2. Do I bring four or five books that span genres and moods, secure in the comfort that I have the book on hand for any possible book-mood, but weighed down by the very weight of my options?

3. Or do I just bring my kindle, giving myself the most options possible and not adding any unnecessary weight, BUT facing several  potential travel-reading pitfalls?:  a.) I won’t be able to use my kindle during takeoff and landing on the flights (like, six flights, total). b.) I absolutely refuse to use my kindle when sitting in a super-quaint, old-timey tea shop because the presence of such technology would be an affront to my sense of aesthetics and my desire to pretend that I have been swept back in time! c. Most importantly, I won’t be able to use a train ticket stub or the business card from a whiskey distillery tour as bookmarks and leave them in the book so that I can be reminded of my trip any time I pick up the book in the future.

So, what’s a girl to do?! What are your book-packing strategies? Advise me in the comments!


Winter in Paris: French Milk

Saturday was Free Comic Day! In celebration, here is a review of French Milk, a graphic novel by Lucy Knisley

Simon & Schuster, 2007

By REBECCA, May 7, 2012

French Milk Lucy Knisley


Lucy is really the only character that we get to know. She’s a bit melancholy and extremely invested in food, drink, art, and feelings.

the hook

When you’re a graphic artist and you spend a month in Paris, what do you do? You keep a graphic journal and publish it when you’re done, of course!


Lucy and her mom have rented an apartment in Paris for the month of January, 2007, to celebrate her mom’s 50th birthday and Lucy’s 22nd. They spend most of their time eating, drinking, and wandering around Paris looking at stuff. Since this is a journal, it takes us through the trip day by day, so it mainly focuses on the details of what they ate and drank, where they went, and what they saw. This makes for a sensory smorgasbord of meats, cheeses, pickles, cakes, spirits, cigarettes, rain, and music. If, like me, you enjoy reading about such things, or about Paris in general, you will be delighted by the feeling of immediacy that Knisley’s scenes evoke. (Note: better eat before reading or you’ll be sadly disappointed at the non-Parisian state of your refrigerator when you become hungry halfway through.)

French Milk Lucy Knisley

My favorite thing about French Milk is that although Lucy is in Paris for a month eating and drinking delicious things (god, I’m so hungry now), she still gets in funks, misses her boyfriend, gets annoyed with her mom, has cramps, and generally feels out of place in the world. And, while in moments she could come off as an asshole to those of us not in Paris, it mostly adds texture to what might otherwise be a pretty superficial trip. She has that feeling of being privileged to do something that she’s not fully appreciating: that feeling of “I’m in Paris on vacation so I should be happy but my stupid brain is intruding with my real personality and preventing the word vacation from being synonymous with bliss.” You know that feeling, right?

French Milk Lucy Knisley

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Oscar Wilde's grave

Oscar Wilde’s grave avec kisses!

To celebrate Lucy’s birthday, her father comes to Paris to visit and she and her parents go to Père Lachaise cemetery so Lucy can pay homage to Oscar Wilde, who’s buried there. Lucy talks a lot about Wilde—he’s an apt interlocutor for her journal, which is so invested in physical pleasures, art, and aesthetics. But, while French Milk is mostly delightful drawings of food and wanderings around Paris, the funks that Lucy gets in from time to time begin, by the middle of the book, to touch on real depression: fears of her impending college graduation, anxiety that she won’t be able to find a job, insecurity about her self-worth as an artist. So, woven throughout this story of a Parisian adventure are the real world concerns of a woman in her early twenties trying to find where she belongs.

The strength of French Milk’s journal format is the specificity of Lucy and her mother’s experiences—that cheese, this painting, that bridge, these buildings. That immediacy drew me in and made me feel like I, too, was in Paris for a time, along with all my senses. That format was French Milk’s biggest weakness, too, I think. Because the book was stuck in the realism of what things happened when, it never quite opened up into being more than one woman’s experience with things in a highly unusual setting. Whereas sometimes travel shines a light on the feelings of alienation or belonging that a writer always feels but cannot quite capture when in familiar territory, in French Milk those feelings become so specific as to seem a bit solipsistic.

Paris in the winter

Image: design serendipity

The frontispiece of the book says that French Milk “deals with the valuable and significant influence that we take from our mothers, as well as my own struggle toward adulthood at an age when we so desperately cling to our adolescence.” This is true, in moments, but the journal format doesn’t leave Knisley any room to shape those themes into more affecting art, instead leaving them where they lie. That makes French Milk, for me, an escape piece—more travel writing (drawing) than creative nonfiction. And that isn’t a bad thing; far from it. I thoroughly enjoyed my trek through the streets and foods of Paris—even though I don’t care for milk.

personal disclosure

The one moment that French Milk lost me was this page when Lucy and her mom learn of Saddam Hussein’s execution but then find “humanity redeemed” when they eat good cookies (66):

French Milk Lucy Knisley

I think this is actually a very realistic reaction. So much of the book upholds a Wildean aestheticism (a celebration of taste food, drink, sensuality), though, that the use of taste in this instance—to redeem acts of cruelty and violence—made the rest of the book feel a bit more . . . superficial?


Carnet de Voyage Craig Thompson

Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson (2004). Also a graphic travel journal, in Carnet de Voyage Thompson finds himself lonely and lovesick during his travels.

Everything is its own reward: an all over coffee collection paul madonna

Everything Is Its Own Reward: An All Over Coffee Collection by Paul Madonna (2011). “All Over Coffee” began as a column of Paul Madonna’s that first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. It pairs Madonna’s stunning ink wash drawings with musings about the places he visits, from San Francisco to Tokyo to Paris. Gorgeous!

Procured from: library

The Fault in Our Stars: Tears are Cool

The Fault in Our Stars
John Green
Dutton Books, 2012

Hazel Grace Lancaster, permanently out of breath and depressed as a side effect of dying (and having cancer) but otherwise a sparkling and intelligent girl.
Augustus Waters, or Gus, one-legged, well-rounded, well-read.
Isaac, unlucky in love and health and still is a great friend.
Peter Van Houten, elusive author of a book that seems to read Hazel’s mind

Is it harder or easier to be in love when you’re dying?

Hazel has cancer, but cancer isn’t the sum of her. Sure, the effects of it are the most noticeable things about her appearance–steroids make her cheeks puffy and she carts around an oxygen tank–but her particular lung cancer is stabilized by an experimental drug. Still, she can’t go to school without being exhausted, so she sits around her house watching America’s Next Top Model and reading. Until her parents talk to her about joining a Cancer Support Group. Which is where she meets Augustus Waters. Who becomes her first love.

Much like in Hazel’s self, the cancer and the love story are inextricably linked in The Fault in Our Stars. Things are both harder and easier for Hazel and Augustus because of this. It’s easier for their friends and family to believe the depth of their involvement because they’ve both been through a lot and so have more maturity than some teens. But it’s harder for them both to be involved because they can’t stop thinking about the extenuating circumstances and what they’re doing to their emotions, should one of them die. It’s easier for them to complete a possibly romantic quest because they have cancer, but harder to imagine where they’re going in life generally. And so on.

Intention Achievement
In other words, this is and is not a cancer book. I was caught off guard with it in an elevator in Dallas with 2 friendly passengers who asked: “What are you reading?”

“It’s a book about a girl with cancer…” I started out. They made scrunchy sad/empathetic faces, and I rushed in to say “But it’s not that kind of cancer book.”  Then I asked them what was in their take-home containers to diffuse the tension. (blue corn muffins, if you’re curious)

What I wanted to say is that it wasn’t a cheesy or melodramatic cancer book. It wasn’t a Lurlene McDaniel or Nicholas Sparks book. Or, it was built on that model but transcended it.  The only problem is that I’ve only seen A Walk to Remember. Which highlights the fact that if this weren’t a John Green book, I probably wouldn’t be reading it. So, I’d say this book achieves its intention, which is to be a good book, and in particular, a good John Green book. I happen to be a fan of John Green’s, so this is good news to me (and all the Nerdfighters).

Not John Green, LURLENE!

What makes a John Green book? It’s like a really good sandwich because it has all the right amounts of textures and flavors: there’s lightness, heaviness, crunchiness, softness, tanginess/saltiness, sweetness, and umami.  He’s got flow to his work, so even as he’s setting you up to sob like a little baby, as you will if you read The Fault in Our Stars, you can’t help but read along. It’s the best kind of bamboozling.

I’m not talking about the actual book so much because it’s hard to describe without giving stuff away. I don’t want to focus on the whole disease thing too much.  The reason I didn’t care that I was being manipulated to cry by John Green’s narrative is that it felt like feeling things instead of manipulation, and because I love a good love story.

When Hazel and Augustus meet, they are flirty but cautious, but can’t help hanging out with each other (after a great misunderstanding about a cigarette that shows Hazel’s pluck).  Their quiet excitement about finding each other is perfectly depicted. The exhilaration of meeting someone who gets you never gets old to read about.  The Fault in Our Stars has this in abundance. Here’s two quiet examples:


“Our hands kind of got muddled together in the book handoff, and then he was holding my hand. ‘Cold,’ he said, pressing a finger to my pale wrist.

‘Not cold so much as underoxygenated,’ I said.

‘I love it when you talk medical to me,’ he said. He stood, and pulled me up with him, and did not let go of my hand until we reached the stairs.” (34).

This has the excitement of new hand-holding from someone  you just met, and dorky humor that happens when you like someone too much to care.


“I drove Augustus’s car home with Augustus riding shotgun. He played me a couple songs he liked by a band called The Hectic Glow, and they were good songs but because I didn’t know them already, they weren’t as good to me as they were to him. I kept glancing over at his leg, at the place where his leg had been, trying to imagine what the fake leg looked like. I didn’t want to care about it, but I did a little. He probably cared about my oxygen.” (35.)

This is a great passage because it has attraction with all of its attendant over-self-awareness, or attraction tempered by Hazel’s knowledge that she’ll be hearing more of Augustus’s favorite band and get to the point where she will have his level of enthusiasm for them (aka anticipation!). I love that she admits she doesn’t like the music as much as he does – she doesn’t have to pretend to do that kind of stuff.

The Fault in Our Stars also has international travel and becoming aware of the falseness of your most cherished beliefs, getting over that blow, and moving on, and being a good friend to someone in a truly shitty situation (seriously – another thing that I loved was that Hazel came into her own as a friend to Isaac apart from his friendship with Augustus).  What else? The cover is great.

You will probably cry if you read this book. If so, I recommend getting this song stuck in your head. It’s one of my favorites from middle school and the lyrics are applicable to this story.


Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
I haven’t read this yet, but many librarians stand behind it and it’s contemporary realistic fiction about a boy and his brother and his brother’s leukemia, so I’d say it’s a good fit.

70s butts!

That Was Then, This is Now by S.E. Hinton
This is a book that made me sob like a baby when I was a teen. Plotwise, it is a coming of age story, but otherwise has no other similarities to our book being reviewed. I did re-read it recently and couldn’t figure out which part exactly made me cry, but it’s still a good book. Click here for an S.E. Hinton valentine!

The Hub, YALSA’s blog, just published a great round-up of cancer fiction here!

Because John Green is so popular, people have Opinions about him and they’re usually extreme. The bad ones go like this: his characters talk like Dawson’s Creek (not like real people) and his girls are unrealistic.  I disagree on both counts.  Although Hazel’s outburst in support group the first time that Augustus comes is a little over the top, I’d point you to Fiona Apple’s outburst at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. Furthermore, I’ve heard teens talk like his teens, except with more focus on manga and less on literature. Secondly, his girl characters are as realistic as any of his other characters, which is to say, very realistic.

John Green writes about love a lot, especially first love or right after first love breaks your heart. He describes having hopes about people, hopes that they are the people who will make you a more interesting person. He writes about the anger that happens when these people fail you. I think some people read it just as that: books about boys wanting magically quirky girls to save them, or a book about a diseased and quirky girl hoping a diseased and quirky boy can save her. Now, this could just be the fact that people want different things from their love stories, and there’s something off to them about the way crushes and breakups and love happens in a John Green book. But I refuse to write the characters off as “quirky”.

Take this quote from Hazel:

“My favorite book, by a wide margin, was An Imperial Affliction, but I didn’t like to tell people about it. Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.” (33).

Yes! Right??? The quote about the book that speaks to you is SPEAKING TO ME. Meta.

Anyway, beside the fact that this quote reads my mind and says what I’m thinking better than I ever could, it demonstrates that Hazel is a girl who has more going on with her than being quirky.  If loving a book makes you quirky, god help us.  And many of the characters in John Green books know an area of arcane trivia or read books – is that what makes them quirky, or what makes them unrealistic?  If you say unrealistic, I’d argue that every book is a fantasy on that level, populated by people the author made up and wishes existed, and he hasn’t created the most egregious fantasy. If you say quirky, then there’s a comment on the A.V. Club review of the book that I think argues this better than I could because it uses source material (note: MPDG is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which is a trope people like to throw at girl characters):

Lindsay Simms says “yeah, John does like his MPDG, but not in the way that most authors/writers/directors do. I’ve always viewed those girls (Alaska, Margo) as girls that you DON’T want to emulate, as opposed to in, say, Garden State, when Sam is shown with no faults.

To quote John, ‘What a treacherous thing, to believe that a person is more than a person.'”

In short, there will be people who like his books and those who don’t, and that’s okay. I guess I’m just declaring which camp I’m in and why.

I got this book from: the library

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