Book Note: To All the Boys I've Loved Before

At work, we were recently discussing this article by Ruth Graham in Slate, about why adults shouldn’t read young adult novels. (If you haven’t read it yet, you should. You could even tell me what you think!) Obviously I think that grown ups can read teen novels (and really, they should if they have any teenagers), but I hope that isn’t the only genre we (grown up readers) read. There is some YA that is absolute garbage, some that is fluffy and entertaining, some that is really good, and some that will totally rock your world no matter how old you are. (A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness springs to mind.) My contribution to the (email) discussion was that I wish more people would read the books that challenge their ideas, that teach them about life and make their worlds more rich. But I also wish people weren't starving in Africa, there weren't any terrorists, and I never got wrinkles. Nice, lovely wishes, but not reality. Reality is that everyone reads for different reasons are mine, and Ruth Graham's reasons are hers, and if people are at least reading (and buying!) books, we'll all find something that fits our reasons.

The discussion made me ask myself a question, though: Why am I willing to put up with in teen novels stuff that I would never put up with in adult novels? The answer is that I recognize I’m not the intended audience. No matter how good a YA novel is, I’m not ever going to respond to it like a teenager would because (no matter how intense my teenage memories are) I’ve lost my teenage perspective. I know how I used to think, but I can’t think that way anymore.

Sometimes this leads me to question my responses to YA novels. Do I feel annoyed, disappointed, or frustrated with a book because the writing isn’t very good? Or is it because I am looking at it like an adult (an adult with an English degree who also taught English)?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Take the book To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han. 15749186It’s a YA novel about a girl named Lara Jean who, when she finds herself unbearably in love with someone, eventually writes him a long and detailed love letter, which she addresses but never mails. Then the letters accidentally get mailed—and she has to deal with what happens.

I so wanted to love this book. Love it in the sense of being swept up in an interesting story. It seemed like an idea brimming with potential. Would the mailed love letters completely mortify her? Would they open up new possibilities for romance? (Or better yet, self-understanding. Or something.) But what happens is Lara Jean decides to make a fake relationship with Peter Kavinsky (one of the boys who received a letter), who just broke up with Gen, who used to be Lara Jean’s best friend, all in an effort to prove to Josh (who used to be her older sister’s boyfriend) that she doesn’t still have a crush on him.

Fake relationship.


I liked other things about the book. The relationship between Lara Jean and her two sisters, Margo and Kitty, is well-drawn. And the conflict she feels about Peter (does she still like him? how does her old friendship with Gen influence things? could it develop into something more than a pretend romance?) rings true.

I just wanted those letters to be a catalyst for something other than lying.

But I don’t know: do I want that because I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the adolescent girl reader’s heart? (And how does Jenny Han?) Is digging a deeper hole really how a teenage girl would respond? (Well…duh. Probably.) Am I just expecting too much?

I’ll put it down to the last one. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a good read if you’re wanting something very sweet and a little bit fluffy. It’s definitely not life changing or inspiring. But all books don’t have to be, right?

Do you read teen novels? What do you think about adults reading YA?

Photographic Tension

The members of my family have a wide range of responses to the camera. On one side of the spectrum is Haley, who loves doing photo shoots and of whom a photo is taken nearly every day by someone. Nathan and Kaleb are sort of neutral; Nathan takes a good photo easily, and he doesn't hate it, but he doesn't seek it out. Kaleb is harder to get a good photo of because he can't quite ignore the camera; once he is aware of it his natural smile is impossible for him to form, as if the presence of the knowledge of the existence of the camera in his space makes him forget how to smile—but he doesn't groan about taking pictures, either. I don't love having my picture taken, but I am a staunch believer that the family photographer needs to work on getting in front of the camera sometimes, because our kids need pictures of us, too, so I have been known to sometimes ask someone to take my picture (much to my discomfort).  

On the other end of the spectrum are Jake and Kendell. About seven or eight years ago, Jake decided he hates having his picture taken. He complains vociferously whenever the camera is involved with any experience, photo shoots are an agony of obnoxious behavior, and nearly every photo I have of him either has the duck face or the angry cat frown. Perhaps he inherited this dislike of photography from his father. Ninety five percent of my pictures of Kendell look like this:

Kendell photo

He hates having his picture taken more than almost anything else I can think of. But it's not just having his photo taken; he's also annoyed by having to wait for me to take pictures. Floral photography is a particular annoyance, but taking pictures during a hike is also equally offensive to him. We have been known to argue about photography.  

Maybe it is Kendell's aversion to photography that makes me think about the reasons behind my interest (some might call it compulsion) to take pictures. For me, photography is partly about the art—the making of something beautiful (even though I am far from an artist with my camera). I do enjoy learning about photography, paying attention to light and watching for good shots and trying to capture the unposed and the spontaneous. But it is, even more, the desire for memory that pushes me to snap the lens. I want to remember but I know memory is fragile and so I put my camera to my eye. Sometimes this makes me worry that I am photographing my life instead of living it, so I go through phases when I conciously do not take pictures, even when my Inner Photographer is begging me to. And then I look at my pictures and I start seeing gaps so I start taking more pictures.

Sometimes I think it is scrapbooking that causes Jake's reluctance to be photographed. I had this insight one night last week, when I taught him how to make baking powder biscuits. He's been wanting to learn for awhile, and I finally managed to both make a dinner that went well with biscuits (creamy chicken soup) and start it with enough time to teach him. After we had finished, and were eating the biscuits (which were delicious, if a little bit salty), I thought I should've taken some pictures. I could see the images in my head, a close up of his hands in the big white bowl, forming the dough into a ball; a low-angled shot of buttermilk in a glass measuring cup; an impossible shot (unless someone else was also in the kitchen) of his face, concentrating, while I stood behind him, reciting the recipe from memory. And I could see the layout, too, almost: know the colors and patterns I would use to create a mood that evoked what I felt during the experience.

But then I thought about the outcome of photographing the experience. The camera in the kitchen would've turned it from Jake learning how to make biscuits to Amy taking pictures of Jake learning how to make biscuits. An experience about preservation instead of about the experience itself. And the experience itself is enough. Maybe some experiences are more valuable than pictures. Maybe just writing about it in my journal is enough, instead of allowing technology to change the moment.

The camera would've muddled the clarity (and, frankly, the sweetness) of the experience.

I've been thinking about THIS ARTICLE from the New Yorker and how it captures almost exactly my photographic tension. (Go read it and then come back; I'll wait.) I say "almost" because I don't have an iPhone (nor do I want one). I do have an Android phone, and I do take pictures with it, but honestly: just as my little point-and-shoot camera frustrates me because of its limitations, my smart phone camera doesn't fulfill my photographic needs. (I will forever be, I suppose, the lady with the big camera.) I want to keep using my DSLR (and honestly, the thought of only having pictures from a cell phone makes me anxious), but I don’t think the type of camera equipment matters so much as one’s attachment to it.

Allowances for camera types aside, however, I read the essay saying yes. To the feeling of wanting to freeze moments long enough to grab my camera and photograph them.  Yes to feeling sad over allowing my thoughts about a picture to distract me from the moment. Yes to the power that looking at photographs imbibes remembering with—how pictures make it easier to remember, to see patterns, to understand a thing you didn't when you snapped the lens. Yes to this idea: "if you are taking a picture of your children. . .then are you, in that moment, looking at them? Or are you anticipating a moment in the future—it is sometimes ten seconds in the future but it could well be ten years—when you will be looking at this very moment?"

"Yes" is the answer to that question: it is both. Now, and later. Or at least, for me. Despite the tension, both within my family and within myself, I will continue taking pictures, continue risking the sweetness of right now because right now is so sweet I want to remember it tomorrow.

An Excess of Fabulousness (or: why I don't read Mormon Mommy Blogs)

Confession: I don't read any of the famous Mormon Mommy Blogs. (Like CJane or Nat the Fat or even Rockstar Diaries, which is a great title for a blog.) I did, for awhile. In a way, they're comforting: an oasis of the familiar in a landscape of non-religious writing. But I stopped, and here's why: they depress me.

So when I read this article on, by Emily Matchar, about Mormon Mommy Blogs, and how many non-Mormon, non-mothers love to read them, I got a little bit more depressed. Not to mention annoyed. Here—go read the article. I'll wait.

Back? OK, here's what annoys me: these women present to the world the face of what it's like to be a Mormon and a mother. Their "shiny, happy lives" have an appeal to the women out in the real world because they make things like marriage and motherhood seem "completely unproblematic." Which is exactly why I  don't   like reading them. The blogs portray an excess of fabulousness: fabulous dinner parties! fabulous outings! fabulous friends! fabulous marriages! Fabulous crafts and furniture and homes! The lives these bloggers live seem utterly perfect, down to the exact shade of pale blue they painted their living room wall. Not to mention their husbands. And their children.

Possibly this annoyance of mine comes across as simple, brittle jealousy. If I had a fabulous life like theirs, I wouldn't feel annoyed, right? If I just had all the right clothes, and beautiful hair, and an excess of cash to spend however I liked. Or maybe if I had a fabulously large blog readership I, too, would be content with putting my shiny, happy face forward.

But it's more than jealousy. It's also the simple fact that the world sees them as the face of Mormonism. This  is how fabulous your life will be if you are a Mormon! Isn't that just grand? The gospel will bring all of this cool, amazing stuff into your life. You will be fabulous!

And I couldn't agree less. Maybe it's because I am, at heart, a rogue Mormon. Doing my best to live it but still questioning and struggling. The gospel hasn't brought me any of the fabulous things those women have. My house is fairly lame—no one would ever think it is well-decorated. Far from the perfect shade of pale blue, most of my walls are white. White that needs to be re-whitened. My children are perfect to me, of course, but they are not perfect and I would be loathe to put such a burden as perfection upon their shoulders. My husband doesn't look like a cute graphic designer. Our marriage is so far from perfect it isn't even funny. We fight. A lot. My kids say things like "this family is pathetic" and "no one listens to me" and "why is everyone else more important?"

We are not shiny.

But, you know? Even though I really am  envious of those blogs' high readership (do they write better than I do? or is it simply their topics? or better marketing skills? or their ability to pull off the shiny-happy-plastic thing that I just can't?), I don't know if I believe the "my life is perfect" act. I don't think the gospel exists so that I can make crafts with my kids every afternoon. I don't think being a good LDS person has anything to do with the color of your walls or the shape of your husband's eyeglasses. It has to do with me wrestling with myself. It has to do with me learning and growing and trying to prepare my children for their futures. 

The gospel doesn't give you wealth. It doesn't bring you your dream home or the ability to decorate it well. It doesn't give you amazing crafting skills, a deft hand at picking out the perfect vintage dress, or the luck of finding the perfect pet (that you can dress in a raincoat). It doesn't even magically make all of your relationships blissful. What it does give you is far less tangible.

Women like Emily Matchar, "secular, childless women who may have never so much as baked a cupcake," are drawn to the Mormon Mommy Blogs because of the happy ease they present. They read them because they are different from their own experiences and provide a glimpse of an alternate reality. I don't  read them for exactly the same reason: because they are different from my own experiences, even with that LDS familiarity. My life is never going to be shiny-happy. It just isn't. I'm not sure if that is because I'm not doing enough things correctly, or if what they write on their blogs is only the skimmings—just the shiny, happy parts.

Being a Mormon—just like, I'd imagine, being a Jew or a Catholic or an aethist or a dentist—doesn't turn you into a clone. There isn't one perfect way of being. I'm not judging the Mormon Mommy Bloggers. I'm glad that there are people in the world who do have shiny-happy lives. Good for them for making their perfection into a means to support their families. But they are not the only kind of Mormon people. We are painted in extremes: extremely happy or extremely deluded. The world fails to see the majority of us in the middle, trying to live our lives, trying to be good people (whatever that means), trying to be happy despite our lack of perfection.

Read This! What is Happiness?

Lately I am in love with the NY Times. Not so much the front-page news, because most of that, in any paper, is more than I can deal with, so I read it only in snips. No, what I'm loving about the NY Times is the articles about books, reading, philosophy, art, thought, ideas. It's something I've discovered at work; every so often someone will forward a link to an article we all must read right now, and after a few of those emails I've taken to perusing all by myself.

But ever since I started writing book notes on my blog, it's harder for me to read something, even a newspaper, without also writing about it. And wishing I could just hang out and talk about what I've read with a big group of like-minded people. The columns I like most in the Times are the ones I'd discuss with that imaginary group, but since it doesn't exist I decided I'm just going to write about them here. Sort of like my own little letter-to-the-editor, except I hope that you'll read the article too, and join in on the dialogue.

So! That said, here's my first Read This! entry:

Happy Like God by Simon Crichtley

The process of finding happiness is, I think, one of our fundamental processes as human beings. Once our basic food-and-shelter needs are met, happiness might even be the thing we live for. I mean, why else falling love? having children? taking vacations? painting your bedroom the perfect shade of green? When you trace it back to its source, each thing we do in life is for happiness, either our own or someone else's. Yet it's also hard to pin down. "What makes you happy?" we might ask each other, but maybe the "what" isn't the point. Maybe nothing makes us happy. Maybe happiness just exists, and sometimes we manage to discover it. Critchley suggests that happiness is discovered in moments of contemplation, times when we are surrounded by a beloved landscape and can simply just exist, experiencing that exact moment. When we're in that moment, time loses meaning. Maybe yesterday you were unhappy, or tomorrow will be the happiest day of your life, but it doesn't matter because in that moment you are experiencing happiness. This, he suggests, is the happiness God feels, independent of time.

I don't necessarily agree that this is the only happiness, but I do think it is a kind. A valuable kind. I can remember feeling that type of happiness as a child. Behind our house was an enormous cornfield, and my greatest pleasure was wandering up and down the rows of corn, watching the sunlight and shadow move around each other, or watching the progress of the purple morning glories as they changed from tight, spiral twists to open, exotic blossoms. I didn't know (and wouldn't have cared, I think) that they were weeds that probably drove Farmer Nelson crazy, nor that I drove him crazy, wandering around his cornfield. I felt it, still as a child, at Lake Powell, where entire hours could be spent scratching my name in the wet sandstone, the water a lulling presence all around me. And the possibility of feeling it is why I love hiking. I don't often achieve it anymore, though; it's hard to let worry vanish enough to manage the "state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there" when you're hiking with your kids or even, sometimes, with your husband. But I know it could be found in the mountains, and that is what brings me back to them, over and over.

So, tell me (or blog about it too!): what do you think? Is that how God is happy? Are there other ways to experience happiness? Have you ever experienced the happiness he writes about? Where?