Summer’s End: The Pop Culture Homework Assignment Roundup

Well, folks, It’s Labor Day and summer is over. This has been a really fun summer for us at StacksXLifeX. We challenged each other in June to do a Pop Culture Homework Assignment. We each assigned the other four books that were themed and we gave ourselves the summer to read them. (We, of course, could and did read other things, too!) My theme for Beth was travel. She read Wild by Cheryl Strayed. She then followed it up with Traveling Mercies, 13 Little Blue Envelopes (with the bonus extra credit: The Last Little Blue Envelope!) by Maureen Johnson, and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

Beth assigned me The books of Rainbow Rowell. I’ve been hearing about some of these books for awhile now (in particular, Eleanor and Park) so I was very happy to dive into them. I also read Attachments, Fangirl, and Landline. Plus, we got some bonus posts because, serendipitously, Rainbow Rowell spoke at our parents’ local library while I was visiting home, Eleanor and Park inspired a playlist and Fangirl inspired a dessert.

We enjoyed this challenge enormously. It has been so fun to read books outside of our normal fare and to discuss those books with each other and you. We hope that you have enjoyed the posts and this summer. School is back in session, the leaves will be changing soon and before we know it, everyone will be doing year-end reviews.

So, tell us in the comments: What were your favorite books this summer?

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Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

So, I can’t believe how incredibly lax I have been this past month about blogging. I finished this book awhile ago (before Beth finished A Walk in the Woods!). This was the hardest of the books that Beth assigned me to get through. (Which I think is funny. I read the easiest and then immediately started the hardest). But, it was nice to know that even if I was having trouble with it, at least I was reading a signed copy.

Georgie has always wanted to be a comedy writer and she has worked very hard over the years writing for various television shows. Now, she and her writing partner have a chance to pitch their own show. This is their dream. But, it’s Christmas and she was supposed to go to Omaha with the love of her life Neal and their two kids. He tells her not worry, they’ll go without her, she should stay and write her pitch. She stays. He leaves with the kids. A chain of events is then set off in which Georgie has to wonder about her future and her past. Did Neal leave her for good or just for Christmas? Trying to get in touch with Neal she discovers that she has a magic phone that can call Neal in the past. Well, at one particular time in the past where she was sure Neal had left her for good.

This one, my last one in my pop culture homework assignment, was so slow starting. At the beginning of the book (probably for the first fifty pages) I didn’t care about Neal or Georgie and so I wasn’t invested in their relationship. It didn’t matter to me if they stayed together or if they split. But, the further I got into the novel, the more I started really getting into the context. Georgie is thinking about her priorities and what she wants from her life. I can relate to that. In fact, this was probably hardest to read because Georgie and I are about the same age and I have also been thinking a lot about my priorities this summer. Georgie is coming to realize all of the things that she has taken for granted (that you can’t take for granted.) Neal is not my favorite paramour in literature; he’s brusque and standoffish. Without Georgie, I probably wouldn’t care about Neal (without Neal, I might care about Georgie). But, Neal and Georgie do seem to have something good in the flashbacks we are treated to as Georgie thinks about her relationship (and as Rowell provides us the context of the phone calls to the past.)

It is a neat concept: a magic phone that can call one place and time in the past. That’s pretty neat. At the Rainbow Rowell reading I went to earlier this summer someone asked about the magic phone and she said, “Who wouldn’t want a magic phone they could use to talk to a past love?” Me. I wouldn’t. But, if I had a magic phone and I could talk to my past self, man that would be sweet. Past Kate could have saved Present Kate a lot of trouble. This was my least favorite of the four Rowell books I read this summer but it was still pretty good.

And, with that, I am done with my Pop Culture Homework assignment!

Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

This is the story of Cath, a first year college student who is super awkward, in love with characters in a teen series, and a writer of fan fiction. She moves into her dorm room with her new roommate (after her twin sister tells her she doesn’t want to room with her) and then proceeds to try and make it as far as she can without interacting with anyone. Her roommate, Reagan, and her roommate’s friend (boyfriend? friend? boyfriend?) Levi force her to interact with them. Levi forces the issue by snooping through Cath’s stuff and eating most of her supply of protein bars (forcing her to ask where the cafeteria is) and Reagan forces the issue by making Cath eat with her in the cafeteria. They slowly become friends. Cath and Levi realize that they have feelings for each other and the story spirals from there. Additionally, there are story arcs that involve both of Cath’s parents. Cath’s father has raised her and her sister from when they were very young and now her mother would like to have some involvement. Cath’s father also has bipolar disorder. Cath’s interactions with her parents were beautiful and at times heartbreaking.

I love Cath. I love her so much.

This book has beginning of school drama. It has tension between sisters (ugh, her sister drove me crazy!). There is romance. There is friendship. There is at least one douche canoe of a bro tryna take advantage of a young woman. There’s some really satisfying comeuppance for said douche canoe of a bro. There’s an awesome professor who gets it…but also doesn’t get it. And, there’s the fan fiction. Oh, the fan fiction. I finished this book in two days and I read it on my phone because I couldn’t get enough of it. I read it in every spare minute that I had. This was by far my favorite of the books that Beth assigned me this summer. I cannot wait for Carry On!, Cath’s fan fiction, to be published this Fall!

Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Featured imageI did it. I have completed my summer’s Pop Culture Homework Assignment and still have a couple more weeks before the kids go back to school. (Kids in NYC go back ridiculously late.) I’ve read four books.  Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, 13 Blue Little Envelopes and Last Little Blue Envelope (extra credit) by Maureen Johnson and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.  I feel very good about all of this.  I’ve read three non-fiction books, which is three more than I read all of last year.  I read about two brave women and how they overcame their struggles and came out stronger.  I got a feel for what it’s like to hike and camp and it still has no appeal to me but I can see how it might appeal to others.  I also got to read a new book form an author I really like.  I would say it was a productive summer.

So A Walk in the Woods was enjoyable.  I can definitely see why Kate loves it so much.  Bill and his friend Stephen Katz are two people who probably shouldn’t be hiking but they did and they made it.  Ok, maybe Bill but definitely not Katz.  Bill moves to New Hampshire and finds out it’s right by the Appalachian Trail and decides, he’s going to hike it because why not.  Out of no where, his long lost friend Katz decides to do it with him. Like Cheryl in Wild, they have no idea of what they are getting themselves into.  Sure, they’ve done some hiking before but nothing like this.  Reading their misadventures was a delight.  From their struggles with their packs, the people they meet and their run-ins with animals that were real or imaginary was amusing.  The best part of the book is when they are together.  In the middle, Katz has to go back to Des Moines for a job and Bill continues on his own.  It’s not that I don’t like Bill, it’s I liked him more when he had Katz to play off.  If they were a comedic duo, Bill would be Desi to Katz’s Lucy.  The book read faster and I was more interested.  When it was just Bill, I felt like he spent more talking about history and other tangents and while interesting, it slowed the pace down.  Maybe he spent so much time talking about other things because he was by himself he obviously didn’t have any witty dialogue to include. The Appalachian Trail is older then the Pacific Crest Trail that Cheryl hiked and so it had a lot more places to stop.  Also, it’s surrounded by more towns and people, so Bill and Katz had more chances of interacting with people on and off the trail.  It was interesting to see how they were treated when they left the trail.  In some cases like Gods and others indifference.  All and all it was an enjoyable read.  I’m glad I read it.

Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes and Last Little Blue Envelope

13 The third book for my pop cultural assignment has brought me back to some much more familiar territory: The YA novel. As much as I love Maureen Johnson’s series Shades of London I haven’t actually read any of her other books so I was pretty excited to be assigned this.  

 One day, Ginny gets a letter from her recently deceased Aunt Peg, that she should buy a plane ticket to London and pack for a long trip.  So she does and starts on a trip of a lifetime. She is given 13 little blue envelopes that she can’t open until she is told.  She can’t call, email or journal while on the trip. She is supposed to live in the moment.  The letters have two purposes, 1. show Ginny what her Aunt has been doing for the last two years since she just left New York without a word and 2. explain why she did what she did. Aunt Peg sends Ginny all Europe, from London to Greece.  Now if this was my aunt, I would be a little pissed that I was sent all over without a clear idea of where I was going next but that’s me.  Ginny is a smart girl that is a little bit of an introvert.  So doing this is quite the undertaking.  It forces her to branch out of her comfort zone but also say good bye to her beloved Aunt.  On her adventure, she meets playwright and actor, Keith.  Keith is pretty much the opposite of Ginny.  He is out going and not afraid to meet new people.  Ginny is immediately attracted to him and asked him to come along for parts of her journey.  He helps her come out of her shell and supports her coming to terms with the death of her aunt but it’s her journey and ultimately she does it on her own.  In the end, Ginny leaves Europe more confident in herself but at peace with the death of her Aunt.  It was a satisfying ending.

And yet there is a sequel.  The Last Blue Envelope takes place few months later.  


*Spoiler Alert* 
Before Ginny could read the last letter, it was stolen along with her backpack in Greece.  Even though, she figures out part of what was in the letter when she finds her Aunt’s paintings I don’t think she was fully ready to let go of that summer, partly because she never got to read that last letter.  Well, miracles of miracles a boy in London emails her and says that he bought her backpack while in Greece and has her letters.  So she once again goes to London to retrieve it and since she is there, she tries to pick up with Keith even though their communication has slowed as of late.  As you can imagine, their reunion doesn’t go as planned when she discovers that Keith has a girlfriend and to make things worse, Oliver drops the bomb that there is another piece of art her Aunt has left for her to find.  She once again travels all over Europe without knowing where she is going and what she’ll have to do. The last time she did this she was mostly alone, this time she has Oliver,( who basically blackmails her into sharing in the profits of the sale of her Aunt’s work for the letters) Keith and Keith’s girlfriend Ellis and it’s  full awkwardness.  We didn’t get to know that much about Keith in the first book as he came and went in the narrative.  In this he is much more present and honestly, he would drive me crazy if he was my friend.  Ellis is sweet and it’s hard not to like her even if she is the girlfriend. It is Oliver who probably understands Ginny the most.  True, he had the benefit of reading her letters (ok that’s not so great) but he knows when to be quiet and when to talk.  He’s not a bad guy if you can get past the whole blackmail thing.  This book wasn’t as good as the first.  I was satisfied with how the other one ended.  Yes, there was some unfinished business.  The stolen letter and the are they dating are they not ending with Keith but life is full of unfinished business and I believe that Ginny ended a better person than where she began.  At times it felt like all of this was meant to have a sequel and other times it felt like it was put together to capitalize on a popular book.  Also the ending wasn’t as great.  Yes, once again Ginny is in a better place than she was when she began but once again there are relationships left up in the air.  It’s like Miss Johnson is leaving it open to write another book even though the letters are all gone.

I liked the first better then the second but I enjoyed them as a whole.  They, however, are not as good as her Shades of London series, which is definitely worth the read.

Pop Culture Homework Assignment: Extra Credit

So I have decided that I’m going to be that student who is going to go above and beyond. So I’m assigning myself an extra credit assignment.  I’ve finished 13 Little Blue Envelopes and decided that I’ll go ahead and read the sequel, The Last Blue Envelope. I know that Kate didn’t particularly like it since she felt it was unnecessary and that not all YA books should be turned into a series.  I can see what she means.  13 Little Blue Envelopes ended well.  I was satisfied with the ending but since I knew there was a sequel, I was curious.  So I’m going to read it and see for myself.

I’m such a good student.

Review: Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

Featured imageI remember years ago, Madonna was quoted as saying that she wasn’t a religious person but a spiritual one. For the life of me I can’t find the actual quote.  Internet, you have failed me! This seemed strange to me at the time because Madonna was very much in her Kabbalah phase and it seemed like everything in her life  was influenced by it.  Just listen to albums Ray of Light through Confessions on a Dance Floor for more evidence.  She has since have moved on from Kabbalah.  I’m not sure if she is still practicing or not but the presence is not as prevalent in her music as it used to be. Does one have to actively practice a religion to be that religion?  The one thing that stuck with me from my Introduction to Islam class I took in college (taught by New York Times Bestseller, Reza Aslan.  Yep, I’m totally name dropping!) was that in Islam, if you don’t practice you really can’t be really considered Muslim. Now, I took that class *gulp* over 10 years ago, so I apologize if that is not entirely accurate but I do remember that Islam is a very practical religion as well.  As Mr. Aslan explained, if you couldn’t pray five times a day at the right time that’s ok, as long as you get those prayers in sometime during the day.  If you can’t fast during Ramadan because of work, illness or other circumstances, that’s fine, too, as long as you make time to fast later to make up for it.  That last point was illustrated to me when a former co-worker had to skip a week of fasting during the month of Ramadan because she was having stomach pain.  As soon as she was feeling better, she completed that week of fasting.  This makes sense to me. If you think about it, you really don’t have to go to church or read the bible to call yourself a Christian.

Why do I bring all this up?  Well, both of these things were going through my mind as I was reading this book. Anne Lamott talks to openly and honestly about her faith.  She puts to paper all her failings, fears and shortcomings. Even after finding a church and Christianity, she still struggles with keeping faith.  She still has moments of “Dear God, why is this happening?”  I’m a big fan of her two favorite prayers of “Help Me Help Me Help Me” and “Thank You Thank You Thank You”.  I appreciate how she talks about her journey but makes it clear that this is her journey.  She’s not forcing her beliefs on the reader but is more saying “this is what happened to me and this worked for me and maybe something like it will work for you”. I appreciate that.  I was truly touched by her story.  I haven’t been to a church going person since I completed confirmation when I was 13.  I’ve found many things that people who say they are Christians to be incredibly offensive and contrary to the Christianity that I grew up with.  I also studied a lot of Medieval History in college for my major and well, I haven’t really been able to look at Christianity the same since.  We seem to think that religious institutions are unchanging and infallible but anyone who has studied history has seen how much the church has changed to fit in with the times it was in.  Religions are always changing, growing and to say otherwise is just, well, naive and ignorant.  This is why at times I have called myself agnostic because I do believe that a God exists or at least a higher power exists. I wasn’t sure I could really call myself a Christian knowing all these things.  I didn’t want to be associate with the likes of the  Duggars and Westboro Churches of the world or have people think that I was like them.  I sort of backed way from all religions for awhile.  Now, that Madonna quote from the beginning makes sense to me.  I wouldn’t say I’m religious or even spiritual but I would say that I have faith. I would say I still believe in the basic Christian belief that God loves all his children when it comes down to it.  I don’t need to go to church or read the bible to be a good Christian.  I just need to be a good person and treat people with love and dignity because isn’t that what Jesus would do?   I came to this realization a couple of years ago so reading this book didn’t really change my mind but it did cement my thinking.  Miss Lamott found a certain peace in her faith and I have found it in mine.  We are practicing it differently but ultimately we have come to the same place and I know Miss Lamott would respect and love that. So Thank You Thank You Thank You

Now I am halfway through my Pop Culture homework assignment.  I’m looking forward to something that hopefully won’t make me cry while I’m on the subway.