The Immortalists: A Book Review

Let me start by saying thank you to my readers who voted for this book. I don’t think I could have picked a better title to launch my book review section of this blog. It’s not a long read at just shy of 350 pages, but the storytelling is rich and inviting. I think this will quickly become my favorite part of blogging because I love to talk about books almost as much as I love to talk about writing! But don’t worry, no spoilers will be uttered here.

The Immortalists begins with the four Gold siblings at various points along the bridge from childhood to adolescence. It’s the summer of ‘69 in New York City’s Lower East Side and in quiet understanding that the separation of age is threatening the closeness of their youth, Simon, Klara, David, and Varya embark on a quest to find the Woman on Hester Street who can tell you when you’ll die.

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Author Chloe Benjamin has managed to tell each sibling’s story, how they choose to accept or reject their prescribed fate, with such incredible honesty that to reach the end and remember that they are fiction is to accept a pang of grief. Each of the Gold siblings has an individualistic nature that seems to clatter and bang against their shared upbringing like rough seas against a levee wall. They each equally hold dear and at arm’s length their shared history and escape into their own versions of living, eventually leaving New York in search or in avoidance of their destinies.

I was most impressed with the underlying theme of communication. In small, easily overlooked ways Benjamin reveals the missed opportunities and understandings that are all too recognizable in our own lives. She quietly points to the differences in how we see ourselves and how others see us, gently prodding at the egocentric nature of us all. This book is filled with moments like this that invite reflection, without demanding it.

She spends time with each of the Golds, sharing their lives and the ghosts that haunted them in separate sections of the book. I’m not always a fan of this form of storytelling as it often feels disjointed and difficult to attach to the characters when only chunks of their stories are told, but this is not the case here. Benjamin skillfully allows small flashbacks to fill in the holes that feel more like the natural reflection of life than the storyteller trying to make it all connect. It almost feels like a series of novellas, each with their own arc. Writer and performer, Joselyn Hughes says, “Treat all your secondary characters like they think the book’s about them.” Benjamin executes this perfectly, allowing the impression you have of one sibling based on the perception of another to be altered entirely in raw and organic ways once you’ve entered their consciousness in the next section.

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I will warn you, there are some very graphic sex scenes in parts of this book. At first, I was disappointed to find them because I felt it was gratuitous and angling for shock value, but as I continued to read, I realized how important those moments were to the development of this particular character. There was an urgency in them that I came to realize was all too important to the story. While quite explicit, there’s something I appreciate about just how raw and real Benjamin writes these scenes. No apologies. I have to admire that in a writer.

The only real complaint I have is that I wanted more time with Daniel. His storyline started with the same richness and revelation as the others but rushed to its climax. I’m not a fan of fluff and filler, but there was a leap made that I don’t know that I was quite ready for.

People who like the show This Is Us will love this book as it follows a similar slow reveal of the varying perspectives of family members, the stories we tell ourselves, and how they become our reality. The book jacket calls it a “family love story” and I can’t think of a better term to describe it. It’s beautifully somber and yet hopeful. I finished it with a sigh.

I look forward to reading more material from Chloe Benjamin for her sharp descriptions of benign things and her spatial awareness of how stories can best unfold. This is some soul-bearingly intimate writing, and I can’t wait for more.

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Edify

There’s nothing like the perfect word. The number of times I’ve delayed conversations because the word I’m racking my brain for is playing hard to get…countless. To someone who tries her hardest to take the time to articulate exactly what she means, it feels incredible to finally close your figurative fingers around it. Like itching a scratch you’ve been contorting yourself to reach.

A Thesaurus is a fantastic tool to combat this annoyance, but it’s one to use with care. We’ve all heard stories, or *cough* lived them, where people got so carried away with synonyms that their finished product was barely understandable.

For example, has anyone seen this scene from Friends?

But, Kelsey! Don’t you use a Thesaurus?! All the damn time! However, I mostly employ it as a search engine for my brain. I run to the Thesaurus when a word is on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t remember quite what it is. Sure, I could use a replacement, but it would likely fail to convey exactly what I’m intending.

I also use it when I can’t find a word that feels just right. As I’ve mentioned, words have nuance, and when I find the words I already know aren’t adequately providing the feeling or understanding I’m going for I go learn some new words! I read through a variety of synonyms that are close but not quite right until one is. I’ve then expanded my vocabulary AND imparted exactly what I want to my reader.

Today, I want to talk about the word “edify”. Wait! Don’t look it up yet. I’m getting there.

If you learn something new, you are educated on it. If you teach something new, you are educating someone. Facts, figures, languages, grammar, rules, etc. — these all fall under education. But what would you call it if you learned something on an emotional level? A moral level? A spiritual level?

The Merriam-Webster definition of edify is: to instruct and improve especially in moral and religious knowledge : uplift; also : enlighten, inform.

Doesn’t that fit the bill? I first heard this word being used to define art. This person’s argument was that art isn’t something you just see, hear, read, or taste, it’s something that educates your soul. Art is edifying.

Most of the pains and struggles of life are edifying. They help us reach a deeper understanding of self. A good book can be edifying. A play can be edifying. Anything at all that makes you stop and go, “Huh.” A small door in the catacombs of your brain has opened to reveal something you weren’t aware was there. An understanding, a compassion, a relatability, a connection.

Education is a horse led to water. Edification is the horse taking a drink. Education is memorizing vocabulary words. Edification is learning the depth of meaning beyond the typed definition beside them. Education is fact. Edification is feeling. These are my interpretations, of course, but they are also the reasons I love this word so very much.

Education and edification are equally important, but serve different roles in our world. They are each other’s compliment. They balance and weave together to form more complete understanding and appreciation of whatever they encounter. Two very different creatures living in harmony and promoting the harmony of their users.

I ask that you take a moment to reflect on how they might be working together in your life. And if you find you can’t think of something that’d edified you recently, seek something out. It’s good for the soul.

Until next time.

Being a Mom

Being a mom is existing within an undulating definition of self.

Being a mom is long hours of hard work that you hardly ever feel was done well enough.

Being a mom is early mornings when the sun has yet to rise, but your three-year-old has.

Being a mom is balancing firm with soft, strong with gentle, freedom with boundaries.

Being a mom is being challenged on ideals, instructions, and with fierce independence.

Being a mom is gasping with excitement at the new chapter opening up before your child only to have the breath catch with a sob of grief for the one they’ve just left.

Being a mom is letting go and holding fast.

Being a mom is trust, questioning, and surrender to what will be.

Being a mom is a close examination of everything you believe in and recognizing that beliefs grow and change just as much as your children do.

Being a mom is accepting bodily fluids as a part of life.

Being a mom is an extra cup of coffee that you won’t finish before it’s cold.

Being a mom is laughing until you cry and crying until you choke.

Being a mom is wiping butts, noses, and tears.

Being a mom is not being sure what the stain is.

Being a mom is forgetting the last time you showered.

Being a mom is deeply appreciating a shower.

Being a mom is holding your tongue.

Being a mom is reading the Riot Act.

Being a mom is slammed doors, eye rolls, and whining.

Being a mom is the sweetest laughter, warm hugs, and heavy heads relaxing into your shoulder.

Being a mom is dancing through days that you wish were over, knowing you’ll wish to remember them when your bones start to creak and your house is no longer full.

Being a mom is hoping you end up with more laugh lines than frown.

Being a mom is the thrill of watching your child display perfect manners and compassion.

Being a mom is embarrassment when they don’t.

Being a mom is deep, whole-hearted forgiveness and a love so overwhelming that to reflect on it feels like drowning in equal parts joy, worry, and gratitude.

Being a mom is feeling unworthy and underappreciated.

Being a mom is knowing the answer to the question, “Why?”

Being a mom is learning as you teach and teaching as you learn.

Being a mom is to appreciate your own mom in every way you didn’t growing up.

Being a mom is wanting to be a good example, and being honest when you fail.

Being a mom is whispers and tiptoes and sneak attack tickles.

Being a mom is stroking hair and fluffing pillows.

Being a mom is grinning at their grins, challenging their scowls, and empathizing with their tears.

Being a mom is everything and nothing like you thought.

Being a mom is wanting a moment, but not for too long.

Being a mom is selfless and selfish, eager and wary, rational and paradoxical.

Being a mom is life lived with purpose that you truly understand only in the periphery of your mind and in the depth of your soul.

Being a mom is…

Favorite Books: A Journey

Do you ever travel back through memories to see if you can pinpoint which things or moments altered your course in life? Not necessarily a big shift, but just recognizing that once that thing, whatever it was, was said or done or experienced you were different. Sometimes it’s special because it’s a first. The first time you jumped off the diving board. The first time you skated all around the roller rink without falling. The first time you finished a book that did something more than entertain you. As I’ve been practicing my craft and building my writer muscles, I started asking myself which books I think really made a difference. I wanted to examine which stories stayed with me over the years and what I feel they gave me.

This blog is supposed to be about my writing life and my reading life is a big part that. As you know, I’ll be sharing my reviews of newly published books this year, but I couldn’t neglect the books I’ve already read that helped lead me to this point. I want to use my love of books and writing to reach others who share that love. Maybe I’ll introduce you to a new book, or remind you of an old one you haven’t thought about in a while, but I don’t want to just talk about them…I want you to read them.

Once a month I’m going to share a book with you from my past. One that is meaningful to me in some way. If you share my blog and send a screenshot to me on Facebook or email it to me here, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a copy of the beloved book I share that day. I’ll leave the pool open for one week and then draw a winner! This won’t make me a dime, you won’t be entered into some weird database or anything, I just want to put more books in people’s hands and I thought this would be a fun way to do it!

What book is first on deck? Let’s see, shall we…

I believe I was in fourth grade when I first encountered this book. We read some of it aloud in class, but mostly had chapter assignments to read at home. While other students groaned at the reminder, “Make sure you finish Chapter Three over the weekend so we can talk about it on Monday!” I was thrilled and grateful for every spare moment I could read.

I always read ahead, even when we were asked not to. Reading books in class felt painfully slow to me. The flow of the story was broken horrendously when only a chapter a week was assigned. And reading aloud in class? Torture. As an adult, I appreciate the importance of having children practice this, but, at the time, I could hardly sit still listening to classmates stumble over words and read an emotion-filled scene with all the passion of a dust mote. I would watch their lips move, and their finger trail along under the words and wonder if they were even aware of what they were reading or just making the sounds required.

I’d trudged through weeks of trying to pace myself, only allowing a chapter or two ahead of the class before going back to read along again and wait, but I reached my limit and decided one weekend to just finish the dang book already.

I sobbed. The book made me sob. I cried so hard, my emotions swaying in a synchronized dance of heartbreaking sadness and honest surprise at the heartbreaking sadness that my mom came running into my room to see what was wrong with me. I think I just pointed at the blasted book. That! That’s what did this to me!

I’m sure she smiled, I’m positive she hugged me. She knew. She knew how books could grab hold of you and make you care. This was my first real experience with it. I had been reading since two, had gotten teary-eyed a few times before, but this visceral reaction to the written word was entirely new. That day a door opened for me. The magic of books had just jumped from card tricks to vanishing acts. The magic of books that was growing alongside me suddenly shot over my head and through the sky. Simple words. Simple story. Deeply complicated feelings. Who knew?

The book was Where the Red Fern Grows.

If you’ve never read it, don’t let my sob story keep you from it. It’s an exceptional book. I have a copy on my bookshelf waiting for the day my son is ready for it. It wasn’t originally written for children, but Rawls truly captures the spirit of childhood. The energy, the thoughts, the dreaming.

If you’ve had the unfortunate chore of growing up without having read Where the Red Fern Grows, it’s a story about a boy living in the foothills of the Ozarks. He saves up his money to buy his heart’s greatest desire, a pair of coonhounds. The journey of their friendship and training winds through the forest of his childhood so closely you can smell the leaves crunching underfoot.

Read it as an adult to reflect on days of running around barefoot and the unconditional love of a dog. Have your kids read it to discover a different time, a different way of life, and perhaps some deeper emotion stored up somewhere just waiting for a good book to draw it out. Read it for nostalgia. Read it for heart. Read it for soul. It’s worth every salt-spiked tear.

Writer’s Block

She sits in her bed, wanting a comfortable, quiet place to write. It’s the weekend, and while one kid is napping and the other is quietly watching her husband playing a game, the void of “nobody needs me right now” has apparently not made enough room to be productively creative today.

The blinking vertical line at the top of the page starts to look like a tapping foot as she stares at it, waiting for inspiration. She is kicking herself for not drafting something sooner, reflecting on the excuses she bought time with during the week. But a deadline is a deadline, even if it is self-imposed.

More staring…blink…blink…blink.

She could write about writer’s block, and she starts to, clinging to the idea for dear life, only to find that having writer’s block about writer’s block is a singularly discouraging and frustrating thing.

She knows what she wants to write for the next post, but she can’t bump it up because it’s time sensitive. It has become glaringly obvious to her that the schedule she’s been putting off making for herself is desperately needed. She starts to distract herself with that but then realizes it’s just another thing to be doing instead of writing so she closes the tab she just opened and starts staring at the blinking cursor again.

The cat and one of the dogs are both asleep at the foot of the bed, and as she finds herself wishing she could just roll over and conk out too, she starts to question her location choice. Writing in bed is comfortable, but the blank space in her mind where words usually show up is soft and beckoning like the pillows behind her and now drowsiness has joined the party.

She starts to type again, just to start something, and a narration of her current status is all that comes out. It’s sad, and will likely be entirely uninteresting to her readers, but it’s all she’s got right now. The annoyingly loud tick of her watch matches the blinking of the damn vertical line and her eyes widen in irritation. The universe is mocking her.

All the notes she has about future topics seem dumb, and the inspiration train has still not pulled into the station. She pouts. She fidgets. She welcomes the distraction when her husband comes in to sweetly ask if she needs anything. She welcomes the ping of someone messaging her on another tab. She knows she should close it, but then the ticking watch and blinking line would be her only company.

The dog is snoring. Lightly, but the even sound of a dreaming canine is lulling her to sleep, so she sits straight up. No more cushy pillows to cradle her, she goes back to the narration and rolls her eyes at herself for still not having anything better to write about today. But that’s how it goes sometimes. There are days when nothing but choppy, random sentences make it to the page. There are days when every word seems wrong or weak or boring. But she still writes them. It may not make up very much at the end of the day, but it’s still writing.

She writes a short apology to her readers for not producing something more interesting this go round. Reminds them of her introductory post and how she warned them that sometimes she would fail. She thanks them for their patience and hopes they like the better-planned post that’s promised for next time.

Failure is just a launch pad for growth. Mistakes are inspiration for learning. Weaknesses recognized are seeds planted to reap wisdom.

The writer excuses herself to go tend her garden.