Teary trifecta: "The Graveyard Book," "Jennifer Johnson Is Sick of Being Married," "Me Before You"

There's an unwitting trend in the novels I've picked up lately on my quest to read everything ever. Each one provokes crying fits. Not every book or crying fit is the same, and so, a brief analysis on the emotional impact of three recent reads:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Summary: A toddler crawls away from his home and into a graveyard before an assassin sent to kill his family can finish the job. The supernatural residents decide to raise him as one of their own, but his family's murderer is still out there.

Type of tears: Freaking joyous

My one-word review of literary rockstar Gaiman's book is delightful. The story of Nobody "Bod" Owens growing up in and out of the graveyard, using haunting skills to put bullies in their place and getting dragged down into ghoul gates, has the same magical effect as Harry Potter — it turns even cynical adult readers into little awe-filled children. You wouldn't think a story that starts out with a gruesome series of murders (seriously, this is marketed as an all-ages book) would be so whimsical and life-affirming, but believe me, this is feel-good fare with dark wit.

I'd been meaning to read something by Gaiman, knowing him only from his writing for two badass episodes of Doctor Who. He's also quite fetching if you're into lanky, mop-haired and English. Yes please.

Jennifer Johnson Is Sick of Being Married by Heather McElhatton

Summary: In the sequel to the bonkers Jennifer Johnson Is Sick of Being Single, former copywriter Jennifer Johnson, survivor of humiliating exploits in online dating and a painful addiction to Cinnabon icing, has married the wealthy, handsome heir apparent of the department store where she worked. She tries to be the perfect high-society wife. But as their rocky from the get-go marriage is tested by, among other things, an evil mother-in-law intent on sabotaging our heroine who buys them the house next door, already tackied up to her tastes, Jennifer has to decide whether having it all is what she really wants.

Type of tears: Uproarious

McElhatton has a gift for the absurd. She writes hilarious, cringe-inducing scenarios, introduces wacky characters left and right, presents dialogue so funny it's like an ab workout just trying to get through a chapter. I laughed so hard I was in hysterics, multiple times, and had to reread sections out loud to explain that I wasn't just losing my mind. This book plays with my favorite dichotomy in comedy: filthy but with an ooey gooey mushy center.

P.S. Can we get a petition going to get Jennifer's crass divorcee friend Addi a spinoff novel? I would eat that up like Cinnabon.

P.P.S. I could see this as a hard R-rated comedy starring Judy Greer.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Summary: Directionless Louisa Clark, who lives with her parents, has stayed with the same meh boyfriend for seven years and has never left her small town, finds herself jobless and in desperation agrees to be a caretaker for a quadriplegic. Former financial mucky muck Will Traynor was an international playboy used to daring, death-defying adventures, but his life as he knew it ended when he was run over while catching a cab (on the day he decided it was too rainy to ride his motorcycle, no less). A major Darcy-and-Elizabeth dynamic ensues between the pair, until their uneasy friendship evolves into a deep love. But Will, tired of not being the man he once was, has set a date to go to a facility that will assist him in committing suicide.

Type of tears: UGLY, full-on ugly cry

This book. This book.

What can I say about this book?

It filled me with RAGE.

There are times in this book when I was starry-eyed and optimistic and filled with meditations on the power of love, and there were times when I wanted to jump in the pages and start doling out the bitchslaps. It shattered me. This book should include complimentary concealer to cover the red blotches from crying so intensely. Jojo Moyes is a monster.

And you better believe I am going to read the sequel, like, the DAY it comes out.

I feel like I learned a lot about quadriplegics from reading this, which I didn't expect, and it was interesting peering over Louisa's shoulder as she researched accessible ways to recapture aspects of Will's adventurous lifestyle. The book was narrated by Louisa but weirdly had random chapters narrated by members of both her and Will's families, which was jarring and didn't do much for me.

Cutie McCuterson Sam Claflin from The Hunger Games franchise is playing Will in the film adaptation. I think he's an excellent choice for the charming and mercurial Mr. Traynor.

Out with it. What was the last book that made you cry?


30 before 30: An experience wishlist

I have never feared 30. That number sounds like a badge of honor, a marker imbued with magic and symbolism. The prospect of this decade rolling into the next thrills me.

I'll be 27 in May. While I long ago abandoned my five-year plans and notions of what I should be doing by what age, I am still ambitious. But my ambitions have morphed. I don't want to collect accomplishments. I want to collect experiences. I want to have adventures big and small, stimulate my brain, indulge my curiosity. I want to feel joy.

So I compiled a wishlist of boxes to tick. Some are doable, some would take some doing. All of them, including the ones that scare me, sound like living.

1. Learn enough French to write a poem and/or read a novel in French.

2. Finish my first book.

3. Adapt a book I love to a screenplay, for fun and future Oscar-winning screenwriting practice.

4. Paint something on an obscenely large  canvas. Display it in my home.

5. Have boudoir photos taken. Hide them for future reminiscing/resentment of the ravages of time. 

6. Learn, once and for all, how to dance salsa, merengue and bachata. 

7. See a famous comedian perform live. 

8. Knit a baby blanket. 

9. Learn to swim. 

10. Spend some time in a sensory deprivation tank. 

11. Be able to do a headstand in the middle of the room without landing on my back. 

12. Be able to do a cartwheel. 

13. Visit somewhere and introduce myself to everyone under an alias, with a fictitious and over-the-top backstory.

14. Ride a horse. 

15. Restore beauty to something broken.

16. Leave letters of encouragement in public places for strangers to find.

17. Throw an epic Halloween party. 

18. Get a puppy. 

19. Go blonde. 

20. Take a vacation with all my sisters. 

21. Go back to New York. 

22. Skinny dip. 

23. Donate blood. 

24. Watch a horror movie. 

25. Go paintballing. 

26. Sit down and figure out my retirement savings like a grown ass woman. 

27. Go camping. 

28. Buy something RIDICULOUS. 

29. Wear something scandalously sexy and revealing out in public. Rock it. 

30. Fall in love... With myself. 


Book review: "I Regret Everything." Mental illness, societal disapproval, iambic pentameter? My kind of love story.

"Regret expands. It matures. It accrues strength and mass. It is a living organism."

"Our lives are lived with the illusion of control and then there are moments rare as wisdom when we abandon the pretense that we are masters of our fate."

"One of the advantages of being considered mental is loved ones aren't so quick to scream at you."

With I Regret Everything, Seth Greenland has written the type of book that makes you think all other writers should just give up. Then, if you are in fact a writer, you try to eat the story's heart, wash the blood from clawing into it out from under your fingernails, and vow you will one day write something so stirring. Except you think the only thing anyone could write that's so stirring is the film adaptation. Which needs to happen. Now.

I Regret Everything is replete with pathos elegantly balanced with humor. But initially, this is not the type of book that I thought I'd be up until 6 a.m. reading.

The first few chapters of the alternating narration — a trend used like a skillful choreographed dance here — are engaging, but dense. Jeremy, a trust and estates lawyer with a pseudonymous poetry career, felt like a pretentious bore, navel-gazing with a thesaurus in hand, the kind of yuppie tool you know can tell you exactly where the wood in his coffee table came from and could discuss the merits of various tie knots. Even his penchant for dropping fifties in street performers' upturned hats reads a bit douchey. Spaulding, a 19-year-old wannabe poet fresh off a stay in a mental hospital who is borderline stalking Jeremy, is immediately charming yet appears customized from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl template.

But then you notice the chemistry that brings these caricatures into 3-D. You read in one chapter how endearing Jeremy perceives Spaulding in a specific interaction, and in the next, Spaulding's totally fretting over the same event, and vice versa ("What one person considers adorable another might see as bipolar," she thinks). There's witty banter, spontaneous ballet, a shared ride in the backseat of a car when Jeremy rescues Spaulding from the rain and she makes a leap in intimacy by asking him to untuck his shirttail so she can dry off her glasses. It's all very rom-com. Did I mention she's 19, and he's 33? And oh yeah, she's the boss's daughter. He tries to resist, but does he try hard enough? This can't, won't end well, you think.

Then Jeremy, a non-smoker, is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer ("Is there a stage five?"), and you think, this really won't end well.

Everything that happens next is a miracle. Yes, no spoiler alert, they fall in love. Ride-or-die, if-you're-a-bird-I'm-a-bird, yes-I'll-help-you-hide-the-body kinda love. But ignore my The Notebook reference if it ails ya, because trite Nick Sparks fare this ain't.

Spaulding and Jeremy couldn't be more different even with their shared passions and agile, compatible brains. They misunderstand each other a lot. When he opens up and tells her something about his family history to push her away, she arrives on his doorstep with a pie she baked, telling him how close she feels to him. When he thinks she's going to be awed by something, it enrages her. When she makes a joke at his expense, it doesn't land.

But along with their fervent love of language, they share a desire for unabashed, all-caps LIVING — Spaulding because her life is really just getting started, Jeremy because his life might be ending. Jeremy already had one disastrous romance, and when he could have run off with the girl, he chickened out. Will he make the same mistake twice, when he might be running out of time to amass regrets? "She had the courage to pitch herself into the heart of a roiling mob yet I was paralyzed," he thinks. "More than that, she had the courage to reach across the chasm of age and propriety that separated us to try to forge a connection. It was inspiring. It was unmooring."

Aside from the beautiful language and the passionate love story, two things stand out for me. One, Spaulding. Spaulding is my everything. I may one day name my child Spaulding. She's this avalanche of awesome — anyone would fall in love with her vulnerability and spirit. Two, how utterly freaking cruel fate is. In one of the most intense scenes in the novel, Jeremy thinks, "How much was I supposed to tolerate before being reduced to a gibbering jumble? How much could anyone withstand before he looked to the uncaring heavens and cried uncle?" I about yelled at the author: "Yeah! What the eff, guy?!"

There's plenty of plot twists and compelling supporting characters amid all the introspection, so if you're the type of person who, say, likes running-and-shouting movies more than sitting-and-talking ones, there's something here for you.

I Regret Everything is about bravery just as much as it's a love story. It's about the blurred line between what's regrettable and imprudent, and what is vital and soul-affirming. These two utterly damaged people find this superhuman strength in each other — but it was really there all along, needing to be coaxed out.

I want to put this book in mailboxes. I want to unleash parachutes and litter lawns with copies. I want to chase people with drones until they succumb. Have I said enough about this book? I can't possibly have said enough about this book but I know society will only allow so much praise.


This and that: Devouring silly little joys

When the cat's away, how does the mouse play? By getting stupid drunk and passing out hours before her bedtime one night and by staying up until 6 a.m. reading I Regret Everything by Seth Greenland the next. I was having some kind of manic episode triggered by sleeping until 2 p.m., imbibing too much caffeine and enjoying beautiful sunlight during my usually pitch-black drive to Warrendale for work. Happy songs were on the radio. I skipped and pirouetted down the halls because I was feeling like Spaulding in the book. I couldn't sleep. I wasn't even tired. The snow is melting, sunshine touched below my collarbone for the first time in months and life is being pumped back into the world.

The book. I read a review that envisioned Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emma Stone as the main characters, pitch-perfect casting I couldn't be more on board with. I just finished it. I'll write a review once I can speak. But I think it may be my favorite book now. A defining, life-altering book. I'm not sure anything has touched me so deeply in a long time. I'll also review Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which also left me in tears in a cozy and life-affirming way. I will read it to my children, someday.

Bought a new Kindle today. My first one, a gift from my friend Sarah when I was her matron of honor, still works great, so it's staying in the family. But the features on the current entry-level Kindle were really seductive.

If it seems like this is becoming a book blog and not a beauty/lifestyle blog, it's because I've made a conscious effort to read more. I read for a living, but it's not the same. I missed devouring novels. Books cradle my spirit, bring some order and beauty to the chaos in my brain whenever I read a line I want to raise my fist in the air over. I set a goal on Goodreads of 30 books this year. I raised it to 45 when I saw how much momentum I'd gained. We shall see where this all ends up.

Those pirouettes, which hurt my knee, reminded me I used to love using my body. I'm thinking — I know — exercise is a mood elevator. I was happiest when I was hardcore into yoga, but I also know when you first start to go hard with yoga, you sweat out all these psychological toxins. You feel worse before you feel better, with all those blockages being removed.

I'm knitting an infinity scarf, because it's simple, with sporadic asymmetric stripes. White, and rainbow. My knitting must always be TV-friendly, and my latest binge is Archer. I'm not sure why I never watched it before. As soon as I realized Jessica Walter from Arrested Development voices a very Lucille Bluth-esque character, I was in. Bungled espionage, filth, underrated national treasure Judy Motherfucking Greer, rapid-fire running gags, lovable oddball characters and off-the-wall plot lines. I am madly in love. I'm on Season 5, which JUST went on Netflix when I was about to resort to shelling out the 21 bucks to get it on iTunes. Serendipitous timing!

Small joys pile up. Atrophied muscles take time to strengthen. The seasons change agonizingly slow, then all at once. Points if you know what movie I'm stealing this from: I won't say I believe, but I have a good idea.


Book review: "Kissing the Witch" makes fairy tales even more magical

For me, it’s all about the twist on the familiar, the true story few are privy to that you need to lean in close to hear, or that only the most clever could discern.

My class did this unit in third grade on fractured fairy tales. It stayed with me for life. We’re receptive to those beloved tales. We know their plots and lessons by heart, but when we look at them from a different angle, that’s when they really become magical.

The retold tales in Kissing the Witch are not the heteronormative Disney stories we all know the soundtracks to. Emma Donoghue, best known for best-seller Room, crafted this intricate and beautiful little book that is instantly, irrevocably, forever one of my favorites. In the interlocking tales, which spin backward in time to give us the origin story of another fairy tale heroine introduced in the previous chapter, we may not recognize our princesses or even which story we’re reading right away. Donoghue makes you work for that payoff. But it’s work done gladly, because this book has the most sensual, dreamy prose that brought my hand to my chest more than once.

Anything can happen when Belle’s Beast is a queen in disguise, when a witch’s power is in the myth built around her and when the Evil Queen’s horse was once Rapunzel. Each character tells her own story, with surprising origins and unexpected results, but they only tell us part of their tale. The stories aren’t about those magical happy endings or the lead-up to them, but open a window to an unknown chapter in their lives. Each glimpse of struggle and hope leaves you wanting more, and there’s a reason for it: “There are some tales not for telling, whether because they are too long, too precious, too laughable, too painful, too easy to need telling or too hard to explain. After all, after years and travels my secrets are all I have left to chew on in the night.”

One of the tales that moved me most was one I was unfamiliar with. I’d never heard of “Donkeyskin” which sounds pretty dark on its own, but Donoghue’s retelling is tragic and disturbing. I also loved her less magical but more profound reinvention of “The Little Mermaid.”

I have a thing against writing in my books, but I almost want to reread it (backwards, to get the tales in chronological order) just to highlight the multiple heart-stopping excerpts. Like when Cinderella’s fairy godmother reminisces about the disaster of falling in love: “Keep your heart infinitesimally small and sorrow will never spy it, never plunge, never flap away with your heart in her claws.” Or at the end of the chapter inspired by “Beauty and the Beast”: “And as the years flowed by, some villagers told travelers of a beast and a beauty who lived in the castle and could be seen walking on the battlements, and others told of two beauties, and others, of two beasts.”

I’m so in love with this book that anything I say about it is insufficient, and telling you precisely what I loved about it will keep us here all day and waste precious time you could spend discovering the wonder for yourself.


Beauty shouldn't be a burden

The corners of my mouth stiffen.

Don't look at me don't look at me don't look at me.

If I make eye contact, I'll have to smile. I don't feel like smiling. I don't feel like being smiled at.

Don't look at me.

I had a friend in middle school who was the most beautiful girl I had seen up close. She was a statuesque, slim blonde, ogled by everyone. Eyes like aquamarines. Outside school, she did some modeling. She danced with the biggest and most mocked nerd in class at the formal, and I heard my favorite teacher take her aside and tell her, full of pride and admiration, "He's going to remember that the rest of his life."

She told me, once, that at school, she would purposely mess up her makeup, try to look frumpy, try to hide that she was beautiful.

There was no hiding it, of course. But why? Why would she do that?

I walked through the Plaza in Santa Fe one day and remember all the eyes on me, remember my discomfort while thinking, If I get this many stares, what must it be like for someone who is actually beautiful?

I told someone about that feeling and they thought I was fishing for a compliment. "You ARE beautiful!" And maybe I was fishing.

I own my obsession with how I look. You can't write about French face powders and own a dozen different shades of red lipstick and claim looks don't interest you.

For a long time I felt ugly. During my awkward phase, I'm sure I was no great beauty. There were boys who told me even after I'd grown out of so many of my insecurities that I was hideous.

And I believed them.

Then I started hearing I was beautiful. I heard it from men trying to woo me, from friends, from strangers. Sometimes I believe it. Sometimes it's super over the top and I think, OK, slow your roll, I have no money to lend you.

I have a profoundly complicated relationship with how I look. Having a beauty blog is a gigantic leap for someone who once tried to cover up all the mirrors in her house and sobbed to her mother, begging for a nose job.

Look at me!

Sometimes I am ALL ABOUT being perceived as beautiful. Which isn't to say that other times I want to be thought of as ugly. But sometimes, with some people, I want to be invisible. I don't want to be winked at, leered at, told to just stand there and look cute, be called "sugar" and "sweetheart" by my creepy neighbor who bangs on the ceiling if the TV is too loud. (Which it never actually is. If I can barely hear it, I doubt it's keeping you up.) I don't want to feel like I'm public domain.

So now I get why my friend smeared her liner and messed up her hair, even if there was no hiding she was frickin' gorgeous. It's related to why I put on my bitchface when I sense some creep blatantly looking me up and down and waiting for me to conform and be a sweet girl and act flattered by it.

It's because we let looking a certain way start to feel like an obligation.

Beauty is frivolous yet fraught. It lures mates. Its pursuit fuels lucrative industries. Assumptions will be made about you whether you have it or you don't, whether you're interested in it or you aren't.

I hate that feeling sometimes, like I have to perform. Better at least put on foundation and mascara so you don't scare small children, Liz. I feel like I owe people something nice to look at. I feel guilty if I don't give the creepy admirers acknowledgment.

I want what I see in the mirror to not be a tapestry of the opinions of others. I don't want to be built or broken by praise or criticism. I want to be solid, steady, not simply reacting. And my voice is not yet loud enough to rise above the crowd, so that I thrive and feel beautiful even without praise, and so criticism doesn't unravel me.

So I'm here to tell you, you don't owe anyone a thing. You don't owe some immature little boy your tears if he doesn't think you're pretty. You don't owe your colleagues a full face of makeup on a day you really want to sleep in. You don't have to feel pressured to talk to someone you don't want to talk to just because they think you're hot and you don't want to be rude. And you don't owe anyone anything that diminishes you so they can feel better about themselves.

Being beautiful is not your obligation. Beauty is many things, many wonderful things. But it shouldn't be a burden. Feeling beautiful, without needing anyone else to tell you so, is bliss.

As far as beauty goes, that's the only thing you owe anyone, and the only person you owe it to is yourself.