Book Review: The Summer of Dead Birds

Ali Liebegott, The Summer of Dead Birds
Feminist Press
2019, 103 pages, paperback, $16.00

WRITTEN AS AN autobiographical novel-in-verse, Ali Liebegott in The summer of dead birds, uses her poetry to try to learn to balance the heaviness of death with the tender strangeness of life. Ali Liebegott is an American writer, actor, comedian, and artist. She is the recipient of a Peabody Award, two Lambda Literary Awards, and a Ferro-Grumley Award. She has read and performed her work throughout the United States and Canada with the legendary queer literary tour working as a writer and a producer. When writing this book, Liebegott had just divorced, and the poetry captures the pain and struggles to adjust to a new attitude and life.

Liebegott’s personal life is her material. The book begins with her mother-in-law’s cancer diagnosis. Her therapist, prophetically says: “Few lesbian relationships survive the death of a mother”(34). When she hears this, Liebegott and her wife were furious: “We will we will I thought” (34). This event took a toll on both them and their marriage. Nevertheless, disease and endless nursing made their marriage difficult. Liebegott became depressed and felt powerless after the fated death of her mother-in-law. Afterward, Liebegott fell into an abyss filled with the memories of her past with her wife. To rid herself of this melancholy, Liebegott decided to re-examine herself and her life with her eternal friend, her dog, Rorschach. She visited the official center of her world, Felicity, California; and learned to cherish the treasure she owns and view the world positive way.

In The summer of dead birds, Liebegott expresses her autobiographical narrative through vivid imagery. She organizes events through chronological chapters: “winter,” “crying season,” “the summer of dead birds,” and “the official center of the world.” In the first two chapters, Liebegott strongly suggests her mourning and gloominess through the use of through repeated images of deaths of birds: “once a bird dipped right into the path of a burgundy sedan/an explosion of gray feathers” (56). And later:“does a bird say goodbye before flying off a tiny peck at a shared seed, a feather pluck nothing?”(15) The lines imply her wife’s derailment, their tragic ending and Liebegott’s despair.

As the book moves on, the image of dead birds transformed from desolation to rebirth, death turns to hope. In the third chapter, Liebegott recalls her “good old days” when she first met her wife, thinking back to what they had in common: “we both love dying things more than we let on/and we let on quite a bit” (59).  Liebegott reflections culminate in the last chapter, as she thinks about her wife and their previous closeness. Suddenly the gloomy mood and haze are dispelled. Liebegott takes a deep breath and understands the essence of grasping to be present.

One thing that surprised me about this book was the conversational nature. Liebegott depicts her monologue. A conventional poem, in my mind, is supposed to have alliteration and rhyme and meter. However, this book is more like a novel-in-verse rather than poetry. The conversational style immediately brings the audience into Liebegott’s world and makes readers who may be intimidated by poetry enjoy the work. The summer of dead birds is not a hard piece to read but to understand. Personally speaking, I have never read a book from this perspective before. It caused me to expand my view and to develop my empathy and insight. The summer of dead birds is this type of book, inspiring readers on the true meaning of death and life; and also the principles of how to live a better one. The key to balancing the depression of decline is the delight of daily life, I believe a kind of “Carpe Diem,” or as Liebegott would think about being present with her wife: “I close my eyes and concentrate on her head resting on my leg. I want to remember the exact weight of it”

−Lesley Xu

Book Review: At Briarwood School for Girls

Michael Knight, At Briarwood School for Girls
Grove Atlantic: Atlantic Monthly Press 2019
240 pages, paperback, $26.00

HOW DO A new Disney theme park, a high school play production, and a teenage pregnancy all relate to one another? Not in the way I expected to say the least, and I’m certain it’s not the way you would expect it to either. Michael Knight certainly keeps the surprises coming in At Briarwood School for Girls. The seemingly coming-of-age story comes right on the heels of his most recent release, Eveningland. In At Briarwood School for Girls, Knight is able to experiment with the typical coming of age story–by including adult perspectives– while putting a historical spin on it, tying to his Southern roots, and keeping readers avidly guessing.

At Briarwood School for Girls follows the three main characters: Lenore Littlefeild, Mr. Bishop, and Coach Fink, as they embark on their own journeys that are helplessly intertwined by the historically-rich school they all are individually bound to. In early 1994,  Lenore, a student at Briarwood, finds herself forced into playing the lead role in the controversial play, The Phantom Of Thornton Hall, written by a Briarwood alum and directed by Lenore’s overly intense basketball coach, Coach Fink. But as the play rehearsals begin, it doesn’t take long for Lenore to realize how oddly similar she is to the character she is portraying; both girls are pregnant. Mr. Bishop, Lenore’s history teacher and having shared a bond with Lenore over their common dislike of the new Disney’s America amusement park that’s being built near the school, is the only person that knows Lenore’s secret, which becomes harder and harder for him to keep. Both the reality of the construction of Disney’s America and the decisions Lenore faces with her pregnancy begin to escalate as the spring semester progresses and eventually culminate with the production of The Phantom of Thornton Hall.

At Briarwood School for Girls captures the all so familiar elements of a boarding school from ouija boards to sneaking out while also leaving you constantly wondering “what the heck is going on?!” With something unexpected around each corner, it’s easy to get swept along with the novel’s complex teenaged plot rather than focusing on Knight’s underlying ideas of wrestling with your own fate and how history plays a part your life. History plays a large role in each character’s life throughout the novel. It is able to unite the seemingly different characters, so it would only make sense for such historically rich story to take place in one of the most historical states in America:Virginia. Lenore seems to be impacted the most by the weight of the past, which leads her to question if she truly has control of her choices or if she is just repeating the past. Both ideas are universal concepts that Lenore struggles with and are applicable to most readers own lives, which to me, seems to expand the novel’s audience.

Apart from the historical aspects, the format of At Briarwood School for Girls makes it unique to its genre. The novel’s teenaged plot almost always falls within the coming-of-age category but rather than embracing this stereotype Knight chooses to make At Briarwood School for Girls a little bit more unique. Most coming of age stories typically are written from the teenager’s (the character assumed to be doing the growing up) perspective.  Knight divides each chapter into three sections where three different perspectives are displayed; it is typically a combination of Lenore’s, Coach Fink’s, and Mr. Bishop’s perspectives with the occasional addition of another character’s. The most interesting part is that the majority of these perspectives are from adults rather than the teenage protagonist.  

With At Briarwood School for Girls’ different elements all functioning at once, it can be a challenge to keep up with exactly what is going on in the novel. Even though this might seem to be a flaw, the novel still has a lot of interesting aspects that a broad audience can enjoy and relate to. So, if you often find yourself pondering the meaning of fate and free will, or want to know what it’s like to be 16 and pregnant, or ever wonder why there isn’t an American theme park, or simply need some action and drama to spice up your life, then adding Knight’s newest novel to your reading list certainly won’t disappoint.  

Literary Gifting Guide: The Five Best Books for This Holiday Season

Not into fighting those endless lines at the mall? Is the chaos we all know holiday shopping just not your thing? Luckily, avoiding this mania is simple. There have been so many new books released this season that gifting friends or family with a new read to get cozy with by the fire will definitely win you this season’s best-gift giver award.

           2018 has been a year full of exciting book releases. Scouring through them all would be nearly impossible. To minimize your stress and save your time during this hectic season, I have gathered a list of, in my opinion, this season’s best gifting books for The Mire. You’ll definitely catch me reading these books over my much-needed holiday break.

As always, shop local!

In Birmingham: Jim Reed Books or Alabama Booksmith.

Online: Indiebound or Powell’s Books.

-Stephanie ’19

For the Person That Needs Some Inspiration This Holiday Season:

1.Michelle Obama’s Becoming

Memoir

$32.50

In Becoming, Michelle Obama recounts her experiences as a child in Chicago and a student at Princeton; then later as mother and First Lady. Obama threads her personal narrative with while leaving readers with an abundance of hope for ourselves and the future of our country. Since its release on November 13, Obama’s memoir has been all over the media and certainly will find a way into your family’s holiday conversations.

For the Person Who’s Just Finished Binge-Watching The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix:

2.Tana French’s The Witch Elm

Thriller/Mystery

$28.00

In the Witch Elm, French delivers a suspenseful mystery of a man, Toby, as he discovers his family’s haunting past. This exhilarating novel guarantees readers an escape that many of us need to endure these family-packed holidays… even if that escape may be a chilling one.

For the Person Who Loves Laughing as Much as Eating:

3. Chrissy Teigan’s Cravings: Hungry for More

Cookbook

$29.99

In Cravings: Hungry for More, Tiegan presents countless mouth-watering recipes perfect for making delicious meals all of your family will be impressed by. From breakfast to dinner, this book is filled with creative, delicious recipes that definitely won’t disappoint.

For the Kid That Read The Hunger Games Series One Too Many Times:

4. Ashley and Leslie Saunders’ The Rule of One

Science Fiction/ Dystopian Fiction

$16.99

In The Rule of One, twin sisters Ashley and Leslie Saunders, explore the story of a family with twins in a future United States where birth populations have limited quotas to one child per family. The novel’s elaborate dystopian setting hooks readers in and then plagues them with the kind of “what if” questions that teenagers tend to obsess over. This novel is the perfect gift for those impossible to buy for teens in your family.

For the Person That’s Still Hung-up On the Midterm Elections:

5. Nicholas Montemarano’s The Senator’s Children

Political Fiction/Psychological Fiction

$15.95

In The Senator’s Children, Nicholas Montemarno launches readers into the lives of two sisters who have never met but both share living in the spotlight because of their father, a presidential candidate. Years later, these sisters are forced to unite due to their father’s declining health. This story gives readers a taste of what it’s like to be a part of a high-profile political family while emphasizing the importance of coming together—perfect for those who want both holiday feels and can’t seem to stop watching The Good Wife reruns.  

5 of the Best Burns from Classic Authors

Do you remember any of those novels you were forced to read in high school? The ones you probably read the SparkNotes for? Don’t take this the wrong way, ‘I’m not knocking the classics, they were sure full of… attitude.

The authors of these classic novels provided plenty of comebacks interwoven with their more oft-quoted lines. Get ready for 5 burns from your most beloved authors where they criticize both their worlds (both actual and fiction). Read on because The Mire has you covered for your next literary themed verbal throw-down.

“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”-Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

First up, Charles Dickens, who, in making this seriously savage burn, destroys any writer who isn’t himself. Conceited much? Dickens was an avid social critic of the 19th century, and by social critic, I mean rabid judgmental monster. I definitely missed this wit while reading the SparkNotes.

🔥 🔥/🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥

“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”- Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s Letters

Jane Austen slams all of humanity in this blatant burn. Austen’s work, featuring commentary on the roles and portrayal of women, is sprinkled with irony and satire. Here, as usual, she doesn’t mince words… she slays them. Austen isn’t here to make friends, and neither are we. We can’t wait to use this one next time we are forced to socialize – the horror!

🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥/🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥

“Everything intelligent is so boring.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Here, Leo Tolstoy makes a stab at… anything intelligent. Does this statement reflect his own novels, which are regarded as some of the most intelligent works of 19th century literature? Leo, why leave us with so many—how should I say it— burning questions? Regardless, we are pleased this esteemed author provides ammo to take down critics of our reality TV obsession. (No shame here.)

🔥 /🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥

“Pardon my sanity in a world insane” – Emily Dickinson

We are going to have to steal this scorchingly sarcastic line from Emily Dickinson, acclaimed 19th century poet. Dickinson’s “apology” is a roast in disguise! This line can be dropped in a political context, family situations, or the tragic combination of the two – just to name a few. #Sorrynotsorry.

🔥 🔥 🔥 /🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥

“I think God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability.” -Oscar Wilde

Wilde casually smites God’s ambition and mankind in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, in this excessively self-important insult, Wilde takes himself down too – that is, unless he’s divulging that he isn’t a member of mankind (don’t get us started on alien conspiracies). Be careful with this one, or people might think you’re from another planet, but use it with an eye roll and you’ll be sure to end an argument with a literary mic drop.

🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥/🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥

Interview: Kate Reed Petty

Ever try to find an email in an unorganized inbox? What if finding it could give you the peace of mind you’ve been chasing since that fateful message appeared on your screen? What if finding it meant righting a wrong that has stuck with you for years? What if finding it could save someone else?

In Kate Reed Petty’s Fish Jokes, a woman searches for an email that pinpoints the inappropriate actions of her boss, so that she can advise her friend not to hire him. The story uses a fresh technological lense to explore the scenario with which our society is becoming increasingly familiar- workplace harassment. The Mire interviewed Kate Reed Petty to discover more about this story—one that deepened my understanding of a huge social and political movement in a way that is not only relatable but thought-provoking.

Peyton Miller: You handle the controversial subject matter surrounding the “Me Too” movement with grace thanks to the ingenious way you tell Anna’s story. What made you want to tell the story in this manor? Was it always intended to be political in nature?

Kate Reed Petty: Thank you for the kind words! This story started with twin ideas: First, I wanted to write a story about searching an email inbox—I’m often interested in the emotional experience of new technology. I feel like we have many more experiences on the internet than our literature has figured out how to represent, and so I always get excited when I have an idea to tell a story about those experiences. The idea was the perfect vehicle for an older character sketch I’d written about a woman who deals with sexual harassment by pushing it aside, helping to hide it; searching her emails became a way for her to wrestle with her own decision to protect herself.

I believe all stories are political. I’m a feminist, anti-racist, and environmentalist, and so I think about the political implications of every story I write. I don’t always succeed, but I always try. Because the way we tell stories shapes our culture, shapes the way we make choices and understand those choices, shapes the way future stories are allowed to be told. #MeToo is the perfect example—that movement is literally just a flood of women telling stories, who previously weren’t able to tell those stories, or if they were able they weren’t listened to. I wrote “Fish Jokes” long before #MeToo (I submitted it to American Short Fiction a year before it was accepted), and I think these kinds of stories are unfortunately perennially relevant. When something feels “timely” or “urgent” I find it’s often just our culture’s chronic amnesia.

Peyton: I was intrigued by the way you show Anna’s perspective on speaking out, “She was glad she had kept quiet and kept her reputation intact,” while showing that the scarring memories still linger with her to this day:

“For weeks, she’d waited for the elevator in the late blue light of the lobby fish tank, leaving after she was sure he had gone. She was always getting up out of bed at night. Her jaw was always aching from the way she had to smile.”

What was your thinking on conveying these contrasting feelings, which I feel as though are misunderstood in the portrayal of this scenario in the media?

Kate: I agree with you that contrasting feelings are often misinterpreted through the media; you make a very astute point. That scene in this story is an amalgamation of a lot of stories I’ve heard from friends and others. The experience of keeping silent is very common, and I think it’s a deeply human thing to feel pain even while doing something that you think is keeping you safe.    

Peyton: Did you have any reservations writing about this topic? Also, do you generally enjoy taking some conceptual risks in your work?

Kate: I love taking conceptual risks in my work! I also find that these tend to be the most successful with audiences. My only reservation is that the concept will come across like a gimmick, and I personally hate gimmicky writing; I’m glad that this story works, for example, but I could see it getting really irritating if it was even just three pages longer.

I don’t have reservations writing about sexual harassment and other feminist issues; I do it carefully, but I think it’s important that more people speak about these topics. I recently sold my first novel, which will be published by Viking in 2020; that novel begins with a rumor of a sexual assault at a high school lacrosse game, so I have been thinking a lot about the responsibility that a writer has when tackling this topics. That responsibility is to tell these stories in ways that open people’s minds to a wide diversity of perspectives and experiences; stories should break through the myths and stereotypes (like “boys will be boys”) that too often allow or excuse abusive and villainous behavior.  

Peyton: What do you think your younger self would’ve had to say about this piece?

Kate: Oh this is such a great question! Hmm…. I remember being 19 years old and reading Grace Paley’s “A Conversation With My Father” for the first time, and feeling really excited about seeing how the boundaries of a story could be expanded. So I hope that my younger self would enjoy this piece. Although I also think she would be pretty angry about the ending, because she’d want Anna to rip her old boss to shreds.  

Kate: I saw in your interview with American Short Fiction that you are working on a novel about climate change, yet another pressing issue. Please, give us a little taste of what it’s about, or if you’d rather share what inspired this novel We’re all ears either way.

Peyton: It’s true, I’ve been working on this novel (my second) for about a year now. I was inspired by a trip I took to Palm Springs a few years ago—California was in a major drought, and yet there were all of these swimming pools and sparkling green lawns in the desert. That dissonance in our modern American lives, where we keep enjoying incredible comforts even as more and more serious climate disasters are happening in our own backyards, was my first inspiration. As my novel has evolved I’ve been thinking much more about grief. It seems to me that we need to grieve for a lot of things that we’re going to lose to climate change, and that grief is part of the acceptance process we need in order to make real change. I hope the book is a way for people to grieve and think about environmental disaster in a cathartic way—it’s still in-progress, but that’s my hope, anyway!   

 

Interview: Juleah del Rosario

Looking for a novel with that typical happily-ever-after we all know so well? Well, 500 Words or Less isn’t that. Author Juleah del Rosario explores concepts such as love, loss, spinning moral-compasses, and self-discovery while refusing to succumb to that perfect, unrealistic ending in her debut novel. The main character, Nic Chen, wrestles with all of these concepts as she enters her senior year at an elite, uber competitive high school and begins the stress-ridden college application process. Our interview with Ms. del Rosario examines many of these specific aspects of the novel, like its unique verse, to aspects of del Rosario’s personal life, like her own high school experience.  

Stephanie Hull: Nic’s high school experience in 500 Words or Less is relatable and realistic for many teenagers today. How did you come up with the subject matter of 500 Words or Less? What does this subject matter mean to you? What do you hope it means to readers, especially those about to or in the midst of applying to college?

Juleah del Rosario: The idea for 500 Words or Less came out of two separate ideas actually. I think one of the earliest lines I wrote was a version of “a moral compass that doesn’t point north.” I really wanted to write about a female character who was morally questionable, who was flawed, but whose consequences weren’t as obvious. This was probably the most important thing for me. I remember distinctly reading a YA novel that I had been really excited to read because I loved all the books by that author, and even though the book was exactly what I thought it would be, I got to the end of the book and literally threw it across the room. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I was so tired of reading stories where people make mistakes (and in this case, some pretty major mistakes) and then everything ends up perfect in the end. So fricken perfect. Reality is so much more complex than that. I knew I needed to write about the complexity.

At the same time, I was really interested in this idea of paying someone else to write your college admissions essay. How could someone who isn’t you reflect the person you are? Because there are real services and companies out there that will write your essay for you. But the writers are mostly adults. What if it wasn’t an adult, what if the person writing was your peer. Could they better reflect your own reality? How can anyone possibly reflect their whole self in a 500 (or now 600+) word college admissions essay? Maybe you can’t, but maybe in the process you can discover some truths about yourself.

Stephanie: The poetic verse of 500 Words or Less makes it stand out among young adult novels. I found when I was reading that the style made it easier for me to relate to Nic’s experiences. What made you want to write the novel in verse? How did you arrive at this decision? Who are your favorite poets? Your favorite poems?  

Juleah: I originally wrote 500 Words or Less in prose, but got to the end and felt that it didn’t have the emotional quality that I envisions for the story in my head. So, I tried experimenting with different forms, and experimented with writing portions of the novel in verse. That experiment was very freeing as a writer. I think what it did was temporarily block out that inner critique. I kept telling myself, “I’m just experimenting,” but what resulted was a story with the emotional quality that I always wanted.

I wouldn’t say I have a single favorite poet. I look for poems that have more of a narrative quality, that feel like they’re telling a story.

But there is one poem that has always stuck with me, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” because it captures that experience of coming across an animal, unexpectedly, and it looks at you and you look at it and there’s this connection. We’re not even the same species, yet we can still feel a sense of connectedness.

Stephanie: From reading your novel, it seems like you really understand the process and mindset of teenagers throughout the ever-so-daunting task of writing college essays. How was your experience applying to college different from Nics? How was it similar? If you were applying to college today, what do you wish you would have known? What would you tell Nic, if you could? Any advice for those of us applying now?

Juleah: The high school experience that Nic has, particularly the culture and obsession over getting into not only college, but top colleges is based on my own high school experience. I went to a public school, but in a wealthy and well-funded school district. And the competitive culture was student-driven. It wasn’t from our parents, it was a culture of our own creation. I was right there in that culture, in that hyper-achievement mindset to do the most activities, be the best in sports, and have the top grades and SAT scores. Except, then I received my PSAT scores and I did horribly. Then I took the SATs and again did really, really poorly. I took classes, I took the ACTs, I took the SATs again and no matter what I could never even get to an average score.

This was devastating to me, because I felt like getting into all those top schools I had always dreamed up, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and even some mid-tier schools, were all out of the question. I did everything I was supposed to do, and yet I felt like my scores were defining my future, were defining me.

That experience resonates in what I wanted Nic and her classmates to feel, this sense that college admissions, the whole process, is defining us in some way.

I loved college, and I did end up getting into a very good liberal arts college that was one of the few schools that didn’t require SATs scores at the time. I do think college changed and shaped me in profound and meaningful ways. But the further I get away from my years in college, I know it never defined me. All my experiences, high school, college, the random jobs I had after college, the move I made in my late twenties leaving family and friends to move alone to a city where I knew no one, all of these shaped me significantly. But I still don’t think they defined me, because our identities are always being redefined, reshaped, by the minute, by the context, by the world around us, and by ourselves.

One piece of advice that I give friends and try to live by, is if you make a decision, own that decision. Don’t look back at all the other options. Just embrace whatever it is you choose. Whether it’s deciding where to apply, where to attend, which job to take, whether to move to a new city, break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, honor the choice you make, and embrace the pathway it will lead to. I’m really proud to look back at the many crossroads I have faced and the decisions I made that led me certain ways, even if some not so great stuff happened down some of those pathways.

Stephanie: Nic’s relationships with both Ben and Jordan are quiet complex and tug at the readers heartstrings. What lessons would you want readers to take away from the mistakes and missteps Nic made throughout the story?

Simplistically, but truthfully, that humans are flawed. Our friends, parents, the people closest to us, and ourselves, we are all flawed.

Stephanie: With such an exciting debut novel, what can readers expect from your upcoming novel, Turtle Under Ice? Will Turtle Under Ice be written in verse as well? Any other stylistic decisions that will be different from a “traditional” young adult novel?

Juleah: My editor asked me a few months ago where the idea for Turtle Under Ice came from, and I was like, uh turtles. I love turtles. I always have, and I love going to this pond in the summer and watching the turtles bask in the sun on a log. But I always wondered, what happens to them in the winter when the pond freezes over? For some turtles, they are able to survive under the ice, living in the water that isn’t frozen, and converting water into oxygen to breath. The story isn’t specifically about turtles, but it’s a metaphor I wanted to explore, how amazing it is that something can survive, swimming slowly, under a layer of ice.

Turtle Under Ice is another novel-in-verse, this time told from two perspectives, sisters, and one of them has gone missing during the middle of a snowstorm. I’m actively re-writing the whole thing right now, so I honestly don’t know much other than that!

Stephanie: What drew you to writing specifically young adult novels? Do you plan on expanding outside of the genre in the future? How have people seemed to respond since 500 Words or Less has been published?

Juleah: When I was in high school I thought that to be “smart” meant reading all these classics and “literary” novels for adults. But I really disliked them, and I really disliked reading as a result. In college, I started to check out children’s books from the library because I knew I could get through them fast and that they would be way more fun to read than the boring and dense material for class. From there, I migrated to young adult, and just never looked back. Reading YA has made reading enjoyable again. I almost exclusively read YA now, and there’s just so much to read! I don’t plan on expanding outside of YA, but if I did, I would probably still write for young people, maybe just a younger audience.

What has been surprising and what I think it really great is hearing from some of my parents’ friends or people their age, people way outside the target demographic, and how meaningful the book was to them, and to hear that even though they grew up a while ago, some of the experiences still resonate. The question of who we are never goes away.

Juleah: Seeing as you were a part of starting your own high school’s literary magazine, do you have any advice for me and my classmates?

It was so exciting to be able to see our work on high quality paper with glossy pages and color printing. So, ask your school for the funds necessary to produce the best looking literary magazine ☺

Book Review: 500 Words or Less

Juleah Del Rosario, 500 Words or Less
Simon & Schuster: Simon Pulse 2018
384 pages, hardback, $19.00

LIKE NIC CHEN, I only have 500 words or less to convince you why you should read the novel 500 Words or Less. This seemingly difficult task is one that the narrator, Nic, perfects over the course of Juleah Del Rosario’s debut coming of age novel that explores the unavoidably stressful hurdle of first semester of senior: college applications. For Nic, high school is full of students whose biggest concern is whether they receive either the infamous “I regret to inform you…” or “I am pleased to inform you…” letters from their top choice Ivy League school. And while for most students, the stress that accompanies writing college essays is enough to spark countless mental breakdowns, for Nic writing others’ college essays on top of her own is her escape.

But Del Rosario makes Nic’s unusual desire to dig deep into the utmost personal aspects of her peer’s lives not as odd as it seems. Following the trauma of being abandoned by her alcoholic mom and labeled as the school “whore” for cheating on her loved-by-everyone boyfriend one drunken night, Nic would do anything to escape her own chaotic life. Nic carries this attitude into her senior year by emphasizing that her “life was more than a series of letters scrawled on a locker, vying to break me.” Like this snippet, the novel emphasizes that there is much beyond what is just written on the pages. Although the premise of 500 Words or Less may seem predictable, it takes these stereotypical teenage issues and depicts them in a way that launches the reader into their own self exploratory thoughts.

Uncommon for such young adult novels, 500 Words or Less is written in verse, a series of poems that narrate the story. Each of these poems only span roughly two or three pages. Through interviews, Del Rosario has elaborated that she takes on this stylistic challenge in order to reflect much of what she writes within the novel. The, at times, vague verse enables the reader to interpret meanings of the phrases in a more personal way rather than having a set perspective given by the author. The novel’s unique style sets it apart from others that share similar topics, making it worth the read.

Through the novel’s verse, Del Rosario wrestles with many issues that her teen aged audience most likely is facing: heartbreak, forgiveness, academic stress, death, and self-discovery. While many other novels within the young adult category cover these topics, Del Rosario sets her novel apart by adding a dramatic twist through her short, punchy verse that’s simple to comprehend but also makes the novel more relatable to many people’s own high school experiences.

Choosing 500 Words or Less as your next read certainly won’t disappoint. Readers not only get to experience a slice of Nic’s grueling experiences but also get to wonder what if I were in her situation. The novel forces readers to do their own self exploring alongside Nic, which lends for many interesting interpretations. This not too heavy of a read definitely will provide you with the kind of escape you want from any book along with instilling you with its underlying, thought provoking message of self-discovery and the mistakes you make along the way.  

−Stephanie Hull ‘19