Month: January 2018

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom….

In Cora’s world, the Underground Railroad is not merely a network, but an actual railroad running from the slave states of the south to the perceived freedom of the north. Cora, an outsider even among the slaves on the plantation where she grew up and orphaned by a mother who ran north years before, has never had a good enough reason to run until a few days after our book begins. In The Underground Railroad, as Cora flees Georgia, each geographical state she passes through represents one of the states, forms, or ideas of how to address Black Americans in the 1800s. In many ways, vestiges of these “solutions” remain alive today.

Interspersed with the state chapters are vignettes of minor characters including the man who runs with Cora, the slave catcher chagrinned with having never caught Cora’s mother and obsessed with catching Cora, and even (lastly) Cora’s mother. The timeline presented is loosely linear as time bounces around a bit with Cora’s remembrances and the flashback vignettes, adding to the reader’s overall sense of being detached from time. This detachment adds to the sense that much of what is happening could be happening today.

Time & Timeliness
The Underground Railroad is, like Beartown, a book I read before I was blogging but that I wanted to revisit and write about. Other books had been published more recently and always seemed to be more urgent to write about (“urgent” being relative and, in this case, entirely self-defined and imposed). And yet, just two weeks ago there was discussion on Facebook of a University of Alabama student expelled for saying she “hates N-words” and can use that word as much as she wants. The President of the United States is talking about immigrants from shithole countries. Here we are. 2018. While slavery of African Americans is officially eradicated in the United States, the states through which Cora and her companions traveled are still alive and well in America today.

In Georgia (where our book starts) is brutal slavery—Cora lives on the Randall plantation, owned by two brothers, each representing one of the extremes of slaveholding. James is the “kinder” slaveholder, a bit more reticent to punish, not unnecessarily harsh (ignoring, of course, that the idea of owning another person is of itself automatically unnecessary and harsh). Terrence is the opposite; the slaves are there for his amusement and his amusement includes rape and beatings. While one of these treatments is preferable to the other in the day-to-day, both are slavery. Both are predicated on ideas of supremacy and values of human life that change based on the color of ones skin. Even “benevolence” is brutal.

As expected, Whitehead does not shy away from the brutality of slavery—Cora witnesses beatings and is herself beaten and raped. These events are described (though not gratuitously—Whitehead hits the right balance here), including the one that served as the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, and sent Cora running. The only part about the Georgia chapters that were surprising to me was the cruelty she experienced at the hands of her fellow slaves before she left. My surprise at this was obviously my ignorance and failure to question other portrayals of slaves in other works—slaves who were loyal to each other, all family, all united with no dissent. Of course, enslaved African Americans were humans like any other—there were some who were selfless and others who were selfish. While they’re often portrayed as only selfless and helping of others in fiction and movies, this “magical negro” variant is unhelpful. Anything that removes ones humanity—be it degradation or overwrought elevation is harmful. Whitehead avoids this by portraying his black characters throughout as well-rounded, representative human beings, including black wrongdoers.

South Carolina
In South Carolina, Cora initially thinks she has come to someplace wonderful. She’s given a job and lessons. She is housed in a dormitory with a proper bed and shown signs of respect, including having white people nod to her and look her in the eye. After the brutality of the plantation and the overwhelming fear attendant to her flight, South Carolina originally seems like a peaceful place to be.

And yet shortly after Cora settles into her new life in South Carolina, little flags start to raise themselves. She is given a thorough and invasive physical exam including a rough gynecological exam. A seemingly crazy woman is dragged away yelling that these (“respectful”) white people are taking her babies. Shortly after, Cora finds her job reassigned, removed from being a nanny (reminiscent of the care of white children by African Americans that continued for more than one hundred years after the official end of slavery) and instead made part of a living history museum. Yet as Cora “reenacts” the highly sanitized version of slavery presented at the “history” museum for white children, she begins to see that South Carolina may not be the haven it seemed. History is still being told by the ones in power and the ones in power are all white. Even when life is better here, there is still an inviolable power dynamic that is not changed by the occasional handshake—there are simply different strings that still serve to tie blacks firmly down into their places.

Almost too late, Cora discovers what is really behind the courtesies and medical examinations in South Carolina and barely makes it out, catching a maintenance cart to a station that should be closed in North Carolina.

North Carolina
North Carolina is a new hell—the whites have solved the “black problem” by eliminating all blacks and those who attempted to help them. There are weekly hangings of any that have been rooted out, with the bodies left on the ironically, grotesquely named “Freedom Trail.” (“Freedom” being defined by the whites as being free altogether of African Americans.) In some ways similar to South Carolina, the “solution” is North Carolina is presented as the logical, thought-out conclusion to the “problem.”

Here Cora is forced to impose upon a couple that finds her but doesn’t want her. Martin feels obligated to fulfill his father’s legacy and take her in where Ethel resents the danger Cora has forced upon her family. Cora is forced into what is essentially an attic crawl space. Here Whitehead’s descriptions made me feel as if the walls and ceilings were closing in on me, in a space that feels more and more like it could become Cora’s coffin. From Cora’s perch in hiding, she has one view—the view of the square where the weekly hangings are. Because life in a coffin isn’t bad enough, she must constantly be reminded of what is outside the coffin. When the family is betrayed, Cora is again on the move.

Cora next finds herself in Tennessee. It is nearly impossible to write much further about the events in Tennessee without providing significant spoilers, so there is less here that I can say. A handful of characters appear in Tennessee serving as allegories of larger issues and ideas in the history of the treatment of African Americans in this country. In Tennessee we first meet a black child who has so internalized the racism that he has voluntarily taken up with slave catchers and helps them to catch other African Americans. We also meet a group of black freemen with significantly different ideas about the use of violence in the struggle for black freedom, ideas reminiscent of the debates between adherents of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophies and those embraced by Malcolm X.

Cora next finds herself on Valentine farm, a haven in the north for freemen and women. While whites are not banned, few of them find their way there—and these are typically whites that were involved with the stops on the Underground Railroad and so must seek refuge themselves. But even here, the haven cannot be a paradise. The farm has grown large enough that they are attracting attention and hatred from the white farmers whose lands bound the farm. There are discussions about whether to close their doors to any further fugitives. Whether they should be concerned with maintaining only their own freedom or whether they owe a duty to those still running to be the haven they will need in the weeks and months to come.

“We can’t save everyone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. Nothing’s going to grow in this mean cold, but we can still have flowers.
“Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade. When you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think you would sit here today, without chains, without a yoke, among a new family? Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick—yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary….
“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are….”

Ultimately, the whites cannot let this haven be untouched. No place of Black freedom and prosperity, even now, can thrive without jealousy and a white, entitled sense of the reversal of the order of things.

The Underground Railroad was timely when it was published more than a year ago and remains so today. Neo-nazis are not new; however, it seems that in the last two years they have been emboldened into no longer feeling they have to hide. They’ve lost the sense that as a society we will reject them—largely because we haven’t. There is always work I can and should be doing, as a possessor of almost all of the privileges—white, cis-gendered, and able-bodied. I find books like The Underground Railroad to be helpful in making me think through my privilege in different ways, to connect what happened back then with what is still very much happening now. While the book does have some brutal depictions of slavery, it is never gratuitous and so is a book I recommend (particularly for white readers) without hesitation.

Published: August 2 2016 by Doubleday (@doubledaybooks)
Author: Colson Whitehead (@thecolsonwhitehead)
Date read: September 16, 2017
Rating: 4 ¾ stars

Review: Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Review: Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

“I’m not allowed to use the internet without an adult,” I say
“Right, I remember,” says Larry. “Why won’t your parents let you?”
“Because Gloria is on the internet.”
“Who’s Gloria?”
“Gloria is my Birth Mom. I used to live with her.”
Then I stop talking.
“Is she easy to find?” says Larry.
I shake my head. “No,” I say. “I tried to find her three times on the internet when I was in different Forever Homes but I kept getting interrupted.”
“What’s her name again?” says Larry….
I lean forward and look at him sideways over the top of my glasses. I push my hair out of my face but it falls back. I wish I had a scrunchie. “Gloria LeBlanc,” I say. It’s been a long time since I said the name LeBlanc with my mouth. Because that is what my name used to be. It’s like I left the original me behind when I came to live with my new Forever Parents. With Brian and Maura Moon. My name is Ginny Moon now but there are still parts of the original me left.

Ginny Moon is a 14 year-old girl with autism, adopted by her Forever Parents after being removed from Gloria, her Birth Mother who neglected her. No one seems to care that when Ginny was removed from Gloria, her Baby Doll was left behind and Ginny needs to care for her Baby Doll. When no one will help her find her Baby Doll, Ginny has no choice but to try to find her herself. Unfortunately, Ginny’s search for her Baby Doll means she has to make some choices that are Not Safe, risking her place in her Forever Family’s home.

Representation & Characters
I loved Ginny. This book is written to make you root for her, even when she is making what seem to be awful choices. In my experience, Ludwig’s sensitive portrayal of Ginny’s autism is fairly accurate. She isn’t presented as representative of all individuals with autism and she isn’t a Rain Man-esque savant. She is simply concrete and literal, though Ludwig gives you Ginny’s interior voice so you know why she is making the choices she is making. Knowing the why and how she got from point A to point B in her thinking made it so that I could identify with her, even though I’m not a person that the autism spectrum myself.

Along with the concrete thinking, she keeps the rules that make logical sense and violates the ones that don’t. She doesn’t abide by many social conventions—not because she doesn’t value the people involved but simply because the conventions don’t make sense in light of Ginny’s end game. I particularly appreciated that Ludwig portrayed a girl with autism, since the majority of the stories that seem to be out there with characters with autism feature boys.

Ginny’s Forever Mom and Forever Dad raised Big Feelings for me. Forever Dad is trying his best. While even he does not take the time or consider the source of Ginny’s anxiety over her Baby Doll, he is willing to spend more energy and time accommodating and meeting Ginny’s needs. Forever Mom on the other hand, was infuriating. Admittedly, her suggestions of institutionalizing Ginny may have made me hate her more than was directly called for—part of my job is working to get people out of institutions and set up with the services and supports they need to be successful in their communities. I’m sure Maura was frustrated and Ginny did do things that, when you didn’t understand the full context (as Forever Mom didn’t) seemed like Ginny didn’t care about her Forever Family and wouldn’t be safe around the baby who was on the way. But Forever Mom also refused to listen to the counselor and wanted to send Ginny away. So I still feel ok about disliking her as a person.

While he is a minor character, I also want to mention Ginny’s friend Larry. I loved that Ludwig included Larry—that he cares for Ginny, that he is a friend for Ginny, and that he even seems to have a crush on Ginny. People with disabilities are far too often presented as if they are asexual or unable to be the objects of real desire and so just presenting a teenager with a crush on a girl with autism made me want to stand up and cheer.

I can honestly say that never before has a book inspired such feelings of anxiety. I listened to Ginny Moon on audiobook and the feeling of growing tension about choices Ginny is making filled me with dread and anxiety the further I went into the book. As the reader, you can see the train wreck that’s building—Ginny reaches out to Gloria. Gloria begins to contact Ginny. Ginny makes choices to try to get back to Gloria and her Baby Doll. Each of the series of choices Ginny makes has worse possible consequences than the one before and you’re cringing as you read, waiting to see what will happen, hoping something will interrupt the coming course of events.

I found myself torn between not being able to stop listening, needing to know what came next and pausing the book because I couldn’t handle the tension and oh my god, Ginny this is a bad idea and why aren’t you listening to what Ginny is saying! If you would listen to Ginny, she wouldn’t be making unsafe choices. THIS IS UNSAFE.

With that said, this was the Diverse Books Club pick last year when we were looking at disabilities and I know more than one Highly-Sensitive Person who read and thought this book was amazing.   Don’t let the anxiety it produces scare you away from reading it. Just know ahead of time that it is a book that you may need to take breaks from if you’re an HSP. And if you’ll pardon the spoiler, Ginny is alive and healthy at the end of the book, in case knowing that makes it easier to read.

Minor Criticism
The only detail that really threw me off was the inclusion of Larry in the SpEd classroom. Unless I missed something, Ginny’s friend Larry has a physical disability that requires him to use crutches but does not have any kind of cognitive deficits associated with his disability. While many schools do not treat the SpEd kids well or provide all needed services; in my experience, a kid with solely physical disabilities wouldn’t be put into the self-contained classroom like this. There would be no reason Larry can’t participate in a mainstream classroom, with physical accommodations like seating closer to a door and more time to get to class. The inclusion of Larry in Ginny’s class was necessary for him to be able to aid and abet her in things like using the internet; however, it felt odd throughout for me that he was in the classroom at all.

Ginny Moon is well-written with a distinct narrator that makes the book an anxiety-producing joy to read. It’s a book that will draw Big Feelings from you and is a book that would do well with a book club since Ginny’s choices, as well as those of her family, would make good fodder for discussion. (At least some of the reviews on Goodreads are pretty negative—while I disagree with these, the best kind of book club books are the ones people disagree about.)

The themes and reading level of the book, while aimed at adults, are well within the grasp of older teens and so this would also be a book I recommend for young adults that enjoy some non-YA fiction. Indeed, reading well-written books with diverse characters, including characters with disabilities, can only be beneficial. I honestly believe that one of the ways I’ve developed into a more empathetic person over time (besides having a close friend who got a degree in counseling) is by fiction that presents a diversity of voices and viewpoints. Everyone is equal at the library checkout counter.

Published: May 1, 2017 by Park Row Books
Author: Benjamin Ludwig
Date read: November 17, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Explore: January 2018

Explore: January 2018

Andrew Neel

I don’t want to tie myself down to anything in particular besides doing book reviews at the moment so I may not do one of these every month; however, there have been a few links and posts of note that I wanted to write about.  I also have a draft for a review of The Underground Railroad but I want to take a little extra time to make sure that my language is culturally-appropriate, so there won’t be a book review posted today.  Instead, here are a few bookish things that struck my fancy of the last few weeks.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
If you’ve been around the last few months or poked around in my archives, you may have seen that I was less than enthused about Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.  Part of the problem for me was that the book was overhyped and Eleanor felt overdone, like Honeyman was trying just a little too hard.  Though the book has been out for several moths, The Guardian recently did a post on the author and how Eleanor came to be.  I have to admit, it warmed my feelings towards Eleanor.

The full article can be found here.  I particularly loved her noting that Eleanor came out of a story she read about loneliness and that, even for all she survived, Eleanor retained agency over her own life.  Eleanor was many things, but she was never a victim.

My Absolute Darling
A few weeks ago the amazing Roxane Gay posted her wrap up of the best and worst books of 2017 on her Tumblr.  Her summation of My Absolute Darling made me feel vindicated– “The Book I Hated Most, For Excellent Reasons I Explain in My Goodreads Review and That I WIll Summarize by Saying NO NOPE NO Because For One the Protagonist Scoops Semen Out of Her Vagina With Alarming Frequency (WTF DUDE? COME ON)”  Roxane Gay agrees with me that you should just skip that one.

Her list also moved Pachinko up my on TBR and bumped Tom Hanks’s Uncommon Type down a few notches.  Gay’s own book remains on my TBR but I’m nervous about picking it up.  I’ve heard Hunger is amazing but brutal and I’ve got to be in the right place for that kind of book.

Beartown Sequel
I saw a post on Instagram this week announcing a sequel to Beartown that makes me simultaneously jump up and down and bite my nails for fear it won’t live up to it’s predecessor.  Us Against You returns to Beartown where the hockey team is being disbanded.  I’m thrilled to see that Amat and Benji will be back.  The book comes out in June 2018 and you can bet I’ll be trolling social media for advance copy giveaways.  (Sorry in advance when I tag all of my Instagram followers in the book giveaways.)

The Airing of Grief
Finally, in non-bookish news–Through a somewhat strange set of circumstances almost nine years ago now, I met musician Derek Webb and over the intervening years, he’s became something of a friend.  We wound up going through our divorces at the same time and I found that just knowing he was out there, going through both a physical and spiritual divorce at the same time to be comforting.  There is value in knowing we’re not alone in what we’re going through.

He’s taken his experiences and created a platform at The Airing of Grief to host diverse voices from people who have or are currently deconstructing/reconstructing their Christian faith.  Though I’m anonymous in the podcast and won’t be sharing widely that it’s me, I share a bit of my story on Episode Ten that went live this week.  Derek was gracious, even though I clearly talked over my allotted ten minutes (oops).  If you’ve been left wondering whether you have a place in the church anymore (or even want one), I would recommend The Airing of Grief to you.

DBC January Theme: Foster Care & Adoption

DBC January Theme: Foster Care & Adoption

This month’s focus for the Diverse Books Club* was foster care and adoption. While foster care and adoption can be beautiful things, there can also be heartbreak and difficulty for all involved—birth parents, children, and adoptive parents. Too often, the hard reality of adoption isn’t discussed or portrayed when we speak of these things. Adoptive parents are saviors, the children are lucky to get out, and the fairy tale ends with the judge’s gavel pronouncing the creation of a forever family. But adoption is not a fairy tale for most. It is, quite often, simply a necessary evil.

As an attorney, I have seen parents with disabilities who needed temporary help lose their children entirely to the machine that is the child welfare system. I’ve also seen children who needed help far sooner, but even once the State intervened stood little chance of getting what they needed. The failures are typically not for lack of care on the part of the people involved, but rather a function of a behemoth grown too large to manage with perpetually underfunded staff and resources. The end result is that while individual caseworkers, attorneys, and judges may very well care, the system doesn’t. And it is the system that swallows parents and children whole.

I was grateful, therefore, to see that there are mainstream, accessible books that tackle some of these issues and that DBC selected this as a theme to explore.

forever, or a long, long time
The first DBC book I read this month, and my favorite of the two, was forever, or a long, long time—a middle grade book written by Caela Carter. This book was a pleasant surprise to me since I rarely really get into middle grade books. I’m not a teacher and don’t have children, so I don’t have a reason to ever pick them up outside of a book club selection and they’re usual hit or miss for me. I went ahead and got this one but assumed I might be quitting after a chapter or so. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Summary // Foster Care Damage
Forever is told from the point of view of fourth grader Flora who, along with her younger brother Julian has been adopted into what is supposed to be their forever home.   You quickly come to realize that due to some neglect faced by these two children before landing where they are, Flora struggles with processing language—she understands but has trouble putting her thoughts into words and speaking. Julian hoards food, even though he now receives plenty at the table everyday. For children who have been through at least four placements and “entered care” very young, these disabilities and issues are not terribly surprising. Language delays can be common in children who were neglected or otherwise not engaged at a young age. Similarly, hoarding is a common aftereffect of serious neglect where access to food was limited. Long after the neglect has ended, the psychological remains of this neglect stays—rooting this out and filling in the hole left can take far longer. Nor is it surprising that Flora self-sabotages in school, torn between wanting to do well and please her mom and teacher and not wanting to have to transition away from the teacher and classroom she knows and loves.

Though Flora’s and Julian’s new mom and dad do everything they can and show remarkable patience, the adoption is still hard. Adoption did not make Flora speak overnight or keep her from self-sabotaging. It doesn’t keep Julian from hiding moldy chicken nuggets tucked in the folds of his khakis in his closet. Nor does having a mom and dad keep the children from wondering about their first mom and dad, or where they came from. Since no one seems to be able to tell them, Flora and Julian have created a heartbreaking little game, where they come up with theories of where they came from—they formed on the bottom of the sea, they stepped fully grown from a television, etc.

Adding to the mix is the blended family—Dad had a family before and so adoption comes with a half-sister. Though the adults don’t use the “half” or designate the status/worth of their children by differentiating between those acquired by birth and adoption, you can bet the children do themselves. There is a pervading cloud of otherness that hangs over Flora and Julian, despite the efforts of their parents, teachers, and therapist. No one (except maybe dad’s ex-wife) is to blame and everyone is trying their best.

The final piece of the chaos is the loss of Flora and Julian’s files. No one—not Mom, not the agency—knows where the files are. And so, the family embarks on a quest to find where Flora and Julian came from, tracing back one placement by one placement. On this journey, hard truths come out about where Flora and Julian were placed, what motives some of the placements had, failures of the system that resulted in Flora and Julian losing a loving home that was ready and available for them many years before they stopped bouncing around the system. And they find the home where Flora and Julian were taken right after their emergency removal—the home that left me with the solid feeling that they may have been in trouble before, but the home they were thrust into was far worse.

Along the way are all the people—the loving foster home that Flora and Julian lost. The foster-farm parent who takes in large numbers of kids and gives them the bare minimum. The parent who was more concerned about herself than keeping Flora and Julian together. The caseworker who tried her best but still probably failed. And the forever mom, the forever dad, and the forever siblings. All of these people are real people in the system that makes the foster-adoption process the flawed, hot mess with sometimes happy endings that it is.

Having written all of this out, Forever admittedly sounds like a bummer of a book. And yet, it was hopeful. It was hard but, as is age appropriate, it ends well for Flora and Julian. They have their forever family. Forever presents an accurate portrayal of what foster care and adoption can look like for one family in an accessible and age appropriate way. There is nothing graphic or scary; however, this is a book that will spark conversation about the fact that not every family is safe. Not every child is well taken care of. And that kid in class who seems kind of weird and doesn’t look like their family—may be one of the best people to get to know. Because not every family looks alike and that’s more than okay.

Forever is a beautiful book that I’m glad I read and will be recommending for friends with kids. Even those who aren’t involved in foster care or adoption should pick up this book for their children and begin exploring these topics so that when Flora and Julian shows up next to them in class, they have a head start on being kind.

Published: March 7, 2017 by HarperCollins (harpercollinsus)
Author: Caela Carter
Read: January 5, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Secret Daughter
Admittedly, I was a little less jazzed about Secret Daughter. I think we’ve pretty well established that I’m a book-snob and my tastes, with some exceptions, veer more LitFic than WomansFic. I don’t love the mass market paperback but give me the snobby book nominated for the Man Booker and talked about on NPR. I want to read and re-read a paragraph just to appreciate the cadence of the words. Secret Daughter is definitely more in the WomansFic class.

Secret Daughter follows two families beginning with the birth of their daughter in 1984 through 2009. Kavita is Usha/Asha’s birth mother, forced by circumstance to give her daughter up in order to literally save her life. Somer and Krishnan are Asha’s mixed-race parents in the States who adopt her as a very young child. As the book moves through time, you read about Kavita’s life—how she wonders about Asha, how her life slowly improves (at least on the surface) with her husband and her son she was allowed to keep, born about a year after Asha. You struggle with Somer over her infertility, her adoption of Asha, her sacrifice of much of her ambition in order to fit into her new role as Mom. And, when Asha grows old enough, you follow Asha as she wonders who she is and where she come from. Layered over this is the mixed-culture marriage of Somer and Krishnan. Krishnan was, with relatively little complaint from him, forced to assimilate to American culture when he came over many years ago for medical school. Somer, during short visits to India chafes against having to assimilate, even temporarily—leaving her with mostly negative feelings about the country of her child’s birth, even independent of any fears she has about Asha’s birth parents.

Verdict // Importance of books like these
I don’t have any major things I can point to about why I didn’t love this book—I think the problem is that I also don’t have anything I can point to that I loved. There were no paragraphs that I re-read to appreciate the writing, though I also never rolled my eyes at anything overwrought. (Secret Daughter is still head and shoulders above Lilac Girls.) I’d give it 3 ½ stars because it is an above-average book. It just isn’t the kind of book I gravitate to and I don’t want to rush to get back to it when I had to put it down.

While I didn’t love the book, after sitting with it for several days, I do think books like Secret Daughter fill an important role, much the way I think some Jodi Picoult books do. There are many readers who will not pick up a serious work on domestic violence or the recent unmasking of the rampant white supremacy around us and yet, these women will pick up Picture Perfect and Small Great Things. It is important that weighty topics not be limited to serious works but that mass-market fiction sold for $11 in Target also introduces these ideas.

Along these likes Secret Daughter raises points that are not highly talked about with international child adoption. Adoptive mom Somer feels she’s lost herself to give her daughter Asha a beautiful life in America—having, like many mothers, sacrificed her own dreams and ambitions for the sake of her child. For her part, Asha, though adopted as a very child, still wonders about her birth country and her birth family. Though Asha has everything she could want in America and two loving parents, there is still the very real urge to find where she came from and why her parents had to give her up.

Here to is where Secret Daughter raises important points, particularly about international adoption. Many if not most “orphans” in places like India, Haiti, and Ethiopia are not orphans. They are children of poverty whose families gave them up because it was the surest way to ensure they would have access to food and shelter. Or some other circumstances intervened to prevent their birth family from caring for them, but this doesn’t mean they are unloved, unwanted, or even actually orphaned. Even medical advances like the ultrasound and things like abortion access come into play in Secret Daughter as it’s a poorly kept secret that these things are used by some in countries like India for sex-selective abortion. The result in places like India and China is an imbalance where men outnumber women significantly by the time a generation reaches childbearing age.

Thematically, Secret Daughter isn’t a beachy read and yet, it kind of reads like one. The writing is straightforward, the characters easy to identify with. The plot has enough action to keep it moving at a decent clip. It’s not a book I plan to keep and I probably won’t recommend widely, though it is something I’d recommend to my mother since she camps pretty solidly in the Women’s Fiction section in her typical reading tastes. If you lean more Women’s Fic than LitFic this is a book you’d enjoy and I do think it a worthwhile use of your time.

If you do pick up Secret Daughter, make sure to read the author’s note about her inspiration to write the book and the real life facts behind Asha’s story.

Published: April 5, 2011 by William Morrow books (paperback) (@williammorrowbooks)
Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda (@shilpi_gowda)
Read: January 11, 2018
Rating: 3 ½ stars

*New Members are always welcome in our community for Diverse Books Club!  We’re a publicly viewable group on Goodreads, but if you have any trouble finding us, leave me a comment with your Goodreads name and I can invite you directly.

Mini Reviews: Castle of Water and Dear Fahrenheit 451

While these two books might seem an odd mix – one fiction and one non; one written by a man and one a woman. (They are both written by white people but let’s be honest—that’s not a theme)—they’re both books that I read and immediately added to my To-Buy list. I didn’t expect to love them both and so both were library books for the first read. Castle of Water ended my year last year and Dear Fahrenheit 451 started my new one. If every year’s transition can go so smoothly for the next fifty or so years, everything might just be ok.

First Up– Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge

Why I Almost Quit This Book & Synopsis
I’ll admit, I almost didn’t read this book and even abandoned it after five minutes of trying to listen to the audio. (I couldn’t follow the weird French accent. It’s possible I was also distracted and was listening to a portion in actual French which would explain why I felt like I couldn’t follow it.) A handful of Bookstagrammers I trust had raved about it over the summer and it had the long library wait characteristic of many of the new books I love so I tried again in print. I am so glad I did. This was one of my favorite books last year and I’ve got my eyes peeled for my own copy.

The plot of Castle of Water sounds like one of the “women’s fiction” books that drives me a little batty, which was another initial turn-off. Investment-banker-turned-aspiring-artist Barry and newlywed-newlywidowed Sophie find themselves the sole survivors of a small plane crash, washed ashore on a literal deserted island. Because their plane wasn’t flying where it should have been (of course) no one is looking for them. They’re on the own with the limited supplies in the emergency raft and an endless supply of bananas.

And yet, Huckelbridge takes what sounds like the plot of a hastily written mass-market paperback or even a steamy romance (don’t worry—there are no pirates) and turns it into something absolutely gorgeous. The writing is elevated over your run of the mill fiction book—it’s lyrical in places, haunting in others, and beautiful throughout without ever feeling flowery. Huckelbridge has moments of levity (Barry is dependent upon contacts and only has the three pairs) with moments of deep sadness. As the book reached its crescendo, I found myself with tears streaming down my face in a sports bar. (I wouldn’t recommend reading the last chapters during halftime of a football game. I was trying to deny the emotional twist I suspected was coming and foolishly hit that part in public.)

Both Barry and Sophie are well-rounded and believable, with aspects of their personalities and backstories that seem, on the one hand, ridiculous and on the other entirely believable. Would Barry really give up his entire life and fortune as an investment banker to become an artist? I don’t know, but as a five-foot tall former firefighter, now lawyer, I’m not one to judge on unusual backstories. Most people have something a little quirky in their experience-closets—Huckelbridge hits the right spot of just weird enough to be interesting but not so weird as to be eye-rollingly-unbelievable.

Castle of Water was the book that most surprised me in 2017 and left me wanting more of Huckelbridge’s fiction (this was his first). It’s also one of the books with the most mass appeal—unlike something like The Heart, Castle of Water isn’t so flowery as to seem pretentious. It’s easy to read—it feels accessible and not like something that’s gunning for a literary prize. And yet, there’s so much more to it than a cheap beach read.

Published: April 4, 2017 by St. Martins Press (@StMartinsPress)
Author: Dane Huckelbridge (@huckelbridge)
Date read: December 31, 2017

Next Up — Dear Fahrenheit 451

Smart-ass librarian writes letters to books in her life. Causing cringing, awkward moments of laughing-out-loud in public, and the expansion of many a TBR list.

Yes, I called Annie Spence A Smart Ass
I’m pretty sure she would agree with me. A sample quote:

Reading can get you more hot and bothered than a Tinder date, without the cost of drinks and with a lower frequency of unwanted dick pics.

I have to admit, I expected Dear Fahrenheit 451 to be cute, but I didn’t expect it to be irreverent. This is a librarian we’re talking about here. While Spence’s snark might turn off a handful of readers (I probably won’t recommend this to my mother), I loved her tone and found her sarcasm refreshing.

Her most-biting commentary, however, is directed at books that are safe. She pokes harmless fun at books about cat anatomy and “fun with calculators” (remember 80085?) but doesn’t turn her criticism toward any current books or authors who could take offense. You could see this as safe; however, having a friend who is an author and knowing how hard it is to write a book, this seems to me to be a kindness. Spence doesn’t make her jokes at the expense of anyone currently writing and the only truly negative post that goes beyond joking at outdated technology or weird dissection niches is reserved for a book on how to convert someone from homosexuality. If you’re looking for Mean Girls Read Books, this book isn’t it. I want to meet her—she seems like a girlfriend I’d want to meet at a wine bar and then not talk to while we both read books at the same table.

(Admittedly Minor) Complaints
My complaints about this book are only two and deal with two specific books she recommends—that she sort of spoils a twist in a book and that she recommended Roth’s Divergent series. As to the first, there is a book I love where a twist isn’t revealed for several chapters (though, I admit, it is revealed somewhere around a quarter of the way in, possibly earlier. It was an audiobook so it’s a little hard to recall how early it was. But it was early.). I loved that early twist and knowing it ahead of time would have taken something away from the experience for me. Spence summarizes the book in one sentence giving away that twist. I begrudged her a little for that. As to Divergent, I thought we all agreed that Allegiant was so awful that it ruined the books that preceded it?

Even with those two little complaints, this is still a book I loved. Though I was trying not to add books to my ever-multiplying TBR, I still added fifteen books to the list of books I want to read. If you pick this book up and you’re trying to decide whether or not to read it, flip to page 36 in the hardback and read her summary of getting progressively drunker and angrier at a pretentious bookshelf at a party. This chapter had me in tears—I made several people read that chapter as an explanation of why I loved the book. If that chapter hits the right note in your snark bone (located just behind the funny bone), pick up Dear Fahrenheit 451. You won’t be disappointed.

Published: September 26, 2017 by Flatiron Books (@flatiron_books)
Author: Annie Spence
Date read: January 4, 2018


Review: The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

Modern life seems set up so that we can avoid loneliness at all costs, but maybe it’s worthwhile to face it occasionally. The further we push aloneness away, the less we are able to cope with it, and the more terrifying it gets. Some philosophers believe that loneliness is the only true feeling there is.

In 1986, twenty year-old Christopher Thomas Knight walked into the woods in Maine, abandoning his car, his job, his family, and his life. For the next twenty-seven years, until he was caught, Knight lived in the harsh woods of Maine, surviving by stealing food and other necessaries from the inhabitants of the cabins and camps around North Pond, Maine. During that entire twenty-seven years, the only contact he had with another human occurred during one chance encounter with hikers, limited to the word “hi” and a wave. After he was caught, Knight ultimately plead guilty to a handful of the estimated one thousand burglaries he committed over that quarter century and was forced to live again in society. The Stranger in the Woods is the story of Knight’s survival—both in the woods and once forced out—as well as the story of how Finkel came to meet Knight and come to terms with how he chose to live.

White Privilege
This is most decidedly not what I was supposed to take from this book, but I spent large portions of this book with the phrase “White Privilege” going off like an alarm in the back of my head. The Stranger in the Woods is the story of how a man committed something around one thousand burglaries, including multiple burglaries of a camp for children with disabilities, in order to live alone without human contact. No matter his reason, no matter how sympathetic a character he appears, Christopher Knight is a man who burglarized and terrorized a community for twenty-seven years. Sure, some residents found it mostly harmless to lose the occasional book, pack of chicken, and roll of toilet paper. But others, understandably, felt violated. It wasn’t the value of what was taken, but the idea that someone had been in your house, going through your things. (As someone whose home was burglarized five years ago, I can attest—this is definitely a thing.) Despite all of this, Finkel paints him sympathetically—explains his reasons for why he committed “break-ins” (not “burglaries”), emphasizes how he suffered during his self-imposed exile. I cannot imagine anyone writing or agreeing to publish a book with so sympathetic an eye towards a black man who committed a thousand burglaries. And so there we have it. While The Stranger in the Woods is fascinating and well-written, it’s also unsettling in a way Finkel almost certainly never intended it to be. (Of course, I should probably acknowledge here that Finkel is himself an able-bodied, cis-white male.)

If The Stranger in the Woods were simply a straight-forward factual rendition of how Knight came to move into, survive, and then be caught in the Maine woods, the book would (frankly) be boring and incredibly short. Outside of explaining how he managed to survive through impossible winters, there’s not a lot to say about the twenty years Knight spent in the forest.

Finkel fleshes out what could otherwise be a boring tenth grade biography essay with his own story of Knight agreed to meet him alone of all the journalists clamoring for interviews as well as his own journeys hiking into Knight’s camp. This choice adds more a human-interest angle. The reader is expected to (and I did) identify more with Finkel, so by inserting himself into the story, there’s an easier and quicker connection. We also learn more about Knight in his interacting with/against Finkel than we would with Finkel merely reciting facts. Our meeting Knight this way is far more effective and a credit to Finkel for showing the reader, rather than just telling.

The other major element of the book is Finkel’s lengthy asides into the history of hermits, the value and meaning of solitude, Asperger’s disorder/Autism spectrum disorders (a tentative diagnosis given to Knight after his capture), suffering, cognition, time, and death. Finkel boils down theories and philosophies to present relatively neat packages against which Knight is presented. As you can likely imagine, he fits neatly almost nowhere, which is, likely, the larger point. These sections are where the real value of the book was for me. I enjoyed the theories, the quotes, and their application to the person of Knight.

Exploitation / Permission
Even if I found him a less sympathetic character than I was intended to, Knight is still a human being entitled to own his own story. Finkel quite literally inserted himself into Knight’s story and has made money selling books about Knight’s story. I had concerns throughout the book that The Stranger in the Woods was exploitative of Knight.   Towards almost the very end of his narrative, Finkel relates a series of conversations he had with Knight that had him worried Knight was about to end his life rather than continue to live in the society in which he did not fit. As part of this exchange, he notes that Knight conveyed to him that “after [Knight’s] gone…I can tell his story anyway I want.” Knight calls Finkel his “Boswell” (his biographer). So it would seem Knight gave Finkel permission…except Knight isn’t gone. So did he or did he not have permission to publish this information?

On the one hand, Knight gave him as close to explicit permission as you can get. On the other, it was conditional and has brought more scrutiny to Knight than would have if there were no book published—I had certainly never heard of the North Pond hermit and likely wouldn’t have if The Stranger in the Woods hadn’t been published and then reviewed in Time magazine (which is where I heard of it and decided to add it to my TBR list). One of the things that is very clear in Finkel’s book is that Knight loathed attention. That being caught and subject to the mini-media frenzy was the last thing he wanted. Had he been able to live as he wanted, he would have eventually died in the woods and remained unfound, unsung, unmourned. By publishing this book before Knights death, did Finkel violate one of Knight’s conditions for permission? It’s unlikely we’ll know since Knight himself is perhaps the last person on earth who would ever issue a public statement or talk to a reporter about he feels about this potential violation. Ultimately, it isn’t clear if The Stranger in the Woods is a celebration of Knight or the most glaring of the violations of Knight’s privacy after he was caught.

For all of the hesitancy I have after reading this book—particularly around privilege and permission—I still can’t help feeling like I want to recommend it. It was well-written. The pace and philosophical asides (which, admittedly, only skim the surface of the deeper themes) were well-done. It is a compelling, relatively quick read. If you aren’t troubled by the privilege and permission issues that lurk under the surface, it is a book that many would find highly enjoyable and intriguing. (So I guess sorry/not-sorry for introducing those issues to you that may now hamper your reading of the book). Knight’s way of life is challenging to contemplate and there is always value in reading about someone whose life is so different from yours that you cannot fathom living as they did. (I joke that I could do without people, but at the end of the day, I could never actually live as a hermit. At least, not without my dog to talk to.) So I leave it to you—if you can look past the two major issues above, it’s a book I recommend. If reading books where people use but never acknowledge privilege, it’s not going to be for you.

Published: March 7, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf)
Author: Michael Finkel
Date read: December 17, 2017
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Review: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

There is so much of her life she doesn’t understand. She knows what happened, but why it happened and what it meant, she doesn’t know.

My Absolute Darling centers around fourteen year-old Turtle and the world defined for her by her father’s making. The central character in her life, he has wrapped himself so tightly around her that he defines her thoughts and is the source of both her pleasure and her pain. Turtle is both everything (his absolute darling) and nothing (“kibble”) to Martin. Its only as others—a new girl named Cayenne and a boy named Jacob—enter Turtle’s world that the rot becomes obvious. Turtle struggles to escape—bound to her father by more than the physical isolation and difficulty of survival without him—until it becomes clear it is the only option to keep both Jacob and Cayenne safe.

I should never have finished this book. It might be unfair to say so…but I’m blaming this book for the slump I hit in the beginning of November and only managed to come out of a few weeks ago.   Suffice to say, I hated this book. It had all the hallmarks of a book I would love—complicated (to the extreme) families, a literary style, strong female protagonist, and (since I’m a snob) buzz from critics. And yet, in execution, this book not only fell flat for me, it dug a gigantic hole, fell into it, and dragged my reading life down with it. I finished it only so that I could review it—not sure I will make this mistake again since it had a larger impact on my reading generally that I anticipated.

My largest complaints with the book are two-fold: it was unnecessarily graphic and the word “cunt” was overused in the extreme. I don’t think I’m spoiling the book if I say that My Absolute Darling centers around a father-daughter relationship where the father has replaced his wife with his daughter. There are graphic descriptions of rape of 8th and 9th grade Turtle, along with graphic descriptions of Turtle reaching orgasm with her dad—this is all she’s known and her own body both obeys and betrays her in turns throughout the book. My issue here is that the descriptions go so far into these events that the descriptions of sex become pornographic and over the top. Tallent is showing off that he isn’t afraid to go there and can write these scenes. A better writer could still have made me hate Martin, could even have described some of the rape scenes and made the point about Turtle’s body, without the gratuitous showing off.

As to the c-word, Turtle has internalized Martin’s extreme misogyny—as evidenced by the reader’s view of her internal monologue, where every female Turtle encounters (and even Turtle herself) are “stupid cunts.” At some point, using over 100 c-words to describe women has gone so far past making Tallent’s point as to become, again, evidence of Tallent trying too hard. From his short biography at the back of the book, Tallent appears to have grown up rather liberally, raised by two moms, so this overabundance of the c-word seems less likely to be a product of Tallent’s own secret feelings and rather a symptom of Tallent perhaps not having spent time with any actual misogynists and, instead assuming they use the word “cunt” in every sentence. It felt cheap, it lost its shock value, and there were other, less obvious and more skillful ways to show Turtle has internalized her father’s deep hatred for women.

From looking at other reviews, these are the two main complaints. Some people aren’t bothered by these two elements and, as a result, My Absolute Darling has many five-star reviews on both Goodreads and Amazon. Indeed, if this is the kind of litfic you usually like and you can look past these two elements, this is a well-written book that you may really enjoy. I just couldn’t look past them.

Wild Coast
The setting in My Absolute Darling is so central to the book as to become here a character. The descriptions are lush and wild, reflecting back to Turtle and the reader the internal wildness Turtle feels and the barbaric way Martin is raising Turtle. I didn’t get as much out of these descriptions (they are legion) as I have in other books, though I suspect this may have been because my forays into the Pacific Northwest have been strictly limited to the streets of Seattle and the ferry to Bainbridge Island. Having no context or appreciation of either flora or fauna, the lengthy descriptions became a touch monotonous (I can’t tell an Aspen leaf from Maple, I just know I have to rake them all… so I’m not your girl here). For someone with any more appreciation of nature than I, the lush descriptions likely add to the overall feel of the book. For me, I know enough to know I didn’t know enough to fully appreciate these descriptions.

Outside of beautiful writing, the only elements that kept me going in My Absolute Darling were the female characters—Turtle and Anna. Turtle is resilience personified. I dislike what Tallent frequently did with her inner monologue embracing of misogyny, and she often seemed much older than fourteen (much older than even her forced life experiences would have made her). So she wasn’t perfect. But she was brave and she was fierce. Her internal struggles kept her from fully saving herself until it was clear the only way to save another was to save them both. She was sacrificial in unexpected ways and the last chapters of the book when she takes a stand are the reason I’m giving this book more than one star.  (That and it will be the rare book that would make me rate anything on the same level as Hillbilly Elegy). Even in her brokenness, I wanted to cheer for her. To encourage her to step out of her shell, even if that left her skin exposed and vulnerable.  Anna, as a minor character, is still well-fleshed out. You care for her as she cares for Turtle—pushing and fighting for Turtle, even as Turtle lashes out at her. For all the other flaws in the book, Tallent’s female characters—particularly these two—are beautifully thought out and presented with an internal integrity that makes them appealing, once you cut through the excessive usage of “cunt.”

Published: August 29, 2017 by Riverhead Books
Author: Gabriel Tallent
Date read: November 27, 2017
Rating: 2 ½ stars

Review: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

“I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.”

“No, it’s not, Holmesy. You pick your endings, and your beginnings. You get the pick the frame, you know? Maybe you don’t choose what’s in the picture, but you decide the frame.”

Turtles All the Way Down is the story of Aza Holmes, a sixteen year old Indianapolis high school student with a crazy best friend and a raging complex of anxiety disorders.  Throughout Turtles, Aza vacillates between being defined and driven by her anxiety, OCD, and grief for her departed father and  having moments of peace, during which she watches stars and eats Applebees with Davis Pickett, son of an eccentric billionaire who’s gone missing, and her best friend Daisy Ramirez, internet-famous author of Star Wars fanfic.  With a focus on Aza but eyes on Davis and Daisy as well, Turtles is ultimately a story of what it means to be resilient, even when everything — your family, your friends, life circumstances, and even your own brain chemistry– are fighting against you.

A John Green Book
I’ll admit. I’m one of those cliché people that loved The Fault in Our Stars (and to be further cliché—that’s the book and most definitely not the movie). I was so into it that I even finished listening to the audiobook on the way to a wedding and arrived a mess—red faced and sobbing before the wedding ever started. I was that girl who googled “An Imperial Affliction” and was disappointed to learn it was not a real book.

I then eagerly read Looking for Alaska and was disappointed and could never get into Paper Towns. My burning love for John Green ignited by TFIOS quickly fizzled and revealed itself as a mere flash-bang rather than an enduring fire. So it was with some hesitation that I even checked out Turtles All the Way Down from the library. And yet, Turtles is the closest I’ve found Green to come back to TFIOS—I’d even go so far as to say that Aza Holmes, in all her flawed glory, feels more authentic than Hazel and Augustus.

With that said, Turtles All the Way Down is still, 100% a John Green book. As Preston Yancey noted on an early episode of the What Should I Read Next podcast, YA should be vibrant and intense—the colors are bright and the feelings are feelings. The dialogue that happens in a John Green book is unlikely to happen anywhere else—it’s snappy and intelligent in ways that normal conversation is occasionally, but not all the time. Because of this, Turtles feels inauthentic in the best way—mental illness and grief aside, this is the world as it should be—the dialogue crackles, the air is crisp, and everything has meaning.

Aza’s Anxiety and OCD
Speaking of mental illness, Green himself apparently has OCD and anxiety so his writing these into the character of Aza feels authentic—an #ownvoices of a different type.

“And we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume that it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic paid captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with.”

Aza’s thought spirals could easily feel overdone and stereotypical but Green pulls them back from this edge. Aza, for all her self-loathing and flaws, remains likeable. She breaks your heart as you watch her hurting, wanting to pull her back from the prison her mind has made for her. (Wanting to pull her away from the damn hand sanitizer.) In my experience working with and being friends with people with mental illness, Turtles All the Way Down felt like an accurate portrayal of these disorders that didn’t stray into sensationalism or stereotype, nor is Aza ultimately defined by her mental illness.

Supporting Characters
Aza’s love interest in the book was sweet and conveniently rich, making Davis the perfect John Green character. He was wiser and kinder than I remember sixteen year old boys being—though, as an aside—my recent spate of YA novels has me wondering if everyone was really having this much sex in high school and I just didn’t know about it (arguably, likely) or if the feeling that all these YA characters are more grown up than I was at their age is partly a function of the earlier and earlier sexualization of American teenagers.

But I digress. Davis was lovely and just the right amount of wounded and imperfect to be the foil for Aza. The Aza-Davis relationship differed markedly from Hazel-Augustus and, despite his immense wealth, Davis felt like a more well-rounded character than Augustus. (Augustus felt too perfect, except for the part where he was…you know, dying). I appreciated how Green resolved the Aza-Davis relationship—it was believable rather than forced, when the easy temptation (especially in YA) is for the happily-ever-after.

Aza’s best friend Daisy was perhaps one of my favorite characters, though one I remain a bit conflicted about. She had many of the hallmarks of the manic-pixie-dream-girl (hence the conflict), though her character revealed the growth in Aza, not a boy. Daisy was Alaska, but far less wounded, better fleshed-out, and a writer of Chewbacca fanfic.  (Her life motto—“Break hearts, not promises.) She was snappy and funny, quirky in the way I wanted to be but certainly never was in high school.   Turtles is told from Aza’s viewpoint, so part of the reason Daisy kept the manic-pixie-dream-girl vibe for so long was, frankly, because that’s the role Aza relegated her to. Daisy busts this mold to an extent part of the way through the book, when she chews out Aza for being self-absorbed—so caught in her spirals that she doesn’t see the hardship Daisy has been living with. While I doubt Green would do it, I would love a Daisy novella about this same time period so that we see Daisy as she sees herself. I want more of her.

The Ending
I’m going to be intentionally vague here so I don’t think there needs to be a spoiler warning. I’m not exhaustively versed in his body of work, but the voice, perspective, and final words are not a choice that I think we’ve seen Green make as readers. I go back and forth on whether I found the way this choice provided closure comforting or if it would have been better to leave the book more open-ended.   There are many books that I want to know what happened after the book, though having gotten that to an extent here, maybe we are better off not always knowing. The grass is always Greener….(Sorry. But not really.)

If you find John Green or YA generally to be too much, this isn’t going to be the book for you. Green goes new places with Aza, but his voice and his writing remains true to what has made him the popular author he is. If you can handle the occasional YA and/or want to start a John Green book but don’t want to start with the one everyone talks about where the kids are all dying of cancer, then I absolutely recommend Turtles All the Way Down. The topic is serious but the dialogue makes it feel lighter and a thread of hope for Aza runs through the entire book. I listened on audio and found the voice to be a good match for the story—I may even use an Audible credit to purchase my own copy of the audiobook to re-listen.

Published: October 10, 2017 by Dutton Books (@duttonbooks)
Author: John Green (@johngreenwritesbooks)
Date read: December 23, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Hindsight 2017 // Foresight 2018

Cristian Escobar

Hindsight 2017

This year was an interesting one for me with books–I’d been a voracious reader as a child but after an abusive marriage and limiting spiritual culture I found myself a adrift the last few years.  It took me a while to come back to various aspects of myself.  A writing group called The Story Sisters/ The Story Unfolding saved me first, reminded me that I can be creative.  The year after that, I found my way back to handcrafts–sewing and quilting that I had enjoyed when I was younger.   2016 I got healthy– bootcamps, yoga, and OCRs that reminded me what it felt like to be strong.  2017 is the year I became a reader again and finally feel whole.

I started the year with ambitious goals of book challenges and, halfway through the year, was on target to complete both of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s challenges, the Book Riot challenge, and PopSugar.  But then I started reading (mostly) what I wanted to read and spent less time trying to find “a book in a genre you’ve never heard of” and “a book with a cat on the cover.”  I ultimately finished none of them.  I finished the year with 117 books–over my original Goodreads goal of 100 and three shy of the goal I modified it to in October.  And of course, this blog.  Starting and being consistent with this blog (until end-of-the-year craziness hit) reminded me what it was like to read a book not just to finish but with a critical eye.  I can more readily identify what will make me love a book, what’s just filler/fluff (“candy” books that I read when I need a brain break but can’t be the bulk of my reading diet), and what I hate in a book.  I even quit a book without finishing this year! Blogging also introduced me to the wonderful world of receiving ARC copies, which still feels fun and wonderful and like I’m finally being chosen first in gym.  I also joined and read books for two book clubs–the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club and the Diverse Books Club.

Out of the 117 books, 38 were written by people of color and 82 by women.   32 were audiobooks and 30 were nonfiction.  This is the first year I’ve kept track of these categories but I’m fairly confident in asserting that all of these are an improvement over the year before.  Staring the challenges and the book clubs made me read books I wouldn’t have otherwise.  While I’ve affirmed that graphic novels aren’t really my thing (except for March which should be everyone’s thing) nor are middle grade novels, I’ve enjoyed how the challenges and the book clubs made me branch out.  I’m not planning to do a reading challenge this year but I will continue to focus on ensuring I’m reading books from diverse authors and across genres.

I’m calling every bit of this a reading success.

Foresight 2018

The Unread Shelf (@theunreadshelf  #theunreadshelfproject on Instagram) is on a mission to finish the books she owns but hasn’t read.  I organized my library yesterday on LibraryThing and determined that (including Kindle), I have 480 unread books that I own.  I think we can agree that might be a tad overambitious a goal for me.  I do plan to be a little less driven by reading everything the critics are talking about and have my reading life mandated by my lengthy library hold list.   My loose goals are to read ten books a month — at least one by person of color, two or three picked by Modern Mrs. Darcy, two for Diverse Books Club (unless one is middle grade and then I give myself permission to skip if it isn’t for me), one book I own on Kindle, one book I own in hardcopy, a Book of the Month book (I’ve got some backlogged…shocker!), and a free choice.  I might slowly chip away at my books this way.

For January that looks like (tentatively): Seven Fallen Feathers, Deep Work, Daily Ritual, Secret Daughter, Forever or a Long Long Time, ARC of The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky (publishing 4/17/18), Station Eleven, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Priestdaddy, and Arcadia.  (Seven of these I already own!)  I may or may not try to breeze through Dear Fahrenheit 451 before it is due to the library in two days.  I’m giving myself permission to return the other three I had checked out without reading them.  I will no longer be dictated by my library hold whims…maybe.  hopefully.

I hope 2017 was good to you and that 2018 is even better.

May the road to the library rise up to meet you and fill you with joy.  May the wind be at your back to flutter the pages of your favorite book.  May the sun shine warm on your face and be the perfect light for reading.  May the rain fall soft and find you wrapped in a warm blanket with a book and cup of tea.  And until we meet again, may your god hold you in the palm of his or her hand, keeping you safe and well-read.

I hope 2018 is gentle to you, dear reader, and brings you everything for which you hope.

With love,