How We Fight For Our Lives and The Secret Adversary: 20 Books of Summer, Books #3 & #4

61386777268__a9b5ee01-86d3-421b-9d93-e6cd106df7e6How We Fight For Our Lives is a 190-page memoir by poet Saeed Jones that is electric and unflinching. I read it in one day because I found it so compelling. It’s a coming of age story about being a Black gay boy and later young man from Texas, as well as an incredibly moving account of his mother’s untimely death from heart failure. (Get those tissues ready, readers.) I had enjoyed Jones’s poetry before, which is what attracted me to this memoir. Also, I follow him on Twitter and find him insightful and entertaining. He’s a lyrical and vivid writer. He doesn’t shy away from the uglier parts of his journey, such as when a man he has a sexual encounter with attempts to beat him to death because he can’t deal with his own internalized homophobia. His account of his maternal grandmother’s fundamentalist religion, where at one point her preacher asks God to “put every ailment, every disease on (Saeed’s Buddhist mother) until she breaks under the weight of the Holy Spirit,” is harrowing and tragic, especially in light of his mother’s heart condition.

I made myself a promise: even if it meant becoming a stranger to my loved ones, even if it meant keeping secrets, I would have a life of my own.

Maybe she had been right about me after all. Worldly: “concerned with material values or ordinary life rather than a spiritual existence.” Worldly: “experienced and sophisticated.”

Of course I wanted to see the world, to experience its fullness. I wanted to be a real part of it, rather than the passing shadow I so often felt like. I wanted to devour the world.

I sat there ablaze, struggling to apprehend a new, darkly radiant sense of self. I felt dangerous, evil even.

If this feeling was what my grandmother meant, I wasn’t sure I would survive it after all.

But I couldn’t turn to her now – not anymore – to name whatever was having it’s way with me. So we drove on, an old woman and her grandson, alone together, making their way through one last gorgeous summer evening in Memphis.

A haunting, at times hard to read but so compelling that I couldn’t stop reading, memoir. (This was my first of five “off the list” picks for the 20 Books of Summer challenge.) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A 180-degree turn now to my fourth challenge pick, Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (1922.) Fiction Fan put this one on my radar and I’m grateful! It was very good fun, what I’d call a real romp. It features the terrific twosome of Tommy Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Crowley, childhood friends who reconnected during the First World War, when Tuppence was a hospital volunteer and Tommy was recovering from an injury. A few years later, both young and broke, they run into one another on the street and hatch a plan to run an advertisement and become adventurers for hire.

“Now I’ll read it straight through. ‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused.’ How would that strike you if you read it?”

“It would strike me as either being a hoax, or else written by a lunatic.”

They soon become embroiled in a caper involving some very sensitive and important documents that were passed to a young lady named Jane Finn on the ship Lusitania as it sank. The papers and the young woman are both missing, and it’s vital that the “good guys” find both before the “bad guys,” who are a shadowy international crime syndicate with Bolshevik leanings led by the mysterious and sinister Mr. Brown. They want to destabilize the government which is already under pressure from Labour unrest. Tommy and Tuppence get themselves into one tight spot after another and it’s very entertaining watching them use their wits to dig themselves out. This novel had a zippy pace and energy that I haven’t encountered in the Poirot and Marple mysteries I’ve read so far. I was completely dumbfounded by the twist ending, suspecting the entirely wrong person of malfeasance. Christie is once again the queen of misdirection. I will definitely read more of the Tommy and Tuppence mysteries! ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read either of these? Do they appeal? How is your 20 Books of Summer Challenge going, if you’re participating? I’m on my fifth book, which I hope to finish tonight.

Shirley Jackson and Muriel Spark (Mini-Reviews)

I’m trying to read more books from my own shelves (ongoing, a voracious reader’s constant struggle.) I still have some books checked out from the library from pre-quarantine times, but for some reason I don’t want to read them all yet! It’s like I’m saving them or something! 😀 So I tried two from the shelf by my bed and am pleased to report that they were both (mostly) enjoyable. And one is from my Classics Club list. Here are some quick thoughts.

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (Classics Club)

I LOVE Shirley Jackson. I’ve read almost all of her novels but still have short stories and nonfiction to go. This is a memoir/essay collection published in 1953, focusing on her growing family renting an old house in rural Vermont and the zany antics that ensue with young children, pets, and a house and car that constantly need repairs. This is decidedly not like the Shirley Jackson you may know from The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s an interesting look into daily life in a rural town in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And of course at that time, women were primary caregivers and housekeepers in most families. Even knowing that, I still bristled at the lack of a father/husband figure in the memoir. I haven’t read a biography of Jackson yet, but I’ve heard that things weren’t great at home with her husband. So I guess it fits that he’s such a non-entity. I felt sorry for Shirley dealing with the very active, precocious children (although they are cute and funny) and all the household things breaking down, and she mentions being out of money a lot. I was mad at her husband for not even being a good “breadwinner,” which is the very least you’d expect a traditional 1950’s husband to be! And all the while she is writing amazing, subversive, creepy fiction somehow! Overall I enjoyed it enough, but my annoyance probably colored my impression more than some readers. A quick scan of Goodreads reviews show me that most readers found this very funny. I would call it “amusing.” I’m not sure if I’ll read Raising Demons, which is her other domestic memoir. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

This is my first novel by Muriel Spark but it definitely won’t be my last. I’ve read about her work for a while now from many other bloggers and picked up a copy of her 1988 novel A Far Cry From Kensington at a local used book store for $.75. What a bargain. What a quirky book! It’s kind of hard to summarize and felt expansive for its slim 187 pages. Set in London in the 1950s, it focuses on the residents of a boarding house and reads almost like a mystery. Our narrator, Mrs. Hawkins, is a 28 year-old war widow who works in publishing and is the kind of woman others find capable and helpful. Looking back on this time, she attributed it to her size:

Milly, like everyone else in the house or in my office, never used my first name. Although I was a young woman of twenty-eight I was generally known as Mrs. Hawkins. There was something about me, Mrs. Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.

Here is the only thing about the book I wasn’t comfortable with, this intense focus on size as the defining characteristic of Mrs. Hawkins. She is a funny character, always dispensing free advice, and not afraid to tell it like it is with dreadful people (as in her nemesis, pushy, would-be writer Hector Bartlett.) But there was an awful lot of fat phobia on display here in Spark’s writing, and it didn’t sit right with me. As the story continues Mrs. Hawkins decides to become thin (by eating half portions of everything) and it completely changes her life. A tired old trope to be sure. Thankfully, there is a riveting story line to go along with all this diet talk. One of Mrs. Hawkins’ fellow boarders, a Polish refugee and seamstress named Wanda, is receiving mysterious, threatening, anonymous letters and is terrified. And the publisher for which Mrs. Hawkins works is engaging in illegal activities as well. I did enjoy this tremendously despite the diet stuff, which is a testament to Spark’s storytelling. I have another of her books on my shelf to read, the one for which she may be best known, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read either of these, or anything else by these authors?

Reading Roundup 4/10/20

Hey friends. How’s it going? This week has been the one so far where I’ve questioned what day is it the most often. What are days? 😉 I hope you’re safe and staying well. I make a daily To Do list which helps me feel sort of productive, because I can’t seem to let go of the notion that I need to be productive to feel good. My standards of productivity are a little different from normal, though: yoga, meditation, laundry, calling my parents, supervising my son’s optional academic work, little cleaning projects – those are my To Dos.

This week I was able to do some actual work for the library, which felt really good. I submitted two videos for our Facebook page, specifically for children. One was with my son, where he helped me do two fingerplays, and the other was me reading Mo Willems’s The Pigeon Wants a Puppy. I don’t know if they’ll use them but it felt good to use my brain in an official capacity. I miss my job. I miss my library patrons. I don’t know when we’ll get back to work at the library. So many “I don’t knows.”

Oh well. We keep going, don’t we? There are books to be read, after all! Thank God for those. This week I finished two great books, began two more, and acquired one from my local independent bookstore through the mail. I’m going to buy one book from them a month while we are all social distancing. I hope all the indie bookstores make it!

RECENTLY FINISHED:

Persuasion by Jane Austen (owned paperback)

I figured out, using Goodreads and my old book journal, that this was my FOURTH time reading Persuasion. I had no idea! I would have bet money it was three. My book journal says I read it in 2008 and that it was a reread, so I must have read it sometime before I began the book journal, which was 2001. I guess I read it in high school or college then. It’s funny that I can’t remember. A voracious reader’s lot in life, I guess. Anyway, what a perfect choice for this unsettling time. I was struck this time by his funny it was, how ridiculously vain and superficial Anne’s father and sister’s were. How awfully they treat Anne! And still, she is so gracious and patient. A thoroughly entertaining, comforting, romantic read.

The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates (library hardback)

This was lovely. A short, lyrical memoir about growing up in West Baltimore in the 1980’s and 1990’s (he was born in 1975) and also about his father, a force of nature, an ex-Black Panther, a learned man who, while sometimes domineering, was desperately trying to shepherd his children successfully through the perils of racism, gangs, and the crack cocaine era to successful adulthood.

All our friends were fatherless, and Dad was some sort of blessing, but he made it hard to feel that way. He was a practicing fascist, mandating books and banning religion. Once he caught Big Bill praying at the kitchen table and ordered him to stop—

“You want to pray, pray to me. I put food on this table.”

Ta-Nehisi was a dreamy child, a pacifist, a fan of fantasy and science fiction, and it sounded like he might have experienced attention deficit disorder from the way he described how he acted in a classroom setting. But everyone knew he was smart, and the expectation of reaching his potential was ever present. He also had to learn how to be tough and fight other kids when necessary, lessons he learned from his revered older brother Big Bill. I really enjoyed reading about the rap music of the 1980s and how it became an avenue of self expression for Coates, his brother, and friends, and I loved reading about how Coates’s dad ran a printing press in his house, finding and reprinting forgotten texts by and about Africans and African American writers. His children may have tried to resist the Consciousness his father was trying to impart but they ultimately absorbed the Knowledge anyway, something many of us can relate to in our own childhoods. This was a very good memoir. I recommend it.

CURRENTLY READING:

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (my April Classics Club pick – owned paperback)

Untamed by Glennon Doyle (memoir/feminism/self-help – library hardback)

RECENTLY ACQUIRED:

img_5571How to Be An Antiracist by Ibrahim X. Kendi (National Book Award-Winning author of Stamped From the Beginning, which I haven’t yet read, but want to.)

What have y’all been reading lately? Have you purchased anything recently? Or do you have a good television show to recommend instead? I’d love to hear from you about what you’ve been doing or reading this week. And Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate.

BRL Best Books of 2019

Here they are – my favorite books of 2019 (note: I read a lot of backlist titles so they’re not all published this year.) Overall I seemed to have less 5-star reads this year than last year, but plenty of 4-star reads. Let’s get to it (in no particular order:)

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008.) Strout has emerged as one of my favorite writers. I’d been meaning to read this for years and I’m so glad I did. Gut-wrenchingly beautiful writing.

The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner (2019.) I haven’t written a lot about this but this has been a year of positive changes for me in terms of my body image, weight, health, all that stuff. This is the book that got the ball rolling for me, and it’s funny, smart, relatable, engaging. I love the author’s Instagram feed as well. She’s a hoot. If you’re interested in Health at Every Size or have issues with food and exercise I highly recommend this book.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths (2019.) Smart, atmospheric modern-day Gothic mystery. Loved it!

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951.) Brilliant, suspenseful, masterful novel with a heck of an ending. Who exactly was the manipulator in this novel? I’d read this again in a heartbeat.

March:Book Three by John Lewis (2016.) The last in a graphic memoir set that just blew me away. I feel like I learned more about the Civil Rights movement in 1960’s America from this three-volume set than I did in all my history classes. The artwork provides a visceral wallop that drives home how violent and dangerous the struggle for rights was. This set also made me realize what a hero Representative John Lewis is.

The Nickel Boys by a Colson Whitehead (2019.) I thought Whitehead’s last book, The Underground Railroad, was a masterpiece, but he did it again with his next book! In spare prose he focuses on two teenaged black boys in Florida in the 1960’s. They become friends at a reform school for “delinquent ” youth, mostly black kids who were petty criminals or just unwanted kids. He could have wallowed in the horror these boys faced but he didn’t, and I’m grateful. He didn’t waste one word in depicting the injustice and harsh circumstances these young men faced, but instead shined a light onto what was a real situation for hundreds of boys in a real life school like this in Florida. Very moving without being manipulative.

The Lager Queen by J. Ryan Stradal (2019.) This book just went straight to my heart. I don’t even like beer.

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain (2019.) I’m grateful that I read this because it’s given my family our Tech-Free Sunday time, where we put down our devices and just hang out with one another. We look forward to this time, even my video-game-obsessed 8 year-old. A very good, very short book about the benefits of unplugging one day a week.

In the Woods by Tana French (2008.) So atmospheric! So intricate and haunting. I got lost in this book. I don’t know why it took me so long to try French.

Over the Top by Jonathan Van Ness (2019.) A very brave memoir from a very open and brave man. So good!

A18h+5O2G3LHonorable Mention: Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore (2019.) Historical romance that’s super-smart and well-written. Didn’t tempt me to roll my eyes even once. Great characters and plot, and just enough steaminess to be fun but not annoying. Can’t wait to read her next one.

I like my range of styles here – two self-help books, a contemporary fiction, two mysteries, a graphic memoir and a regular memoir, two literary fiction titles, a classic, and a romance! No one can accuse me of a narrow reading life. I hope your 2019 reading lives were big and wide and full of five-star reads.

Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness

I may have mentioned before that I love the Netflix series Queer Eye. LOVE IT. It’s a balm for the weary 21st-century soul. Five adorable, kind gay men meet a person who is stuck somehow in their life… mentally, physically, emotionally, sometimes all three… and, with great compassion, help them break out of their funk and start to go after their dreams again. It’s just lovely and practically every episode makes me cry happy tears. It’s hard to pick a “favorite “of the Fab Five, but if I had to it would be Jonathan Van Ness. He is the hair and skin “expert” but like all the guys he has many more layers.img_4998

Little did I know just how many layers he has until I read his new memoir, Over the Top. Wow. He really lays his life out there for the reader and I find it so brave to be that vulnerable.

When people had asked me whether I was ready for my life to change, I don’t think I really understood what they meant. It wasn’t just that strangers would know who I was. It was this other thing that started to happen to me: when I looked in their eyes, sometimes, there was a little voice in my head wondering, Would you still be so excited to meet me if you really knew who I was? If you knew all the things I’d done? If you could see all my parts?

Over the course of the memoir we see how childhood sexual abuse and growing up gay in a small, conservative Midwestern town affected his life. Despite a loving, pretty accepting family, they didn’t seem to have the emotional tools to deal effectively or help Jonathan deal effectively with his own pain and anxiety. Young Jonathan turned to food and imagined skating and gymnastics routines to escape his complicated emotions.

From the outside, my carpet-skating routines were not actually quite as major as they felt inside my head, but they gave me something so important. Choreographing routines on my own in the basement for hours on end gave my imagination a place to roam free. Nobody was there to tell me how to move my body or what music was right for me to listen to. I could daydream about how if I nailed this short program I’d be heading into the long program in second place and could lock down my spot on the Olympic team. Being able to entertain yourself is a valuable skill, especially if you’re in a prolonged dark space. (For me, that was Quincy.) Maybe that’s dramatic, and maybe I’m too sensitive, but there wasn’t much naturally occurring joy in that era for me, so it was up to me to make my own. Especially being such a soft, round kid – who wanted to be a fit, sporty one – dancing made me feel graceful. It gave me a freedom I didn’t have anywhere else.

Later, Jonathan would develop an addiction to drugs that proved very hard to kick, as well as a sexual addiction. He delves into some very dark times in his life with amazing honesty, including the period of his life that he was a male prostitute. Reading this I felt amazed that he’s still alive considering all the risky and dangerous positions he put himself in. It’s a real testament to his family and to his spirit that he persisted and fought for a better life for himself.

When you’re a survivor of abuse, living in chaos can be the most upsetting yet comforting thing in the word. It was for me.

I loved reading about how he got into the hair business and started turning his life around. The section where he worked at a very posh, high-pressure salon in L.A. was fascinating. It sounds like a hellish, toxic environment that I’d never want to work in but he came away with so many skills and a new confidence in his abilities.

His step-father’s illness and death, his own HIV diagnosis, his eventual introduction into show business and landing the part on Queer Eye, they’re all covered. This is a very open, brave book. He showed that he’s not just the sunny, ultra-positive person he often seems on the show. Those are real parts of him but also there is real trauma and messiness there too.

Over the years I’ve heard horror stories of celebrities being dicks to nice people, and I always thought that was horrifying – why wouldn’t you be nice to your fans? What did you think you were getting into? But what I’ve realized is that you can’t be the same version of yourself at all times. Maybe your kidney function test results came back weird, so you have to go back to the doctor and you’re worried, but you can’t explain that to the fan who just wants a selfie. Maybe you just held your thirteen-year-old cat in your arms as the took their last breath, but the group of people wanting a picture don’t care – they just want their bubbly JVN, and they want him right now. It’s been the honor of a lifetime to be held to this ideal, but what I really want to tell the people asking for photos is: I’m literally just as lost as you. And I’m just as much of a perfectly imperfect mess. People are layered- good and bad, filled with joy and sorrow. The key is being grounded in the relationship you have with yourself. Basing my worth in how I treat myself despite how others treat me has been the key to my success – and I want that for you too.

I really do feel like this book will help people. People with addiction and circumstances similar to Jonathan’s and people who just have your average insecurities and anxieties. It’s a fast read, engaging and at times funny with lots of Jonathan’s trademark phrases he uses (ferosh for ferocious, etc.) I loved this book. It’s a must-read if you’re a fan of the show and even if you’re not, it’s an entertaining and moving read. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

In Mississippi that summer we suffered more than 1000 arrests, 80 beatings, 35 shootings, 35 church burnings, and 30 bombings. Doctors who evaluated volunteers returning home from Freedom Summer describes the symptoms of the emotional and physical toll as “battle fatigue,” marking a “crisis in the  lives of those youths who experience them.”

March: Book 3 is a marvel. I read Books 1 and 2 back in 2016 (review of Book 2 here) and loved them. They gave me a window into what it was like to put your body and life on the line for the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s, how horrible the violence and hatred that met these young people was, and also gave me a new respect for what a true hero Representative John Lewis is.  I didn’t read the concluding volume when it came out because demand was high at my library and there were few copies. And then it got lost in the shuffle – you know how that goes. I’m so glad I chose to finally finish the series. Book 3 is another enlightening, moving gem, focusing specifically on the push for African Americans’ right to vote in the South, ultimately leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Opening with the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls, the graphic memoir next explores the ways in which Southern whites prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote, through intimidation, literacy tests, threats to their jobs and homes, or any other whim that the local Registrar of Voters could come up with. Lewis’s work as leader of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) along with others like Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses, coordinating marches, sit-ins, and protests across the Deep South to enforce voting rights was met at every turn with violence, intimidation, and police brutality.

The graphic novel format is the perfect medium to tell this story because it makes the violence and hatred feel so visceral and terrifying. Some brave young activists, white and black alike, were killed in the line of duty and their killers were never brought to justice. I hope this series is taught in high schools across America – until we truly know and confront our past we can’t hope to make progress against the deep strain of racism still alive and well in our country. I wish I had read something like this when I was in school so that I would have been aware of what the Civil Rights heroes were up against. These events seem far away sometimes, but my mother was a little girl when all of this occurred – it really wasn’t that long ago. Some people in power today were young people growing up steeped in the segregated culture of hate and violence.

The brutal, televised beatings of non-violent protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday,” John Lewis included, forced the rest of America to finally look at the brutality enforced by state and local governments in the South.  March portrays President Lyndon Johnson as a sympathetic, if at times halting and measured, ally of the cause. The political maneuverings of 1963-1965 were interesting but not as compelling as the stories of the activists fighting for justice on the streets. When we finally get to the end of the volume, back in the 2009 inauguration of President Obama, it feels bittersweet, knowing how many people who worked for equality didn’t make it to see that great day.

In short, this series is phenomenal and I highly recommend it, even if you don’t ever read graphic novels or graphic memoirs. What a gift this series is.

Have you read this series? What other histories, biographies, or memoirs of Civil Rights heroes would you recommend?

Reading Round-up and The CC Spin Result

Hello friends, I hope you’ve had a good week! It’s time to do a little catching up and finally tell you what my Classics Club Spin result was.

Recently Finished Reading:

Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin.

5519730This is the third book in the Inspector Rebus series. In this one the Inspector gets called down to London (from his home base of Edinburgh) to assist on a serial killer case, chasing a suspect nicknamed “The Wolfman.” There’s a lot about the psychology of serial killers here, and I liked how open-ended the case was right until the very end. Rankin highlights the tension between the English detectives and our Scottish protagonist. He’s not exactly welcomed with open arms. There’s a subplot about Rebus’s family, his daughter and ex-wife who live in London, and how he’s not exactly been the most present father. And another cringe-worthy romantic relationship – my least favorite element of these books so far. Rebus is kind of a screw-up in that area. I am not sure that I really like John Rebus, but he’s interesting and funny and complex and I like reading *about* him. And I’m a softie for a maverick detective. I eagerly anticipate getting to read the next installment.

Currently Reading:

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-up by John Carreyrou.

37976541I’m listening to the audio book of this from my library, and it’s BANANAS. I can’t even begin to comprehend the amount of money poured into this half-assed, shady, unethical operation. The hubris, megalomania, and privilege of Theranos’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes is mind-boggling. It’s a highly entertaining and eye-opening read. I’m ignoring my usual podcasts in favor of this book. I definitely recommend it. The narrator is nothing special, but the book is just so… wow. One heck of a story here. I’m about half way through.

Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope by Karamo Brown.

43253544I’m OBSESSED with Netflix’s Queer Eye and all the guys. They are just the most joyful and kind-hearted people and their show makes me happy. So of course I’m going to read any memoir that one of them writes. (And I do like to read celebrity autobiographies.) Karamo is laying it all out there. I’m halfway through this and he’s just discussed his addiction to cocaine that nearly killed him, an interesting take on colorism and gender, and his love for his church and how he won’t let anyone cherry-pick Bible verses to denigrate who he is. He comes across just as confidently as he does on the show, and I like how he is baring all of his past mistakes honestly. I recommend this if you’re a fan of the show.

CC Spin Result:

The number chosen in Monday’s spin was 19, which means I’ll be reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I’m really excited to finally read this and I own a copy already which is nice. Here is the Goodreads blurb:51MDxGgSUmL

The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.

Have you read this?

What have you recently finished?

Excellent Nonfiction to End the Year

So far in 2018, of the 114 books I’ve read (which DOES include the chapter books I read with my son at bedtime!) only 20 have been nonfiction. This is pretty representative of my reading habits. I am interested in nonfiction, especially memoirs, but nonfiction takes me longer to read than fiction, which makes me hesitant to pick it up. I keep feeling all those books on my TBR list looking over my shoulder as I take my time with a nonfiction book – on average, I’d say it takes me a good week longer to read one than it does a novel. This is all to say that it surprises me that my last three reads (one of which I’m currently reading) are all five star nonfiction reads, and they’re all published this year.

51LSDwIJIUL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_First up, The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton. I LOVED this book. Mr. Hinton spent 30 years on death row in Alabama for crimes he didn’t commit. The police and prosecution shamefully railroaded him in a sham of a trial and his court-appointed lawyer was disinterested at best. He only came up on the radar of the police because of an old grudge by a man who’d been interested in someone Hinton had dated. On Death Row, initially angry and with a heart full of vengeance at the injustice of the world and his situation, Hinton had an epiphany while hearing another man on the block crying in the night.

I didn’t know his story or what he had done or anything about him that made him different from me – hell, I didn’t know if he was black or white. But on the row, I realized, it didn’t matter. When you are trying to survive, the superficial things don’t matter. When you are hanging at the end of your rope, does it really matter what color the hand is that reached up to help you? What I knew was that he loved his mother just like I loved my mother. I could understand his pain.

… I realized the State of Alabama could steal my future and my freedom, but they couldn’t steal my soul or my humanity. 

This book not only taught me about the power of forgiveness and the indomitable human spirit, it also made me question my thoughts on the death penalty. To Hinton, every man on death row with him was a child of God, and was not only the worst thing he ever did (or didn’t do, as his case showed.) He showed up for every man he watched walk past him on the way to the electric chair over the years by banging the bars of his cell and yelling, as did the other men in the block. It was a way to show them that in their darkest moment they weren’t alone, no matter what horrible action or circumstances led them there.

They called all of us monsters. But I didn’t know any monsters on the row. I knew guys named Larry and Henry and Victor and Jesse. I knew Vernon and Willie and Jimmy. Not monsters. Guys with names who didn’t have mothers who loved them or anyone who had ever shown them a kindness that was even close to love. Guys who were born broken or had been broken by life. Guys who had been abused as children and had heir minds and hearts warped by cruelty and violence and isolation long before they ever stood in front of a judge and jury.

There are so many parts of this book I made notes on, so many quotable passages. The story of his legal battle to freedom takes many twists and turns and kept me turning the pages just as his struggle to remain sane and humane on death row did. Eventually he ends up being represented by Bryan Stevenson, who wrote the bestseller Just Mercy and heads the Equal Justice Initiative. While in prison, Hinton forms a book club as a way to gain some mental freedom for himself and his fellow inmates. Funnily enough, the first book they choose is James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is my current Classics Club Spin pick! I just loved this book and I feel like it deserves a wide audience. If you have any desire to read books about social justice issues, the persistence of the human spirit, or just a page-turning memoir, please give this one a try.

51wZq9rEc8L._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_My next five-star nonfiction read was Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. This is a far-reaching book, part true crime, part memoir, part history, part exploration of the role of the public library in today’s society. It was fascinating! Starting from the event of the largest library fire in the history of the United States, the devastating 1986 fire at Los Angeles’s Central Library, Orlean branches off from there to discuss her own history with public libraries and the special connection to her mother who always brought her there growing up. She investigates whether or not the main suspect in the fire, Harry Peak, actually started it. (I admit that by the end of the book, I couldn’t decide!) She delves into the formation and colorful history of the L.A. library system, and follows current department heads today to see how the library is impacting the community right now. All these strands are braided together beautifully. Anyone who cares the least little bit about public libraries should read this.

In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of  life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.

9781524763138_p0_v6_s550x406And last, I’m currently reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and I’m confident it will also earn five stars from me. Not surprisingly, she’s a beautiful writer. I’m about 130 pages in, or a third of the book. She’s dating Barack and they’re starting to realize just how serious the relationship is. I loved reading about her childhood growing up on the South Side of Chicago, her steady, loving parents and her close relationship with her older brother. I loved reading about her shy, buttoned down personality and her growing sense of confidence in herself. One tidbit I found fascinating is that in her kindergarten class picture, it’s about 50-50 black and white kids, but by fifth grade, it’s all black kids. She grew up right in the heart of the “white flight” of the 1960’s. I have enjoyed her reflections on her extended family and their journeys from the South to Chicago during the Great Migration. I’ve also liked getting to know our former president a little better, her first impressions of him and what drew them together. I admire her vulnerability and openness in this memoir and can’t wait to read more.

What was your favorite nonfiction book of 2018? 

 

West With The Night by Beryl Markham (Classics Club Spin #18)

81yAt9aNOELI feel almost guilty not liking Beryl Markham’s West With The Night more. Almost all of the Goodreads reviews on the first page are glowing 4 and 5-star reviews and many blogger friends recommended it highly. I had high hopes for this memoir published in 1942, but it took me a week to get only halfway through its 300 pages. I then had to put it down for another week and read something else that held my attention more (a mystery novel – are you surprised?) When I picked it up again I felt refreshed and I was able to finish it in a day. I guess this is what you’d call a real mixed bag?

What I Liked:

The writing. Mostly. The middle section about horse racing nearly killed me. But everything else was good. The writing has a very cinematic, romantic quality to it.

As the (impala/zebra/wildebeest) herd moved it became a carpet of rust-brown and grey and dull red. It was not like a herd of cattle or of sheep, because it was wild, and it carried with it the stamp of wilderness and the freedom of a land still more a possession of Nature than of men. To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told – that the world once lives and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.

Markham led a most unconventional life especially for the time. She was born in England but raised by her father in Kenya (her mother left the family when Markham was little.) Markham hunted and tracked and camped and essentially was given the run of the place. There’s a riveting story of helping birth a foal when she was a teenager. She was a licensed racehorse trainer at the age of 18. She then learned to fly an airplane and in 1936 became the first woman to fly over the Atlantic Ocean non-stop, solo, from east to west. beryl-markham

Being alone in an aeroplane for even so short a time as a night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own  hands in semi-darkness, nothing to contemplate but the size of your small courage, nothing to wonder about but the belief, faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind – such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger.

What I Didn’t Like:

I wanted more. I wanted to know Ms. Markham better – I felt there was a cool reserve coming off of her, as if there was a barrier between she and I. As polished as the writing was it felt distant. I knew her feelings about maps and planes and horses and the Kenyan men who worked for her father and treated her with the utmost respect but I didn’t get her feelings about her father or any of her lovers or what it felt like not to have a mother growing up. I didn’t get any hint of what it was like as a woman in a society made almost totally of men. This memoir contained many stories about her adventures and not much about her inner life at all.

Also, Book Three, about the racehorses…I just wish I had skipped that section. I’d read one or two pages and fall asleep. It took me a week to drum up the desire to pick the book back up. And I’m glad I did, because it got better. Although the elephant hunting chapters were tough to read from a modern-day perspective. And then there’s that whole colonizer’s perspective of the different ethnic groups of Kenyans. On the whole she is more respectful than not, but some of her thoughts on the inherent characteristics of certain tribes made me uncomfortable. I realize this was written a long time ago, so I take that into account.

23995231Still, I am glad that I read this. I certainly would like to know more about Ms. Markham and would possibly read a biography on her in the future. I also want to read the historical fiction version of her life by Paula McLain called Circling the Sun. As Markham was involved in a love triangle with Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) I would like to read Out of Africa. There is a lot here still to discover and this memoir only made me more curious.

Rebecca (Bookish Beck) was kind enough to ask me if I wanted to do a buddy read for this book, and I discovered that it’s a tricky thing to do. People read at different paces and you don’t want to spoil anything. Plus I’m so darn moody with my reading. But I thank her for reading this with me – we checked in on Twitter and it was neat to know that someone across the ocean was also reading this classic memoir. I would still recommend this book if you are the sort of reader who enjoys stories of adventure or if you’re interested in early 20th century Kenya. Markham’s descriptions of the natural world and flying are especially compelling and well drawn. Just don’t expect too much personal reflection or emotion.

(This is the 6th book I’ve read from my Classics Club list.)

Mini-Reviews – The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui and Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

My book group’s pick for July was Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir.  It was an excellent choice both for reading and discussion. Bui recounts her parents’ personal histories growing up in Vietnam before the war as well as the story of their harrowing escape (she was a toddler and her mother was heavily pregnant) from the country after the fall of Saigon and eventual resettlement in America. She weaves in her own story of becoming a mother for the first time, all the anxiety and doubt about being responsible for a new life and wondering if her family’s tragic history will be a burden to her son. It is a marvelous exploration of trying to relate to one’s parents, trying to understand their own pain while trying to forgive them for the mistakes they made along the way as parents. Plus, it’s an excellent chronicle of the lead-up to the Vietnam War, the complexities of the situation and what it was like to live there. I feel like I learned a lot reading this and it certainly moved my heart. The artwork is amazing, only shades of white, black, and an orange-brown color that contains multitudes.

I highly recommend this if you are interested in graphic memoirs, Vietnam history, or moving stories of family dynamics and immigration. (4 Stars.)

(This is the 14th book of my 20 Books of Summer list.)

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal was a pleasant surprise for me. It had 23398625been on my Goodreads TBR list for quite some time, mainly because I had read good things about it. Filling one of my “reader’s choice” slots for 20 Books of Summer, this book was the perfect choice for pleasurable summer reading. It’s essentially a book of linked short stories, all orbiting around the character of Eva Thorvald is some way, from her birth and childhood to her adulthood as a famous chef in Minnesota. Foodies will certainly find a lot to love here, with enticing food writing, but for me the real pull was the way Stradal wrote about people and relationships, with gentle humor and heartfelt insight. This was a book that I didn’t want to put down. I grabbed it at every spare moment, and some moments that weren’t spare at all, ignoring my family in order to read a few more pages. For pure enjoyment of reading I rated it 5 Stars.

(This is the 15th book of my 20 Books of Summer list.)