BRL Best Books of 2018

Some of you may remember that I keep a paper book journal in addition to my Goodreads account for book tracking. When I read a book that particularly moves me I give it a star in my paper journal, which equals a five-star rating on Goodreads. As I looked over my 2018 reading I realized that TWENTY books had rated a star this year! So I had some choices to make as it came time to make my Top Ten List for the year. Without further ado, here are my favorite books of 2018. (Note: I’m a huge backlist reader so not all of these books were published this year.)

In no particular order:

  • The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Abrams (2016). This was a life-affirming, uplifting audio book that truly inspired me. I learned a lot about the friendship between the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu, and how each man approaches life’s challenges with grace and equanimity.
  • How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston (1974.) Set in Ireland in WWI, this beautifully written novella explores the growing friendship between a young member of the landed gentry and one of the workers on his family’s estate as they both set off to fight in the war. Truly moving with a devastating ending.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018.) Just a gorgeous, emotionally probing book about two people who fell in love with the best of intentions – and then life throws them a horrific curveball that reverberates for years. It’s a beautifully told relationship story with well-drawn, believable characters. Unforgettable.
  • Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (2015.) What a surprise! A book that had been on my TBR list for a few years and I’m so glad I decided to read it. It was one of those absorbing reads that made me want to ignore my family for a few days. Linked short stories, all centering in some way around the character of Eva, a young woman in Minnesota with a passion and a gift for cooking. Foodies will love it, but anyone who just wants a good story will enjoy it too.
  • Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016.) The BEST AUDIO BOOK I’VE EVER LISTENED TO. Funny, surprising, illuminating, moving. I learned so much about South African history through this story of Noah’s unlikely existence. I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s one I would read (or listen to) again for sure.
  • Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956.) This novel is exquisitely written and emotionally tough. A portrait of a man utterly in denial about who he truly is. David, a young, rootless, white American living in Paris in the 1950’s, has a fiancee he’s running away from when he meets a handsome Italian waiter and falls in love. His denial sets off a tragic chain of events for everyone involved. Baldwin is a genius! I intend to read everything he’s written.
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018.) I recently wrote about this one, but it’s just a gem of a nonfiction book, about the importance of libraries today and Orlean’s emotional connection to them through her late mother, as well as a gripping true-crime account of the devastating library fire in L.A.’s Central Library in 1986. Lots going on here, but Orlean weaves all the strands together beautifully.
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017.) That rare super-hyped novel that is worthy of all the praise. What starts off as a quirky portrait of a lonely young woman who doesn’t connect well with other human beings becomes a moving and warm-hearted novel about unexpected connections and the capacity for change and growth. A lovely book that I will definitely read again someday.
  • Brother by David Chariandy (2018, first published in Canada and the UK 2017.) Not one word wasted in this slim but powerful novel about two brothers growing up in a poor, multi-cultural part of Toronto in the 1980’s. There is tragedy here but there is also terrific beauty and great love, especially in the character of the boys’ Trinidadian immigrant mother, who works herself to the bone to provide for her sons and tried to give them a better life. I just adored this.
  • The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton (2018.) Another book I recently read and can’t stop talking about – thank you Oprah! Hinton’s ridiculous sham of a trial for crimes he didn’t commit will make you angry, and his emotional journey living on death row in Alabama for 30 years will move you, inspire you, and make you question your beliefs about the death penalty.

51mPEE0qUtL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Honorable Mention: Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (2017.)  Linked short stories, a companion piece to Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. Spare prose and heartbreaking, real characters in small town middle America. Strout is a hell of a writer.

 It’s been such a good reading year. Have you read any of the books on my list? Do any of these pique your interest?

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? 

 

Brother by David Chariandy

But during that first night in Mother’s birthplace, I remember feeling afraid, though of what I did not know. Something old and unburied in the darkness, something closer to us now than ever before. I remember lying awake with Francis and hearing for the first time the scream of a rooster, my brother’s hand pressed hard in mine. The sun still hadn’t risen, and I remember looking at Francis, who lay beside me very still with his eyes wide open. I remember searching for a clue about our situation in some slight movement of his ear, or of his jaw, or of that expressive space between his mouth and nose. And when he caught me looking at him, he swallowed and nodded.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said.

36672820Oh my goodness. This book. I don’t know that I’ve read a book that made me feel more in 177 short pages. David Chariandy’s Brother was highly recommended by three bloggers I trust, Anne @ I’ve Read This, Fiction Fan @ Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews, and Naomi @ Consumed by Ink (links to their reviews if you click their names.) They did not let me down. It’s a book that I could have read in a day or two but I deliberately drew my reading out longer because I wanted to savor the writing and really let the story sink in.

Set in Toronto, flashing back from present day to the 1980’s and 90’s, Brother is the story of Michael and his older, cooler brother Francis. Growing up in a part of town called Scarborough, home to immigrants from many nations, the brothers are smart but swimming against both the high expectations of their hard-working Trinidadian mother and the low expectations of their community. The specter of gang violence haunts their nightmares and impacts their waking hours too. Their father has disappeared and their mother works two or even three low-paying jobs but still doesn’t have enough money to fix a rotten tooth. But the boys find small ways to escape and experience peace through food, music, and through visits to a nearby park called The Rouge Valley.

When we were very young, we’d build forts and hideaways in the brush, using branches but also cardboard and broken piece of furniture occasionally dumped here. We’d race twigs in the creek, spot the little speckled fish swimming together in the blowing current, hunt for the other small lives that had managed to survive in the park unnoticed. The tracks in the mud of a muskrat or a raccoon or maybe a turtle…. One fall we piled the stuff of this land over our bodies like blankets. Coloured leaves and pine needles, branches and the barbed wire of thistles. Also plastic bags and foil drifting down with smashed drinking straws and rushes. Our faces were already the colour of earth.

This is a coming-of-age story as well as a story about grief and identity. The possibility of young love gently permeates the tale, lending the narrative a bit of needed lightness. There is not a word wasted in this book. I marveled at Chariandy’s craft in creating such a powerful story in so few pages. Small details, like a mother gently pinching her son’s earlobe “lightly between her thumb and finger as if it were a raindrop from a leaf” are the kinds of things that made me want to linger instead of racing through the pages.

There is tragedy here, and the reader knows this from pretty early on, so I was bracing myself while simultaneously enjoying the beautiful, searing writing. Yet even with the devastating pain of loss there is still a note of tender hope here, that lives can be patched back up to form something new. This is Chariandy’s first novel published in the United States, and his second novel overall (2007’s Soucayant is one I must somehow find a copy of.) I am so thrilled that I learned about Brother from my blogger friends, and I hope that you will give it a try if you haven’t yet read it. It’s one of my favorite books so far this year.

 

 

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.)

 

 

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (Classics Club #5)

I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room. I did not really stay there very long – we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer – but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea change there.

81IceqICE0LI’ve been putting off writing this review for weeks now because I feel intimidated, almost unqualified to write about this book. It was a five-star read for me, one that I feel like I could pick up again just a few weeks later and read all over again, losing myself in the quality of the lush prose and the haunting ideas and emotions. Giovanni’s Room is stunning, and even though I have only now read two of Baldwin’s books (this and The Fire Next Time) I have to put him among my favorite authors. I must read everything else he’s written. Published in 1956, this is a story of a man at war with himself, his inner turmoil spilling over and also scarring anyone who comes close enough to care about him.

David is a young white man in Paris in the 1950s, staying at a rented country house outside the city, reflecting on his life and recent events as the novel begins. He is melancholy and alone – his fiancée Hella has left him to return to America and someone named Giovanni (we don’t initially know his significance in David’s life) is “about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.”  He then recounts a long-buried sensual experience as a teenager with a male friend named Joey and the reader knows this is someone who is afraid to truly acknowledge his sexuality.

We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened; I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it. 

Later on in the first chapter David says, “I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me.”

And this sets the stage for the main action of the novel, where we find that David, broke817TxalnT7L and having proposed to Hella, waiting for her answer, (she has gone to Spain to travel and think about it) meets a young Italian waiter named Giovanni. He has been spending much of his time with people who were, “as Parisians put it, of le milieu, and while this milieu was certainly anxious enough to claim me, I was intent on proving, to them and to myself, that I was not of their company.” These older, wealthier gay men don’t seem to mind David’s condescension and continue to lend him money. The new waiter at the local bar causes a sensation among the regular patrons, but it is David who he ends up chatting with in sparkling and lightly flirtatious conversation, a fact which doesn’t escape the notice of everyone there. Jacques, one of the older men who seems much wiser than David in the ways of the heart, pointedly tells him, “Confusion is a luxury which only the very very young  can possibly afford and you are not that young anymore.”

I don’t want to go further and spoil anything else because this is a novel which deserves the designation “classic” and one that is so readable that modern readers will find a treasure trove of beautiful, philosophical lines to relish. As David and Giovanni become closer and Hella finally reenters the picture David is forced to make some hard choices about the path his life is going to take. No one is left unscathed by the outcome. As the reader already knows from the third page that Giovanni has done something that has caused him to be sentenced to death, it will come as no surprise that this novel is a sad one. Hella’s heartache when David finally opens up is also terribly moving. But as an exploration of the human heart and a man wrestling with his own shame this novel is a must-read.

(This book is also the 13th book from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

Five Sentence Reviews: Little Fires Everywhere and The Power

I just finished reading my 11th book (!) for 20 Books of Summer but I’m behind on my posts, so I thought I’d try a couple of short reviews.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

91twTG-CQ8LIntricate story, many layers of secrets, many points of view. Set in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio in the late 1990’s (and Ng really nails the sense of time and place.) I was completely absorbed in this story of unknown interior lives and two mothers with diametrically opposed ways of living, thinking, and raising children. This was better than Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You. I absolutely loved it. (5 Stars.)

Favorite quotation:

Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less… Now, as a teenager, Pearl’s caresses has become rare – a peck on the cheek, a one-armed, half-hearted hug – and all the more precious because of that. It was the way of things, Mia thought to herself, but how hard it was. The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

51PUiZ2CfqL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This was a real page-turner for about the first 100-150 pages. Super compelling premise: teenage girls (and later grown women) develop a bodily adaptation (a power) to shoot electricity out of their hands, upending gender norms and relations all over the world. It was a neat idea – what kind of power would women wield? In the end, it sort of lost focus and fizzled and got incredibly dark, violent, and depressing, and there were only two characters well enough developed to care anything about. Would probably be a good book group choice, though. (3 Stars.)

Favorite quotation:

Tunde interviews a woman in the crowd. She had been here for the protests three years earlier; yes, she had held up her banner and shouted and signed her petitions. “It was like being part of a wave of water,” she says. “A wave of spray from the ocean feels powerful, but it is only there for a moment, the sun dries the puddles and the water is gone. Then you feel maybe it never happened. That is how it was with us. The only wave that changes anything is a tsunami. You have to hear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you.”

Have you read either of these, or are they on your TBR? If you’re participating in 20 Books of Summer, how is it going?

(These are books 6 and 7 that I’ve written about from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.

31434883Oh my goodness, I loved this book. I had heard so much buzz about it that I didn’t know what to expect. When a book blows up like this one has it is sometimes a disappointment. Sometimes I avoid reading such a book in a perverse bit of book snobbery. If I had done so with Eleanor Oliphant, I would have missed out on one of my favorite books of the year so far, and it would have been a real shame.

This book is not what you think it is, even once you start digging into it. It starts off kind of quirky in tone, and you think maybe it’s lighter and fluffier than it turns out to be. It quickly becomes warm and wise, deeper and more life-affirming than I had anticipated. Eleanor is quite a character. She has constructed her life with precision to cut herself off from other humans as much as possible in today’s world and still hold a job. She holes up in her flat over the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka and drinks slowly to dull her pain until Monday morning when she gets up and goes to work again. She is desperately lonely, however, talking to her houseplant Polly (the only possession she had saved from her childhood.)

I talk to her sometimes, I’m not ashamed to admit it. When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.

But Eleanor is not pathetic. She is smart with a cutting wit and is a character that I was instantly drawn to. She doesn’t bother with the little societal niceties that make an office or most social interactions run smoothly. She doesn’t see the point, frankly. I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be on the autism spectrum or not, but in any case, she isn’t really like most people.

And we soon see why. Little hints here and there are dropped about her past. She’s has a trauma, social workers check in on her bi-annually, and she has weekly conversations with her “Mummy” which are truly awful. Mummy is horrible and cruel. Initially I wondered, why on earth does she even talk to her once a week? Well, we come to find out a lot about Mummy and Eleanor’s past. It’s horrific, and we can see why she so desperately wants to cut herself off from other human beings and numb her feelings with a slow drip of vodka.

But things change in Eleanor’s life – the new IT guy at work, Raymond, inserts himself into her life in an affable, friendly way, and when the two happen to witness an older man, Sammy, collapse in the middle of the street, they team up to help get him the medical attention he needs. She also develops a rather intense crush on a rock singer she sees when she wins an office raffle of tickets to a concert. She is convinced that she’s found the man for her. It’s the kind of crush I has when I was 12 or 13. As she starts stalking the singer in her free time, Raymond and Sammy slowly thaw Eleanor’s defenses and draw her into an actual life. But Eleanor’s past, the things she can’t or won’t deal with, won’t let her go towards happiness easily…

This novel ends on a hopeful note, and when I finished I was tempted to flip back to the beginning and start again. I can definitely see myself reading this again in the future. It’s not exactly a “feel-good” read; it’s too sad and weighty to be considered that. But it is what I call a “life-affirming” read. This is a story of a woman who is not really living who slowly is pulled into something resembling a life, with genuine human connections and investment in herself. I really appreciated the way that Honeyman didn’t manipulate the reader. She lets the reader do the work of feeling things for herself instead of pulling the heart strings with maudlin sentimentality. And the fact that I never pitied Eleanor speaks volumes about the author’s affection for her character.

I highly recommend this novel, if this sounds at all like something you’d be interested in. Yes, everyone and her aunt’s book club is reading it, and Reese Witherspoon’s production company has optioned it, but there is much here to savor: a character you can truly root for and sharp commentary about the modern epidemic of loneliness.

 

They Had Library Holds: An American Marriage and Red Clocks Mini-Reviews

Egads, I’m SO behind on reviews. I’m tempted to throw in the towel and forget about them, but these two books are SO GOOD that I feel like I can’t in good conscience move on without writing just a little bit about them. I had to turn in my library copies of these a couple of weeks ago, so I have no quotatations to share with you, unfortunately. But they both made such an impression on me that I am confident I’ll be including them on my year end Top Ten list.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones intimidated me at first. I worried it would be too depressing for me to handle. While it certainly was sad, it wasn’t hopeless by any means. It’s about a young African American couple, married for a year and a half before the unthinkable happens. Here’s the Goodreads blurb:

61D-QSBXV+LNewlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. 

What I loved about this novel was that it was so nuanced, so complex. Everyone in it was believable, flawed, human. I never felt like there was one person that I was supposed to “root for,” other than to have the injustice of Roy’s conviction overturned. This was an intimate portrayal of a marriage in the most dire of circumstances. Celestial and Roy were fully formed characters and I believed all of their actions and dialogue. Despite the shocking plot event that forms the central story arc, this was a character study. I read this rather quickly and was very impressed by the quality of the writing. I will definitely have to read Tayari Jones again. Once again, Oprah picked a winner!

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas was a surprise for me. I thought it would be more sci-fi/dystopian than it turned out to be. It’s really literary fiction set in a slightly different reality than the one we are in right now. Here’s the blurb:

51Hq-siMA7L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.

This is a hard novel to describe. I see on Goodreads it seems to be polarizing. I loved it because I loved the raw honesty with which these women’s lives were portrayed. I may have felt more affinity with certain characters, like Ro, the single high school teacher desperately trying to have a baby but wondering why she’s trying so hard, or Susan, the housewife and mother who feels unchallenged and underappreciated by her family role. Others, like Mattie, the pregnant teenager, and Eivor, the unknown 19th century explorer that Ro is trying to write a biography of, felt a bit underdeveloped. But the book as a whole worked for me because I was invested in these women’s lives, and it was scary how plausible their reproductive nightmare scenario is to being reality. This was a world just like ours except that abortion is illegal and in-vitro is banned; Ro is desperate to get pregnant partly because in a matter of months it will be illegal for single women to adopt children as well (because two parents are best, of course.) I think Susan and maybe Ro both mused about how things changed so quickly in America, and that they regretted not doing more, not being more involved in the protests. But ultimately this is a novel not about politics but about women, women’s bodies and desires and agency. I didn’t always agree with their choices but I was enthralled by them. Here’s another author I clearly need to catch up on.

Have you read either one of these, or are they on your TBR list? What do you when (if) you get behind on reviews? Mini-reviews or just move on and forget about them?

 

Two Awesome Audio Books: We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union and Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Confession time: I don’t really like to write about audio books.  I like to listen to them but I balk at writing reviews of them. Why? Because I don’t take notes. I’m almost always driving in my car or doing dishes when I’m listening to them, so I don’t want to stop and get a piece of paper and a pen and write things down like I do when I’m sitting and reading a paper book.

Because I don’t take notes, I feel like I can’t give a detailed review of the book. So I just listen, hopefully enjoy, count them in my Goodreads total, and move on.

Today, however, I feel compelled to let you know about my two most recent audio book adventures. These books are so outstanding that I know I will include them in my end-of-the-year Best Of list. The first is Gabrielle Union’s memoir We’re Going to Need More Wine. I have to be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I listened to this. I don’t think I’d even seen one of her movies or shows before I picked this up! But it was available in my library’s digital nonfiction audio collection, and I saw that one of my Goodreads friends had rated it highly, so I thought, Why not?

51lTCeNTXNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_What a woman! She is strong in the best way a person can be strong: by being vulnerable, showing her flaws and admitting her mistakes. She covers a lot of ground in these stories. She covers her childhood, growing up in a predominantly white, conservative town in California, dealing with clueless white classmates who are sometimes horribly racist without “meaning to be.” She writes about her disastrous first marriage, being a recovering “mean girl,” the importance of having money of her own, experiences on various movie sets she’s worked on, her sweet dog, Bubba Sparks, and so much more. She is smart and thoughtful and unapologetic about her owning her sexuality. These are really stories where you feel like a friend is telling you these things over a glass of wine, getting real with you so that she can impart some wisdom from learned experience. I don’t remember if she uses the word “feminist” at all in the narrative, but I wouldn’t hesitate to call her a feminist. She is a strong woman who wants other women to take care of their minds, hearts, and bodies, and to lift up other women. These stories were entertaining, sometimes funny and occasionally sad, and I loved 29780258them.

When I finished Union’s book, I thought that perhaps it was the best celebrity memoir I’d ever read. Until I started listening to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this from everyone I know who’s read it. I waited on my library’s hold list for months before I finally got it, and it’s worth the wait! I’m actually not finished listening yet – I’m on the last disc! But it is absolutely riveting. Not only is his delivery unbeatable, but his personal story is just fascinating. He managed to weave in so much historical and sociological information about South African and Apartheid. I learned that there’s a LOT I don’t know about that place and time, and even the aftermath of Apartheid, when Mandela came to power. I had no idea how codified and rigid Apartheid was. I had no idea of all the ethnic groups and languages contained in South Africa. So besides being entertained, I’m definitely learning! Noah’s very existence is unlikely with the way the races were kept apart. One anecdote he shared that stuck with me was how he later met other “colored” (what South Africans call mixed-race people) South Africans around his age who were expats. It blew his mind that his mother could have theoretically left South Africa and raised him elsewhere, somewhere that didn’t operate under the dark cloud of overt racism. He said something like, Imagine you fell out of an airplane and broke every bone in your body in the landing. You spent years and years healing from all the damage done to your body and spirit, and then someone told you about the existence of parachutes. That was how he felt when he realized that his life could have been different if he grew up in Europe or somewhere else. Noah’s mother is a force of nature, a strong and powerful woman who, despite an abusive marriage to Noah’s stepfather, raised a smart, compassionate son. Noah doesn’t shy away from describing his faults, though, especially delving into his youth as a petty criminal and a brief but harrowing stint in jail. This audio book is truly a MUST LISTEN. Even if you aren’t familiar with Noah’s work (which I’m not really) or you normally don’t read celebrity memoirs, I encourage you to give this a try.

Have you read or listened to either one of these? What kinds of audio books do you like, or do you enjoy them at all? Do you write reviews of the audio books you listen to, and if so, do you take notes on them? Let’s chat in the comments.

 

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

A book I read last month that I really loved was Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. It came out in 2002 and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. It’s one of those books that I love the more I think about it, the more time away from it I get. It’s rare that I go back and re-rate a book, but I’ve decided this a five-star read (up from four) with the distance of a couple of weeks. Gilbert so skillfully and holistically examines her subject (the confounding Eustace Conway) that I can’t stop thinking about the book and the man himself.

51XDqHOJJGL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_But this is how Eustace interacts with all the world all the time – taking any opportunity to teach people about nature. Which is to say that Eustace is not merely a hermit or a hippie or even a survivalist. He does not live in the woods because he’s hiding from us, or because he’s growing excellent weed, or because he’s storing guns for the imminent race war. He lives in the woods because he belongs there. Moreover, he tries to get other people to move into the woods with him, because he believes that this is his particular calling – nothing less than to save our nation’s collective soul by reintroducing Americans to the concept of revelatory communion with the frontier. Which is to say that Eustace Conway believes that he is a Man of Destiny.

Gilbert came to know Eustace through one of his younger brothers, whom she met working at a ranch in Wyoming after college. (“I went to Wyoming, in other words, to make a man of myself.”) I don’t know if someone without a family connection would have been able to get Conway to open up like she did. She even shares her conversations with Conway’s dad, who it seems to me is the driving force behind everything the younger Conway tried to do, at least in his youth. I grew furious at Eustace’s father, known as Big Eustace. He is described by each of his children differently, but to Little Eustace, his first born and namesake, he was pretty much an emotionally withholding and abusive monster.

If Little Eustace so much as touched a hammer from Big Eustace’s toolshed without permission, he would be sent to his room and forced to stay there for hours without food or water. If Little Eustace didn’t finish every morsel on his plate in proper time, Big Eustace would force him to sit at the dinner table all night, even if it meant the child had to sleep upright in his chair. If Little Eustace, in his play, accidentally kicked up a divot of grass from his father’s lawn, he would be beaten with a wooden paddle. If Little Eustace, in doing his chores, dared to mow the grass in a counterclockwise pattern instead of the clockwise pattern his father had commanded, there would be a huge scene and hell to pay.

The picture that emerges is a terrified and overanxious-to-please little boy, who is trying his best to make his taskmaster father happy, not understanding why his father is so hard on him and encourages his siblings to join in on the mocking. As the mother of a little boy it breaks my heart to think of a child who only wanted what he should have had, unconditional love from his parent.

Only when he had dutifully finished high school did Eustace Conway split. He took the teepee he’d made by hand (an older Native American woman who knew Eustace at the time described it as “the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen”) and he took his knife and he took some books and he was gone.

See, while his childhood was a minefield of trauma, Little Eustace realized that he felt his most free and most competent outside. His parents both were outdoor types and gave him enough freedom to explore the nearby woods on his own. He threw himself into things like archery, throwing knives, beadwork, weaving, and reading about “Men of Destiny” like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Geronimo. He observed turtles and snakes and frogs close-up, tending to a community of turtles in his backyard for years. So it makes sense that as soon as he was legally able he left home and lived for a time in his teepee for a time, until he took a notion to hike the Appalachian Trail with a friend on a whim, totally unprepared.

From there Eustace has more cross-country adventures (including a wild horseback trek with his brother all the way to the Pacific Ocean) until he finally settles back in North Carolina and starts buying tracts of land near the city of Boone. Here Gilbert really digs into Conway’s relationships, both with the endless stream of women who are attracted to him and the people he tries to work with and mentor on his farm/education center. Turns out he is nearly impossible to work for and completely hopeless at romantic relationships. (The armchair psychologist in me says it’s because of his childhood trauma – never getting the love he wanted from his father and feeling like the only way he could possibly get it would be to be absolutely perfect in all his endeavors.) Gilbert really portrays him skillfully, honestly but also sympathetically. He’s someone I don’t know if I’d really want to be around in real life, but he’s someone who was absolutely fascinating to read about. And his aims of giving young people a taste of the natural world through hard work, farming, and back-to-nature methods of living are undeniably admirable. Gilbert tries to situate Conway’s story, and some of the young men who are drawn to work for him, within the framework of American masculinity, the lack of ritual to young men coming into manhood, the disconnection with any sense of nature. It makes for thought-provoking reading, even when I wanted to smack Eustace for being so obtuse in his romantic and business endeavors.

Conway’s farming and education center, Turtle Island, is still operational. You can read about it here. Apparently he was also on a television show on the History Channel called “Mountain Men.” I’ve never seen it. I wonder if Gilbert is still in contact with Conway, if they’re still friends, and what his response to this book was. It’s approaching 20 years since publication. I wonder what compromises Conway has made to keep his place going, because as of the end of this book it didn’t seem like he would do something like be in a TV show. Maybe I should check it out!

I seem to have a thing for books about explorers/hermits/back-to-nature types. Last year one of my favorite reads was The Stranger in the Woods about the North Pond Hermit, and I also have loved Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. This is funny because I’m about the least outdoorsy person you would ever meet. I have never even been camping and the longest hike I’ve ever been on was a five mile round trip. But there’s something so appealing to me about the notion of wild spaces, of solitude and time for reflection in those natural places. There’s something that speaks to me in the desire for a simpler, unplugged lifestyle, and for pushing your physical limits to commune with nature and find inner peace. For now I am an armchair traveler/hiker/camper, but I do so appreciate reading about these intrepid (sometimes foolhardy) souls who continue to reach for something basic and wild about humanity even in these turbulent times of technological revolution. Eustace Conway was a maddening, complicated person to read about, but I am glad someone like him exists and is still trying to draw others into wild spaces.

Have you read any books about nature and/or explorers that you would recommend? I’d love to read your suggestions and thoughts!