nonfiction

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal- Mary Roach

I adore Mary Roach. Reading Stiff set off a fascination about what happens- or can happen, if we so choose- to our remains after we die, and has introduced me to so many other excellent books (such as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty, and Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by William Bass and Jon Jefferson). Her Bonk was hilarious and made me admire her courage to insert herself into the research process, if you will. I always meant to get to her Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (W.W. Norton Company, 2013); I may have checked it out of the library once but time got away from me and I had to return it unread. When I saw it as a suggestion for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of a book by an author with flora or fauna in their name, I knew Gulp‘s time had come.

Mary Roach is a science writer with a sense of humor, and she’s out to make sense of the world and present her findings in a way that will keep her readers laughing out loud long after they turn the final page. In Gulp, she goes on a quest to look deeper in the system of tubes that makes up the human alimentary canal: its function, its processes, its ability to produce gas so pungent, it could floor an elephant. If you have even the least bit of curiosity about fecal matter (why do we poop so much? How long can we really hold it? Why do some animals eat their own poop?), digestion (what’s the deal with how long it takes? How powerful is stomach acid?), saliva (why do we swallow our own without a second thought but can’t get anyone to swallow their own spit after first having spit it into a cup?), and gas (what’s the volume of a human fart? What exactly makes some farts smell worse than others?), or you have kids who think poop and farts are hilarious and would love to regale them with factual information about these things, you’re going to want this book.

Gulp is filled with so much random trivia about human bodies and nature, most of which is completely inappropriate to talk about in polite company, but which makes me love Mary Roach all the more and think that she must be a fantastic person to hang out with (if you’re a friend of hers, know that I’m deeply jealous). Despite having owned cats for the past fourteen years, I didn’t realize they’re primarily monoguesic, which means they stick to a single type of food. If you have an outdoor cat (which is generally recommended against, for reasons of health and safety; mine are strictly indoors) and they consume outdoor critters, for example, they’ll tend to eat either mice or birds, but not both. One of my housecats will eat canned cat food (though she’s picky about what kind), and will gladly accept offerings of fish or chicken, but she wants nothing to do with anything else. The other cat will eat cat food (his own, the other cat’s), any type of carb, vegetables (like carrots from my salad, or the green bean he stole off my plate and then shot me a filthy look as he consumed it under the piano bench as I yelled, “Hey!”), which makes me wonder whether he’d be a mouser or a birder or more of a junkyard cat who gets his calories ransacking the neighborhood garbage cans.

There are a lot of laughs in here, because Mary Roach really goes whole hog when it comes to research projects, and I deeply admire her for that. Example: after noticing that the facility that prepares human fecal matter for fecal transplants uses Oster brand blenders to blend their fecal samples in order to prepare the material for transplant, she actually emailed Oster for a comment, which they declined to give. (I mean, they could have mentioned that they were proud that their products are being used in exciting new medical technology bound to change lives around the world, but I guess it’s understandable that they don’t necessarily want their product associated with, well, poop.) This was only one of the many places I actually laughed out loud. If you’ve read any other of her books, you know Ms. Roach makes heavy use of asterisked footnotes, which are usually packed full of humorous tidbits, and Gulp is no different in this.

Eventually, I’d like to get to the rest of Ms. Roach’s oeuvre, but I’m entirely swamped with reading material right now and so this will have to be good, for now. Gulp is a joy to read. Heads up if you’re squeamish, though: she doesn’t shy away from much at all, but that’s the mark of an excellent scientist and investigator, I think.

Have you read any of Mary Roach’s books? Do you have a favorite? Stiff was my first and remains my favorite; I don’t know if I’ll get around to Packing for Mars, since anything about space tends to freak me out. Although, with the humorous way Ms. Roach presents things, I might be able to handle it…

Visit Mary Roach’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

The Bookshop on the Corner- Jenny Colgan

Another pick for a 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt, this time for a book with a book on the cover. There were plenty of good suggestions; I went with The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan (William Morrow/Harper Collins, 2016). I thought this was my first book by this author, but after checking Goodreads, it turns out I’ve also read Amanda’s Wedding (which, uh, I didn’t really love). How lovely is this cover, though? Don’t you just want to rush right into that shop, grab whatever gorgeous, gilt-edged hardcover you can reach, and throw yourself into the nearest squishy armchair for a cozy afternoon of uninterrupted reading?

Nina Redmond adores her job as a librarian, matching each person with the perfect book, but her job doesn’t quite love her back- with austerity measures becoming the norm, libraries all over England are closing, and the one where Nina works is no exception. After trying to decide what to do with the rest of her life, nearly on a whim, Nina travels to a small town in rural Scotland and buys an enormous van with the intent of opening her own traveling bookshop. This rural town, as it turns out, is desperate for books, its own library having shut down years ago, and almost overnight, Nina’s living in rural Scotland, her life having done an entire turnabout.

Even small businesses- and small towns- aren’t immune to drama, and Nina finds herself embroiled in the affairs of the community almost immediately. A quasi-romance with a railway worker keeps her wondering; her gruff, moody landlord both irritates and intrigues her; a ragtag set of siblings worm their way into her heart. All the while, Nina is bringing her love of books to everyone she knows and helping spread the love of reading.

This was just kind of okay for me. I liked it, but didn’t love it. It’s cute, occasionally veering into cutesy, but the romance parts of it didn’t feel authentic to me whatsoever. I understood Nina’s infatuation with Marek, the mysterious railway worker, although the whole thing turned sour and a little creepy, but Lennox? I don’t understand the “He barely talks to me and is a grumpy asshole to everyone, but Imma hop in bed with him anyway” trope (is there a name for that one?). I get being wildly physically attracted to someone; that happens all the time in romance novels and the couple doesn’t exactly hold back before swan-diving under the covers (or hitting up the nearest closet, or bathroom, or going at it in the kitchen or wherever’s convenient). That doesn’t bother me, but there are usually at least a few previous scenes where the couple has shown marked attraction to one another. There wasn’t even any heat in earlier scenes between Nina and Lennox, not even a passionate undercurrent, just a sense of irritation. Their relationship, if you can call it that, didn’t feel genuine to me at all.

The setting, though, is fantastic. The fictional village of Kirrinfief, tucked away in the Scottish highlands, sounds gorgeous and magical. Supposedly, it’s a place that usually receives torrents of rain, but the weather holds out for much of the book; this had me wondering how, when it does go back to being rainy, a book van would function, especially since a huge draw for Nina’s business is things like toddler storytime. How do you have that if it’s raining buckets or when it’s cold and the wind is whipping across the landscape? This was never covered, and I would’ve liked to have seen Nina’s plans for this.

Also noticeably absent from the book is any concern about healthcare, which is to be expected, but still struck me as an incredible thing. Nina loses her job and, while she’s worried about being able to pay rent, after going into business for herself, she never once has to wonder, “What if I’m hefting boxes of books and I tear my rotator cuff? What if my appendix bursts? What if I find out I have a brain aneurysm, throw out my back, or develop a serious case of pneumonia that requires me to be hospitalized? How would I pay the medical bills if I’m hit by a car? Can I afford any kind of insurance on what I’m making?” What amazing privilege that must be, to be able to leave a job and start your own business and never once have to worry about any of that- whereas when my husband lost his job years ago, one of my first thoughts was, “Well, guess I have to go off my medication and just hope my back doesn’t go out.” As an American, this kind of thing is always so prevalent to me when it comes to books set in countries with nationalized healthcare systems. I bring this up not because it has anything to do with the quality of the book or how I feel about it, but because it’s part of the lens in which I view these stories, and it always leaves me feeling wistful.

All in all, not my favorite read of the year, but the setting is deeply charming and helped rescue a lot of the book for me. I have a large map of the world with magnetic pins hanging in my living room, and I move a pin to every country where a book I read is set. I’ve already got six pins (not counting the US) scattered throughout the map. Not bad for the end of the first month!

Visit Jenny Colgan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Tangled- Emma Chase

While not something I necessarily would have picked up on my own, Tangled by Emma Chase (Gallery Books, 2013) fits a prompt in the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challege: a book with the same title as a movie or TV show but is unrelated to it.

Obviously, as you can see by the cover, this book definitely has nothing to do with the 2010 Disney retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale. Thank goodness… (Speaking of covers, this was one that I was glad that I finished solely at home, because…I don’t embarrass easily, nor do I ever really feel ashamed of reading any kind of book, but…this was a cover I wasn’t really interested in displaying while I waited outside my daughter’s school with the other parents, you know?)

Drew Evans is a playboy to the nth degree. He’s a love ’em and leave ’em kind of guy, one who has never made any promises or commitments, and he’s more than okay with that. The less tying him down, the more fun he can have in his high-powered lifestyle. That is, until he meets Kate Brooks, the sexiest woman he’s ever seen who also turns out to be his new co-worker. His engaged new co-worker, that is. But when has that ever stopped Drew?

Their relationship starts out with a little bit of a friendly (and occasionally not-so friendly) rivalry, as they both compete for the same client, but as Drew gets to know Kate, he finally starts to understand what love might be like as a long-term thing. Kate’s fiancé and her lack of confidence might present a bit of a challenge, but Drew and his massive ego are up for the fight.

Oof. So.

First off, this was well-written, and I totally see why it gets so many stars on Goodreads. It’s steamy, it’s fun (and funny), it’s cute at times, and there are a lot of great tropes at work: Drew is definitely a bad boy with a heart of gold, his rivalry with Kate over that first client tips this a little in the direction of Enemies-to-Lovers, and the book is narrated by Drew, which puts an interesting spin on the romance novel. Big Rock by Lauren Blakely is also narrated by its male hero, and I do enjoy that perspective.

My issues with this book, however, are entirely (and almost hilariously) personal, which makes this a difficult review to write. Case in point:

My husband likes to watch stuff on TV with me at night; it’s pretty much the one thing we’re able to do on our own, since my daughter is still young, we can’t really afford babysitters, and going out is something we have to really plan for (which also means less time he can spend with our daughter, and his time is already limited). For ages he’s wanted me to watch one of his favorite shows, and finally I gave in, so we’re currently on season 8 of the adult cartoon Archer. If you’re not familiar with the show, Archer is the title character, a bad boy secret agent. He does have a decent side, but he also sleeps with anything that moves, can’t commit to any woman, has an ego the size of the sun, and has the same crass vocabulary as Drew in Tangled. Can you see where this is going?

Yeah. I read the entire book narrated in Archer’s voice. It was…interesting.

There were other things that didn’t quite make this the book for me. Kate felt a little under-defined; I wish we’d gotten to know more of her personality. She seemed like a different person when she was talking with or to Billy, her fiancé. I’m not sure if that was deliberate and trying to show that she was a more actualized version of herself with Drew, or something else, but it definitely stood out to me. And there’s a lot- a LOT- of cursing in here. I don’t mind reading that or hearing it, but this seemed excessive even for me (and that’s saying a lot). It became a little tiresome reading conversations with swear words in almost every sentence (although there are a few amusing scenes where Drew’s niece follows him around with a swear jar, demanding money for each bad word, and references to her paying her way through college with the proceeds, so the author isn’t unaware of the excessiveness here).

There’s also a “We’ve only known each other for a ridiculously short period of time and have barely started a sexual relationship, but hey, I’m clean and since you say you are too, despite any kind of proof, let’s ditch condoms right now!” scene, which I am absolutely not a fan of. Nope. TEST YO’SELF, show your partner the paperwork, and then have a discussion about birth control and sexual health like mature adults. I feel like readers deserve that, and this particular “We can skip the condoms immediately, I promise!” scene never, ever works for me no matter what book it appears in.

For my own personal tastes, Drew’s a bit smarmy; I don’t find the kind of guy who sleeps with anything with a pulse attractive or trustworthy, so this wasn’t quite the book for me- which is fine! Not every book is for every reader and there are plenty of people who enjoy all the things that didn’t quite do it for me here. I never quite mind getting through a book that wasn’t right for me, because it’s taught me something more about what I like and what I don’t, what I look for in a book, and who I am as a reader, and that’s something I can always appreciate.

There are sequels, as this is a series, so if you’re into playboys finally finding the one girl with whom they can fall in love and for whom they’re willing to give up their wild ways, you might want to check out the Tangled series!

Visit Emma Chase’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Full Disclosure- Camryn Garrett

It makes my reader heart so happy when books on my TBR match up with prompts in reading challenges. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to learn about new books and new authors; that’s the whole reason I participate in these challenges! But I’m also deeply invested in taming my TBR beast and keeping it under control (*nervous laughter* let’s not talk about how many books I added to the list this month…), so it made me ridiculously excited to find Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019) on the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge list for the prompt about a book featuring one of the seven deadly sins (lust, in this case). I added this to my TBR the second I learned about it last year and this was the first time it’s been available at the library when I’ve checked for it.

Simone Garcia-Hampton is doing her best to settle into her new school. She’s made two new best friends and has been named the director of Rent, the school musical. It’s a big change from her last school, where, when word got around that Simone was HIV-positive, the ostracism and hatred, even from the parents, was too much for her to bear and she was forced to leave. She hasn’t told anyone from her new school yet, not even her best friends, but Miles, the handsome lacrosse player, is making her think that someday soon, she’s going to have to speak up in the interest of honesty and full disclosure.

That day may be sooner than she wanted. Simone’s been receiving threatening letters in her locker, letting her know that someone out there is fully aware of her positive status and doesn’t want her hanging around Miles. If she doesn’t break things off with him, her secret will be out of the bag. Simone’s scared, angry, panicked…and worried about what being HIV-positive really means for a long-term future with someone she loves.

I loved this. Camryn Garrett’s voice is fresh and modern (there’s an offhand comment in the book where one of Simone’s friends talks about her dog eating her DivaCup, and I love that menstrual cups are well-known enough amongst teenage girls for this to appear in a young adult novel!), and Full Disclosure is well-researched, timely, and important. I’m old enough to remember the days when HIV was a death sentence, sometimes a rapid one, and the fact that Simone is able to take a single pill per day and live a completely healthy life, her viral load eventually becoming undetectable (undetectable viral load means the virus is untransmissable, as the novel states many times), seems pretty miraculous (yay for science and the hardworking researchers who made this possible). HIV, when treated, is more of a chronic condition these days than the harbinger of doom it once was, and Ms. Garrett really drives that point home in a novel that feels vibrant and alive. It’s education that doesn’t feel like education; it just feels like a really great story, with the added bonus of learning an awful lot about what daily life with HIV looks like.

Despite being HIV positive, Simone is just like any other teenager, worrying about sex and relationships, her future, friends, her teachers, her responsibilities at school, and her parents’ relationship. Though the story centers around her condition and what it means for her immediate and long-term future in terms of romantic relationships, she’s no different than her friends with her concerns and cares. Her best friends, who belong to the school GSA (one is…I can’t remember off the top of my head if she’s lesbian or bisexual; the other is ace- my first time seeing an ace character in a novel, which I appreciated!), are loving and accepting in all ways, and Miles, Simone’s love interest, displays more maturity and acceptance than his parents. As a parent, I understood their concerns, but very much appreciated Ms. Garrett’s showing that younger generations are often far more easily accepting of difference than adults are. I see this often in my daily life, and I work hard to fight it in myself. I don’t ever want to stop learning, stop understanding new information, and become stuck in my ways and refusing to grow and change with the times. The kids are alright, I think, and I’m hopeful for when my son’s and daughter’s- and Camryn Garrett’s- generations take charge.

I’m so looking forward to reading more from Camryn Garrett in the future. Her voice is fabulous, and her characters are so complex and full of life. Her ability to craft a story that demands the reader’s attention while cramming them full of important information is #goals all the way. Keep an eye on this author, folks- only seventeen years old when she sold this book? She’s amazing, and she’s here to stay.

Visit Camryn Garrett’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

YA

The Patron Saints of Nothing- Randy Ribay

Some categories of reading challenge prompts are easier to fill than others. I’m usually able to settle on a book fairly quickly, but for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, the prompt to read a bildungsroman (that’s a coming-of-age novel) had so many good choices that it was a little tough to pick! I finally settled on Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay (Kokila, 2019) because of its timely focus on Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs that involves heinous extrajudicial killings of addicts and dealers. The stories I’ve read about this in the news are almost too terrible to contemplate, and I knew that this was a subject I needed to read more about, however painful.

Jay, a Filipino-American high school senior, is lacking some serious motivation for life, but everything is thrown up into the air when he learns that his cousin and childhood friend Jun has been killed in the Philippines as part of the country’s war on drugs. Shocked and devastated, even though he lost touch with Jun a few years back, Jay travels to the Philippines to visit family and learn the truth about what happened to Jun. Their family, however, is keeping things under wraps, and in order to learn the truth, Jay’s going to have to do a little digging.

But his digging reveals more questions and uncomfortable truths, along with angering his smug, self-righteous uncle even more. Along with coming to terms with who his cousin really was, Jay finally finds the connection to his homeland that he never felt before, and the connection to his Filipino family that he’s been missing all his life.

Randy Ribay has absolutely crafted a painful coming-of-age novel that speaks to current world events. I can’t say that I’ve ever read a novel set in the Philippines before, so that part of the story was especially fascinating for me to read. And setting the characters right smack in the middle of the devastating effects of Duterte’s anti-drug policies is a bold move for a YA novel, but it works, and it sheds some light on a subject that hasn’t gotten nearly enough media attention around the world.

Ribay raises some interesting points here, questions that Jay ponders and others that are merely inferred. Do universal truths about how to treat your fellow human, truths that transcend culture and location and history, exist? Is it brave or foolish to stand up for what’s right when the vast majority are against you and the consequences very well may be fatal? How far should you be willing to go to expose the truth? Does being addicted to drugs mean the rest of your life, all of your accomplishments and who you are as a person, is worthless? He also paints complex, realistic characters who are deeply flawed but not without redeeming qualities, even at their worst.

This is a deeply sad novel, but its conclusion is not without hope, though, given the current state of *gestures broadly at everything*, I left feeling a little less optimistic. Jay comes to conclusions that, while they wouldn’t be the path I chose, made sense to him. I so much enjoy YA that tackles heavy current events like this, and Patron Saints of Nothing does a really excellent job at shining a light on a situation everyone- not just teenagers- needs to be aware of.

Visit Randy Ribay’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

The Color of Love- Marra B. Gad

For all its ills, social media is useful for a lot of things (like finding out my favorite Indian restaurant closed *sob*), and one of them is connecting with other bookish people in various groups. I belong to a few readers’ groups on Facebook, along with a host of other various groups, and it was from one of those groups that I learned about The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl by Marra B. Gad (Agate Bolden, 2019). The story was pitched as being about a mixed-race Jewish woman who eventually had to take care of a family member who treated her terribly. It’s that, but it’s so much more, and I’m deeply grateful I was able to obtain a copy through interlibrary loan.

Marra Gad was biologically the child of a Jewish woman and a black man. Her first mother knew she couldn’t keep her baby, and thus a rabbi helped to find a Jewish family to adopt Marra. Marra’s parents were happy to have a baby at all; the child’s skin color made no difference to them, but it didn’t take long for them to realize how differently the world around them felt, and member by member, their family and circle grew smaller. Within pages, you’ll be gasping out loud in utter shock and total disgust at the comments that family and friends thought nothing of leveling at Marra. Despite your heartbreak and rage on Marra’s behalf, read on; this is an important story.

Throughout her childhood and young adulthood, Marra is ostracized and made to feel different by the community that should have embraced her and celebrated her. Fortunately, she has her close family- parents, siblings, grandparents- to love her, fight for her, and instill a strong sense of self-worth in her. As the years go by and her family members begin to age and need care, Marra finds herself the only available family member to care for her out-of-state great-aunt, the woman who was perhaps the cruelest to Marra throughout her life. Despite the pain it causes her, she does so because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s never easy.

I won’t lie; this book brought me to tears multiple times. I kept turning back to Ms. Gad’s picture on the back inside flap and wanting so badly to both travel back in time and protect the vulnerable child that she was and to hug the adult she is now. I’m no stranger to racism; when I was young, my maternal grandfather was deeply, hideously racist, and I’ve heard racist comments coming out of family members’ mouths as recently as last year (you better bet I step in and say something these days, though. As a child, I didn’t, though I knew my grandfather was wrong. I’m not sure how well my correcting him would have gone over, but I remember having conversations with my mom on the way home from his house about why he was so awful regarding people of certain races). But the hateful comments directed toward Marra are just…soul-crushing. To have had such vitriol spat at you as a child and emotionally survive and still come out kind on the other side is an absolute miracle; I weep for the ones who did not.

Taking care of her hurtful great-aunt was difficult; there are many descriptions of tears and heartache on the journey to and from her care facility, and I deeply admire the fortitude of character Ms. Gad possesses to have kept returning and providing care in the face of such a difficult challenge. It may not have been what she wanted to do, but doing so was the kind of person she wanted to be, and so she did. This is something I strive for in my own life, though normally under much less challenging circumstances, so I understand her motivation and I applaud it.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful and a deeply emotional read, and will challenge any reader in just how far they’re willing to take their devotion to kindness and generosity.

I’m going to count this as the book for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book by a woman of color, but it won’t be my last for the year, not by a long shot (my next review is also for a book by a black woman, and my reading list for the year is bursting with diversity, as it should be). Read on, friends. 🙂

Follow Marra B. Gad on Twitter.

nonfiction

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language- Arika Okrent

I was around eight or so when I got the bright idea that I was going to invent a language. I thought I was pretty darn clever until I opened the dictionary to A and started making up words, which I wrote down on a piece of paper. Halfway down the page, I realized that there were an awful lot of existing words that I never used, and to come up with new words for all of them- and memorize them!- would be…difficult. And not exactly fun, because what’s the point of making up a language that I wasn’t sure I could memorize? Chastened and humbled, I abandoned my language creation and went off to do whatever it was that eight year-old me did, probably play outside in the yard or (surprise) read a book. It was this memory that led me to select In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language by Arika Okrent (Spiegel & Grau, 2009) for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a made-up language. Maybe I could figure out where my eight year-old self had gone wrong. 😉

Languages are complicated; in all their quirks of grammar and pronunciation, their exceptions to the rules and bizarre, untranslatable idioms, they arise to meet the needs of their speakers. Modern eras have seen the rise of constructed languages- conlangs, as they’re known- or languages purposefully and non-naturally created by a single or multiple human beings. Throughout the book, Ms. Okrent takes the reader on a tour through many of the better known conlangs, such as Klingon, Loglan (and Lojban), Blissymbols, Láadan, and probably the most well-known and most successful (for what that’s worth) conlang, Esperanto.

While the book does occasionally wander into drier territory for readers who aren’t major linguistics nerds (and I say that with deep respect and affection for linguistic nerds, because language is frickin’ cool), where it really shines is in telling the human stories behind the invented languages. Language creators, as it turns out, are a messy bunch. Drama- so much drama- anger, romance, quarrels and bickering, lawsuits, there are veritable soap operas surrounding the creation of just about every conlang, and it’s obvious Ms. Okrent is just as into these personal stories as she is the languages themselves. I very much appreciated when she became part of the story, reporting on her experiences at Esperanto and Klingon conferences; never having attended one of these conferences myself, it was interesting to see what another language enthusiast found useful- and irritating!- about them.

To be honest, while I did enjoy this, I don’t know that I would have finished it if it weren’t for the challenge. It often got little more academic than I would have normally felt up to at this time in my life, but that’s just a personal thing and shouldn’t reflect on anyone else’s opinion of the book. My brain is just pretty full from other things right now. I am glad, however, that I did finish it. It answered a lot of questions I’ve always had about the how and why of the failure, for the most part, of that perfect invented universal language. If you’ve ever wondered why we can’t all just have one single language so we can all speak to each other and finally achieve world peace, give this book a try, because you might walk away with your curiosity finally satisfied as well. 🙂

Have you ever thought about invented languages? Tried to learn one? Wished you could speak Klingon or Esperanto? (Duolingo has them both: Klingon, Esperanto) I admit to some curiosity towards Esperanto, but I’m kind of full up on languages right now…

Visit Arika Okrent’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing- Adam P. Frankel

The New Books shelf strikes again! I’ve got a pile of reading challenge books waiting for me, but my library has a decorate-it-yourself felt snowman over by the New Books shelf, and so while I was waiting for my daughter to perfect her indoor Olaf, I foolishly turned around to examine the new books, and that’s when my eyes fell on The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing by Adam P. Frankel (Harper, 2019). A quick scan of the inside flap let me know that the book was, as I had inspected, about a family’s grappling with trauma after the Holocaust, and that was all I needed for it to go into my pile.

I knew better than to keep looking at that shelf, though. That New Books shelf is dangerous to my reading load!

Every family has its own secrets, but Adam Frankel’s family always seemed to have more than most. His grandparents survived the Holocaust and came to live in America, but how much of their trauma did they pass on to their children? How much through genetics, how much through behavior patterns? And how much of that trauma has reached Adam in the third generation? Often raising more questions than answers, Adam, a former Obama speechwriter, goes searching for answers and finds more than he initially bargained for. Suddenly, Adam’s not only looking for answers about all those family secrets, he’s tasked with keeping them, too- big secrets, the kind that are difficult, maybe impossible, to forgive.

Despite its absolutely heavy and often tragic storyline, The Survivors is a fascinating read, one that delves deeply into the question of epigenetics and what the effects of trauma are for subsequent generations. Were his grandparents’ experiences in concentration camps responsible for his mother’s mental illness or her inability to cope with stress? What do genetics really mean, anyway? I didn’t read the inside flap in its entirety and so the narrative took a turn I wasn’t expecting, one that brought to mind shades of Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance. Adam’s entire identity is brought into question, and his grappling with his sense of self and family history is intense, and intensely painful. That he was contending with so many issues while still successfully performing his duties as part of President Obama’s speechwriting team is impressive.

Fans of family sagas, family secrets, family history, and memoirs that wrestle with identity and the author’s place in the family story will find much to appreciate here. Although the tone is often heavy, Mr. Frankel’s writing style moves the story forward at a pace that never lingers too long on tragedy. This is a story of pain and secrets, of shining a light on that which has been hidden, and of having the bravery to ask questions and deal with the answers. I can’t imagine the amount of courage it took to not only write this story, but to put it out for the world to read. That’s a level of self-examination and honesty that I aspire to.

Beautifully written and well-researched, The Survivors would make an excellent book club selection, as there are so many layers to this story that it would encourage a great discussion (it feels a little terrible to say that, as this is someone’s life, but this is a book and a story that deserves to be read and remembered). There are mentions of violence and death- there are very few happy Holocaust memoirs, after all- and some mentions of sexual situations, but nothing is graphic, so this would be an appropriate and intriguing group read.

Memoirs that include revelations about paternity seem to be prevalent lately (this is my third in three months, along with Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, as previously mentioned, and Sarah Valentine’s When I Was White); I don’t think that that’s a publishing trend so much as a coincidence and a sign of the times, with genetic testing kits being so readily available and trendy. I’m sure there will be more memoirs along these lines, but Adam Frankel’s traumatic family history and his writing talent, honed from years in the blood-stained battleground of modern-day politics, absolutely make this book stand out.

Visit Adam P. Frankel’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

I Was Born For This- Alice Oseman

Fandoms. I’ve been part of them (nope, not saying which ones!), and I’ve also been an observer of them for something I was writing in the past. They’re complex, complicated, and far deeper than most outsiders are willing to assign credit, and when I learned about I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman (Harper Collins Children’s Books, 2018), which centers on a boy band (for lack of a better term) and one fan in particular, I knew I had to read it. And it just so happens that this book fits in well with one of PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge prompts: an author in their 20’s! Voilà, two boxes ticked off right there.

Angel Rahimi has embarked on the biggest adventure of her life: traveling to London to stay with her internet friend Juliet (whom she’s never met in person) in order to attend a meet-and-greet with The Ark, their favorite band. Angel and Juliet know everything about the boys in the band, and Angel feels them on a soul-deep level. The Ark is her life, so much that she’s skipping her ‘finished with high school’ ceremony for this trip, and her family is worried. Angel’s not, but the trip almost immediately gets off to a rocky start when she learns she’s not the only internet friend at Juliet’s.

Jimmy Kaga-Ricci is one of three members of The Ark, not quite nineteen, and the fame- the crowds, the pressure, the lack of privacy and the inability to have anything even resembling a life- is starting to get to him. Panic attacks, sleepless nights, fear of fans and flying, they’re making him hate his life, and cracks are showing in his relationships with the two other band members, childhood friends of his. The Ark is up for a new contract, and Jimmy feels sick every time he even thinks about it.

When Angel’s and Jimmy’s paths collide, both of them will learn lessons they’ve needed to learn for a while now: the difference between fantasy and reality and how to face it, what authenticity looks like, who you can trust when the chips are down, and who should get to decide their futures.

Alice Oseman knows fandom. If you’ve ever been involved in a fandom, especially a music fandom, you’ll recognize how superbly researched I Was Born for This is. She taps deeply into Angel’s adoration of the band, going so far as to nearly make The Ark her sole identity and being unable, or possibly just unwilling, to connect to the people at her school and real life. Jimmy is slowly being suffocated by the fame; his bandmates have different ways of reacting, but no one is doing well with this, and Ms. Oseman paints a desolate picture of the price celebrities pay in order to put their art and music out into the world. While I’ve never been famous (I’m far too boring for that!), I’ve done a lot of reading on fame and its costs, and her portrayal of The Ark’s terrifying success is spot-on.

But what really stands out here is The Ark’s fandom. There are so many different facets to fandom, and Ms. Oseman makes sure the reader is aware of that. The soul-deep fans like Angel, the fake fans like Mac, the casual fans, the over-the-top fans, the psycho fans (I know someone who pulled up to a celebrity’s mother’s house, got out, stole a leaf from her yard, then drove off. Plenty of us in this group were horrified by this), the “I’m so in love with you!!!” fans, the fanfiction writers, the ‘shippers, the fans who are seriously there for each other, it’s all here, and it’s so, so good. This is the book I needed back in my younger days, and the book that I would’ve loved to use as research back when I was writing something that involved a fandom.

There’s a huge amount of positive representation of so many groups in this book. Angel (real name Fereshteh) is a hijabi Muslimah; Jimmy Kaga-Ricci is transgender and gay and suffers from depression and panic attacks; Lister Bird (another member of The Ark) is bisexual; Rowan (the third Ark member) is Nigerian. And with the exception of Jimmy’s mental illnesses, none of these are presented as Issues To Be Dealt With; rather, Ms. Oseman paints each character fully and then sends them on their way. Being transgender or bisexual or religious is treated with respect, but nothing is ever made An Issue (my growing-up-and-reading-YA-in-the-80’s-and-90’s self still so appreciates this; back then, everything was A Very Serious Issue, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop being grateful for characters who are something other than straight, white, cishet, etc, just going about their days and not being made a massive fuss over because they’re in a subset of humanity). It’s just characters based on real people living their lives, and it’s the kind of book I’m here for.

I Was Born for This is fun, moving, thought-provoking, and bursting with the kind of YA energy that teenagers deserve. Every time I read YA like this, I’m so jealous of the quality of writing teens are offered these days. I wish books like these, full of honest stories that speak to real teenagers, who they are and what they want and need, had been available when I was younger, but I’m even more glad that they’re available now. This book is a joy, and a treasure.

Visit Alice Oseman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

I Love You So Mochi- Sarah Kuhn

I was just thinking this morning that 2020 is an Olympics year- super fun, because I love watching summer Olympics (winter, ehhhhhh- my apologies to my Norwegian heritage)- the swimming! The diving! The gymnastics! The fifty three million games of beach volleyball! It’s a whole lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to it. I had added I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn (Scholastic, 2019) to my reading list because I needed a book set in Japan as part of PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge, but I’d forgotten that particular prompt was because the 2020 Olympics will be set in Japan! Pretty cool to get to travel there via book before I get to travel there via my television. 🙂

Kimi Nakamura loves to create clothing. Her skills as a painter lend her ideas for bold designs with bright colors, and she’s easily able to translate what’s in her sketchbook to a fully wearable unique outfit. It’s something that brings her joy and makes her feel alive. After she realizes she no longer wants to go to art school and paint professionally the rest of her life, her relationship with her mother blows up, and a plane ticket and invitation to visit the Japanese grandparents she’s never met couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Kimi’s off to Japan on a journey of self-discovery, trying to figure out what her future should look like.

In addition to getting to know her grandparents, Kimi meets Akira, a cute boy who helps out at his uncle’s mochi stand, occasionally dressed as a large mochi. Together with Akira, Kimi visits the sights around Kyoto, taking inspiration from everything she sees- including her blossoming romance with Akira- and figures out where she fits in in the world.

It’s been a while since I read a book set in Japan (I tried one last year and DNF’ed it). Ms. Kuhn’s descriptions of the places Kimi visits with Akira and her grandparents are perfection, especially her descriptions of the fabric shop (I love fabric! I don’t sew as often as I would like, but I so enjoy checking out what’s on the shelves in fabric stores). Seeing Japan through the eyes of a teenager who had never been there before was incredibly charming, as Kimi is a very engaging character who feels things deeply.

I loved Kimi’s passion for sewing. One of my favorite books growing up, Baby Sister by Marilyn Sachs, featured a main character who loved to sew and who created outfits for herself. Combine that with the fact that sewing is just such a practical skill, and I automatically enjoy a character who sews. I’m trying to think of other teen characters I’ve read that sew, and none are coming to mind (although I’m certain I’ve read them before…). Because of that, Kimi’s a breath of fresh air, creative and bubbly and fun.

There was a lot that didn’t quite work for me, though. Everyone Kimi meets in Japan speaks fluent, near-perfect English. Their receptive language is also perfect, nothing is lost in translation, and everyone is able to understand even the most complicated idioms and teenagery slang, something I found entirely unrealistic. It’s explained about two-thirds of the way through the book that her grandparents have been taking English lessons for over twenty years (the exact number isn’t named, but they took them as a family when Kimi’s mom was young and she left Japan twenty years ago; I’m assuming they kept them up on their own afterwards for their skill levels to be this high), but unless they had some sort of practical application for their language skills outside of lessons (conversation group, maybe? Working with teenagers in order to learn their slang?), I can’t see how they could have maintained that kind of level of receptive and expressive language. Akira’s fluency is never explained, which I found equally as bothersome. It’s probably expected that the reader understands he studies English in school, but again, he’s a teenager, one who wants to be a doctor and who spends his time studying obscure medical textbooks, and because of this, I didn’t buy his extremely high level of skill with the English language. (And I say this as a former ESL tutor. The nuances of language can be tough and it takes a lot of time and opportunities to practice and learn. A brief explanation of Akira’s English acquisition- lots of work with tourists! Extra lessons! His best friend once lived in an English-speaking country and helps him practice!- really would have lent some credibility here, because Kimi goes full-on slang-talking teenager with him all the time, and I couldn’t buy that he never once misunderstood her.)

Akira as a character seemed a little bland to me. His romance with Kimi is adorable, but we never really learn all that much about him. He wants to be a doctor, he’s the youngest of six siblings (I think that was the number), he feels a strong obligation to his family, and…that’s about it. Does he have friends? He never once mentions them or does anything with them, and other than the times he’s helping his uncle out at his mochi stand, he’s with Kimi. Does he have no other commitments? No other hobbies or activities?

Kimi’s journey of self-discovery is a great idea in theory, but it didn’t end up being much of a journey. In the beginning, her mother insists that fashion is just a hobby, a distraction from real art, and both she and Kimi seem entirely unaware of the many careers that exist in which a degree in fashion design, or even sewing skills, can be useful. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I point out that the end results in Kimi’s journey aren’t exactly all that surprising. Had her mother been totally against Kimi going into fashion design in the first place and Kimi worked to find the confidence to stand up to her mother and point out all the reasons why this would be in her best interest, that would’ve worked better for me.

So while a lot of this didn’t quite work for me, it was still a cute book, and Ms. Kuhn’s writing helped to create beautiful pictures of Japan in my mind, ones that I’m sure will stick with me. I’m going to have to poke around and see if I can’t hunt down some sort of sewing class (that doesn’t cost like nine bazillion dollars, looking at you, local community college…), because I really would like to be able to have skills more akin to Kimi’s…

Visit Sarah Kuhn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.