Catch-up post

A catch-up post full of mini-reviews!

Eek! You ever have months where blogging just gets away from you? This was one of those months. It’s hard cramming in everything I need to get done every day, and sometimes at night I just want to collapse and not think anymore. And thus we have here a post to catch up on all the books I missed out on blogging about. I hate doing these; each book deserves its own post, but such is life, especially these days.

Ready? Let’s do this!

I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post Holocaust Memoir by Esther Safran Foer (yes, she’s Jonathan Safran Foer’s mother) was a book I grabbed during my first library appointment, on the New Books shelf. She writes of the story of searching for the family she lost in the Holocaust, of online searches, long-distance phone calls, dusty paperwork, and lengthy plane rides to visit the site of the villages where her family once walked. It’s moving, heartbreaking, and almost miraculous at times, especially when you see the picture of her family after reading all that had been done to ensure that they wouldn’t exist.

I just happened upon Hostage by Guy Delisle, whom I’ve enjoyed in the past, at that same library trip- literally just walked by the shelf this was on, on my way to searching for something else, and this leapt out at me. He tells the true story of a man working for Doctors Without Borders when he was kidnapped in the Caucasus region and held hostage for three months. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a man chained to a radiator for that length of period would make for an engaging graphic novel, but Delisle’s sparse style makes this book an absolute page-turner.

Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares by Aarti Namdev Shahani is a memoir of her family’s experience in America: surviving as undocumented immigrants, the greencards that helped secure their status, and the things that happened that showed them how quickly it could all go up in smoke. If you haven’t read much about the nightmare of the immigration process in the US, this might be a good place to start. If her family’s story had happened today, I don’t think the outcome would have worked out so well (although *worked out well* is relative here) and that hurt my heart for all the families struggling with these kinds of situations right now, but Ms. Shahani tells her story so smoothly, it nearly reads like a novel. I’d love to hear her speak one day.

I’d avoided reading Roomies by Christina Lauren for a while, but I needed something on the lighter side during my last trip to the library and since they’re a favorite of mine, I grabbed this. Roomies tells the story of Holland, who discovers the perfect musician for her uncle’s Broadway performance, only to find that Calvin, the Julliard-trained street busker, is Irish and here illegally. In order to help her uncle and feel like she’s really contributing to the theater (where she also works), she marries Calvin to help him obtain a greencard, but of course it’s all a bit more complicated than that. I avoided this one for a bit because I felt, and still kind of feel, that it’s a little tone-deaf in light of the horrific things the US is doing to undocumented people these days, and the book never mentions any of that (mostly because, I assume, it was written before all this came to light?). The book itself is extremely well-written and I very much enjoyed both the romance and Holland learning to be her own person and design her own course in life. If you can separate this story from the disgusting reality of what happens to brown people when they’re discovered to be here without papers, it’s a great read, but it’s painful when you’re aware of the realities versus the privilege Calvin had, both due to the color of his skin and his connections once he was brought into Holland’s circle. Excellent writing, great love story, hard to square with reality.

Another Christina Lauren novel for my lighter reading enjoyment. I didn’t like Twice in a Blue Moon as much I liked Roomies. It tells the story of Tate, the daughter of one of the most famous actors in Hollywood. She’s had no contact with her dad in ten years and no one knows where she went. She spills her secrets to Sam, a boy she meets on a trip to London with her grandmother. She and Sam are falling in love and it’s something major, something special…until he betrays her. Fourteen years later, Tate is one of the most famous actresses in the world, and the screenwriter of her new project is, of course, none other than Sam, whom she hasn’t seen since London. Messy? Oh yes. Liked it, but didn’t love it; I felt like Tate and Sam didn’t have quite the same chemistry as Holland and Calvin did, but it was an okay read.

And that’s it! All caught up. It wasn’t quite as many books as I had thought. I’ll do my best to update on a regular basis next month!!!

memoir

Book review: Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy by Caitlin Myer

I’ve made it clear many times on this blog that one of my favorite kinds of books to read are memoirs about people’s experiences leaving religious groups (the more restrictive the better, but I’m open to any kind of exodus here). What makes some people leave, when others can’t imagine departing? Are there differences between the messages sent and what is received? What are the factors that aid in leaving, where is the breaking point, how do they rebuild their lives in the outside world? The psychology behind all of this fascinates me to no end, and I was so pleased to be offered a review copy of Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy by Caitlin Myer (Arcade, 2020). I don’t know that I’ve ever hit the ‘reply’ button in my email so quickly.

Caitlin Myer was born in the late 60’s into a Mormon family whose mother was plagued by bipolar disorder, spending much of her time closed in her bedroom and closed off from the hearts of her six children. Amidst that constant pain, Caitlin loses her best friend at age 7 to leukemia; her older cousin begins molesting her later on that same year. In a culture, both religious and secular, that pushes girls and women to focus on becoming wives and mothers to the detriment of all other accomplishments, she flounders, grappling for purchase onto any male that pays her the least bit of attention, regardless of the healthiness of that attachment. Often, the attachments cause her pain and impede her growth, and even leaving behind the restrictions of her birth religion and the chaos of her family doesn’t help. It’s only after years of struggle, painful life experience, and medical challenges that Caitlin begins to grow into the self she always knew she could be, beyond the restraints placed upon her as a child- not in a perfect manner, but with the deep wisdom that comes realizing that the only way to survive is to change the course of the story itself.

Wiving is prose that reads like poetry. Caitlin Myer has created a raw memoir, a full-on confessional in which she divulges her deepest secrets, with the effect of a mosaic, tiny bits and pieces that collectively add up to a singular whole of a woman who has suffered greatly to find her place in the world. Her early childhood, lost in a sea of siblings with parents focused solely on their own survival, led her to fill this void and seek out approval in the only arena she had been taught was acceptable, at the foot of any man who paid her the least bit of attention. “I never felt like I got enough attention,” she writes. “Maybe nobody ever does.” It’s hard to imagine how Caitlin’s parents could have done better in the circumstances in which they lived and were raised themselves, especially within the confines of her mother’s bipolar disorder and the lack of effective treatment at the time, but this does veer into the territory of cautionary tale for today’s reader.

Her condemnation of the patriarchy, both religious and otherwise, is worthy and on point. “It is simultaneously expected for a woman to arrange her life around a man’s needs, and shameful for her to do so,” she writes, a message echoed daily in opinion pieces which outline the impossible demands on all women- be feminine and sexy, but not slutty; have children, but not too many; have a job, but also be a perfect homemaker; be educated but don’t display your wisdom. “We have made a bright line between wife, whore, victim, and set each against the other, but they all grow from the same story,” she tells us, and it’s the truth. These patriarchal messages come in many forms, but they all absorb in a similar fashion, and the stories they create play out across cultures and societies in nearly identical ways. While Caitlin’s story isn’t a unique one, her telling is, skipping back and forth in time to create a raw tapestry of pain and growth, of decisions colored by the desires of others and choices made in the wake of her own hard-won sophistication.

This is not an easy read. There are obvious content warnings for molestation and sexual abuse, neglect, sexual assault, long-term illness and death. Ms. Myer’s pain is fresh and raw on every page, and it’s impossible not to grieve along with her for all that she’s suffered under the guise of becoming the perfect woman in the eyes of the societies in which she’s moved.

Wiving will take you on your own road of self-examination, of dissecting how the patriarchy and its constrictive rules have affected your life, life path, and behavior. We should all be as fortunate as Caitlin Myer to arrive at a place of such profound awareness and self-acceptance.

Thanks to Caitlin Myer and Kristen Ludwigsen of Mindbuck Media for the chance to read and review an advance copy of the book!

Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy is available today, July 28, 2020.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman

One of the last tasks I had to complete for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge– until my library holds come in, that is!- was to read the first book I touch on a shelf with my eyes closed. That happened to be Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman (Puffin Books, 2005). I ran across this book earlier this year, pre-pandemic, at a local thrift store. It’s a late middle-grade book and the title intrigued me. I checked the book out on Goodreads before purchasing, however; I wasn’t looking for a faith-based novel (not my particular cup of tea, personally, though I’ve read a few okay ones in the past), but the reviews didn’t trend in that direction, so I coughed up a quarter and took it home (I love that thrift store so much).

Justine Silver has recently moved out of New York City and to the suburbs, where her new best friend, Mary Catherine, is Catholic. Justine’s intrigued, and so while Mary Catherine gives up chocolate for Lent, Justine decides…to give up being Jewish. Her secret practice of Catholicism, which takes place quite literally in her bedroom closet, involves confessing her sins to her teddy-bear-turned-priest, reciting the Hail Mary (just without the Jesus parts) and taking communion, which is made up of grape juice and last Passover’s matzoh. Close enough. Justine, whose family isn’t all that observant, is looking for religion she can connect with, and she’s hoping this is where she finds it.

Stress is running high in the Silver household, however. Bubbe, her grandmother, has just had a stroke. Justine’s worried she’s not going to get better. Her search for religious understanding causes even more disruption during this turbulent time, but it’s Bubbe who restores the family’s peace and helps Justine toward the path of ultimate understanding.

So. I really enjoyed this novel about a tween’s search for religious understanding. Justine is EveryKid at age eleven, quirky, awkward, nervous about all the changes in her life, and unsure of her place in this world. She’s searching for answers and meaning, and her parents haven’t done the best job of educating her in their own traditions in a way that grounds her. She sets off on a clandestine examination of her best friend’s faith, which seems mysterious and beautiful to her, testing it out in the only way she knows how, and when her secret practice is discovered, her parents aren’t happy. Justine’s grandmother intervenes the best she can, but ultimately it’s Justine who takes the reins and finds where she belongs on her own.

I’m not sure if this would have appealed to me at the age it’s meant for. It might have; I did enjoy reading explorations of religion even back then, but there are times when I felt that Kid Me might have found the story a little too esoteric for my maturity levels at that age. This is the type of book that I think would work best as a parent-child read, where you read it together and discuss afterwards. There are a lot of good topics to cover here: are we obligated to stay with the faith we’re born into, even if it doesn’t feel like home? What does it mean to try on a new faith? At what point should kids be able to make their own religious decisions? How should a family handle a child’s religious exploration, both of their own faith (if applicable) and of one that interests only the child? This should lead to some really great parent/child or family discussions, if everyone feels free to speak openly and honestly, without fear of retribution or shame.

Confessions of a Closet Catholic is a sweet book about a girl searching for a religious identity. I’m pleased to see that Sarah Darer Littman has written a plethora of other books; I really felt she covered a lot of the bases of a religiously questioning tween here and am looking forward to seeing if her obviously deep understanding of kids that age extends to other topics and ages. Have you read this or her other works? I’d love to hear about it! ๐Ÿ™‚

(I feel like this review isn’t up to my normal standards; we bought a patio swing last week, and it turns out my old lady inner ears can no longer tolerate swinging for long periods of time. I’ve felt like I’ve been swinging for two days now, even though it’s been two days since I last got on the swing. Guess there’s a time limit for me! All that to say, it’s hard to come up with words when my brain and ears are making me feel slightly dizzy even when I’m sitting, so please forgive me.)

Visit Sarah Darer Littman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

The next 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt I had to fill was ‘your favorite prompt from a past PopSugar Reading Challenge.’ Okay, cool. Since this is the first time I’ve participated in the challenge, I had to go dig through previous years’ challenges, until I found prompt #18 from 2017: A book I’ve read before that never fails to make me smile. I knew that was the one, because I’d been looking for an excuse to reread one of my favorite books of all time: Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel (Onyx, 1994). I first read this book when I was sixteen, having purchased it on a solo trip to the nearest bookstore to my hometown, about a 30-minute drive away. I was eyebrow-deep in depression all through my teen years, and occasionally, on really bad days, I’d drive to the bookstore and soak up the atmosphere there while searching for a book to take my mind off the darkness and self-loathing in my brain. I stumbled upon this book, bought it, took it home, read it…then read it again, and again, and again, and again. It’s probably my number one reread of all time, and I’m not much of a rereader. This book never fails to make me smile.

Krissa and Danny French are siblings growing up on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. Their surroundings are both beautiful and desolate; theirs is a community whose economy depends solely on the mines. Their father, injured in a mining accident and who can now only pull light duty, is angry, sullen and violent towards Danny. Their mother is high-strung, full of criticism and only sees what she wants to see. Danny is viewed by his parents as the bad child, Krissa the good. It’s only when Krissa sees, for the first time, evidence of her father’s abuse on Danny’s skin that she begins to understand that her family is different from everyone else’s. And it’s on this occasion that things change between her and Danny.

Danny opens up to her about his plans, his goals, to leave the Range. He wants to get far away and he plans to go in style by getting into an Ivy League college. Unfortunately, his grades aren’t stellar and he needs to learn Krissa’s study habits to improve. With her help, he’s able to get himself into Princeton, but not before he convinces her to follow in his footsteps and get off the Range as well. Krissa’s not as certain as he is, but she knows she wants to see at least a little more of what’s out there. One of Danny’s tickets out is music- he’s a talented singer, a great guitar player, and his participation in choir (as difficult as it can sometimes be for a rebel like him) helps win him recommendations that lead to his college acceptance, and ultimately, change his life and Krissa’s.

At Princeton, Danny meets Quinn Hunter, the privileged son of self-involved parents. Quinn is as different from Danny as possible- he’s blond, polished, WASP-y, raised in a world of tennis lessons, sailing, and house servants. The two get off to a rough start, but Danny’s intrigued enough by Quinn to take a chance, and the two begin a friendship and a musical partnership that will take the world by storm. Danny writes the music, Quinn writes the lyrics, and together they form the band Dodd Hall (named after their Princeton dorm). In the spring, Danny’s sister comes out to visit, and with a single look, Quinn is not only smitten, he’s deeply, head-over-heels in love. And Krissa feels the same way- it’s because of Quinn that she decides to come east for school at all.

The book goes back and forth between the 70’s, during the heyday of Dodd Hall, their rise to fame and their fiery end, and the 90’s, when Krissa and Quinn haven’t spoken in 15 years and she’s divorced from someone else and has four boys, and she and Danny only speak once a month. As you inch forward with Dodd Hall’s story, you learn piece by piece what happened to them and how it affects Krissa, Quinn and Danny’s lives now. You read about the love story of Krissa and Quinn, the twisted triangle between Danny, Quinn and Krissa, and what happens when too much weight is placed on one side of that triangle. You learn how fame affects even the smallest aspects of a person’s life and how easily it can destroy everything, how fragile trust is, and how easily it can go up in smoke when manipulation enters the picture. Throughout the book are “excerpts” from “articles” in Playboy, Rolling Stone, and books on rock ‘n’ roll that really add that extra punch of realism to the story.

This is a story rich with emotion and description. At times, the writing gets a little flowery with the metaphors, but they still work well within the story to show the depth of the beauty of Krissa and Quinn’s love- before it all fell apart, of course; their breakup, if it can even be called that, was absolutely devastating to me when I first read it. I might’ve actually cried, and I know it at least made me feel sick to my stomach. It wasn’t until reading this as an adult that I fully understood exactly why Krissa did what she did and how trapped she must’ve felt. Struggling to find my identity after the birth of my daughter helped me relate to Krissa’s desperation for an identity outside the confines of Dodd Hall. The music, the fame, the love, the search for self, it all comes together to make such a wonderful, perfect book.

I never quite understood Danny when I was younger, and he’s still not my favorite. I was more like good-girl rule-follower Krissa. The book often talks about how working with your hands is soothing for the soul, and I smiled as I re-read that; it’s something I’ve incorporated into my life as an adult, but I hadn’t remembered that it came from this book (particularly the scene where Krissa’s making pierogies…which is also something I make by hand, and which I learned *could* be made by hand by reading this book. Don’t @ me, I never actually tried them until I was at least 18 and that was at college, and they definitely weren’t homemade then!). And Quinn… He was as close to a perfect romance novel hero as my sixteen year-old heart could have imagined. Rereading this helped me to realize how much Kathleen Gilles Seidel has influenced my own writing. This reread was a pure joy for me.

I own a paperback copy purchased from a used bookstore years ago, as my original copy was unfortunately lost; its pages are yellowing and the ink is a bit faded, but I will treasure it forever. Physically, the book has been out of print for years, but if you’re lucky enough to subscribe to Kindle Unlimited (I do not), you can read this book there, or pay a mere $1.99 to read it. (Many thanks to my friend Sandy for pointing this out! It gives me SO much joy knowing that people can still continue to experience the magic of this book.)

It’s been almost twenty-four years since I first read Till the Stars Fall, but the story hasn’t lost its shine for me. If you’ve read it, I would love to hear your thoughts. Or, alternately, do you have a book like this, one that you keep coming back to over and over again, that never loses its luster? What makes that book so special for you?

Visit Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s website here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Billion Dollar Cowboy by Carolyn Brown

Next up on the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge was (cue ominous music) a western. I’ve never really been a fan of that particular genre; ranching and horses and cows don’t interest me in the slightest. I had been planning on reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, but then I realized it was over 900 pages and noped out of that. Don’t get me wrong, I love big books, but my pandemic-exhausted brain seriously cannot right now. (I’ll put that one on the back burner for later, because everyone I’ve ever heard speak about that book has raved about it, so I’ll get to it at some point.) Fortunately for me, my library’s version of the Libby app had a section of all the western ebooks they own, including a whole lot of romances, which I hadn’t even thought to consider. Sure, let’s do that. After scrolling for a bit, trying to find one that both interested me AND wasn’t checked out (apparently herding cattle in Texas is a majorly popular fantasy?), I finally basically gave up and chose Billion Dollar Cowboy by Carolyn Brown (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2013).

Laura’s sister has gotten herself into gambling trouble- AGAIN- so after asking a wealthy cousin to help with a loan to pay off her debts, Laura’s taken a job at billionaire Colton Nelson’s ranch in order to pay back the money she owes. Poor Colton’s had women throwing themselves at him since he won the lottery a few years ago, so his employees (including Laura’s cousin) come up with a plan: have Laura and Colton pretend that they’re dating so that Colton is finally left in peace. Laura’s not thrilled with this, but her cousin sweetens the deal by allowing her to talk to her sister in gambling addiction rehab, so she begrudgingly agrees.

They pull the scam off, presenting themselves to the tonwsfolk as a couple head over heels in love…maybe a little too well, since it’s not long before they’re sucking face for real. Laura’s not sure what she really wants, other than her independence; Colton doesn’t need a woman, but he’s sure enjoying this one. Throw in a handful of quirky ranch employees and family members, including a mercurial 16 year-old, and everyone has an idea of what Laura and Colton should be. But their relationship is something they’ll have to figure out themselves…

Ehhhhhhhhh. Didn’t love this one. It was readable, I’ll say that. I didn’t buy the chemistry between them at all, especially in the beginning, since it was based on things like, “OMG, we both enjoy the same obscure flavor of Sno-Cone!” …really? That’s what you want to build your relationship on? I didn’t see each character as that much of a catch, either. Laura’s personality is based on being a hard worker and also bailing her sister out at every turn (and her trust issues); Colton…also had trust issues, but didn’t seem to have all that much of a personality beyond that.

And then there was a scene when Colton was dressed in “cutoff denim shorts, boots, and the shirt he’d worked in that day, unbuttoned.” Uh…I don’t think that’s quite the super hot look the author thinks it is; all I could think of after reading that was, “This guy is definitely auditioning for The Village People.” (My own father used to mow the lawn in cutoff jean shorts in the late 80’s. It was…a look.)

Follow that up with the fact that there’s ZERO CONDOM USAGE in this book. HOW ARE ROMANCE AUTHORS STILL DOING THIS IN 2020? Well, okay, I looked at the copyright when I read this and it was published in 2013- so still, NO EXCUSES! Consent is sexy. Protection is sexy. If you can write, you can find a way to make keeping your partner safe hot, because otherwise, all I’m thinking when I read scenes like that is, “Someone is definitely getting that strain of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.” That, and, “And somehow they’re still going to be soooooooooooooooooooo shocked when she turns up pregnant.” Neither of which happened in the happy-flower-kittyland of this book, but reality? Yeah, no one likes the consequences of unprotected sex. Romance authors, wrap those fictional penises up, please.

And one more nitpicky point of contention. If your first sex post-coital pillow talk includes the phrase, “We worked up an appetite, didn’t we?”, I don’t know there’s a woman in the world that’s going to find this endearing.

As far as romances go, I found this lukewarm at best. Someone must like it; Carolyn Brown has written what looks like zillions of books, so these kinds of things must work for some readers, but I’m not one of them. If you’ve read any of her other books and enjoyed them, I’d love to hear about it. I don’t want to turn away from an author after not enjoying one book (unless the book was hella problematic, and then I’ll absolutely flee). The writing here was usually okay, but the story and the characters were what didn’t work for me. If you have a Carolyn Brown book that worked for you, I’d love to hear about it!

Visit Carolyn Brown’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir

Book Review: How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

One more book down from the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and also one off my TBR (no worries, though, I’ve added like five more books since then, so it’s in no danger of getting smaller…). For this particular prompt, I needed a book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics, and the Goodreads group for this challenge pointed out that How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones (Simon & Schuster, 2019) both fit the bill and was on my TBR. Magic!

Saeed Jones, the son of a single mother, grew up in Texas. Growing up Black and gay in the South is no easy feat, and as he begins his own adult life, he struggles deeply with identity: who he is, where his sense of identity comes from, who his mother expected him to be, who his grandmother tried to force him to be, who he really wants to be. For too long, he uses sex as an escape mechanism, one that allows him to ignore the question about the things that define him, but always, always, he’s pulled back to the love his mother gave him, even through the pain of losing her.

This memoir is difficult to sum up. Saeed Jones writes about the struggle of living at the intersection of being Black and gay, but it’s more than that. His memoir is about identity, the difficulty in defining our images of ourselves amidst all the conflicting messages we receive from our families and the many cultures that surround us. Case in point: while Saeed’s mother raised him as a Buddhist, he spent summers with his very Christian grandmother, who had a very different idea of who her grandson should be than her own daughter did. His resulting search for identity, one we all go through to some degree as we transition from adolescence to adulthood, is fraught with challenges, ones that cause pain to both himself and others. Perhaps some of this is inevitable, but Saeed’s story makes it clear that it doesn’t have to be, that accepting people for who they are and allowing them to be themselves would lessen a lot of that pain considerably.

There’s strong sexual content in this book, along with multiple scenes of homophobia, and the serious illness and death of a parent. Go easy on yourself if these are things that will be difficult to read about right now.

How We Fight For Our Lives is a quick read, since Saeed Jones’s writing flows like water, but it will leave the reader with a lot to think about concerning who we are and how easily we’re able to define ourselves. If your transition from childhood to adulthood was a smooth one, where everyone accepted you at face value and allowed you to be who you needed to be, read this to learn how privileged you were and expand your sense of empathy.

Visit Saeed Jones’s website here and here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt

Another prompt for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge directed me to choose a book with more than 20 letters in its title. No problem! I went straight to my Goodreads TBR for this one, poked around, counted letters in a few different titles, and came up with The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt (Wendy Lamb Books, 2010), which clocks in at 22 letters. Success, and one more book down from both this challenge and my TBR. I love when that happens.

Levi Katznelson’s brother is coming back from the Marines. It was a shock to his entire family when Boaz signed up; everyone had been expecting him to choose one of the many colleges that had been after him, but Boaz has always had a mind of his own. His three years of service have changed him, however, and it’s evident upon his return that something is deeply wrong. Boaz retreats to his room, sleeps, uses the computer, and does little else. Levi’s bewildered; what happened to Boaz over there? Why is he like this now?

When Boaz disappears after claiming to leave to hike the Appalachian Trail, Levi knows something is up, and with the aid of his best friends, he joins Boaz on his mystery trip. He’s bound and determined to understand this stranger who has replaced his brother, but how will he manage this when Boaz can barely even look at him, much less speak?

Oof. What a heavy, important book. Dana Reinhardt has captured the hurt and confusion of a younger brother who doesn’t quite understand what his older brother is going through, and whose parents feel powerless to intervene. What do you do when the brother you always admired comes back a different person, one who is clearly suffering, but whom you can’t even get a single word out of? Boaz has been deeply affected by the things he’s done and seen during his time in the Middle East, but since the military deemed him healthy enough to successfully re-enter civilian life, his parents feel as though he just needs time. Levi, less optimistic than his parents, isn’t so sure.

My favorite character out of the whole book had to be Dov, Levi and Boaz’s cantankerous yet loving Israeli grandfather. He pulls no punches but cares deeply for his grandsons, and he adds a bit of levity and gruff, warm fuzziness to the story. Levi’s a bit of an EveryTeen, conflicted about the war, not quite sure he understands the purpose of it, unable to decide if he’s pro- or anti-war, but concerned for how much it has obviously affected his brother. He’s always been a little bit in Boaz’s shadow, and having Boaz retreat from life, leaving Levi alone, is new territory for him. In The Things a Brother Knows, Levi’s forced to grow up quickly and learn a few things about the realities of war and its affects that he never thought he’d need to know.

Sad book with a hopeful ending, but it’d be excellent reading for teens with a sibling or a parent in the military, or for teens considering the military as a career or life path. I’m in favor of people understanding all the potential outcomes of what they’re getting into (and I say this as someone who was a military wife for six years). Boaz came back physically unharmed, but emotionally, that was a different story, and Ms. Reinhardt adroitly illustrates that war isn’t just about the injuries you can see, and that it doesn’t just affect those who serve.

Visit Dana Reinhardt’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge required me to find a book set in the 1920’s. Not my favorite decade to read about, and I’m really not sure why. The fiction choices on the list weren’t really appealing to me (a lot of them were more literary fiction, and I’m not really a fan), but one book finally caught my eye: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (Penguin Press, 2010). Nonfiction? Awesome. History?Awesome. Poison? WHOA. This sounded like a pretty cool book, and I dove right in.

In a nutshell, before, during, and slightly after the 1920’s in America, everything was made of poison, deadly poison of every sort was widely available for pennies, people constantly poisoned themselves, often to death, and if they weren’t doing it to themselves, their friendly neighborhood poisoner (often a family member) would do it to them. Add to that a medical examiner’s office whose corruption and cronyism resembled something ripped straight out of today’s headlines, and you had a major mess on your hands, along with a disturbing amount of murderers running free.

Enter chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Together they revolutionized the study of forensic medicine and revealed what poisons of all sorts do to the human body in every stage. They designed and ran experiments that not only helped to identify killers, they helped educate the public on the effects of the many poisonous substances that surrounded them so that they could exercise better care in what they were consuming and so that they would be familiar with the process of forensic medicine when it came time to serve on a jury and convict a murderer. This was no easy task; Norris fought his entire career for the New York government to take his lab seriously and fund it appropriately, but the advances he and Gettler made changed the face of science forever.

This is a seriously fascinating book that nearly reads like a novel. Did you realize that the United States government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition? And when people died, instead of, you know, NOT poisoning the alcohol, they just shrugged and said, “Eh, they shouldn’t have drank it, then,” and upped the amount of poison in it!!! And the US went through a radium craze- NO, SERIOUSLY- where radium was in a ton of different products, including RADIUM WATER THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY DRANK. This worked out about as well as you might think. Like I said, basically everything was poison.

There are a lot of parallels between the society of this time period and today. Even though so much has changed, enough has stayed the same that chunks of this were really depressing. Like when men who worked in the plants that manufactured leaded gasoline began getting sick, going crazy, and dying, the owners of the plants blamed the men for not being able to handle the hard work (turns out it was the lead. Which they knew really early on). And most of us know the story of the Radium Girls who painted watch dials and died from radium poisoning after putting the tips of their paintbrushes in their mouths to make the brush pointy, a technique taught by their employers, who assured them that this was safe, then blamed the women when their jawbones and hipbones and femurs began crumbling. (It was all that promiscuous sex they were having, and not, you know, the fact that these women would glow in the dark when they went home.) There are a lot of stories like this in the book. It’s frightening, to be honest, because I kept wondering what’s being hidden from us today. (And I’m *not* a conspiracy theorist at all; there’s just enough disturbing historical content in here that it really freaked me out.)

There are so many interesting stories in this book, ones I didn’t know and never learned about in school. Deborah Blum has written a book that made the 1920’s come alive in a way they never have for me before. The Poisoner’s Handbook is information-dense, but it’s information everyone interested in American history or the creation of forensic medicine should know and understand. If you like true crime, this should probably be on your list as well, since it’ll give you a better understanding of what it took to get to today’s lab procedures that pin down whodunnit with chemistry.

SUPER cool book! I didn’t expect to enjoy this one as much as I did.

Visit Deborah Blum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly Roundup: June 2020

Month Four of this pandemic in the US, can you believe it??? And things aren’t any better. They’re actually worse in a lot of places than when this first started. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

Life hasn’t changed much for us here at the Library household. We’re still living the quarantine lifestyle, not seeing friends or family except via video chat. If there’s an errand that needs to be run, one of us is in the store and out with no dawdling, no browsing, it’s just getting what we need and getting out. Masks are worn at all times when we’re in stores (fortunately, this went into effect here on May 1st and at least where I live, almost everyone is compliant. And I feel very, very grateful for this), and we sanitize our hands before removing them. We’re doing everything we can to stay safe, but all of this feels like one of those group projects in school where one or two of them members did nothing and everyone ended up with a bad grade because of it.

But really, our day-to-day life is okay. Reading with my daughter in the mornings, playing music with my son in the afternoons, walking with the family when it’s cool enough, reading in the evenings. It’s not a bad life. ๐Ÿ™‚

Let’s recap the month’s reading, shall we?

What I Read in June 2020

  1. Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro

2. Sunny Days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and the Children’s Television Revolution by David Kamp

3. Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir) by Jackson Bird

4. A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel

5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

6. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

7. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe (no review; more on this below)

8. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

9. All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks (review to come)

10. Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

11. The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

12. The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (review to come)

Another quiet month; it’s just how my reading is going to be until life settles down. Slow and steady. ๐Ÿ™‚

I didn’t review Say Nothing because it’s so complex. It tells the story of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, something I knew very little about. This book is a wallop of information. It’s incredible, but it’s a lot to digest and took me almost a week to read. If you’re wanting to understand the Troubles, this is an excellent resource. I’ll need to read much more before I have a solid grip on this piece of history, though, which is why I didn’t feel comfortable doing a full write-up.

Nine books marked off my reading challenges, though! Speaking of which…

Reading Challenge Updates

I think I’m going to go ahead and complete the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge and call it good. Doing others would be a little too much this year, what with my reading slowing down so much, but I’m pleased that I’ve made so much progress on this one.

Here’s what that challenge looks like right now:

Two notes here:

First, when I went to look for a suggestion for ‘a book with an upside-down image on the cover, one of the suggestions was Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcรญa Mรกrquez. And since I read that back in February, you bet your behind I’m using that for this challenge!

Secondly, I realized that the prompt ‘A book set in the 1920s’ was cut off of my graphic (but not the paper I’m using to keep track with my reading binder), so I added that in at the bottom of the left hand ‘Advanced’ column.

Not looking too bad, eh? I’ve got four ebooks on hold from the library for this, although if a few take too long, I’ll probably end up picking something else, which is fine. I won’t be able to mark off the last box- Read a banned book during Banned Books Week- until September, but depending on how quickly my books come in, I may be able to tick off the rest of the books next month! Stay tuned…

State of the Goodreads TBR

Oof. 139 last month, 149 this month. That’s partly why I’m going to bow out of my other reading challenges. I’d like to get this down lower in order to keep it under control. A few years ago, it was up to 332 and I read almost 200 books from it and then tidied a few up out of there, and it was down in the 70’s, so once PopSugar is done, I’ll focus on reading more from my TBR. I’ve updated my library list based on my TBR, though, and twenty-eight of these books are available as ebooks from my library (with more than two pages total of books available through my library if we’re also including physical copies), so that’ll make this a little easier. ๐Ÿ™‚

Books I Acquired in June 2020

I stopped by a thrift store a few weeks ago (all masked up, of course!) to pick up some shorts for my daughter and also grabbed a copy of Given Up for Dead: American GIs in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Berga by Flint Whitlock. My daughter got a few paperbacks as well. There was one other mask-wearing person browsing the bookshelves, and we steered clear of each other!

Bookish Things I Did in June 2020

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, nothing. Just reading.

Current Podcast Love

I went back and forth between a few different things and have settled on catching up on older new episodes of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books, from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. It’s like returning home to old friends. ๐Ÿ™‚

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

Currently on hold.

Real Life Stuff

Sometimes it’s hard to remember what happened in the space of a month, as all the days kind of blur together! Especially now, when my kids are out of school and life is a little slower. My son sent in his application for our local community college, though we have no clue what classes will look like. My daughter is plugging along with The Magic Tree House and the Junie B. Jones series of books; she’s on #11 in The Magic Tree House and #11 in Junie B. Jones. We’re still going back and forth, each of us reading one page at a time, and I make her do some workbook pages as well to keep her learning and keep her mind occupied. It definitely helps! We also performed the dreaded chore of cleaning out her clothes on a really hot day when no one would have wanted to play outside. We ended up culling TWO huge garbage bags stuffed with clothing, and someone from Freecycle came and grabbed them off our porch that afternoon!

My son and I have been playing and singing music together in the afternoons, which has been fun. I play guitar and we sing together, and it’s been nice. He turned 18 this month, which was wild. No party, of course, but we celebrated with a key lime pie, which was delicious! I also took the old plastic coffee containers I’d been saving, spray painted them, poked some holes in the bottom, and planted flowers in there. I also filled up an old carved up tire left by the previous owner of the house with some potting soil and flowers. I’m not a flower person, but this is what happens when you’re stuck at home and can’t go anywhere! Let’s hope I don’t kill these things off.

Ignore the crack in my sidewalk…

That’s about it for this month! If these were normal times, the kids and I would have been gearing up to go on vacation to Virginia with my mother, but obviously that’s out for this year. It’s a bummer, but honestly, I’m more focused on keeping everyone safe and healthy, so really, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a disappointment but doesn’t register much more than a blip on my radar. We’ll also be missing out on the fourth of July parade we’ve enjoyed attending for years. Ah well. Such is life during a pandemic! We’re making our own fun at home, where it’s safe. ๐Ÿ™‚

July offers more of the same, only with steamy, smoking hot weather. Our library has opened back up by appointment, which is encouraging. Ten appointments per hour, and you have one hour to browse the collection. I haven’t made an appointment yet, but I probably will soon. It’ll be strange to be back in there. Speaking of which, the best thing EVER happened:

WE’RE GETTING A NEW LIBRARY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So, a few years ago, there was a referendum on our voting ballot to fund a new library or an expansion of the old, and it was voted in. Our library began talks with our park district in order to figure out how to best use the allotted land, and the park district wouldn’t budge on anything or agree to anything, and to make a very long, very frustrating story short, the library moved ahead and has decided to purchase the site of an empty supermarket about two blocks from its current location. The grocery store is old and nowhere near up to code and so it’ll be razed and a new library will be built in its location. (The library building we have now is also old, out of date, not ADA-compliant, and the HVAC system needs replacing entirely, something that wouldn’t make sense financially, considering how old and leaky the building is. It would be upwards of 83 degrees in the building even with the air conditioning running in the summer, the back wall had water and mold damage, it was just a mess and they’ve been making do for ages. Building an entirely new building and thus not having to rent an interim space while they renovate the old building will actually save them money!)

CAN YOU TELL HOW EXCITED I AM???

Seriously something to look forward to in these strange times. It’ll be a while before they get going on this, but planning is underway and I couldn’t be happier!!!

That’s it for now. Stay safe and healthy, friends. If you’re in a high Covid-19 area, take care of yourselves and others. Wear your mask (mine has fish on it!) to protect yourself and your community, wash your hands, stand for justice wherever you go, and make your own fun at home so we can get through this together and come out stronger on the other side. Love to all of you, friends. โค