As A Driven Leaf- Milton Steinberg

I’ve been aware of this book for years. I think I even picked it up and paged through it when we lived in Nashville (the main library there is seriously awesome; if you’re ever in the area, stop in and take a walk around. The collection is pretty good- some slightly dated material, but still pretty phenomenal, and the building is gorgeous. There’s even a large outside courtyard with a huge fountain, a large stage for performances and talks, and a children’s puppet theater. It’s been almost six years since I was last there, so who knows what other updates have been made since then!), but for whatever reason, I chose not to read it at the time. But during our first week in my Introduction to Judaism class, the rabbi recommended it and I figured it was finally time to pick up As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg (Behrman House Publishing, 1939). I’m always a little nervous reading older books, since I still have a little bit of holdover fear from being made to read things like The Scarlet Letter in high school (I still can’t stand Nathaniel Hawthorne), and I’ve had some not-so-great experiences with dry, dusty historical fiction, but that wasn’t at all what I found between the covers of this book.

Elisha ben Abuyah, the son of a lapsed Jew, is raised adhering more to Greek tradition in the years of Roman rule in Palestine, but when his father passes, his uncle insists he study the Law of his people. After becoming a rabbi and becoming part of the Sanhedrin, doubts about his faith begin to appear, and though he tries hard to hold on, his questions can’t be ignored. Willing to risk everything for solid answers, Elisha begins a journey of discovery, of finding irrefutable evidence of what the truth really is, but this search will have devastating effects on him, on history, and on the lives of everyone he knows and loves.

This is an incredible book, one I cannot recommend highly enough. Elisha ben Abuyah (an actual historical person, though this is a fictionalized account of his life, with much conjecture and imagining) is an engaging, thoughtful character, and the era in which he lives is vividly alive in Steinberg’s elaborate, yet not overdone, description. Elisha’s arc is tragic; his unhappy arranged marriage and his search to view faith solely through a lens of logic ends disastrously for nearly everyone, even those not immediately involved, and there are some seriously gruesome scenes in here (torture, Roman murder, and a lion-versus-gladiator fight scene that turned my stomach and had me wide-eyed while reading in public). Steinberg doesn’t shy away from the difficult realities of life under Roman rule, nor does he tone down the more hedonistic aspects of the society Elisha found himself in after his excommunication and abandoning Palestine for Antioch.

It’s difficult to elaborate how fascinating I found reading fiction set in this time period (I believe the only other book I’ve read set during Roman rule is The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth Speare George, also a fantastic read). I haven’t ventured too much into the world of historical fiction; it’s not that I dislike it, but I’ve encountered some that have been dry, and so much of it seems to be centered around World War II that As A Driven Leaf seems absolutely…modern…by comparison. A breath of fresh air in that genre, if you will, despite the book being eighty-one years old. It’s an era I haven’t literarily-traveled to that often, so I really enjoyed my journey back in time to admire Elisha’s intelligence and dedication while still wincing at his bullheaded perseverance despite the consequences. (And because of the book being set during this time, I’m counting it as my pick for the BookRiot 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt to read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII. Finally, I’m on the scoreboard with this one!)

This isn’t an easy book to review, as there’s so much going on and Steinberg’s messages are so profound, but it’s a deeply enjoyable read, one that can be read on multiple levels. It’s a glimpse into the past, an inspiration, a warning, an encouragement to search and an injunction to be prepared for the consequences. It’s thought-provoking in a multitude of ways, no matter if you agree or not with Elisha’s final conclusions. As a Driven Leaf is beautifully written and will leave you intrigued and wanting more from this thoughtful author, or at least for the book to never end.

Milton Steinberg passed away in 1950. You can see his other books here on Goodreads.


People of the Book- Geraldine Brooks

Phew! Last week was ridiculously busy, between life stuff, kid stuff, and the extra reading I have for the class I’m taking. I didn’t have a single chance to sit down and whip up any blog posts, even though I really wanted to! This week looks a little quieter, so hopefully I’ll be caught up in a few days…maybe. A few weeks ago, a lovely woman in the Facebook group for the podcast I’m currently listening to recommended People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Viking Books, 2008) to me. I’d heard of it but had never picked it up, and now seemed like just the time for such a book!

Hanna Heath has dedicated her life to preserving and restoring rare books, and she absolutely leaps at the chance to work with the famous centuries-old Sarajevo Haggadah, once thought to have been lost forever. Upon close examination, there are tiny clues- salt crystals, an insect wing, a single hair- as to where the Haggadah has been and who has owned it, sending the reader on a journey through the past to visit all the times and places it’s been. But the Haggadah’s story unearths a few hidden truths from Hanna’s life and illuminates a few paths before her that she never expected.

Bosnia, 1996. World War II Bosnia. Turn-of-the-century Vienna. Venice during the Inquisition. Barcelona during the time of the forced exile of the Jews, and Seville in the years before. People of the Book takes the reader on a journey through time, shedding light on not just the daily life of these times, but Jewish history, world history, allies and enemies, customs and mores. It’s not time travel- Hanna is never present as the reader is learning the details of the Haggadah’s past- but it has that same feel since Hanna’s restoration work and personal drama are interspersed with the Haggadah’s journey through time with each new clue she finds. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book with so much information about rare document conservation before, and I found the descriptions of Hanna’s work with the book to be really fascinating. It’s obvious that a lot of research went into not only the descriptions of what Hanna was doing, but into the history behind the Haggadah, so my hat is off to Ms. Brooks for the intensity and scope of the work that went into the writing of this book.

History is often unkind in general and has been especially harsh to the Jewish people, so there are some content warnings for this book, including murder, death (including the death of children), rape, torture, slavery, and probably other things that I’m forgetting. There’s also a brief mention of a young adolescent being raised as a gender different from what was assigned to them at birth, as was occasionally the custom in their group at the time, but a mention of rape follows after this, so take care of yourself if these aren’t subjects you’re comfortable reading at this time.

People of the Book is an incredible read. It’s history that seems fresh, possibly because so much of what Ms. Brooks covers in the book hasn’t necessarily been overdone in fiction (or, if it has, I haven’t noticed!), and definitely because her writing style pulls the reader in so well, placing them directly in each period and surrounding them with the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the emotions prevalent in each era. The Haggadah’s travels bring the reader through so many different time periods that the reader is always kept wondering where it will turn up next, what excitement, what tragedy it will be witness to. I’m a little surprised I never picked this up before, but again, I think this book found me at exactly the time I needed it and was ready for it. I love when that happens. 🙂

Have you read any of Geraldine Brooks’s other books? I have a copy of Year of Wonders on my bookshelf right now; I’ll get to it eventually! People of the Book was my first book of hers, but I’m absolutely planning on reading more. I’ve kind of shied away from historical fiction in the past; I think I had a few bad experiences with the genre when I was young (looking at you, seventh-grade unit on Johnny Tremain) and that made me leery in general, but I need to move beyond that and cozy up to more of these great books by Geraldine Brooks and other authors, because reading this was an experience I want more of!

And, as luck would have it, People of the Book fits the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a map! There’s a lovely map in the book that details the travels of the Haggadah, so I’m happy to not only read a great book, but tick another box off on this challenge. 🙂

Visit Geraldine Brook’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

historical fiction

The Only Woman in the Room- Marie Benedict

It’s a new year, so that means new ambitions, and I’ve resolved to go back to the library book discussion group! I got away from it last year after schedule conflicts and being sick, but with my daughter being in school, I can always hit the Wednesday afternoon group if I have a schedule conflict with the Thursday night group. This month’s selection was The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019), a fictionalized account of the life of Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-American actress and inventor of a radio frequency-hopping system for torpedoes. And because of her inventions, which were eventually used by the Navy and which formed the basis of today’s wi-fi, I’m counting this as PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book about or by a woman in STEM.

The novel covers Hedy’s life from about age nineteen, during the height of her Austrian stage career and just as she was beginning her courtship with Friedrich Mandl, an arms dealer and one of the richest and most powerful men in Austria, through the middle of the Second World War. Even before their marriage, red flags abound, and Mandl quickly turns out to be violent, abusive, and controlling, even going so far as to lock her in their ostentatious home. Hedy uses her intellect to gather intel from various visiting guests, occasionally earning Mandl’s favor, but it’s never enough to change him into the husband she’d hoped he would be. During her house arrest, she learns as much as she can about munitions and radio technology, feeding the insatiable curiosity she developed as a child listening to her father explain the world.

Her flight from the encroaching Germans and her marriage lead to her eventual move to the US, where her film career takes off. Desperate to help the Jews of Europe during this dark time, she works with a musician friend to invent a better torpedo system, but Hedy’s pretty face and the intense sexism of the time lead to nothing but rejection and dismissal.

Hedy Lamarr’s story is one of both triumph and tragedy, and both are shown in Ms. Benedict’s book, though her portrayal of Lamarr’s life ends during World War II. The chapters are fairly short, which makes this an easy read, but I really wish it had gone into more detail and shown more depth. There’s so much to fit in here that the story occasionally feels rushed and devoid of emotion, and there’s so much of Lamarr’s life that she didn’t cover. Her studies and thirst for knowledge are mentioned only incidentally and feel a bit glossed over. During her later life, a period not covered by the book, Lamarr had multiple marriages (only two are covered here; she had six total) and had an estranged relationship with her children (the parentage of one seems to be a controversy, which also isn’t mentioned here and which I was surprised to learn about in further research). A botched plastic surgery led to her becoming a recluse, and she never really gained the recognition for her intellect that she so badly craved.

What the book does cover, however, albeit it a little more blandly than I think deserves, was her shockingly abusive marriage to Friedrich Mandl (obvious content warnings exist for this, including several on-page rape scenes, though none of them are descriptive). Half the book is devoted to her imprisonment at his hands, and it’s a sad, depressing tale, though her resilience is admirable. Mandl is a whole sack of trash, however, switching loyalties based on who makes him the most money and being hideously controlling, jealous, and abusive to his wife. Her mother is no help either, averting her eyes and citing ‘wifely duties’ whenever Hedy shows up for a visit at home covered in bruises.

This book brought to mind a library book discussion group pick from last year, Circling the Sun by Paula Mcclain. Hedy Lamarr and Beryl Markham had a lot of similarities: multiple marriages, estrangement from their children, tense (or nonexistent) relationships with their parents, authorship controversies surrounding books each had written. I’m wondering if this selection was on purpose, in light of our group having read this last year, and I’m really looking forward to the discussion on this particular point.

While I enjoyed this book for giving me a glimpse into Hedy Lamarr’s life, I wish it had gone into greater detail and covered more of her life. What a fascinating, tragic woman.

Visit Marie Benedict’s website here.


Daisy Jones & The Six- Taylor Jenkins Reid

Everywhere I turned this spring and summer, it seemed like everyone was reading Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Ballantine Books, 2019), and with good reason. Having grown up listening to my father’s classic rock music (he had, literally, thousands of CD’s when I was young, the best music collection I’ve ever seen), a fictionalized account of an up-and-coming rock group bringing in an up-and-coming singer-songwriter and collaborating to make one iconic album before self-destructing, told in interview format, sounded amazing. The only time the library had a copy available, I already had five or six (or more…) books at home, waiting to be read, and I couldn’t justify adding another to the pile, but lo and behold, it was my lucky day when a copy showed up on the Lucky Day shelf at the library a few weeks ago. I grabbed it and blew through the book in a few days.

The Six, a rock band headed by recovering (after a while!) addict Billy Dunne, is young, hungry, ambitious, and full of promise. Their first album did well and they toured successfully. They share their origin story, two brothers working together to form a band, pulling in friends and newcomers until they find their perfect sound, working together until they make it. But what really makes them shine is collaborating on a single with California wild child Daisy Jones. Daisy’s been known on the Sunset Strip since her early teen years; sex, drugs, more drugs, and rock stars have been her thing from the beginning, but she’s talented, in both singing and songwriting, in her own right. After some major deliberation, when their collaborative single skyrockets up the charts, she’s in the band, but it’s not without major, MAJOR drama.

She’s an addict while Billy fights every day to stay clean. She’s fire and ice, and Billy’s married with kids. She wants one thing, Billy wants another (and the rest of the band is an entirely different story). Daisy Jones and the Six go from one extreme to another, until it’s too much and the entire thing blows like a volcano. Their story, from exciting beginning to overly dramatic ending, isn’t one you’ll want to miss.

Daisy Jones & The Six is told in interview format, the entire thing. If you were around for VH1’s Behind the Music, it’s like watching an episode of that, but in book form, and it’s SO much fun. I adored that show, I adore rock history (I nearly died the day I was listening to NPR and they introduced their ‘rock historian,’ Ed Ward. I was like, “That’s a JOB??? How can I apply????”), and thus I adored this book. Taylor Jenkins Reid obviously loves all these same things and it shows in how much research she’s put into this book and how well she’s captured the zeitgeist of the 70’s, not only with music and drug references, but with speech patterns, clothing choices, behavior… So many times, I sat back, grinning at how well she nailed all of this.

I was so happy to see that she referenced Stevie Nicks in the acknowledgements; I had Daisy pegged as a Stevie Nicks-like character from the beginning of the book, based on her wild ways and her unique, husky singing voice. I listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac in high school (everyone else was listening to grunge and alternative and I was over there blasting Rumours and every Jackson Browne album on my CD player), and Daisy’s story with The Six fit in so well with what I know of bands of that era. The constant drug use, the terrifying ups and downs of fame, the highs and lows of working with so many different personalities, all of whom are fighting for the spotlight; Taylor Reid Jenkins absolutely nails it all. From time to time, parts of it reminded me of Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel, which is probably my favorite book of all time- it also follows a rock group through the 70’s, its origin and breakup, and the fallout it caused for each member, focusing mainly on the romance between one band member and another’s sister (which sounds trite, but it’s not). It’s a novel heavy with emotion, and while it’s a romance, it’s also very much centered on our sense of identity and what we need to keep it intact. I read it mostly as a romance when I first read it at 16; as I grew older, I came to understand the female MC’s feelings of suffocation so much more. It’s an amazing book, so for Daisy Jones & The Six to evoke nostalgia for that book is a testament to how wonderful Daisy and company really are as characters.

Such a great book; I’m so happy I finally got to read it. That Lucky Day shelf really came through for me!

Visit Taylor Jenkins Reid’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · science fiction · time travel

Kindred- Octavia Butler

I’d heard of Kindred by Octavia Butler (Beacon Press, 1979) before; it was the first science fiction novel written (or published, maybe) by a black woman, which is huge. Since I’ve never really been a big sci-fi fan, I never really considered reading it until Anne Bogel recommended it on an episode of What Should I Read Next. As soon as she started to describe the plot, I sat up out of bed in the dark, looked Kindred up on Goodreads, and hit that Want-to-Read button. I. Was. In.

Dana, a black woman, has barely moved into the new house with her white husband when she finds herself thrown back in time to antebellum Maryland, just in time to save a young boy from drowning. The act of doing so nearly gets her killed by the boy’s parents and she returns to her own time with seconds to spare. She’s barely back before it happens again: she’s thrown back to the past to save this boy’s life again, and she comes to realize she’s there to keep him alive, distasteful as he and his slave-owning family can be, long enough to father the child who will become her great-grandmother.

The biggest challenge is, of course, learning to live as a slave. The literal backbreaking work, having no power or control over one’s life, the whippings, the constant disparagement, watching families split apart when someone is sold, it’s almost more than Dana can bear, but she just has to hold on until this despicable boy can become her great-great-grandfather…

What a mesmerizing book. During one of the trips, Dana’s modern day husband, Kevin, is dragged back with her. He poses as her owner, and there are unforeseen consequences that I won’t spoil that really make this novel shine. The descriptions are, on occasion, stomach-turning, and they should be; slavery was a horrible stain in American history and its consequences live on today, so Kindred and books that depict these horrors definitely need to be more widely read. I’m sorry that it took me this long to get to it.

Ms. Butler does a fantastic job at portraying Rufus, the boy who grows up become Dana’s great-great-grandfather, as both a decent human being and a hideous monster. I didn’t quite understand how Dana was able to keep herself from fully hating him, after seeing all the pain he and his terrible father inflicted on the slaves; I’m not sure I could do that, and maybe I’m all the worse for not being that kind of person, I’m not sure. Maybe it was what Dana did in order to survive her time in the past. Either way, though Dana tried her best to influence Rufus to be a better person, both for her sake and for the sake of the slaves on the plantation, for whatever reason, it didn’t take, and his behavior, along with that of his father, is often monstrous.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Race relations, class, women’s issues, politics, I think I could reread this and still miss quite a bit, because it’s an absolute tapestry of complexity. This is one of those books that I feel like almost anything I say will result in a massive spoiler; if history intrigues you, this is your book. Don’t let the sci-fi label fool you. There are no aliens, no space ships, no dystopian societies with robot overlords. This is time travel, pure and simple and terrifying, and it makes for a powerful novel that everyone should read.

Octavia Butler passed away in 2006.

Visit her website here.

historical fiction

The Solace of Water-Elizabeth Byler Younts

After finishing (and loving!) a novel about an older woman having a relationship with a mega-famous boy bander, I turned around and fell into a multiple narrative historical fiction about grief and an unlikely friendship between three hurting women, two black (one a teenager), one Amish, in the 1950’s.

Is literary whiplash a thing? It should be. But it’s not a bad thing. I’m a big fan of reading widely, reading weirdly, reading all sorts of stories, fiction and non, and there’s nothing I like more than reading stories by people who are different from me, or who live differently than I do. The world is such a fascinating place. The Solace of Water by Elizabeth Byler Younts (Thomas Nelson, 2018) ended up on my TBR list thanks to another blogger’s review, and I’m glad it did, because it’s a lovely read.

Dee Evans is grieving hard after the accidental drowning of her four year old son Carver. Her older daughter, Sparrow, was tasked with watching him that day and got distracted by a boy; now Carver’s gone, Dee is nearly paralyzed with grief and barely able to tolerate being near Sparrow, and the whole family is moving to Pennsylvania, where Dee’s husband will take over preaching at his childhood church. Things are different in Sinking Creek: not necessarily better, but different, and Dee isn’t sure how to relate to the white townsfolk when there are no signs telling her what she can and can’t do.

Her Amish neighbor Emma is another mystery. While Emma’s church’s stance is to not get involved in the racial tension amongst the English, Emma can’t help but find herself drawn first to Sparrow, then Dee. Emma carries multiple heavy burdens of her own and recognizes the pain that her new neighbors carry. Sparrow, however, is carrying more pain and stress than she lets on. While she strikes up an innocent but secret romance with Emma’s son Johnny, she also copes with other, more unhealthy measures, ones that will almost cost her everything when her pain, Dee’s grief, Emma’s desperation, and the town’s racial tension come to a head.

First off, major content warnings for this book. Child death via drowning, stillbirth, alcoholism, self harm, and racial tension and violence are all front and center in this book. If now is not a good time for you to read about these subjects, be gentle with yourself and choose something easier on your soul.

Dee’s grief is a terrible burden, and her anger at Sparrow is perhaps even worse. Because Carver’s death happened on Sparrow’s watch, Dee’s inability to forgive her daughter and Sparrow’s guilt combine to make an absolutely gut-wrenching maelstrom of emotion. At times, each woman’s anguish and desperation are tough to read, but Ms. Younts handles it with aplomb. Also carefully treated is the tension between blacks and whites that simmers in the town; it hadn’t occurred to me that black people who moved from the overtly racist, pre-civil-rights-era south, might be confused and apprehensive about the rules of the not-as-overtly-racist-but-still-very-racist north, and I appreciate the perspective on that that this gave me. I still have so, so much to learn.

Emma’s burden, while different, is no less. Her pain over the loss of her infant daughter, combined with so many years of keeping both her husband’s and her own secret, alienated her from her family, her community, and what she truly wanted in life, and it was easy to both sympathize with her pain and feel her joy at the connection she made with Sparrow and so desperately wanted to make with Dee. While I have no desire to be Amish, reading the descriptions of Emma’s simple ways resonated with me and ended up affecting my next book choice! I love when that happens.

With Emma being Amish and Dee being a preacher’s wife, The Solace of Water is heavy on Christianity and Christian themes like forgiveness, but without being heavy-handed. Thomas Nelson is a Christian publisher, yet I didn’t find this to be overly preachy or even overly religious; the religion and beliefs of the characters are merely part of their lives and not something the author is trying to sell to her readers, which was something I very much appreciated.

The Solace of Water is a cathartic novel, full of pain, desolation, secrecy, and the capacity for suffering and loneliness, but ultimately, it’s a novel of friendship, forged connections, redemption, and forgiveness of self and others. I’m so happy that it ended up on my TBR list, because despite its heavy subject matter, it made for a thoroughly enjoyable weekend read.

Visit Elizabeth Byler Younts’s website here.

historical fiction

Sold on a Monday- Kristina McMorris

You know that feeling when you’re about to return a library book and you realize you haven’t taken a picture of it yet, but it’s a really sunny day and you’re in the car and there’s a glare, but you still need that photo?

Behold the photographic evidence of that feeling.
(My apologies for the terrible photo. I mean, my regular photos aren’t great either- all I have is my cell phone- but this one? Yikes.)

So, one of the tasks for this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge is ‘a book you chose for the cover.’ I’ll be frank: I almost never notice book covers, at least not enough to be drawn in or turned away by them. Solves the problem of judging a book by a cover, doesn’t it? I’m far more likely to pick up a book because the title intrigues me, and fortunately, there’s no pithy saying that condemns me for judging titles. 😉

As my library lines new books up with the spine exposed and no cover showing, when I was there trying to find a book specifically for this task, I was forced to yank books out one by one, squinting at the covers and hoping something would pull me in. The little guy on the cover of Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2018) did, and into my pile this went. I’d heard about it on another blog; that blogger had had issues with the book, but the premise still interested me enough to give it a try.

Ellis Reed is barely what you could call a reporter. He works for a newspaper, anyway, desperate to move up the ranks, but so far, all his efforts have been for squat. He’s thankful to have any job since the Crash, but he knows he’s capable of so much more. One of the pictures he took recently, however, definitely has a story behind it: a sign in front of a ramshackle house, advertising two children- two boys– for sale. When Lillian Palmer, an overworked secretary with dreams and secrets of her own, shows the boss Ellis’s photo, he agrees that Ellis should write up the story behind it. When the photo is damaged beyond use, Ellis, frantic to prove himself, returns to the scene of the photo, and, unable to recreate it, uses two neighbor children, a brother-sister pair, as stand-ins. What Ellis isn’t expecting is for his story to go whatever the Depression-era version of ‘viral’ is. Suddenly, his photo and story are everywhere, and this has terrible consequences for those two neighbor children. Gutted by the news and plagued by a deep feeling of responsibility, Ellis enlists Lillian’s help, and together, they’ll risk everything in order to make things right again.

There is a LOT going on in this book. Ellis wants nothing more than to prove to his gruff, doubtful father that he can make it as a reporter, but he can barely make rent each month, let alone afford food. Lillian’s got a secret son stashed at home in another city with her parents; she lives in a boardinghouse during the week and travels home every weekend to visit him. She’s trying to save up enough money to be able to afford her own place, where she can live with her son full-time and maybe pretend she’s a widower to escape the shame of being a single mother in the 1930’s, but she also has dreams of doing some reporting of her own. There’s a tepid romance, then a better, more well-suited one, but wait, it’s actually a love triangle of sorts, kinda. Ellis wades into some involvement with various members of the mob in order to gain sources for his reporting. Everyone’s bosses act as though they have shorts full of angry tarantulas, there’s tuberculosis and an asylum, shame, guilt, trauma from the past, several cases of buying children, a temperamental car, abusive parents, an orphanage, child loss, potential career loss, time spent in jail, delusions that makes it okay to replace your dead child with another random one, breaking and entering, an enabling banker spouse, a mobster brother… Are you following all of that?


Is your head spinning? Are you squinting at the words, unable to follow along?

That’s how I felt when I was reading this. I was about a hundred pages in when I started wondering if maybe it was me. Was I heading into a reading slump? Had I been spending too much time online lately and thus lost my ability to focus well? (That happens sometimes.) I’d read for a bit, but I kept getting pulled out of the story and couldn’t quite stick with it. I decided to push through, as the writing is good, so that helped. It wasn’t until I was probably about three-quarters of the way through the book where I was finally able to breeze through the rest of it to the end, and beginning my next book, I had no problems focusing.

Wasn’t me.

While I do enjoy characters having complex lives and backstories, this was maybe a little *too* much complexity, at least for me. Though Lillian is definitely a sympathetic character, Ellis veered a bit towards too calculating, too desperate for power for my tastes. It’s a compelling story, based on a real photograph, and while that should have made for a deeply emotional reading experience, this just didn’t pull me in in the way I had hoped it would.

Do you read books just because of the cover? I have to say, this didn’t quite help inspire me to do that again!

Visit Kristina McMorris’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Ahimsa- Supriya Kelkar

I love books set in India. It seems like such a diverse, complex place, and the Indian authors I’ve read always do such a wonderful job of surrounding me with the sights and sounds and colors of their country. And the descriptions of the food are almost always enough to send me running to my favorite local Indian restaurant (fun fact: when I was pregnant with my daughter and suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, which is basically ‘morning’ sickness that can kill you, I was reading a book set in India and the descriptions of food had me feeling like I could actually eat that food and not be sick. And it was true! It was only a small amount, really, but it was delicious and that made me so, so happy, because I could barely eat anything else at all). All that to say that in the Book Riot 2019 Read Harder Challenge, one of their suggestions for a children’s or middle grade book that has won a diversity award since 2009 was Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar, and I was happy to discover that one of my local libraries had it waiting on the shelves for me.

It’s 1942 and India is still under British rule (and once I picked this book up, I realized I’d gone from one book about colonization to another…). Mahatma Gandhi has asked families to give one family member each to the fight for freedom, and ten-year-old Anjali is horrified to learn that it’s her mother who will be that one person. While the movement is centered around ahimsa, or non-violence, Anjali knows people who have died and can’t imagine losing her mother. Her becoming a freedom fighter means big changes for the family, starting with discarding all the clothing made from the Indian cotton that the British spun in England and sold back to Indians at a high price, in favor of wearing only homespun Indian garments. Anjali isn’t happy about this at all, nor is she thrilled when her mother begins working with the Untouchables, the people of the lowest caste. Because it’s not just the British who need to change; Indian society must make changes of their own, as Anjali and her family learn.

This is a story of one step forward, two steps back, as it seems every story about the struggle for freedom is. Anjali’s parents make mistakes and eventually correct themselves and grow; Anjali begins to question things she’s been taught her entire life to be true. While Anjali is Hindu, her best friend Irfaan is Muslim, and though their differences have never been an issue in the past, they become a source of strain as Hindu-Muslim tensions rise under the struggle for freedom from colonial rule.

This is a fascinating look at India in its final years of British rule, as seen through the eyes of a child and her family who are learning to question everything. It’s lovely and intense and frustrating and frightening all at the same time. Anjali is a typical headstrong ten-year-old who is forced to grow up a little too quickly thanks to the times, and her parents are inspiring, both for their dedication to the cause of a self-ruling India and for their growth and their ability to admit when they’re wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything set in this particular time period in India, so Ahimsa opened my eyes to both the struggle for freedom and that gap in my knowledge (and I’m definitely interested in learning more). This would be a really great parent-child read-aloud for anyone interested in India (or for homeschoolers doing a unit study on the country). It’s a complex book, and while I think I would have enjoyed at when I was younger, I think a lot of it would have gone over my head.

If this review isn’t up to my usual standards, I apologize. I was all ready to write this up on Monday and then my daughter started throwing up…and then I started throwing up. It’s been pure misery around here, and even sitting up for too long is exhausting (and I’ve got two more reviews to write). I haven’t gotten any reading done because holding the book has been too difficult! Like I said, MISERY. I’m ready to feel better soon! Needless to say, I probably won’t be running off to my favorite Indian restaurant quite yet, mostly because even just walking across the room makes me dizzy and out of breath. Maybe when I get better. 🙂

Do you find that there’s a particular country you just really love reading about? I’d love to hear about it!

Visit Supriya Kelkar’s website here. (And she has a new book coming out in 2020 that looks AWESOME, so I’m looking forward that!!!)

Follow her on Twitter here.

historical fiction

Circling the Sun- Paula McLain

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain is this month’s library book discussion group (meeting will be next Thursday; it’s early this month thanks to Easter, so I felt like I was scrambling to get this read). I read the little blurb in my library’s quarterly newsletter and learned the basics before checking out an ebook from my library’s website: it’s historical fiction set in Kenya, about a woman who was unconventional for her time. Probably not something that I would have picked up on my own, but that’s one of the reasons I decided to join this group. Always good to keep testing yourself and expanding your boundaries.

Circling the Sun portrays the life and times of Beryl Markham, a successful female horse trainer in an era where women didn’t do that, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, and, later in life, an author. She grew up with only her father, her mother having left Kenya for England with Beryl’s younger brother in tow, and spent most of her childhood with Kipii, a boy from the Kipsigis tribe who lived nearby. Her years of running wild, barely receiving any education whatsoever, molded her into a headstrong woman who struggled against each and every convention of the day.

When Beryl’s father’s farm fails, her choices are either to leave the land she loves behind, or marry an older neighbor she barely knows (she’s only sixteen at the time). Beryl can’t imagine living anywhere else, and thus begins her disastrous marriage to Jock Purves. It’s not long before she leaves him behind and works as a horse trainer for her father’s friend and former neighbor. While Beryl does find success with her horses, colonial Kenyan society has a difficult time accepting a woman who doesn’t fit into the conventional mold of a society wife and Beryl finds herself starting over again and again.

Interspersed through Beryl’s ill-fated long-term relationship to Frank and second marriage to Mansfield Markham (during which she gives birth to a son; according to the book, the father basically steals him from her on the threat of ruining her reputation permanently, but from what I’m reading online, the actual history may differ) is her friendship with Karen Blixen, the woman who would later become the well-known author Isak Dinesen. Both Beryl and Karen maintain long-term romantic entanglements with Denys Finch-Hatton; although Ms. McLain notes afterwards that there’s no historical evidence that the two women ever engaged in a confrontation over this, she does takes some liberty and invents one.

I’m not sure what to think about this book. This is the second book I’ve read this year that features white people in Africa, and I kind of feel like I need a deep, long read of #ownvoices books in order to wash off the stain of colonialism. I know that it’s history, but there’s only so much I can take of reading about people coming into a land that isn’t theirs and turning the native inhabitants into second-class citizens (if that). That’s not the fault of this book or the author and in no way reflects on this book as literature, but…oof.

Beryl’s life is definitely intriguing, and I think in many ways she did the best with what she had. Both parents abandoned her at early ages, leaving her with few skills to support herself; poverty always loomed around the corner; the gossipy colonial society in which she lived was quick to turn on anyone who stepped even the slightest bit out of line. I found almost everything about the era and society in which she lived deeply unpleasant and suffocating, and it didn’t seem like any of the other women in the story fared much better than Beryl. Every woman had to make deep concessions and compromises in order to survive (maybe this is why 1920’s colonial Kenya looked disturbingly like a sex-obsessed 1970’s key party??? Seriously, I was NOT expected that and was…kind of weirded out, to be honest. Not in a sexual freedom kind of way- do your thing, man- but in a ‘DISEASES! DISEASES, PEOPLE!!!’ kind of way. If you read the wikipedia entry on Karen Blixen, it does talk about her contracting syphilis from her husband, which led to long-term problems), and seriously, the subtitle of this could be “Men Are Power-Hungry, Misogynistic Jerks.” The only decent male character in this story was, I think, Ruta (Beryl’s childhood friend Kipii, who took on a new name as he reached adulthood). Circling the Sun is well-written, but I think I’m just not a fan of reading about this particular era, and upper-crust colonials in general (even typing out that phrase, I’m wrinkling my nose. Ugh). In any case, this should make for some interesting discussions next week at the library.

How do you handle reading some of the more unsavory bits of history? I’ve got a stack of library books that will fulfill some of the Read Harder Challenge requirements, so I’m hoping those feel a little better than this.

Visit Paula McLain’s website here.