FINALLY! A Book Worth Writing About

A year has passed since I wrote my last book review. In that time, I have read dozens and dozens of books, but nary a one has motivated me to write a review.

Don’t get me wrong; some have been really good. Less by Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer, deservedly. But with all that hype, nothing I could have written in a review would have made you read it if you hadn’t already. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is delightfully quirky . . . so long as you’re into that particular brand of Japanese fiction in translation. You know, like Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. Oh, you don’t know? Yeah, that’s why I didn’t write the review. And You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld is a delightful collection of short stories. But nine out of ten people don’t like reading short stories, and ten out of ten don’t like reading my reviews of short stories.

And let’s be real: nobody cares about all the slightly better-than-average books I read (least of all me). I’m looking at you, Scythe by Neal Shusterman (a fun, dark utopian concept that is utterly ruined by its garbage follow-up, Thunderhead), the much-beloved A Gentleman in Moscow (which doesn’t hold a candle to Towles’ incredible debut, Rules of Civility), An American Marriage (well-written, thought-provoking, and worth reading for its timeliness, but just real damn depressing), and All the Answers (a “graphic memoir” about the Quiz Kid, which I sped through in the hour after I brought it home from the library, but which wouldn’t appeal to a wide audience because of its format).

Worse yet are the books that should’ve been good and just weren’t. This is where I waggle my finger at Turtles All the Way Down, Everything I Never Told You, Underground Airlines, and Us Against YouAnd the brain candy books (of which there is an embarrassing number, including To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Caraval, The Impossible Fortress, The Elizas) didn’t warrant the brain power necessary to crank out a review.

Sooooo, I bided my time.

And then I happened upon this little gem. In the first five pages, I heard the angels sing. This, I knew, was something special. I crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t peak at page sixty-five and begin a rapid descent to garbagetown as so many books do. And, glory of glories, it didn’t. Continue reading

The Return of the Full-Length Review: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

I went to a very small (as in, the entire undergraduate student body was smaller than my high school’s senior class) liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon. I had grown up in Virginia, so my school shouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar. But when I told people where I was going, the response was always, “Wait. That sounds familiar. Why does that sound familiar?”

Why, indeed? Well . . . this was roughly two years after the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal broke. And I was going to Lewis and Clark College, Lewinsky’s alma mater. In those days, Lewinsky was such a household name that even her teeny college became familiar to the masses.

Fast forward twenty years, and Monica Lewinsky is still a household name, forever associated with cigars and a stained Gap dress. Google her, and you’ll find a TIME “article” entitled “Top 10 Mistresses.” Do a search for “slut-shaming,” and one of the top hits will be a blog post entitled “The Truth about Slut-Shaming” with a picture of Lewinsky as its hero image.

Last year, Jon Ronson (author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) wrote an article about Lewinsky in The Guardian in which she is quoted as saying, “The shame sticks to you like tar.” But, thankfully, the article contains a glimmer of hope: “Lewinsky was once among the 20th century’s most humiliated people, ridiculed across the world. Now she’s a respected and perceptive anti-bullying advocate. She gives talks at Facebook, and at business conferences, on how to make the internet more compassionate.” 

Unknown.jpegYoung Jane Young
Gabrielle Zevin
304 pages
Published August 22, 2017

Rating: 4/5

Young Jane Young is about Aviva Grossman, a fictional Monica Lewinsky. As a college-student intern, she has an affair with her boss (an attractive, married Congressman with two kids). Oh, and she naively decides to document their lurid affair in an “anonymous”–and very explicit–blog. Continue reading

Time to Play Catch-Up

My last post was at the end of August. Yipes. I can make a lot of excuses (my daughter turned one, and I threw a huge shindig; holidays and houseguests; lots of baby time, not as much me time), but the truth of the matter is this: I just haven’t felt like wasting my time writing reviews of mediocre books.

So, I’ve made an executive decision. I will not write reviews of mediocre books. I have a massive stack of to-be-reviewed books, and I have pared it down to four: two books that you should read and two books that you might think you should read but you absolutely should not read. The rest? They are going straight to Little Free Libraries around town without being reviewed. Done and done.

To celebrate the new year, I’m giving myself a clean desk. And I’m giving you these four reviews! Continue reading

When You Can’t Go to a Restaurant, You Have to Settle for Reading about One (or Two)

My daughter was diagnosed as milk- and soy-protein intolerant when she was about three months old. She was exclusively breastfed, which meant I had to cut all dairy and soy from my diet cold turkey. This meant, of course, giving up my very favorite food: ice cream (yes, I am a child). Despite the massive amounts of dairy I consumed (cheese, yogurt, and ice cream every day), it was surprisingly easy to give it all up.

On the flip side, there was one thing that was very, VERY hard: bidding adieu to eating out. When we first found out, we still tried to go to restaurants. But, even when we called ahead to warn them of our allergies, I always ended up inadvertently consuming something (there are tell-tale diaper signs, the details of which I will spare you). We realized that the only way to ensure she wasn’t getting anything bad was to cook all of our meals at home. Let me tell you: when you have an infant, cooking every single meal at home is not ideal.

We’re still powering through. Our repertoire of dairy-free meals has grown exponentially, and we have become slow-cooker champions. There are still days when my husband and I look at each other and say, “UGH. I wish we could just go out to eat tonight. I do NOT feel like cooking,” but, for the most part, it hasn’t been too bad. And, when I need a little restaurant fix, I just watch Chef’s Table on Netflix or read a restaurant book like these two. It’s not the same, but it will have to do for now. Continue reading

Circus Mirandus

IMG_7093When you have a kid, there are certain expenses that you anticipate, like diapers (our sweet girl averaged about twenty diapers per day in her first several weeks) and clothing (she is now five months and transitioning into nine-month clothes. Babies grow fast. You’re lucky if you get two wears out of that adorable outfit on which you spent $35 dollars).

I did not anticipate, however, that I would be spending gajillions of dollars on books for her. Already. But I probably should have. Our amazing friends and family threw us two showers that requested books instead of cards (like this one), and her room is FILLED with books.

IMG_7094Santa even brought a new bookcase for her first Christmas to accommodate the growing number of tomes. Nevertheless, I still find myself buying at least a couple books every week. Books are lovely. I can’t help myself.

Right now, we read a lot of mind-numbing board books (we’re trying to drill letters, numbers, colors, and shapes, after all). But we also get to read her some glorious pictures books. She can turn the pages on the board books and, if she’s in a particularly good mood, she can pay attention through one or two picture books.

Before long, we’ll be able to read her some chapter books. And I’m keeping a mental list of ones I can’t wait to read to her (nothing on this list will surprise you):

And now I can add a new book to that list! Continue reading

This Week in Books: Late Night Porch Talks with the Dead, Depression-Era West Virginia, and an End-of-Life Alaskan Cruise

This week’s books, despite their very different styles, settings, and plots, share a common trait:

First, you’ve got Thomas, a well-respected neurosurgeon, who has taken to spending his nights having long conversations with his dead mother. Then there’s Jottie, who lives for the brief and precious moments she spends with her long-dead love, Vaughan. Finally, there’s Harriet Chance, who frequently hangs out with her recently deceased husband Bernard.

The books aren’t all about talking to dead people. But it is an odd coincidence that all three of the books I read this week share that common characteristic (especially considering how different they are from one another). Continue reading

This Week in Books: a Colorless Man, Orgasmic Childbirth, and a Secret Society of Bibliophiles 

In an effort to keep the blog going (at least sporadically), I’m going to try something new. Rather than writing individual posts about each of the books I read, I am going to write condensed reviews of all the books I read in any given week (or perhaps month . . . we’ll see how much reading I’m actually doing once baby finally decides to arrive). Feel free to let me know your thoughts on the new format in the comments below!

This week features a very diverse selection: a book by one of my favorite Japanese authors, a nonfiction book on childbirth, and a bestseller of the standard-book-club-selection variety.

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Church of Marvels

51xDK-gCtHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Church of Marvels
Leslie Parry
Published May 5, 2015
320 pages

I picked up this book because it was compared to Geek Love and The Night Circus, two books that I LOVE. There’s something about a weird carnival/circus setting that I find irresistible. Usually circus books have an element of the dark and bizarre combined with surprisingly touching sentimentality that makes for a delightful juxtaposition with interesting twists and turns. And the characters! What’s not to love about a kid with flippers for hands or a bearded lady or a sword slinger or a creepy magician?

Based on the hype (and the title, for that matter), I thought this book would fit squarely into the weird carnival/circus genre. In fact, only short snippets of the book are set at the Church of Marvels, a carnival/circus spectacular on Coney Island. But the book was far from a disappointment. Even though it’s not all about the circus, it has all the best elements of a fabulous circus book: Continue reading

The Silence and the Roar

41MUnyTE87L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Silence and the Roar
Nihad Sirees
Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss
Published in English March 5, 2013
154 pages (paperback)

In the heartbreaking afterword written for the English translation of this book, author Nihad Sirees closes by saying, “As I present my novel to the English reader, my heart is agonizingly heavy about what is happening in Syria, my homeland.” Sirees has been in self-imposed exile from Syria since 2012 due to personal and political harassment. This novel, which was translated into English just two years ago, was originally published in Arabic in 2004, and has been banned in Syria for years.

Do a Google images or news search for Aleppo, the city where Sirees was born, and you will be bombarded with photos and articles that are evidence of a decade’s worth of devastation and destruction. Daily, stories out of Syria prove that it continues to be shattered by war, rebels (like ISIS), and rocket fire.

The Silence and the Roar is set in a Middle Eastern Country whose precise location is never named. But, not surprisingly, it feels strikingly similar to Sirees’ home country. Needless to say, this diminutive novel is not light reading. Continue reading

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

peacebookThe Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League
Jeff Hobbs
Published September 23, 2014
416 pages (hardcover)

My husband jokes that, once a year, a good friend of mine and I participate in our “Annual Education Debate.” The arguments (and our respective positions) never change, but the discussion is impassioned. This friend and I were both Teach for America teachers in Baton Rouge. He taught at an inner-city middle school with a nearly 100% African-American population; I taught at a rural, minority-to-majority transfer elementary school (minority-to-majority transfer schools, or “M2Ms”, are better known as “bussing schools”–kids are bussed to far-flung schools in an effort to even out the effects of de facto segregation).

My position in this debate, always, is that Teach for America isn’t capable of “closing the achievement gap,”—ensuring educational equality for all—which is its laudable goal. It does not have the infrastructure, provide the support, or have sufficient resources to achieve this goal. The problem is just too big. As a Teach for America alum, this is a very controversial position to take (we Teach for America alums are known for drinking the Kool-Aid). But, in my mind, it’s realistic.

At this point (years removed), I am much more aware of my limitations and the limitations of other Teach for America teachers. I believe in kids, especially “my” kids (all of whom are in their twenties now, and many of whom I am still in touch with). My students experienced great gains and huge successes (measured by test scores, of course). But they were only with me for one year. No matter how much success they experienced in fifth grade, no matter how much their lives and attitudes changed, when they graduated elementary school, they moved on to middle school and all of its influences. They had to navigate the world of drugs, teen sex/pregnancy, gangs, poverty, bad neighborhoods, bad teachers, and a billion other negative influences. And, for some, that’s nearly impossible.

Continue reading