Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Review: The Golden State

Daphne is on the brink of a breakdown. Her husband isn't allowed back in the country and she feels some responsibility for the accidental death of a young woman overseas. One morning, she simply leaves her office, picks up her daughter from daycare, and drives away from her life. Daphne finds solace in an isolated trailer left to her by her grandparents in eastern California, but the boredom of being alone all day with her toddler and her uncertainty about what to do next soon compel her to go into town. She cautiously befriends Cindy, a neighbor who is part of a secessionist movement, and Alice, an elderly woman who feels a little bit like family. Over ten days, the women's lives intersect in surprising ways as Daphne decides where her life will go from here.

I have to confess that it took me a long time to pick this book up. I had read some rave reviews, but the description just didn't compel me to pick it up. I am mature enough to confess I was very wrong and Lydia Kiesling's debut is a haunting, thoughtful story about the bonds of connection and the consequences of loneliness. She excels at capturing the overwhelming feelings of new motherhood, as Daphne alternates between wondering what she is supposed to be doing with this small child all day to rejoicing over a miraculous milestone to considering all of the terrible things that could happen in the single moment that she looks away. As a working mother, she is not used to having to account for every moment of her daughter's life and finds it equally terrifying and exhilarating (depending on the moment). Kiesling rarely uses commas, which means it takes readers a few chapters to adjust to reading her prose. But it wonderfully captures the endless lists that run through the heads of parents as we struggle to remember everything that we need to do while keeping a little one safe and happy.

The Golden State is also a look at what it means to be or feel like the other. Daphne's husband is stuck in Turkey after a visa snafu separated their family. She feels stuck between cultures because she herself is not Turkish, but she speaks enough of the language and knows enough about the country and its people to be offended when people start calling Middle Eastern people terrorists. With no immediate family around her, she feels isolated as a mother without anyone to mother her or teach her about being a parent. She hopes to capture some of the magic of her childhood by going back to her grandparent's hometown, however, she is familiar enough to warrant a polite greeting but not a true daughter of that town.

This is a travel story, it's a motherhood story, it is an everywoman story for the person who feels like they don't quite fit in and for the person who senses the slow simmer of fear and anger in current events and in their own life. Kiesling is a very talented writer with a distinct voice and and I look forward to going on other journeys with her characters.

The Golden State
By Lydia Kiesling
MCD September 2018
304 pages
From the library

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Review: Washington Black

George Washington Black is an 11-year-old slave on a Barbados plantation. His life changes drastically when his new master's brother takes him under his wing as an assistant for his scientific endeavors. Instead of working in the fields, Wash now spends his days seeing the world through Titch's eyes, as well as learning to read and develop his talent for drawing. But he never feels entirely comfortable; the relationship between the two is certainly unconventional and destined to fall apart sooner or later. That day comes when a man is killed and Wash is blamed. Titch and Wash flee in Titch's hot air balloon and set off on an adventure that will take them around the world to London, Antarctica, and Morocco.

There were parts of this book that reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things because both books follow a person who was not expected to pursue science in their time. Wash learns about weather and creatures all over the world and later uses his knowledge to sketch and paint the wildlife and even collaborates with making the first aquariums. But there is always that feeling of uncertainty--even in places that are supposedly friendly to free black people, one wrong word or careless moment could mean the end of Wash's life. His relationship with Titch is the thing that took him away from the horrors of slavery, but it also haunts Wash as he wonders if it is possible for his mentor and father figure to think of him as anything other than a worthy cause.

Washington Black is a sprawling adventure that takes readers around the world. Edugyan renders time and place with beautiful specificity and the reader feels as if they could journey up the hill to Titch's balloon and watch the plantation below or see the endless expanse of Arctic snow for the first time. But the thread that runs throughout the entire story is that there is no safe place to be a black person in the 19th century--you can never truly be seen as just a neighbor, a friend, a lover, a scientist, or an artist because of the color of your skin.


Also by Esi Edugyan: Half Blood Blues 


Washington Black
By Esi Edugyan
Knopf Publishing Group September 2018
339 pages
From the library
Man Booker Award Finalist

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Nonfiction mini-reviews: Bored and Brilliant and A Forever Family

Manoush Zomorodi is the host of popular radio show and podcast about technology and its effects. When she had time to think about her plans for the future and really look at her surroundings when she was home with her baby, she found herself inundated with ideas. Conversely, when she was back at work and filling every possible second, the ideas seemed to disappear. Wondering if there was a correlation between empty moments and productivity, she challenged her listeners and herself to take on a week of challenges. Readers are asked to delete an app they love, relearn how to observe their surroundings, and ensure that there is quiet time in each day.

The issues examined in this book will be all too familiar to most of us. We wonder about the effects of video games on our kids and find ourselves scrolling through social media whenever we have a spare five seconds. The information that Zamorodi compiles is fascinating, and she has plenty of statistics and interviews throughout the book. Ultimately though, the result of reading this book is about the same as the results of her challenge: people didn't see a huge change, but they were more aware of their habits. After reading Bored and Brilliant, I do find myself considering before picking up my phone and instead asking my kids about their day, reading a few pages of my book, or even enjoying a moment or two of boredom.

Bored and Brilliant
How Spacing Out Can Unlock
Your Most Productive and Creative Self
By Manoush Zomorodi
St. Martin's Press September 2017
208 pages
From the library


Rob Scheer grew up moving from one terrible situation to the next, from his abusive father to living in his car after a foster family kicked him out of their home. As an adult, he felt moved to help children in similar circumstances and he and his husband became foster parents. Scheer doesn't paint a rosy picture; instead, he writes about the difficulties of two white gay men trying to adopt black children and the moments when the ghosts from his own past show up in his parenting. Some of the hardest moments to read about are the small ones--the difficulty of using someone else's soap in a strange new house or Rob and his husband Reece's realization that their foster daughter is hoarding food because she doesn't feel secure yet.

Scheer's story is heartbreaking and I am glad he found the courage to share it. For me, I'm not sure it warranted an entire book; it would have been an excellent article showing how his painful childhood led to his becoming a foster dad, adopting his children, and starting Comfort Cases, an organization that gives backpacks with a book, blanket, and hygiene items to foster kids. But if Scheer's story can make anyone understand the need for foster parents and support for children in need, then it is an important one.

A Forever Family
Fostering Change One Child at a Time
By Rob Scheer with Jon Sternfeld
Gallery/Jeter Publishing November 2018
320 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Review: Old in Art School

After decades of teaching history at Chapel Hill and Princeton University, Nell Painter left teaching to become a student again. She pursued and completed a BFA and MFA in painting because she loved art and because her mother had proven to her that you are never too old to start over again. As the oldest student in all of her classes and often the only black student, she faced unique challenges. 

With Old in Art School, Painter attempts to accomplish many things. At its face, this is a memoir about a woman starting an entirely new career at an age when some people think about retirement. It's also a primer on the experience of going to art school, what it means to be an artist today, and an invitation to go down the internet rabbit hole of artists and their work. One of the most interesting facets is Painter's effort to find a middle road between the big picture of her background in history and focusing on the immediacy of a single image. Ultimately, she finds she does not have to choose: a single figure in a piece of art can be indicative of an entire era or the story of an entire people or nation.

The most universal part of this book is Painter's realization that once again, she has to find her own way and her own people. The crits (feedback) from her professors and peers are unhelpful, so she finds people outside of the classroom to comment on her work. The art world seems uninterested in anything happening outside of New York City, but Painter finds her first residency after graduation in her beloved hometown of Newark, New Jersey.

Perhaps Painter is too old to care about such things, but she is not always a likable narrator. She says exactly what she thinks and feels without worrying about how it makes her look or how you will perceive her. She confesses that she wished her depressed father had died before her inspiring mother and she spares no one's feelings when she calls out the racist or ageist behaviors of fellow students or teachers. Whether or not you agree with her on every page, Old in Art School is an interesting look at an older black woman playing a young white man's game and the difficulties and discoveries of starting a new chapter of life. 

Old In Art School
A Memoir of Starting Over
By Nell Painter
Counterpoint June 2018
331 pages
From the library

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Review of Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free

When Linda Kay Klein was in high school, she broke up with her boyfriend, convinced that God had asked this of her. Her church had very strict rules about dating and clothing choices and she was often criticized for "tempting boys" with her curvy figure. She left her church after learning that her youth pastor had been charged with child enticement and he had done this at other churches without consequence. As a grownup with a boyfriend, she found herself paralyzed by shame, fear, and anxiety, so she went back home and tracked down her friends from youth group to find out how purity culture affected their lives and relationships.

This book is very, very in my lane. In fact, I had one of the purity rings that Klein describes. I am the daughter of a pastor and remember sitting in True Love Waits classes with the other teens in the church. Today, my sisters and I often talk about finding another way for churches to talk about sex and relationships that informs without shaming.

I think this is what I missed from Pure. Linda Kay Klein does a thorough job of outlining the experiences that she and her peers had as they grew from young girls who had been told sex would ruin them to women who wanted to have sex with their spouses or partners. She doesn't do a lot of embellishing; she records experiences, often without additional insight. But I wanted more--I wanted to know her thoughts, after talking to all of these people, on ways that parents and leaders in the church can talk about sex with our children. I almost felt like this was part one and we are desperately in need of a second part, that will help us to raise kids within the church who know that they are loved by God and by their community, whether or not they have sex.

Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement
That Shamed a Generation of Young Women
And How I Broke Free
By Linda Kay Klein
Touchstone September 2018
353 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Readers Imbibing Peril Mini Reviews

Hello. Yes, I am ridiculously late with my Readers Imbibing Peril books. I did read them during September and October, but I've been in a bit of a blogging slump lately. Now that I'm getting back in the groove of writing about books here, I wanted to tell you about the books that would be perfect picks for spooky reading next year and the ones you can leave languishing on their library shelves.


Career of Evil is the third book in the Cormoran Strike series featuring the titular detective and his assistant Robin Ellacott. In this story, Robin is shocked and sickened when she opens a package at work and finds a severed leg. Cormoran has some ideas about who might have sent it, but the police won't listen to him so it is up to the intrepid duo to figure out who is targeting them and what their end game is. I think this was my least favorite of the series so far. The will they/won't they dynamic between Cormoran and Robin goes to some weird and frustrating places and it feels like the whole purpose of this case is to fill in backstory for the main characters as Cormoran muses about which figure from his past might send them a severed leg. This book also features the point of view of the perpetrator, so we get way too many pages of violent fantasy about assault to women.

Recommend for RIP? Meh.


Jane McKeene worries she will never be good at remembering proper etiquette or keeping her dress clean. But that is only part of her training--the rest of her classes at Miss Preston's School are about combat and defending wealthy white women from the zombies that rose up from the battlefields of the Civil War. But Jane's future as an attendant may never come to pass when she starts investigating the disappearance of local families and finds out that the zombie uprising is much more complicated than it appears. Dread Nation is a book where I loved the premise and the main character, but had a hard time sticking with the story the way that the author laid it out.

Recommend for RIP? Meh.

               Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike, #3)     Dread Nation (Dread Nation, #1)


A man returns home for a funeral and decides to go visit the family that lived down the road. Once there, he starts to remember the incredible and impossible things that happened the year that he turned seven. This is one of those books best entered not knowing too much about the plot; I didn't really know what it was about and I was thrilled to enter into this melancholy little book. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is magical and atmospheric and captures the feeling of being a child who feels unseen and misunderstood by adults, while also understanding the distance and beauty of memory. This reads almost like a parable or fairy tale, where there is no wasted information and anything is possible. If somehow you have missed reading Neil Gaiman or this one in particular, get to it!

Recommend for RIP? Yes!

Nancy thought she was all alone, the only child to stumble into another world. But at Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, she finds people just like her who lived for a time in a magical realm only to find they no longer fit in back home. As Nancy starts to find her place among these strange and broken children, someone is murdered. In a house where people will do anything to get back to their magical worlds, is anyone safe? Every Heart a Doorway is an incredibly dark story because there is a brutal murderer in the house, but mostly because these children have been through traumatic experiences. Seanan McGuire has done an incredible job of giving you just enough information so you can imagine the beautiful, terrible, amazing worlds they have visited and see how the darkness of magical worlds compares to the darkness in our own.

Recommend for RIP? Yes!

          The Ocean at the End of the Lane    Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children, #1)

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Review: Unsheltered

Willa's life has not gone the way she expected. She finds herself in a crumbling house in Vineland, New Jersey with her husband, her dying father-in-law, her adult daughter, her son's baby, and no job. Willa is determined to find a way to care for her family and when she discovers that a famous female scientist from the time of Darwin might have lived in her house, she thinks that  will be the key to ensuring their home doesn't fall down around them. The story moves through two timelines, as we see Willa and her family in the present and the people who lived in and around their home in the mid-nineteenth century--scientist Mary Treat and schoolteacher Thatcher Greenwood.

Barbara Kingsolver is the author of beloved books The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Trees and a new book of hers is always a big deal in the literary world. In Unsheltered, she masterfully shows the frustration and heartbreak of doing everything right and not being able to make ends meet. Willa and her husband are both starting over again in their careers in journalism and academia instead of having stability after decades of working. She is having trouble navigating the endless complications of medical care for her sick father-in-law. Her son has finished graduate school, but his world implodes when his girlfriend commits suicide and leaves him as the sole parent to their baby. This kind of story is all too familiar to modern readers, who know all about stringing together several part-time gigs  and still not being able to pay the bills or spending all their savings when someone needs unexpected medical care.

There are many readers who felt that this book was too political and devolved into political diatribe with Willa's debates with her very Republican father-in-law or daughter Tig's ruminations on how the generations before her ruined both the planet and the economy. But for me, it felt very of the moment. It might be impossible to write about the past few years without acknowledging that very charged political discussions are everywhere and many people are discouraged and angry with the way things are going in the United States.

As always, Barbara Kingsolver gives a master class in doing good research and crafting rich characters that compel readers to follow them through a story. It is obvious she did a great deal of research into the accomplishments of real-life scientist Mary Treat and the fascinatingly bizarre origins of Vineland, New Jersey. She has written a book that captures this specific moment in time and also reminds us that having to start all over again is a familiar story across generations.

Unsheltered
By Barbara Kingsolver
Harper October 2018
480 pages
From the library