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Tag Archives: Friday Reads
Imagine being 12 years old and moving to a tiny Nebraska town with no internet, no TV, and no cell phone service. Heck, imagine being 40 and doing that! In this day and age, it’s almost unthinkable. Now imagine being famous for being the sole survivor of a mass shooting – also unthinkable – and needing a fresh start where no one has heard of you.
Simon and his parents move to Grin And Bear It, Nebraska, a small town set in the National Quiet Zone – a space where radio signals are banned as to not interfere with the operation of radio telescopes used by the astronomers and scientists searching for signs of life beyond our planet. His mother takes over the local mortuary, his father settles in as deacon of the Catholic church, and Simon just tries to resume life as a normal, anonymous kid. So far, so good – no one here can Google him. He can make up whatever goofy story he wants about why his family relocated.
Then disaster strikes. And keeps striking – a rogue squirrel ransacks the church’s communion wafers, a flock of emus get loose, the mortuary’s driver loses a body, a tornado bears down on the town… and someone finds out Simon’s secret. In the midst of his family getting all the wrong kinds of attention, Simon and his friends scheme a way to shift the focus from him to the stars, using a forbidden microwave, a metronome, and a whole lot of math.
Despite the devastating tragedy underlying the story, this was actually one of the most hilarious books I’ve read in a while. The author, originally from Iowa, lived in Nebraska for a time, and is familiar with the state’s geography and love of football. There is so much to love about Simon and his family and friends, as well as the odd little town they find themselves in. If you are looking for an entertaining read that will make you laugh AND cry, Simon says read this book!
Bow, Erin. (2023). Simon Sort of Says. Disney Hyperion.
Today is Arbor Day – go out and plant a tree! To celebrate the day, I decided to read a book about saving trees. Giant, magical redwood trees.
The Ancient One, by T.A. Barron is the second book in a trilogy about the adventures of thirteen year old Kate, but it is an entirely stand-alone novel. You don’t need to read the other books in the series to understand and enjoy this one.
Kate is visiting her Great Aunt Melanie, who lives in a rural town in Oregon where logging companies have done so much clear cutting of the forest that they are running out of trees to cut down, and work is almost impossible to find anymore. Tensions are high and many citizens are angry about the loss of income.
But, a new source of trees has recently been discovered – an ancient redwood forest in the Lost Crater, a previously inaccessible extinct volcano. Aunt Melanie has been working to protect the trees from the loggers – they may be the oldest redwoods on the planet and they were a sacred place to a lost Native American tribe, the Halamis.
Aunt Melanie is quite the mysterious figure, loving and supportive, but also full of secrets. There’s something just a bit different about her. And she has a special connection to her walking stick, with its carved owl’s head handle. Strange things seem to happen when she is around. As Kate is being chased by some boys in town, she trips and falls, but the boys keep running right past her, as if they didn’t see her laying in the mud, as if she wasn’t even there. And suddenly, Aunt Melanie is there, dismissing Kate’s confusion and making curious comments about being … invisible?
Kate and Aunt Melanie hike into the Lost Crater, to hopefully stop the loggers from cutting down the redwoods. When Kate must return to the redwood grove to retrieve Aunt Melanie’s accidentally left behind walking stick, she is transported back in time, where she becomes involved in a battle to save the same forest from an evil force.
I truly enjoyed this fantasy novel with its strong environmental message, it’s a combination that I haven’t read before. The world of the past is well developed and Kate’s encounters, unfortunately, mirror the struggles in our own time over climate change. It will definitely make you think about nature and how we should be protecting it, for our future.
Romania, 1989. Cristian Florescu (17) and his family are barely surviving the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. There are spies everywhere, and due to a small mistake, now Cristian is forced to spy on his neighbors and the family his mother cleans house for, an American who works for the American Embassy.Everyone is suspicious of everyone else, for good reason. Only Cristian’s grandfather, called Bunu, is willing to speak out loud – but he is ill, and is taking a risk every time he talks. There is some comedy relief – as Bunu and others delight in jokes about Ceaușescu and the regime.
Cristian finally comes up with an idea that may outsmart the spies – but it could cost him his life. The horrible conditions – little food, little warmth in winter, suspicions, beatings, despair, the threat of wild dogs – are clearly portrayed. Cristian wonders if anyone in the U.S. is aware of their circumstances and their level of need. It has been so hard to visit the home of the American diplomat and know he cannot say anything to ask for help for his country.
The revolution began on Dec. 21, 1989. Cristian joins it.
Includes period photos, references, and an Author’s Note at the back of the book. This title is fiction and is aimed at high school age readers.
Sepetys, Ruta. (2022). I Must Betray You. Philomel Books.
Gold. Coal. Fire. Water.
C Pam Zhang’s debut, highly acclaimed novel is set in the years following the ’49 Gold Rush. We are introduced to our small cast of characters — a Chinese family — as they choke on grief and coal dust: Ma is gone. Ba is gone, too; gone with her even before he dies in the coal-town shack, starved from life by alcohol and rage. Left behind is his twelve year old daughter, Lucy — our protagonist — and eleven year old Sam.
It is difficult to explain how wonderful this book is without spoiling its intricacies. Through lyrical prose that vacillates between golden and gritty, each carefully chosen word rich-full of marrow, sharp and hard as bones, we follow Lucy and Sam as they try to find footing in a world that does not want them. They are each their parents’ children: Lucy, so much like their mother, even with their father’s eyes, and Sam, so much like their father, even with their mother’s beauty. And, like their parents, they love each other. They hate each other, too. Lucy and Sam were born to this land, but they are treated as though they are strangers and unwelcome guests. The tension of being considered outsider, pushed to the margins of the already liminal territory of the West, is a reverberation that hums behind every page.
I started with the audiobook, first, and it was a challenge: Zhang’s writing is quick, succinct, dreamlike. Her brilliant prose flows through the story like a stream, varying from trickles to floods, and the shifts from scene to scene were dizzying. I borrowed the eBook from the public library and followed along with the narration. After I had read a few chapters in text, I got a sense of the book’s construction and was able to continue solely in audio. Catherine Ho’s voice is dynamic, fluid, haunting; she seems to savor every word, turns them over in her mouth, transforms them. I wasn’t expecting the narrator swap in the middle, but Joel de la Fuente was equally superb: his voice made the soliloquy of history shine, as his character turns the story on its head.
How Much of These Hills is Gold reads like a tale illustrated best by a campfire’s light. An oral history of winking secrets: what is inherited, what is not, what is stolen, what is owed, and what home means. It reads like the best kind of fairy-tale: grim, memorable, familiar, foreign, full of violence and injustice but never entirely devoid of hope.
Zhang, C. P. (2020). How much of these hills is gold. Riverhead Books.
The seaport of Bezim is the only place in the world of Notorious Sorcerer, where alchemy actually work., The other three planes of existence, which correspond to the other three alchemical elements Air (Aethyr), Fire (Empyreal), and Water (Aby), can be reached from there. Alchemists work their wonders, in industry, medicine, or purely for science, by mixing elements harvested from the other planes by petty alchemists like Siyon Velo. It’s a chancy business, but he’s already a risk taker, a member of a swashbuckling street gang (bravi), one of several gangs, who fight (only three quarters seriously), dual, run across rooftops (yes, really), mock attack parties, and are paid to protect parties. Neither alchemists nor bravi are strictly legal, but as long as no one splits the city in half, everyone gets along. Because once alchemy was taught at University, was respected, until a great working went terribly, horribly wrong, and the city was split, one side down by the harbor, the lower city where the docks and industry are, and part lifted up, where the Flower District, the Commercial District, the University, and the Avenues, (where the Avatani live.)
So. Of course, it all goes fine, until one of Siyon’s fellow bravi, Zagiri, gets caught in a youthful bit of foolishness gone disastrously wrong, and Siyon catches her from a deadly fall, not with alchemy, but, with, well, he doesn’t know how he did it. What he did do was upset an already perilously balanced peace. And the chase is off– over roofs, through allies, slowing down now and again, ending at her sister’s house. Anahid and her husband, who is an alchemist and member of the Summer Club, a registered alchemist. The story just gets more complicated from there. Alchemists try to put right what’s gone wrong, Siyon tries to prove himself as an alchemist, so many things go wrong, and many things go right. I can’t tell you how it all works out, there just isn’t space!
The point of view runs from Siyon Velo, petty alchemist; young Zagiri Savania fellow Little Bracken bravi, and 18 year old female member of the avatani (both a people and a highborn caste), Anahid Joddani, Zagiri’s older sister, who has walked through the traditional paths to adulthood, and regrets it; and Izmirlian Hisarani he’s gone on voyages of discovery, and brought back wondrous things, but he has no interest in trade, and now he wants to go further, which is why he needs an alchemist. All of them are trying to find their way through different paths to get to what they want. All of them grow through the experiences.
This is complex world building, combining politics, a fairly ordered magic system, and set caste system, and very well done characters, all thrown into a very precarious situation. No one really knows what to do to set the magical balance right. The policing arm of the government is heavily patrolling the streets and arresting all practitioners. And the characters are all second-guessing themselves.
Notorious Sorcerer, by Davinia Evans, The Burnished City, book 1, Orbit , subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, 2022, 978-0-316-39803-9. The sequel, Shadow Baron, The Burnished City, Book 2, is due out November 14, 2023. Sigh.
This past weekend I listened to The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, by Meik Wiking (duration: approximately three hours). Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark, narrates with a delightful Danish accent.
You’ve probably heard at least a passing reference to the Danish word hygge (pronounced HOO-GA). According to a blurb on the back cover of the book’s print edition, hygge “loosely translates as a sense of comfort, togetherness, and well-being.” You may even have read an article about hygge—they proliferated during the pandemic when people were struggling with how to feel better about being stuck at home. But according to my new understanding, spending time consuming a whole book about hygge is definitely more hyggelig (the adjectival form of hygge) than spending 5 minutes scanning an article about it!
Wiking spends a lot of time talking about what is and isn’t hygge. Candles and low lighting are hygge. Wool socks and blankets are hygge. Cake, coffee, and chocolate are hygge. Cooking and eating a meal with friends at home is hygge. Bling and boastfulness, on the other hand, aren’t hygge. The idea that “bigger is better” isn’t hygge. And neither is champagne and oysters at a fancy restaurant.
At its most basic level, hygge is about relishing simple, everyday pleasures, especially in the company of close friends and family. The fact that this practice contributes to happiness isn’t an earthshattering revelation, so why do the Danes seem so much better at it than other nationalities? According to Wiking, “What might also be unique for Denmark when it comes to hygge is how much we talk about it, focus on it, and consider it as a defining feature of our cultural identity and an integral part of the national DNA. In other words, what freedom is to Americans, thoroughness to Germans, and the stiff upper lip to the British, hygge is to Danes.”
The intentionality with which Danes approach hygge is undoubtedly one reason Denmark consistently ranks among the happiest nations in the world. But Wiking also points to policy factors, including a good work-life balance and the welfare state, which “reduces uncertainty, worries, and stress in the population.”
Policy change, while worthwhile, is hard and takes time. Hygge, on the other hand, is easy and accessible to all of us if we are so inclined. So if you’ve been feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and unhappy, plan intentionally for a hyggelig evening sometime soon. And if you want to learn more about why Danes are among the happiest people in the world, consider reading or listening to The Little Book of Hygge.
Wiking, Meik. The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living. HarperAudio, 2017.
Some of you may already know about, and have read this series, but I just recently discovered The Seven Sisters, by Lucinda Riley, and I’m amazed I didn’t know about it sooner. There are currently seven books in the series, one for each sister, whose names are based on the star cluster named the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades in Greek mythology. An eighth and final book is due out in May of this year, telling the story of their adoptive father, Pa Salt.
I have to tell you, I was hooked from the very first book, and am currently listening to and reading book seven. Each sister, her talent, and her story has a connection to a unique person, thing, and piece of history, from all over the world.
Book 1– The Seven Sisters: Maia D’Aplièse and her five sisters gather together at their childhood home–a fabulous, secluded castle situated on the shores of Lake Geneva–having been told that their beloved adoptive father, the elusive billionaire they call Pa Salt, has died.
Each of them is handed a tantalising clue to their true heritage–a clue which takes Maia across the world to a crumbling mansion in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil . . .
Eighty years earlier, in the Belle Époque of Rio, 1927, Izabela Bonifacio’s father has aspirations for his daughter to marry into aristocracy. But Izabela longs for adventure, and convinces him to allow her to accompany the family of a renowned architect on a trip to Paris. In the heady, vibrant streets of Montparnasse, she meets ambitious young sculptor Laurent Brouilly, and knows at once that her life will never be the same again.
Book 2–The Storm Sister: Ally D’Aplièse is about to compete in one of the world’s most perilous yacht races, when she hears the news of her adoptive father’s sudden, mysterious death. Rushing back to meet her five sisters at their family home, she discovers that her father—an elusive billionaire affectionately known to his daughters as Pa Salt—has left each of them a tantalising clue to their true heritage.
Ally has also recently embarked on a deeply passionate love affair that will change her destiny forever. But with her life now turned upside down, Ally decides to leave the open seas and follow the trail that her father left her, which leads her to the icy beauty of Norway….
There, Ally begins to discover her roots—and how her story is inextricably bound to that of a young unknown singer, Anna Landvik, who lived there over a hundred years before and sang in the first performance of Grieg’s iconic music set to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. As Ally learns more about Anna, she also begins to question who her father, Pa Salt, really was. And why is the seventh sister missing?
Book 3– The Shadow Sister: Star D’Aplièse is at a crossroads in her life after the sudden death of her beloved father – the elusive billionaire, named Pa Salt by his six daughters, all adopted by him from the four corners of the world. He has left each of them a clue to their true heritage, but Star – the most enigmatic of the sisters – is hesitant to step out of the safety of the close relationship she shares with her sister CeCe. In desperation, she decides to follow the first clue she has been left, which leads her to an antiquarian bookshop in London, and the start of a whole new world…
A hundred years earlier, headstrong and independent Flora MacNichol vows she will never marry. She is happy and secure in her home in the Lake District, living close to her idol, Beatrix Potter, when machinations outside of her control lead her to London, and the home of one of Edwardian society’s most notorious players, Alice Keppel. Flora is pulled between passionate love and duty to her family, but finds herself a pawn in a game – the rules of which are only known to others, until a meeting with a mysterious gentleman unveils the answers that Flora has been searching for her whole life…
As Star learns more of Flora’s incredible journey, she too goes on a voyage of discovery, finally stepping out of the shadow of her sister and opening herself up to the possibility of love.
Book 4–The Pearl Sister: CeCe D’Aplièse has always felt like an outcast. But following the death of her father—the reclusive billionaire affectionately called Pa Salt by the six daughters he adopted from around the globe—she finds herself more alone than ever. With nothing left to lose, CeCe delves into the mystery of her origins. The only clues she holds are a black and white photograph and the name of a female pioneer who once lived in Australia.
One hundred years earlier, Kitty McBride, a Scottish clergyman’s daughter, abandons her conservative upbringing to serve as the companion to a wealthy woman traveling from Edinburgh to Adelaide. Her ticket to a new land brings the adventure she dreamed of and a love that she had never imagined.
When CeCe herself finally reaches the searing heat and dusty plains of the Red Centre of Australia, something deep within her responds to the energy of the area and the ancient culture of the Aboriginal people. As she comes closer to finding the truth of her ancestry, CeCe begins to believe that this untamed, vast continent could offer her what she never thought possible: a sense of belonging, and a home.
Book 5–The Moon Sister: After the death of her father – Pa Salt, an elusive billionaire who adopted his six daughters from around the globe – Tiggy D’Aplièse, trusting her instincts, moves to the remote wilds of Scotland. There she takes a job doing what she loves: caring for animals on the vast and isolated Kinnaird estate, employed by the enigmatic and troubled Laird, Charlie Kinnaird.
Her decision alters her future irrevocably when Chilly, an ancient gypsy who has lived for years on the estate, tells her that not only does she possess a sixth sense, passed down from her ancestors, but it was foretold long ago that he would be the one to send her back home to Granada in Spain.
In the shadow of the magnificent Alhambra, Tiggy discovers her connection to the fabled gypsy community of Sacromonte, who were forced to flee their homes during the civil war, and to ‘La Candela’, the greatest flamenco dancer of her generation. From the Scottish Highlands and Spain to South America and New York, Tiggy follows the trail back to her own exotic but complex past. And under the watchful eye of a gifted gypsy bruja, she begins to embrace her own talent for healing.
But when fate takes a hand, Tiggy must decide whether to stay with her newfound family or return to Kinnaird and Charlie….
Book 6–The Sun Sister: To the outside world, Electra D’Aplièse seems to be the woman with everything: as one of the world’s top models, she is beautiful, rich and famous.
Yet beneath the veneer, Electra’s already tenuous control over her state of mind has been rocked by the death of her father, Pa Salt, the elusive billionaire who adopted his six daughters from across the globe. Struggling to cope, she turns to alcohol and drugs. As those around her fear for her health, Electra receives a letter from a complete stranger who claims to be her grandmother.
In 1939, Cecily Huntley-Morgan arrives in Kenya from New York to nurse a broken heart. Staying with her godmother, a member of the infamous Happy Valley set, on the shores of beautiful Lake Naivasha, she meets Bill Forsythe, a notorious bachelor and cattle farmer with close connections to the proud Maasai tribe. But after a shocking discovery and with war looming, Cecily has few options. Moving up into the Wanjohi Valley, she is isolated and alone. Until she meets a young woman in the woods and makes her a promise that will change the course of her life for ever.
Sweeping from Manhattan to the magnificent wide-open plains of Africa, The Sun Sister is the sixth instalment in Lucinda Riley’s multi-million selling epic series, The Seven Sisters.
Book 7–The Missing Sister: They’ll search the world to find her. The six D’Aplièse sisters have each been on their own incredible journey to discover their heritage, but they still have one question left unanswered: who and where is the seventh sister?
They only have one clue – an image of a star-shaped emerald ring. The search to find the missing sister will take them across the globe – from New Zealand to Canada, England, France and Ireland – uniting them all in their mission to complete their family at last.
In doing so, they will slowly unearth a story of love, strength and sacrifice that began almost 100 years ago, as other brave young women risk everything to change the world around them.
Each book is so well written, and each voice performed so well, that I felt like I was really in each sister’s history and location. I’m excited to finish Book 7, and can’t wait for Book 8: Atlas, the Story of Pa Salt. Synopses courtesy of Audible.com and Amazon.com
Arsenic and Adobo is the first book in Mia P. Manansala’s “Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery” series. This cozy mystery follows Lila Macapagal as she moves from Chicago back to her small hometown, trying to recover after a terrible breakup. She works in her family’s Filipino restaurant to help Tita Rosie, her grandmother, and the “calendar crew” – a group of aunties named after the months. One day, as she’s serving a special dessert to a particularly unpleasant food critic (and her ex-boyfriend), he dies…after an argument with Lila…surrounded by witnesses. The local detectives all look to Lila as the main suspect, as the restaurant is shut down and the landlord threatens eviction. Lila, along with her tough grandma and lovable aunties, must do her own investigation to find the truth and save their restaurant. (There’s also a dachshund pup named Longganisa which is adorable.) While Lila isn’t a super sleuth, there are other endearing characters to help her out, and plenty of town gossip.
Along with the restaurant, Lila’s dream is to open her own bakery of some kind, so there are lots of great food descriptions, which might not be helpful if you’re reading this while hungry. There are also a few included recipes in the book, like ube crinkle cookies. This was a good introduction to the series – a light, cozy mystery filled with family and food – a quick and easy read.
- Homicide and Halo-Halo (2022)
- Blackmail and Bibingka (2022)
- Murder and Mamon (2023)
Sometimes, when authors narrate their own audiobooks, it turns out well. Even more rarely, it turns out amazingly well. I checked out The Sentence, the latest book from Louise Erdrich, from the audiobook shelf at the public library without looking at the narrator credit. I’m not sure what the hurry was—it came out in 2021 and I hadn’t read it yet. Once I was ready to listen, I saw that it was narrated by the author. This can be a real hit or miss situation, as any audiobook fan can tell you—narration is generally best left to professionals. I’m happy to share that Erdrich’s narration of her own book is fantastic, and brings new levels of appreciation for the text.
If you’re familiar with Erdrich’s work, you know that she understands her characters and their motivations deeply, and knows more about them than she puts on the page in black and white. Her narration of the dialogue in The Sentence illustrates this skill even further—each character speaks in their own distinctive way, with their own cadence and bluster or hesitation, with their own honesty and their own secrets.
The narration is so on point that I’m leading with that in this review, instead of where I would’ve expected to start: there is so much about books in this book. After a wild and tragic beginning in 2005, most of the story takes place in a bookstore starting in 2019, and that bookstore happens to be the bookstore Louise Erdrich owns in Minneapolis in real life. Erdrich herself is a character in the book—but she’s not one of the main characters. Her appearances in the bookstore, and the way patrons look for her there, are handled with comedic humility, and told through the eyes of our protagonist, Tookie, who works in the bookstore. (There’s also a ghost in the bookstore, but you should hear about that from Tookie.)
Tookie has a history, and a future, and a rich and nuanced love of books and authors and reading. Books have helped her through some hard times, and help her connect with other people, and find a way of living. (I ended up checking out the print book, also, so I could refer easily to all her book recommendations to bookstore customers.) The candid descriptions of customer interactions are refreshing, surprising—and validating. We are rooting for Tookie, and all her co-workers, especially since we know what’s ahead for the world and especially for Minneapolis.
Readers new to Erdrich may have heard that she handles heavy topics—she does! And no one handles the heaviest of topics in a more readable, listenable way. The Sentence deftly, compellingly, tackles every subject that one book-selling indigenous woman in Minneapolis might find in her life or her history—including her experiences in the summer of 2020.
Erdrich, Louise. The Sentence: A Novel. HarperCollins. 2021.
Looking for Scottish authors in preparation for an upcoming trip, Megan at Francie and Finch pointed me to Louise Welsh, a writer and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Both titles are 1 and 2 in a series that feature a promiscuous, gay auctioneer named Rilke, who works for a struggling auction house in Glasgow. For those who like to listen, Scottish actor Alan Cumming narrates this series to perfection. In both books, Rilke’s company is hired to expedite the sale of a considerable estate with complete discretion.
In The Cutting Room, Bowery Auctions liquidates the home of the wealthy and recently deceased Roddy McKindless. Rilke discovers a collection of snuff photographs hidden in an extensive pornography library. The woman featured in the photos is stuck in his memory. Is she alive or dead and how can he put his mind at ease? In The Second Cut, Rilke follows a tip for a questionable estate sale from his friend JoJo, who turns up dead a few days later. There are additional circumstances that create doubt about the legitimacy of the sale, including the missing matriarch, the intended beneficiary of the auction proceeds. Where do you begin to investigate snuff photography and even though JoJo was known to the police for various recreational activities, why is his death not being investigated as a murder? Rilke’s moral compass compels him to find answers.
Unlike busybody sleuths in cozy mysteries, Rilke moves through the seedy underbelly of Glasgow to investigate with more incentive than sheer nosiness. His professional reputation and livelihood are at stake. The deals he makes to barter information with various characters/criminals often put his life in danger. The cast created by Welsh is colorful, gritty, and uniquely likeable. Given the amount of time between the two books, I am hopeful Louise continues writing Rilke stories and that Alan continues narrating them.
Welsh, Louise, The Cutting Room. Canongate Books Ltd. 2003.
Welsh, Louise, The Second Cut. Canongate Books Ltd. 2022.
Friday Reads: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death” by Jean-Dominique Bauby
For me, the hallmark of all my favorite books is that I enjoy reading them over and over again. Maybe years apart or for some I revisit them every year, but I always come back. If I like a book enough that I want to re-read it, I know it’s a classic for me. This is one of those books. Written entirely by a man bed-bound and paralyzed, Jean-Dominique Bauby, suffered a massive stroke and was left in what doctors thought was a completely vegetative state. In truth, his mind was intact but he could no longer communicate with the rest of his body, what is now known as locked-in syndrome. Yet through blinking and eye-movement alone, he wrote what is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. It is both his memoir and treaties on life and death and how he copes with the hand he’s been dealt. Translated from Bauby’s original french by Jeremy Leggatt, this short (only 131 pages) but poignant book will make every reader look at the world differently.
Bauby, Jean-Dominique. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death. Vintage. 1998.
When the days are short and it’s too cold to spend much time outdoors, what kind of books do you reach for? I often seek out a travel memoir. Those I connect with most inspire me to reminisce about my own travel or pique my interest in learning more about a place I’ve never been. When looking for a new read to get me through the cold and dreary season, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland jumped out at me. Several people have recently told me about their travels to Iceland and suggested I add it to my ultimate travel wish list, so I decided to download the e-book and learn more.
Names for the Sea isn’t exactly a travel memoir. It is the story of a British family living and working in Reykjavik during 2009-2010, and the stories of Icelanders met during their stay. Author Sarah Moss, is a British novelist and professor of literature who dreamed of living and working in a foreign country. A temporary position at the University of Iceland caught her eye. After she accepted the position, Sarah and her family put most of their possessions into storage and moved to Reykjavik. Sarah’s husband and two young children joined her on the adventure. The first chapters of the book revolved around arranging schooling for the children and various issues pertaining to parenting, settling into a new teaching job, and setting up a home in an unfamiliar place. The book is not just a memoir of their daily life. It is also peppered with stories of various Icelanders who provide a fascinating window into Icelandic history and culture. The Moss family stories and Icelandic narratives don’t always fit together seamlessly, and Sarah’s negativity is a bit tiresome at times. The book’s strengths are the Icelanders’ stories and the Moss family’s sporadic interactions with the land and environment.
“The aurora are unsettling partly because they show the depth of the space, and falsity of our illusion that the sky is two-dimensional, and partly because it’s hard to convince your instinct that something bigger than you and grabbing at the sky isn’t out to get you.”
Sarah had a difficult time settling into Icelandic life. She seemed crippled by various fears including the worry that everyone saw her as a “foreigner,” and that she didn’t fit in. Her fears limited her activities in Iceland, and seemed to impact some of her perceptions. Nevertheless, she had a lot of curiosity about Icelandic history and culture. Her colleagues helped her set up meetings with various people to learn about topics that included elves and ghosts, farm life, culinary history, poverty, politics, Icelandic knitting, and volcanic eruptions. These conversations seemed a bit forced to me, as the interactions didn’t happen organically, and she often centered herself in the stories a bit too much for my liking. The Icelandic stories are fascinating, however, and they piqued my interest in learning more about their culture.
“And when the milk lorry came it would give you three books for that week, and you’d give him the three books that he gave you last week, from the library, and he’d take those to the next farm, so there’d be a continual march of books around the sveit with the milk lorry.”
Sarah heard riveting accounts of previous volcanic eruptions and the Moss family got to experience their own volcanic event with the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. This volcanic eruption is one of the few events that motivated Sarah to travel outside Reykjavik to experience rural Iceland. The family took few opportunities to explore the greater country during their year. Financial constraints were one of the reasons for their lack of exploration. Iceland was in the midst of recovering from a major financial crisis and prices were extremely high. But Sarah also feared driving outside the city and other fears and negativity also seemed to impact her choices. It was not until they decided to leave Iceland and later return for a vacation, that her attitude shifted and she was more willing to explore beyond Reykjavik. Moss seemed much more content in Iceland as a “tourist” rather than trying to fit in as a resident.
Moss’s attitudes and opinions sometimes seemed self-righteous and she never fully reflected on her own biases. Although she acknowledged that fear and the overwhelming feeling of being “foreign” limited her exploration and participation in Icelandic life, her opinions sometimes appeared to be rooted in the biases of being a outsider who was inexperienced with the climate, culture, and negotiating rural environments. This left me questioning if some of her criticisms were well-researched or were instead impacted by her own fears, biases, and what sometimes seemed like jealousy. I think many travelers or people living in a new place where you don’t speak the language can identify with fears and self-doubt, but there were some things about Sarah Moss that I just didn’t connect with. For me the book was a good reminder that although visiting a new place can make you grateful for certain things in your own homeland, it’s important to check one’s own biases. Approaching new people and cultures with empathy and being open to try things outside one’s comfort zone make travel a much more enjoyable experience.
Although I didn’t always connect with Sarah Moss, I really enjoyed this book overall. Seeing a new place through the eyes of an author who is also an outsider often encourages me to reflect on my approach to travel. The Moss family’s story kept me reading and interested in how they would navigate different challenges like the short winter days and unfamiliar foods. Overall, this book was also an intriguing introduction into Icelandic culture and history, and I definitely want to learn more.
Moss, Sarah. Names for the Sea Strangers in Iceland. Catapult, 2013.
Friday Reads: The Barcelona Complex: Lionel Messi and the the Making – and Unmaking – of the World’s Greatest Soccer Club
It seems appropriate, off the buzz of this year’s World Cup, for a focus on either soccer (if you accept the American term) or football (if you live in the rest of the world). The World Cup saw many exciting games, and the consensus is deciding them via penalty kicks seems a bit arbitrary, but in the spirit of history, tradition, and nothing to offer as a better alternative, let’s accept the practice to determine a victor. Of course, the penalties can be exciting also, and the game cannot go on forever in extra time. As for the U.S. Men’s National Team (or USMNT), they certainly have some talented players, but the coaching needs a major overhaul. Two things of note on a long laundry list of items: (1) If you are in charge, don’t hire your brother. Even if you think your brother is highly qualified. Find someone else. (2) If you are said brother, and have conversations with players in the locker room, don’t go to reporters or others and disclose said conversations. Keep them within the team. The players will have respect for you for such professionalism, and you will earn much needed trust.
But today’s write-up isn’t about the World Cup, or the USMNT. It’s about FC (football club) Barcelona, aka “Barca”, in this well written narrative from Simon Kuper, entitled The Barcelona Complex: Lionel Messi and the Making—and Unmaking—of the World’s Greatest Soccer Club. One might be tempted to think that this book is about one of the greatest footballers of all time, Lionel Messi, but Messi’s rise throughout the Barca system is only a minor part of this story. The Barca club (which also focuses on sports besides just soccer), was founded in 1899, and is one of the highest value sports clubs and one of the richest football clubs in terms of revenue (it’s the expenses that might be the issue). To illustrate, Barca exceeded $1B in revenue in 2018. By comparison (believe it or not), in 2018 the highest revenue of an NFL team was the Dallas Cowboys, at $800M. Unlike the Cowboys, Barca posted a loss in that year. But, who really gives a rap about financial capabilities, it’s about winning games. A large part of the story of the rise of the Barca club has to do with its system of bringing young players in, as did Messi at age 13 (he is from central Argentina), and developing them within the Barca program.
The Barca story in this book takes place largely with the introduction of Dutch player/manager/coach Johan Cruyff, who had a long history in the sport, and was traded to Barca in 1973 as a player. Cruyff brought to Barca the Dutch concept of Total Football, where every player on the team (sans goalkeeper) is interchangeable. In other words, fluidity. Defender can move to attacker, and another player covers the open position left when the defender moves upfield. After Cruyff’s retirement from playing and various coaching gigs, he returned to FC Barcelona for the 1988-89 season as manager. Throughout his time as coach, he managed to win 11 trophies, only surpassed by one of his star players (and Barca coach from 2007-2012), Pep Guardiola (15 trophies).
Guardiola is a good example of the system of Barca success, joining the Barcelona youth academy (La Masia) at the age of 13 (same age as Messi), and climbing up to through the ranks and developing his talents. The 2008-09 FC Barcelona team under Guardiola (as manager) is considered one of the best ever, with many players coming from the La Masia youth program, notably Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets.
But, as with practically any ascent, there usually is a descent, and Kuper describes the fall of Barca with detail that leaves the reader with sadness. There isn’t one event to point to the financial ruin of the club, but rather a series of bad decisions and bad luck. COVID responses that left stadiums empty certainly didn’t help. All in all, Kuper’s effort here is coherent, easy to follow, and engaging.
Kuper, Simon. The Barcelona Complex: Lionel Messi and the Making—and Unmaking—of the World’s Greatest Soccer Club. Penguin. 2021.
I don’t remember how I came to read Katherine Dunn’s cult-classic novel, Geek Love. It is the story of a circus couple and their literally homemade “freak show”; all of their children were purposely subjected to chemicals and drugs in utero in order to produce “show-worthy” birth defects. I was likely still reading The Babysitters Club when it was published in 1989, and while it was being praised by Kurt Cobain and Terry Gilliam, there is little chance it was carried by my small town library. Nonetheless, it eventually popped up on my literary radar and Dunn’s vivid and often grotesque imagery is forever seared into my subconscious. That Tim Burton bought the rights to the book probably says enough.
Geek Love is not the book I’m talking about today. However, without it, I would have probably never given a second glance to Toad.
Toad, published this past fall, 6 years after Dunn’s death, was penned long before she wrote Geek Love. Although she had two previous novels under her belt, this third book was declined by her publisher, and attempts to revise it and shop it around to a new house were unsuccessful. The story is based on Dunn’s experience in 1960s Portland, and having the largely autobiographical work rejected over and over was a blow to Dunn, who eventually shelved the book. She then spent years perfecting her ultimately-acclaimed next project, Geek Love, before submitting it to professional critique. Dunn never did try to find a publisher for Toad again, but after her death, her son Eli was contacted by an editor searching for Dunn’s lesser-known writing and he lent her the manuscript. After she overcame her shock that no one had tried to release the book before her, she helped usher it into print.
Compared to Geek Love, the characters in Toad are almost boringly normal. Sally Dunn, our protagonist, oscillates her narrative between her current life as a near-recluse, alone with her regrets in a small house she pays for with her disability check, and tales of her misspent youth near a college campus in Portland. She tags along after a group of hippie students, with their lofty (often naive) ideals and lack of work ethic, that she seems to simultaneously envy and loathe. She despises them because they come from cushy middle-class backgrounds and choose to live in bohemian squalor, but she despises herself even more for not fitting in, always being the outsider.
There are no heroes in Katherine Dunn’s world – only victims and villains, and they are often one and the same. There is no one to root for, or against, as everyone has the capacity for cruelty, kindness, love, and loss. Sally tells the story, but without the rose-colored glasses through which we often view our good old days. She recognizes that she, too, can be both brutal and benevolent, and that realization is among her reasons for her self-isolation.
At times sad, humorous, honest, and grotesque, Katherine Dunn’s writing is not for everyone. She doesn’t sugarcoat humanity – people can be gross, crass, and annoying. Nonetheless, I’m glad these books crossed my path. Now I need to go wash my hands.
Dunn, Katherine. Toad, New York, New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022.
If you’re looking for a fun, fast moving, unique story about dragons and secrets set in a modern dystopia, the Battle Dragons series by Alex London is for you. City of Thieves is the first book in the series. The second book, City of Speed, came out last August and the third, City of Secrets, will be released in March of this year.
Centuries ago, humans domesticated dragons and now they work in the modern city of Drakopolis: performing jobs such as burning garbage, running the taxi service, and serving as bus drivers. And of course, they are used for battle. The gangs that run the different areas of the city, called kins, compete with each other over territory, loyalty, and resources in dramatic, illegal dragon battles.
The main character, Abel, is a teen boy who is struggling to figure out what he will do with his life, since he failed his Dragon Rider Academy Entrance Exam. His brother and sister both passed their tests, although they took different paths after. His brother Silas is a dragon rider cadet, part of the city’s police force. His sister Lina however, choose not to become a dragon rider and instead works at Chimera’s All-Night Coffee and Comics shop. And maybe is involved in something else, as Abel starts to discover one night when she entrusts him with a secret hidden in a comic that she gives him.
That same night, enforcers from the Red Talon kin, the gang that controls the part of the city where Abel and his family lives, come banging on their apartment door, looking for Lina. But, why? Abel must figure out what the secret is that Lina asked him to keep.
With the help of his best friend, Roa, Abel tracks down his sister’s secret – a stolen dragon! The dragon bonds with Abel and that’s when the story really starts, as they are thrown into the world of the kin gangs, deal with the conflict between Abel’s siblings, and learn more than they expected about their city, its dragons, and themselves.
A nice touch to the physical copy of this book – the endpapers are embossed to look and feel like purple dragon scaled skin. I have only read the first book so far, but I am definitely looking forward to continuing with the other books in this series.
Asher (17) lost his mother a year ago in a car accident. The semi driver was drunk and ran her off the road. He did not receive the punishment Asher thinks he deserved, due to a technicality.
Over the course of the book certain facts and Asher’s plans are revealed to the reader. Asher has started group therapy, in 2 different groups, since he has made no progress in accepting his loss. He befriends an older gentleman, Henry, from his first group, and then he befriends Sloane and Will, close to his own age, from the second.
All three agree to travel with him from New Jersey to Memphis, so he can take his long-distance girlfriend to the prom. That’s what he tells them but he really is planning to kill the man who killed his mother.
Believe it or not, this is an upbeat book, with the final plan lurking in the distance. They accept and bond with each other as they travel. There are jokes, laughing, supporting each other when needed.
They have fun. Ultimately, what will Asher do?
This book was on my mind for several days after I finished reading it. Something about how the characters interact and how they express themselves made it hard to forget.
Reilly, K. J. Four for the Road. Atheneum, 2022.
It is called gastrointestinal stasis, and it is a common cause of death amongst rabbits.
To the untrained and inexperienced eye — for example, to children, who take on these complex creatures as pets, with no money of their own to provide the best quality of life — the rabbit, as it is phrased in the classic book Watership Down, just stops running. Suddenly. Frozen, with eyes open.
Her name was Pumpkin, and she was a very good rabbit. I picked her because she was soft and reddish-brown, and because her lop-ears had yet to lop. She was smart and gentle and friendly, and I loved her. She stopped running and was dead before I woke. To me, eleven years old and weeping, there didn’t seem to be a cause.
Pets are, if we are lucky, our first introduction to death. They are never our last.
Gilda — a nearly-thirty, atheist lesbian — has death anxiety. It probably started with the sudden death of her childhood pet rabbit, Flop. It doesn’t help that she has major depression, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts. Or that her parents are ignoring her brother’s spiraling alcoholism, or that she has recently been fired. It also doesn’t help that, in an effort to find affordable mental health counseling, she finds herself accidentally interviewed and hired for a job as a secretary — in a Catholic church. It also doesn’t help that reason for the job opening was because Grace, a sweet and well-loved woman well into her 80s, died. Or that dear sweet Grace may have been murdered. Or that Gilda, in a comedy of errors, assumes Grace’s identity through emails to Grace’s old friend Rosemary — who doesn’t know that Grace is dead.
Everyone in this Room will Someday be Dead is a poignant study of what it means to be a functioning adult, the ennui of the end of young adulthood, and the wrenching agony of growth. Austin’s writing is sharp, concise, and emotional; although at times, Gilda as a character and narrator frustrated me. It is sometimes difficult to be at a further stage of healing and growth than a character, maybe because I cannot offer them any advice or reassurance; or, maybe, because Gilda’s story hits a little too close to home. At times, I was reminded of Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This. Both books offer the same blunt and cathartic exploration of mental health, death, and the grief that comes from both (the grief from loss of the self, of relationships, of experiences).
Going into the book, I sort of expected a dark comedy or a mystery story (I have been very interested in mysteries lately). Everyone in this Room was neither. True, there were bright and shining moments of comedy that pierced the dark morbidity of Gilda’s story, such as when, food rotten in her fridge at home, she steals a bag of crackers from the church — and finds out she has stolen and eaten a bag of communion wafers (49-50). The main plot in the book is ripe for comedy, and Austin plays with that without trivializing or overshadowing the novel’s very serious tone and subject matter. These (brief) moments of levity stand to make the unflinching look at all of our mortality that much more impactful. There is an old adage, “make them laugh before you make them cry” — Austin succeeds in this, whole-heartedly and unabashed. I cried more than I laughed, yes, but I did laugh. It was a catharsis.
I think that I will leave you with Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes.” May we all accept the inevitable with grace, and grow kinder for it.
Austin, Emily R. Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead. Atria Books, 2021.
As we begin the countdown to 2023, we’re looking back at all the great books our NLC staff has reviewed in 2022!
In our weekly Friday Reads blog series, a staff member at the Nebraska Library Commission posts a review of a book every Friday. Spanning all genres, from science fiction to celebrity memoirs, young adult to crime fiction, we’ve shared what we’ve read and why we’ve read it.
Former NLC staffer Laura Johnson created this series to model the idea of talking about books and to help readers get to know our staff a little better. Readers advisory and book-talking are valuable skills for librarians to develop, but they are ones that take practice. We hope that our book reviews will start a conversation about books among our readers and encourage others to share their own reviews and recommendations.
The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo, reflects an exotic world, made both strange and familiar, for being set in 1930 Malay, (now Malaysia), a world of many races, including the white “foreigners” (British colonials.) The title has been selected for the Elizabeth II Jubilee list of titles, 10 books for each year of her reign. The story combines murder mystery, a quest, a ghost realm, were-tigers, and Chinese numerology, and the mythology of Malay. Oh, and a love story.
Yangsze Choo mixes exposition and action well. Her characters are interesting, her narrative goes from a young Chinese orphan houseboy, in present tense; an educated 21-year-old young woman forced to apprentice to a dressmaker, instead of continuing school, in past tense; and an English surgeon, in present tense. I found it an interesting style point, which brought Ji Lin closer as a character.
The story starts with the houseboy, Ren, 11, who is taking care of his dying master, an old, English doctor. The man lost most of his little finger in a surgery, and wants Ren to find it and bury it with his body within 49 days, or his master’s spirit will wander, forever. The Dr. lived in Malay a long time, and was especially interested in were tiger mythology, especially after a man who identified as a were tiger, called him one, too. The Dr.’s fevered dreams are haunted with images that might be seen by a tiger hunting. Ren is disturbed by this. He has repetitive dreams of his dead twin brother, which might be more than just dreams. Ren journeys to work for Mr. Acton, an English surgeon at the hospital in another town, Batu Gajah, and on the trip from the train station, learns there have been dogs eaten by a big cat, most are guessing a leopard.
Ji Lin, 20, has taken a second job dancing with strangers to help pay off her mother’s mahjong debt—exacerbated by being taken over by a loan shark. Not one of the more acceptable jobs for a young woman, at the time, but high paying. The woman who runs the May Flower Dance hall keeps things above board, there are bouncers, and only men with tickets are allowed to approach “the dance instructors.” One day, a particularly predatory man chooses Ji Lin to dance the tango, and boasts about many things, but mostly about being lucky. So while being tortured by bad dancing, mashed toes, and wandering hands, his good luck charm falls into Ji Lin’s possession. It turns out to be the old doctor’s little finger in a small specimen jar. All Ji Lin knows, is that it’s gruesome, and wants to get rid of it properly.
The path of the finger in a specimen bottle is traced with sudden deaths, near misses, and fevers, until it is finally buried with the old doctor. Along the way, a child matures, a young woman becomes engaged in a broom closet, and a murderer is captured. To be truthful, it’s so much more complicated than that, which is the fun of reading The Night Tiger.
The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo, Flatiron Books, (Macmillan), ISBN 9781250175458, hardcover
This Christmas I hunted around for Native American stories for my niece and nephew. They are finally old enough to start asking questions about their culture and the color of grandpa’s skin. My dad is from the Band River Band of Chippewa at the very tip of Wisconsin. My brother and I are half Native, which makes my niece and nephew a quarter Native. We all tan pretty well.
To help the kids learn their heritage, I am reviewing Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Not surprisingly, I learned a lot from this collection of poems and short stories as well. In hindsight, I probably won’t give it to the kids until they are in middle school or at a higher reading level, but it was still a good read.
Many of the stories centered on Indian kids learning their culture through powwow celebrations and everyday life on the reservation, or elsewhere in the world. My brother and I didn’t grow up on the reservation like our dad did, but the stories still felt familiar and well-worn. I’ve been to many a powwow in my lifetime, but my niece and nephew have never seen one in person. Now they can learn the good, bad and ugly of Indian life from the safety of this book.
While some stories pass down traditional fancy dancing and our native languages, one of my favorite stories was told from the perspective of a reservation dog observing people in all their flawed and wonderful glory. If you’ve never heard of a reservation dog, nearly ever rez has got one. That dog that cannot and will not be owned by a single person. Rez dogs are cared for by and cares for all the people on the rez. Sort of like a library cat.
Even though some of these stories represent specific tribes, when you stack them all side-by-side, the similarities are unmistakable. Every language has a word for family, belonging, fear, loss, identity, and all those very human things. Having explored stories from around the world, all of our Ancestors must have all been talking to each other for a lifetime.
If you want to peer into the lives of dozens of Native cultures, try Ancestor Approved. Our history comes to life through story. These stories are real and refuse to be whitewashed.