Tag Archives: Friday Reads

Friday Reads: The Anthropocene Reviewed Essays on a Human-Centered Planet, by John Green

If you have never heard of John Green where have you been, living under a rock? Just Kidding, but seriously this man is prolific writer of young adult fiction, creator of video content with his brother Hank, and is a great philanthropist. His books always seem to land on the New York Times bestsellers lists, winning numerous awards, and a number of them have been adapted for the screen. The video ventures he does with his brother Hank, specifically “Crash Course”, have won the highest acclaim of teachers who use their YouTube content in class. I could go on and on, so to learn more about John start with his website at https://www.johngreenbooks.com/

“The Anthropocene Reviewed” is a departure from his other works as it is not strictly geared towards young adults and, probably more importantly, it is his first work of nonfiction. John has taken his wonderfully cozy prose writing style to share his thoughts our modern age, specifically the current geological age – the Anthropocene, by rating the seemingly most mundane things on a five star scale. Everything from diet Dr. Pepper, to sunsets, to Super Mario Brothers gets a chapter. He uses the Anthropocene as a lens to focus the reviews as it the first age in which humans have played a huge roll in how the world is shaped.

I loved everything about this book! The writing style makes me feel like I’m back on my grandma’s lap listening to her read me a story, but the content makes you think and look at the world differently. John’s choice of items to review, his silly little footnotes1, and how each chapter is a story unto itself is just perfect.

Covid-19 and quarantine have probably affected every single person on the planet. The “Anthropocene Reviewed” is the first book that I have read where the author is aware of this and shares its effect on themselves, to remind us that we are not alone in what is shaping our world right now.

I give “The Anthropocene Reviewed” by John Green four and three quarters stars.

_____

1 The footnotes are probably the best thing about this book! Do not miss his footnote on the copyright page that reviews… well, the copyright page! I give John’s use of footnotes one million stars out of five.

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Friday Reads: We Are Watching Eliza Bright, by A.E. Osworth

            We Are Watching Eliza Bright is, for all intents and purposes, a dark read. It deals in plot devices as disturbing as any Stephen King novel, with an update for the Reddit age. We witness Eliza take a real issue of workplace sexual harassment to management, where she is given a lukewarm response and told that the incident will not result in the firing of either offender. Nor, it seems, will it herald a shift in the culture at Fancy Dog Games, where a supposed commitment to transparency and productive conversation dissolves in front of Eliza’s eyes. It does not matter how capable, headstrong, or courageous she is—and she is all three—the culture of male violence she faces almost leads to her undoing, though not without bringing down some of the novel’s other key players, some of whom were integral to the initial campaign against her.

            There are few things on earth as chilling as the loss of your personal safety and security. This central theme dominates the narrative in We Are Watching Eliza Bright, as the protagonist finds herself in unique danger due to her gender and prestigious role at a successful, fictitious video game development studio in New York City. The work is written almost entirely in the third person from the perspective of a group of anonymous, unreliable, and increasingly violent misogynists, who critique Eliza’s every move as she moves through the world, offering to the reader misguided and offensive commentary about her status as a woman in the gaming industry. We are to believe, if you trust the narrators’ voice at all, that women don’t belong in the male world of video games—or, for that matter, any public or private space where women and marginalized people get to make their own choices and have agency in any meaningful way. This includes the real world—which is referred to in actual gaming circles and the book as Meatspace—as well as the internet, which we come to understand represents as extension and only an extension of who we are in real life, with none of the grittier or more evil parts of our psyches left out.

            On the defensive, we are met with another group of narrators toward the middle of the work who give Eliza a home at their security and unity-minded feminist art collective in the city. These individuals try to represent and uphold the best of what cobbles together a community, including guaranteeing each person physical safety, the space and comfort they need to process trauma, ritualistic tradition and healing, and undying compassion in times of both joy and profound stress. It is a refreshing break from the anonymous cabal of mean and, frankly, ridiculous Reddit and 4chan narrators, whose occasional moments of humanity and empathy hint at glorious change on a wider scale.

            I would recommend this book to anyone in need of a change of pace or to anyone looking for an indictment on internet culture, the work of feminism in 2021, and what it means to be and feel secure in our bodies and identities, though with a heavy dose of caution as this work includes graphic physical, emotional, and sexual violence.

Osworth, A. E. (2021). We Are Watching Eliza Bright. Grand Central Publishing.

#FridayReads #WeAreWatchingElizaBright #A.E.Osworth

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Friday Reads: Crying in H Mart: A Memoir, by Michelle Zauner

Michelle Zauner was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Eugene, Oregon, by her American father and Korean mother. She is already well known as an indie pop singer/songwriter, who performs and records under the name Japanese Breakfast. (Her third studio album is scheduled for release later this month, and she will be in Omaha on July 31 at the Maha Music Festival.) Her debut book, Crying in H Mart, is an expansion of an essay of the same name that she published in the New Yorker in 2018.

If I had to sum up Crying in H Mart in a single sentence, I’d say it’s a memoir by a daughter about a fraught relationship with her late mother. But that’s reductive. It’s also an exercise in grieving, a culinary celebration, and an exploration of what it’s like to straddle two cultures, not feeling like you completely belong in either one. There’s also a love story slipped in.

H Mart, Zauner tells us on the opening page of her book, is a U.S. supermarket chain that specializes in Asian food, “where parachute kids go to get the exact brand of instant noodles that reminds them of home.” It’s also frequently a trigger for Zauner’s grief over the loss of her mother, who died in 2014, at the age of 56, after a brief, brutal battle with cancer. This death is the animating event of the memoir, but Zauner’s narrative stretches backward and forward in time. She recounts both the prickly relationship she had with her mother growing up and the love of Korean food they shared. She also addresses the alienation she feels from her Korean self after losing her mother: “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” she asks herself at one point, while shopping at H Mart.

Zauner’s writing is often visceral, which leads to a powerful reading experience: Her descriptions of food—how it tastes, what it feels like to share it, the yearning to be able to prepare it—are transporting; however, her descriptions of the hands-on care she provided to her mother in her final days, as her body deteriorated, are raw and gut wrenching. The latter may be too much for someone who has recently gone through something similar, but it’s a testament to Zauner’s talent that she is able to bring all types of experiences to vivid life.

Zauner, Michelle. Crying in H Mart: A Memoir. New York: Random House Audio, 2021.

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Friday Reads: The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I love reading historical novels, especially ones that are based in fact and teach me about a subject I previously knew little about. The Signature of All Things is just such a book. Elizabeth Gilbert’s descriptions of the botanical world, and how plants were discovered, acquired, and improved, are truly masterful.

Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family, led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker—a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction—into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist—but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.

Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe—from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who—born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution—bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. (Amazon.com)

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Friday Reads: Cookbooks

It’s time for more cookbooks!

I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to share, so I thought I would include a few favorites from my last cookbook haul:

Perfectly Golden: Inspired Recipes from Goldenrod Pastries, the Nebraska Bakery that Specializes in Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, and Vegan Treats by Angela Garbacz

Goldenrod Pastries, located in Lincoln, is an amazing bakery with the best baked goods of all kinds. As much as I would love to just visit every day, having the cookbook now helps fill the gaps.

Gluten-free and vegan baking can be intimidating, but the recipes are clear and easy enough, even for beginning bakers. The photos are all bright and cheerful, and there are plenty of notes to help explain different parts of the recipes, like flours.

I started with the cinnamon rolls which turned out perfectly and may very well replace my usual recipe!

Aran: Recipes and Stories from a Bakery in the Heart of Scotland by Flora Shedden

One of the best parts of reading cookbooks, especially this last year, is looking at amazing pictures and reading stories of far-off places, and turning your kitchen into something like a small Scottish bakery. Flora Shedden’s (from the Great British Bake Off) book has become a favorite. Aran (meaning bread) is full of recipes arranged by the time of day in the bakery, starting with making bread before dawn, including a section for getting your sourdough starters just right. The recipes are simple and encouraging, with plenty of instructions for North American conversions. Some recipes, like croissants, are multi-day projects but well worth the extra time and effort (with lots of butter).

And now for something completely different!

Fuel Your Body: How to Cook and Eat for Peak Performance: 77 Simple, Nutritious, Whole-Food Recipes for Every Athlete by Angie Asche

This is already my new favorite everyday cookbook. The recipes are super simple and delicious, focusing on helping you reach your full athletic potential whether you’re just trying to get healthy, you’re a recreational runner, or a more serious athlete. The first section includes great information for athletes (or parents of athletes) on basic nutrition concepts and timing your meals around game time to give you the best boost, as well as several weekly meal plans (including a vegan/plant-based plan) and how to make the perfect smoothie. These recipes are quick and easy, perfect for weekly meals. The baked banana oatmeal has been great for breakfast meal prep through the week. The lentil tacos, almond flour cookies, and ginger-citrus smoothie are also new staples.

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Friday Reads: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon is about the investigation of a crime, but as it tells that story, we learn about the different worlds of all the involved parties. Careful and enthusiastic research helps Grann tell us an interwoven story, and we want to keep reading because the story is so compelling.

I don’t want to give too much away, but if you are interested in American history, this book is full of history you didn’t learn in school, and it is fascinating and shocking. I listened to the audiobook, and there were three different narrators for the three different sections. This was an effective choice, and each narrator was an engaging reader, and a good match, for their section.

The first section lays the groundwork for the story, about the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, when they were the richest population on earth (per capita) in the early 1900s. The second section is about the different investigations of a series of murders, and how diligent those investigations were, or were not. (This section also includes a lot of information about the structure of the FBI and the influence of J. Edgar Hoover on changes in the FBI.) The third section pulls back the camera even further, to observe more about the context and meaning of the crimes being investigated, and to illustrate the personal cost to families in the Osage Nation.

When I say “pulls back the camera,” that brings up another point of interest. I missed the original buzz about this book when it came out in 2017, and I checked it out recently, after hearing that Martin Scorsese was involved in a film adaptation. You might want to read it before you see the movie, or even just to get the references you will see online. Like this joke from Twitter this week.

Grann, David, Ann M. Lee, Will Patton, and Danny Campbell. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, 2017. Sound recording.

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Friday Reads: Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes by Ira Rosen

Who hasn’t heard of 60 Minutes, the iconic show that begins with the sound effect pronouncing Sunday night more effectively than any other time-keeping device ever could?  Ira Rosen, a longtime producer, pulls back the curtain on his years working with the famed newscasters. If you don’t want to know the dirt on these storied men, and it was all men at the beginning, this may not be the book for you. But I think you’ll want to know.

This iconic news program debuted in 1968, created by Don Hewitt and Bill Leonard. The now familiar magazine style newscast pioneered many techniques of investigative journalism including hidden cameras and “gotcha journalism”, the now infamous ambush visits to a home or office of an investigative subject.

Ira Rosen survived 25 years working behind the scenes of 60 minutes and was first assigned to Mike Wallace who said to Rosen “I know what I can do for you. What can you do for me?”  I shouldn’t have been surprised by the description of the smoke-filled, misogynist work place Rosen described. Oversized egos lead to thieving stories and unforgivable, sometimes inhumane behavior. With story after story, what is clear is that Mike Wallace was a deplorable, horrible man, with tremendous journalistic skills.

Certain parts of this book will make you cheer for journalism the way All the President’s Men and Spotlight did in cinema. That news can be a force for good and actually make a difference is something I often forget. The heart of a good journalist is not about tabloid questions but actually making a difference. In his years in the news business, Rosen and his colleagues did just that.

Rosen, Ira. Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes, New York: St. Martin’s Press 2021,

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Friday Reads: The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

How well do we really know our parents? In Margot Lee’s case, her mother is turning out to be quite a mystery. If you had asked her a few weeks ago, she’d probably have said her mother, Mina Lee, lived a quiet, boring life. Her days filled with working at her consignment clothes booth and evenings alone in the small, rundown apartment in L.A. she’s lived in since Margot was a child. But after finding her mother’s body, in what Margot thinks are suspicious circumstances, she embarks on a journey to unravel the puzzle that was her mother’s life.

Written in alternating viewpoints, the story unfolds both from Margot’s veiw as she finds her descesed mother, and from a young Mina’s, as she leaves South Korea. The juxtaposition of both narrators, as well as the time frames, really made the story for me. The exploration of Mina’s life as an undocumented immigrant in L.A.’s Korea Town was also eye-opening. If you enjoy familial drama mixed with mystery this Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick is for you.

Jooyoun Kim, Nancy. The Last Story of Mina Lee: A Novel. Park Row. 2020.

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Friday Reads: Eavesdropping on Lucifer by Donald B. Stenberg

Many Nebraskans know of Don Stenberg as Nebraska’s three-term attorney general and two-term state treasurer. Mr. Stenberg retired from public office in 2019. He has now written his first book, Eavesdropping on Lucifer: A Story Every Christian Should Hear. Stenberg began writing the book several years ago, but it was after he left the state treasurer’s office that he had time to complete it.

A fictional work, Eavesdropping on Lucifer depicts the devil “the Boss” instructing and quizzing a young apprentice regarding strategies and methods for enticing people to stray from Christian principles and beliefs. Lucifer assigns Jonathan, the apprentice, with several projects to test his abilities and for the purpose of undermining some individuals with common life challenges. Not to be unchallenged, Jonathan’s efforts are resisted by God’s angel, named, of course – Angelica.

Notable are biblical, historical, and scientific references. Stenberg’s legal education, experience, and perspective are prominent elements in contrasting good and evil. The changing cultural landscape, court rulings, educational, and political issues are themes presented in the book.

Some reviewers have likened Eavesdropping on Lucifer to C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a book that deals with temptation and resistance.

Readers who identify as Christians, and those who do not, will find their own beliefs affirmed or challenged in this book.

A Tekamah, Nebraska native, Don Stenberg is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate. Stenberg received a law degree, with honors, from Harvard Law School. He also received an MBA degree from Harvard Business School.

Stenberg, Donald B. Eavesdropping on Lucifer: A story every Christian should hear. Carpenter’s Son Publishing, Franklin, Tennessee. 2020.

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Friday Reads: Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars

I’m not sure of the reason why, other than maybe a sort of camaraderie with the sideburns, but during the pandemic I’ve been listening to a great deal of Neil Young. And there’s a lot to listen to. According to his discography, he has put out 40 studio albums and 8 live ones. So it’s no surprise that today’s FR is a 2015 book by Neil, Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars. Originally titled Cars & Dogs, as Neil also recants the dogs he’s had over the years, and their interaction with his massive car collection (special deluxe = Plymouth Special Deluxe). This book is more of a surface scratcher, or overview of his time with Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse, CSNY, and his interpersonal relationships. I say surface scratcher because it has an overview of those bands and musicians, without all the nasty bits. NOTE: HBO watchers will catch the reference to the nasty bits from the recently flopped series Vinyl. Cancelled after 1 season, it had potential. It could have been a contender. It could have been somebody. Personally, the period costumes were outstanding, acting top notch, the story so-so, and overall didn’t live up to expectations (especially compared to its massive budget). But damn it was fun to watch, and to dream of incorporating the décor (shag carpets, bell bottom sansabelt slacks, Thorens turntables, reel to reel players, and Galliano cocktails) into the modern home.

Anyway, if you have an interest in Neil’s life, and if you like cars, this book is certainly an easy read. It doesn’t come across as bragging as many musician biographies do. Just Neil detailing his life, music, and relationships. He does cover his childhood, which was humble and interesting, switching from a summer in Florida then back to Canada, and his parents’ divorce. If you are looking for any of Neil to listen to, I highly recommend Live at Massey Hall, but you can’t go wrong with many of the others. If you don’t have a Hi-Fi, grab a console stereo from a garage sale and crank it up. If you have a Thorens turntable, sell it to me. Many of the cars owned by Neil were mid 1940’s vintage, including a hearse called Mortimer Hearseburg, or “Mort”.

Young, Neil. Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life and Cars. Penguin Group. 2015.

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Friday Reads: The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Science fiction titles have been popping up more and more in my reading list over this past year, perhaps as an escape from our current reality. A list of the some of the best new science fiction from the last 15 years led me to some fantastic escapes, including:

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
  • Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)
  • The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull (2019)
  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (2014)
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2014)

The last one on that list, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is the first in the Wayfarers trilogy. Described as a “light-hearted space opera”, the story follows a ragtag group of wormhole tunnelers as they cruise through space. New ship accountant Rosemary is adjusting to life off-planet and to her new crew mates. But when the team is offered the tunneling job of a lifetime, Rosemary must decide if she can trust them with a secret about her past.

I don’t often associate “cozy” with “sci-fi” but this is an apt descriptor of this novel. Quirky, likeable characters and a heartwarming tone would make this a perfect read for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. New York: Harper Voyager 2016. (Originally self-published, 2014).

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Friday Reads: The Oracle Code

I have discovered that part of my pandemic coping is more quick reads. For me, that means comics and graphic novels. Looking back over the last year, most of my Friday Reads have been graphic novels. Here’s another one I really enjoyed.

I like when I’m surprised by a book that isn’t what I thought it was going to be. The Oracle Code, written by Marieke Nijkamp and illustrated by Manuel Preitano, is a new story about Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, aka Oracle. But, it’s definitely not what you may be expecting. It’s not your typical superhero story.

Teenager Barbara Gordon has recently been accidentally shot and is paralyzed from the waist down. Her father, Commissioner Jim Gordon, has sent her to the Arkham Center for Independence to help her adjust to life in a wheelchair.

Barbara is struggling with her new situation, and at first pushes away any of the other teens who try to befriend her, clinging to her previous life and her friend outside the Center, Ben. But slowly, as she participates in her therapies and the other teens refuse to give up on her, she becomes more confident and makes new friends. The other teens at the center are a very diverse group, showcasing a range of disabilities, races, and genders.

But, something’s not right at the Center. Children are disappearing – the staff claim they have just moved on to other places for their therapy. But, Barbara is suspicious – her instincts tell her that they are being lied to.

And….is that a ghost?

Using her skills as a talented computer hacker, and with the help of Ben and the other residents at the Center, Barbara attempts to solve the mystery of what’s happening to the children. At the same time, Barbara works on her own puzzle of who she was, and who she is now.

The Oracle Code is an empowering story about Barbara overcoming her feelings of grief and anger to become a strong, independent heroine.

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Friday Reads: The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

Nora (17) (not her real name) was rescued from her con-artist mother five years ago by her older half-sister, Lee.  Nora was part of each con her mother planned and carried out. She was Rebecca, Samantha, Haley, Katie, and Ashley.  Being each one taught her things that she will soon need.  Five years of living with her sister, going to therapy, going to school, her boyfriend Wes, who is now her ex-boyfriend, may have taken some of her edge off, or not.

Nora, Wes, and Nora’s new love Iris (Nora is bisexual) meet at the bank to deposit the money their fund-raiser collected.  Once in the bank they find themselves in the middle of a bank robbery, and things are not going well.  There are two robbers, one the brains and the other is always quick to panic.  Nora will need all of her skills to keep everyone safe: her friends, the teller, the guard, and a girl who was waiting for her father.

Each chapter heading notes the time, how long they have been captive, and what “weapons” they have.  Some gruesome things happen, both in the past and in the present.  Nora, Wes, and Iris were each abused as children and this situation brings out some of that.  They each have found a way to survive and heal.

Tension is strong throughout the book.  Nora maintains her cool and manipulates the robbers when she can.  When one tactic doesn’t work, she changes to another.  It is clear that everyone is in danger.  She exudes confidence, but inside she knows everything can quickly go wrong.

Flashbacks occur regularly, filling the reader in on what Nora did with her mother, as she was each of the girls her mother created for her.  These pages are slightly gray to stand out from the rest of the book.

This book will pull you in and not let go.  It has continued to be on my mind since I read it earlier this month.  It received a starred review from Booklist and Kirkus.  It is written for grades 9 and up, and new adults might also pick it up off the shelf.

Sharpe, Tess. The Girls I’ve Been. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2021.

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Friday Reads: The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir in Pictures by Noelle Stevenson

“You’ll be okay. But you’ll lose some things” (35).

I believe it was early 2014, late into the last dregs of winter in my freshman year of college, when I got into webcomics. The serial format meant something to look forward to each week (in an era where Netflix “bingeing” was starting to take off), and there was a diverse buffet to choose from — not just in style, but in content. I’m not certain how I stumbled across Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona — then a webcomic, still running in series, now a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award Finalist — but I did, and it shaped me, and when I saw the published, physical copy in my college’s library my senior year I carefully lifted it down from the shelf, held it in my hands and, well, cried.

The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir In Pictures is Stevenson’s story, from 2011 (before Nimona) to 2019. Stevenson — who uses she/her pronouns in the book jacket; her Twitter bio currently states that she accepts any pronouns — compiles comics and reflections from each year, centered around the idea of an inner fire — something that drives her, plagues her, inspires her, and burns her out at the same time.

While the book almost felt, at times, more like a scrapbook than a memoir, Stevenson crafts a poignant, moving, and powerful journey that is both intimately personal and welcoming in its relatability. The scrapbook/memoir is semantics, perhaps, on my part; however, I think I would have liked more of Stevenson’s current-self writing summaries of their past years, partially because I adore their writing style and partially because I felt a little cheated of original content (the book does contain new material); however, I also understand why they chose to recycle past blog entries. Besides, when I was honest with myself, even though I dimly remembered following Stevenson somewhere on the interwebs back in the day, it’s not like I actually remembered their yearly summary posts.

In his highly recognizable art style, Stevenson reaches out to his younger self and says, Hey — things suck, but you’re stronger than you know. You make it. It’s the “things get better” speech I needed to hear — that I, too, wish I could go back and tell my younger self — without the everything gets better. Not everything does. Things still suck. The fire never goes out. Some holes never get filled. Some scars don’t fade all of the way. We keep going, and growing, anyway.

Overall, like most graphic novel-style books, this is a quick read. And it isn’t all the heavy-hitting solemnity of finding one’s way through young adulthood, mental illness, and burnout; there are also moments of levity and love and humor. Stevenson finds herself, falls in love, and shares her art with countless people. The memoir ends up being a balanced, realistic piece, filled with beautiful sketches and art.

If you liked Nimona, you’ll like this memoir. And if you haven’t yet read Nimona, pick both graphic novels up and enjoy two good afternoon reads as we enter brighter days.

Stevenson, Noelle. The Fire Never Goes Out: a Memoir in Pictures. Harper, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2020.

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Friday Reads, Watchers of Time, by Charles Todd

First thing I do in the library is scan the new books shelves, and last time, I picked up a title, Watchers of Time by Charles Todd (fifth in the series.) I recalled part of a review I’d read about a Scotland yard inspector who had been an officer in World War I, and had returned home, with a ghost in his mind. I knew this wasn’t the first of the series when I picked it up, but what little I could remember of the review, plus the intriguing blurb, made me take it home.

This is more than escapist reading. Mr. Todd has done his research on both the after effects of World War I on both the civilian population, and the returning soldiers, such as Inspector Ian Rutledge. Hamish MacLeod, the “ghost” in his mind, was one of the men he had under him. He also suffers from “shell shock”, and claustrophobia. So many of the men who returned were shunned because of “shell shock” or that the part they played in the war was not “sporting.” There was still an extreme difference between the perception of war, and the reality of modern war in the civilian population.

The other thing that elevates this from the usual mystery are the wonderful descriptions of the countryside, set in Norfolk County. This section of the country is called the Broads, and is marshland, where the sea has receded & filled in with only a small tidal river. It is Autumn, but still early enough for some flowers to be in bloom. The town, Osterly, was once an Edwardian vacation town, in a small way, but when the ocean receded, the vacationers stopped arriving.

The Bishop in Norwich wishes Scotland Yard to check the work and circumstances of a priest’s death. This was still a shocking event in a small town in England. Inspector Rutledge is sent to check into the progress being made in the case, and why the Bishop wants an Inspector to check into it. While everyone believes the local inspector to be competent for the job, there are still questions in Inspector Rutledge’s mind. There are also some odd connections between the case and the sinking of the Titanic.

Watchers of Time; An Inspector Rutledge Mystery, Charles Todd, Bantam Books, 2001, 978-0-553-58316-8, paperback.

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Friday Reads: The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

If I were still a reader’s advisor, I would prescribe this book to anyone about to make a major life decision. Someone who is rifling through the archives of life, pondering what might have been if life had pivoted in another direction. There has been plenty of time for this during Covid, so it is sure to be a good read! With one caveat I will mention towards the end of this review.

This book opens with Dawn Edelstein plummeting to the ground in a crashing plane. She is a death doula, working with the dying as they transition out of life. With a husband and daughter at home, she hadn’t expected to shepherd herself along this journey quite so quickly. As Dawn braced for impact, she thought of Wyatt, an Egyptologist she worked with in graduate school.

Dawn survived, but she crash landed in a midlife crisis. The airline offered to send the survivors anywhere they wanted to go in the world. With a head full of memories and the clothes on her back, Dawn went to Egypt to find the one that got away. So it begins.

I assure you, this is not a supernatural story. Dawn is indeed still alive, she does go to Egypt, and Wyatt is doing a dig during the off-season. As it turns out Dawn is a former PhD student studying the Book of Two Ways, an ancient Egyptian map to the afterlife.

As Dawn digs into her past, she uncovers pieces of life that are not so rosy. The death doula has a few skeletons in her closet. Again not supernatural. She didn’t kill anyone and her murdered lovers do not come back to haunt her. The fact that I feel the need to reassure you of this probably speaks more to the other books I have been reading than this one.

Anyway, as the real Book of Two Ways shows there are multiple paths to the afterlife, this book proves that life has options too. The hard part is choosing what will lead to your most fulfilling life. What does that look like? There are too many paths and they all ultimately lead to death. Death permeates this book like a promise.

Alternating between darkness and light, The Book of Two Ways proves that you only live once. So please, go on a journey with Dawn into the past. It’s the only way to make a better future. I won’t say whether she winds up with the one that got away. That’s part of the journey. 

So here’s the caveat. Dawn is a former PhD. She speaks ad nauseam about Egyptology, and a bit about quantum physics. If your eyes gloss over and you skim over the meat of these sections, the world is not going to end. Often, when I talk to real PhDs, this sometimes happens. Their eyes light up and words spill out to form a new theory about the world. The info. dumps about Egyptology are realistic, but make this book about you. Read what matters to you.

The Book of Two Ways carves out a path to explore life. There is no point in ruminating on how it ends. Find yourself between the pages. Choose the experiences you truly want to live.

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Friday Reads: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

“Between life and death there is a library,” she said. “And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived.”

This is the idea behind The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I debated how to write this review without giving too much of the story away and a pro/con list seemed the best way to do that.

Pros:

-An easy read. I had it finished in just a few sittings.

-There are some beautifully written passages that just envelop you.

-The characters are very relatable.

Cons:

-Those beautifully written passages? For me they sometimes felt misplaced and would totally take me out of the story.

-The plot leads you in such a way that you don’t necessarily want to take the time to read everything fully, you just want to get to the next plot point.

-Everything about the book feels very unoriginal and overdone. It seems more like something you’d see someone write for a short story class in college, not from a well-known author.

During the pandemic reading, for me, has become more of a chore than being enjoyable. For every book I do manage to finish there are ten that I don’t, or don’t even really start. It was nice to find a book that caught my attention enough to stick with it and even with all its faults it wasn’t a burden to read.

Would I suggest rushing out and buying it? No, but if you happen across it in the library someday maybe check it out.

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Friday Reads: Conventionally Yours, by Annabeth Albert

Since last Sunday was Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d select something romantic for this week’s Friday Reads. My choice: Conventionally Yours, by Annabeth Albert. If you’re a fan of the “enemies to lovers” and “forced proximity” romance tropes, this might be right down your alley. If you enjoy reading about gamer culture, even better!

Conventionally Yours falls neatly into the new adult romance subgenre. Conrad (21) and Alden (23), the two protagonists, are both navigating fraught transitions between college and uncertain adult futures—Conrad because he had to drop out of college after his parents cut off financial support when they found out he was gay; Alden, who’s neurodiverse, because of failed attempts to get into medical school, followed by pressure from his mothers to come up with immediately-actionable alternate plans.

Conrad and Alden’s initial interactions are at a local game shop, where both participate in a small group devoted to playing the popular card game, Odyssey. At this point, they don’t get along at all. Conrad views Alden as rigid, rules-bound, and no fun, whereas Alden sees Conrad as a popular but irresponsible college drop-out working a series of dead-end jobs. Then, due to a cascade of chance circumstances, and to their mutual horror, they wind up stuck together in a car on a cross-country road trip to “Massive Odyssey Con West,” where they’ll compete for a seat on the pro Odyssey tour—an outcome that both view as a miracle solution to their near-term problems.

While this might seem like a recipe for disaster, in true romance fashion the drive time provides opportunities for the two to get to know each other better, correct misconceptions, and develop feelings. Alden grows indignant on Conrad’s behalf when he learns his family disowned him, and when he realizes Conrad is skimping on food because of tenuous finances he begins “accidentally” ordering more than he can eat in order to share. Conrad, for his part, really listens when Alden lashes out at him after he makes caustic comments about Alden always trying to be perfect. For the first time, Alden feels like someone understands how imperfect he feels after his moms spent years trying to get him diagnosed and fixed. And for the first time, he feels acceptance: “You’re just you. Just Alden. It’s who you are. Changing any of it isn’t necessary,” Conrad assures him.

Though Conrad and Alden experience a détente, coupled with growing attraction and affection, during their time on the road, there is still plenty of drama and tension to be resolved, not least of which is competing against each other in the tournament after learning how much the other needs the win. However, as you can probably guess given this is genre romance, there are happy resolutions in store for Conrad and Alden, both individually and as a couple, in the end.

Albert, Annabeth. Conventionally Yours. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2020.

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Friday Reads: Pie Academy by Ken Haedrich

Pie, pie, me oh my.

Between the historic snowfall last week and the upcoming arctic blast, it’s the perfect time to stay in a warm kitchen baking all the wonderfully lovely pies. Pie Academy: Master the Perfect Crust and 255 Amazing Fillings with Fruits, Nuts, Creams, Custards, Ice Cream, and More by Ken Haedrich is a great resource for home bakers at any skill level. “All you need is fat, flour, salt, and sometimes sugar” (p. 13).

The book starts with the basics of making pie – the tools, the ingredients, and the dough. Pie doesn’t require anything fancy to get started, just practice. His step-by-step instructions for making the perfect piecrust has been extremely helpful. This mini class on crust is followed by an entire chapter of twenty-five different crust recipes, including crusts with butter, shortening, lard, crumb-style, graham crackers, and gluten-free versions.

The book then has chapters with recipes for berry, apple, fall fruit, pecan, custard, cream, hand pies, icebox pies, freezer pies, and other “oddball” pies. Classic pumpkin pie, sour cream raisin pies, brownie pies, watermelon rind pie, strawberry-rhubarb crumb pie, Ritz mock apple pie, polenta pie, nectarine and blueberry-lime pie…there are so many detailed recipes with gorgeous pictures. Included in the recipes, there are “Recipe for Success” sections that offer additional tips and tricks from Haedrich. Throughout the book, there are extra pie trivia or history bites, as well as other lessons, such as how to mail a pie or the differences between apple types. Lastly, there’s a trouble-shooting guide in the back where Haedrich answers some common issues like cracked dough or runny filling.

Even if you’re not a newbie pie baker (like me), there are so many fillings, crust variations, and decorations included for more experienced bakers to find something new.

Haedrich, K. Pie Academy: Master the Perfect Crust and 255 Amazing Fillings, with Fruits, Nuts, Creams, Custards, Ice Cream, and More. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2020. Print.

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Friday Reads: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God of small things

I just started The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and I’m so glad I did. Over a foot of snow on the ground outside calls for some entertainment set in warm climes. Summer in India reads really well right now.

I bought this book a few years ago, when it was required for a class I was taking, and then the school changed the professor for the class, and that new professor changed the books. This book was the one from the original slate that I was looking forward to the most. I was happy to take it off the shelf this week. It’s the story of twin boys and their connection to each other, as their family, which is already going through some things, welcomes visiting relatives who have their own problems. It’s lush and full of surprises from the beginning, and yet never goes out of rhythm.

This is Roy’s first novel, and it follows her training as an architect and her work as a production designer. There’s a lot going on in this book, but we’re in good hands. Roy knows her details and characters and shares them with us luxuriously, but never overwhelms us. Her vision is clear, and her characters are wonderfully flawed, and their relationships are familiar, yet unexpected, in their complexity.

And of course, The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize, which is always a good recommendation. If you like well-planned sprawling stories about families full of interesting characters, and not a snowdrift in sight, you will want to check it out.

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.

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