The Book Beat - August 1, 2022
I know, I know. It's been ages. I won't make any promises, since all of my previous ones didn't pan out. But I will say, in the months since I last wrote, I've read/listened to 34 books, with five of them ranking as best of the year (one is above!). And, most importantly, I missed chatting books with you! Below I share some book reviews and book recs and also highlight some TV series I'm hooked on. And, since it's my passion, I'll chat the status of book-banning efforts around the U.S., which, sadly, have increased since I blogged last. 😠 But first...
🤩 5-Star ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Books! 🤩
🧪 Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus 🧪
(my fave book of 2022, so far!)
Refreshingly original from start to finish, this book tells the story of Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist trying to break the glass ceiling in the 1950s. She succeeds based on her own determination to be more than society believes her to be and her quirky personality that’s steeped in a love of science and precision. When she inadvertently becomes the beloved star of a TV cooking show, her ability to show women to be the mulifaceted, smart, capable, amazing humans they are starts to upset the men in a society that deems women less-than and not worthy of the adoration she's getting. She's upsetting the status quo and, as usual when that occurs, progress can happen. Elizabeth does this all while staying true to herself and her beliefs.
Funny, sharp, inventive, and true, this book is hard to categorize. It makes some important statements about the sexism and misogyny of the 1950s (some of which carries through to today), belief in religious creation versus the science of evolution, and the power/endurance of love. It's also hilarious in many parts, especially when the narrative is told from the dog's POV. Through it all, Elizabeth Zott remains a distinct, expertly rendered character who will make you laugh, smile, cry, and cheer. She's terrific, and I'm so glad I got to spend some time in her amazing world.
🧙♀️ The Change by Kirsten Miller 🧙♀️
What a book! Harriet, Nessa, and Jo develop supernatural powers once they hit menopause—and they don't let them go to waste! This tightly plotted thriller finds the trio working together to avenge the mysterious murders of young women in their seaside town in NY. This is a rousing, feminist tour-de-force that doesn't skimp on its bold commentary about society's treatment of women, particularly when it comes its view of middle-aged women and the safety of all women. Timely, important themes are explored in an intriguing murder mystery. Highly recommend!
🇺🇸Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez 🇺🇸
This novel is another wonderful piece of fiction that expertly and expressively explores a historical event that many might not know about. And, unfortunately, it’s again an instance of the U.S. government perpetuating harm on Black people while violating their civil rights.
Many have heard about the unethical and deadly U.S. gov’t/Tuskeegee University syphilis study performed on impoverished Black male sharecroppers in Alabama in the mid-1900s. Yet, another government-sanctioned atrocity was also happening at this time: the forced sterilization of poor, Black women and children.
Perkins-Valdez’s book looks at this issue through a fictional lens using a real-life court case for inspiration. Civil Townsend is a young, Black nurse working at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic. At first she’s convinced she’s doing good and carrying on her doctor father’s legacy. But then she finds out that the two girls she has come to care for—India, 11, and Erica, 13—have been sterilized against their will. Civil already had an outsized interest in the girls—she works to get their poor family out of the hovel they live in on the father’s employer’s farm and into gov’t-subsidized housing—but now her passion for civil rights, redemption, and basic human decency spur her to take on the system and get justice for not only the girls, but every woman and child who’ve been hurt by this horrific practice.
Perkins-Valdez does an amazing job weaving in real-life details with powerful fiction. The evocative details describing the atmosphere of the South are especially effecting. While difficult to read in parts, this novel is an essential—and thoroughly engaging—piece of historical fiction that all should read. It's especially poignant after the recent SCOTUS ruling that again finds women fighting for the control of what is done to their bodies. Highly recommend!
🧕 These Impossible Things by Salma El-Wardany 🧕
What a wonderful book! Centered around three best friends, this novel explores not only love, romance & faith, but how they intertwine and affect the lives of modern, Muslim women.
Kees, Jenna, and Malak are best friends venturing out after college, trying to find their way in life & love. Malak & Kees are both in love with white, non-Muslim men and know they aren’t permitted to marry them. Kees breaks with tradition & insists on marrying Harry, threatening her relationship with her family. Malak breaks up with Jacob and heads to Egypt, intent on reaffirming her faith and possibly finding love with a Muslim man she can have a future with. And Jenna is intent on having fun and keeping things light, yet after a horrible experience, finds her spirit diminished and her will to be happy on her own terms destroyed. All three women navigate these challenges, eventually realizing that together they have more power than apart.
The intricacies of each woman’s journey is brought to vivid, emotional life by El-Wardany. She has a lovely ability to illuminate each woman’s experiences with both emotion and realness. I especially liked when she took time to describe what many of the characters were doing at one given moment. It serves to reflect the intricate details of life, while also speaking to our shared humanity. It’s a lovely literary device that kept me fully immersed in all the narratives.
One note: Considering last week’s SCOTUS ruling, I will say that an abortion takes place in this book. I thought El-Wardany handled it perfectly, zeroing in on the many issues women face when making this decision. That’s what’s lost in the politics of it—it’s not a decision that women take lightly. It's complex, personal, and heartbreaking.
If you love stories about women and their friendships, definitely read this book! I switched between listening & reading. Much thanks to @hachetteaudio for the free audio copy. Shazia Nicholls does an AMAZING job narrating. She brings an extra level of emotion & grace to Salma's words that made these women’s stories even more compelling.
🎮 Tomorrow & Tomorrow & Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin 🎮
This book is wonderful! There is so much nuance to it, yet, at its core, it’s simple: Two video game designers meet and form a powerful, platonic friendship. Zevin expertly crafts an elegant narrative around their relationship and their life making video games. It’s similar to video games themselves: A mix of imagery, storylines, and characters that may seem frivolous but can be, when rearranged just the right way, an emotional and eye-opening journey that teaches you something about real life.
Sadie Green and Sam Mazur meet at the hospital when a car accident has crushed his foot (and killed his mother) and Sadie’s visiting her sister who has cancer. Sam hasn’t talked since the accident but easily starts a friendship with Sadie, who, like him, adores video games. They bond over Super Mario Brothers and a lifelong friendship—the “real” life ones, that ebbs and flows with periods of closeness and estrangement—forms.
The rest of the novel moves from their first meeting in the 1990s through their lives and loves until their mid 30s—college, creating a video game company, designing video games, Sadie falling in love, tragedy brought on by hate in the world, etc. It touches on gun violence, inclusivity, racism, anti-semitism, domestic abuse…it’s astounding all that Zevin includes in the story with none of it feeling out-of-place or extraneous. Again, like life, the relationship between Sadie and Sam, a strong connection between two human beings, is the genesis for the two life stories. It’s the essence of human life itself.
As you can tell, I loved it. Zevin’s idea for video games are astounding. Not mere “shooters,” but games which sound like one this non-gamer would want to play. Even if you’re not a gamer, read this book. There’s so much in it to love, you won’t regret it.
4-Star ⭐⭐⭐⭐ Books!
📚 What I'm Reading Now 📚
I just finished Corrections in Ink by Keri Blakinger, which was terrific. This nonfiction book recounts her life as an Olympic level figure skater whose addiction to drugs landed her in jail and prison (they are different things!) for two years. Now a reporter who writes about the injustices and horrors of America's prison systems, Keri has crafted a no-holds-barred memoir that's raw, intimate, and inspiring. It was also extremely eye-opening about how broken the whole system is and how racism plays a key role in its horrors. A must-read.
I'm listening to Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, a young adult novel that explores how a queer Chinese-American girl named Lily comes of age against the backdrop of 1950s McCarthyism. Lo's evocative descriptions of San Francisco, its queer culture, and the Chinese-American experience paint vivid pictures that enhance Lily's journey of love and identity. So far, so very good.
When Life Gives You Vampires by Gloria Duke (ARC, pubs 10/4). Yes, Gloria is my "writing BFF," and I did read this one in its early stages, but I'm re-reading it now in ARC form. It's as terrific and distinct as I remember. Lily Baines, a "newbie" vampire with body issues, has an acerbic personality that's as hilarious as it's endearing. Gloria has done an amazing job with the vampire world-building and the master/newborn-to-lovers progression of Tristan and Lily. I'm especially impressed (and I already knew G could write!) with how realistic the exploration of body issues is. I've absolutely felt all of the conflicting feelings Lily feels. I can't wait to review this one in earnest and promote my friend's book a whole lot closer to its pub date (get ready!).
📺 TV Shows to Watch 📺
These shows have HOOKED me and I can't recommend them enough.
Stranger Things 4 (Netflix) is as good as all the previous seasons and leaves the show in a great place for its final season. I love Eddie Munson!
Severance. A twisty, clever show that deserved all the Emmy love it got. The final episode of the season is a corker!
Our Flag Means Death. (HBO Max) A hilarious queer rom-com that is my new Schitts Creek/Ted Lasso. Meaning it's a show I can watch again and again and again. It makes me happy.
🧼 Diana's Soapbox: Book Banning
It's still happening, it's gotten worse, and librarians and teachers are experiencing the brunt of the vitriol. One especially galling story from June was how book banners were going to libraries and taking out all of the LGBTQ+ books in Pride displays, even calling it "Hide the Pride."
You don't accept LGBTQ+ people or your reading of the Bible tells you they're less than cis women and men? Then don't let your kids read those books, if that's what you want. But PUBLIC access, whether in schools or libraries, is none of your concern and you have no right to limit accessibility of those books for others. The narratives that have been used to support this censorship and, frankly, bigotry, are especially disgusting.
Add to this the absolute ridiculousness of prohibiting kids from learning about actual, factual American history, and I'm even more incensed. And using the inane excuse that "it'll make white kids feel guilty" is even more nonsensical. Keeping future generations ignorant to the atrocities and bad behaviors of America's past does nothing but ensure that those behaviors are given cover to continue or start again. America, like anyone and anything, is complex, a range of good to bad. Kids, teens, and anyone, really, learning the truth, as opposed to some white-washed narrative, is imperative.
Case in point: George Washington was an expert military commander, a founding father, and our first president. He's been lauded for doing many good things. Also, while living in Philadelphia (in a state that required slaveholders to free slaves after six months), he purposely sent his slaves down south every six months to "reset" the clock, so he could flout the law and keep them enslaved. He and Martha even spent an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to recapture Ona Judge, one of his slaves who escaped. There's a powerful book about it called Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. AND there's a "young adult" version, Never Caught: The Story of Ona Judge that your teen can read while you read the adult one. A parent-child bookclub sounds GREAT to me. And just think of the meaningful discussions you'll have about true history and how complex it and its people are.
Kids are blessed with active imaginations, they're smart and can think critically, especially when a parent, teacher, or adult talks things through with them. That's what we need to be doing. Being open and honest and letting kids and teens, whether they're LGBTQ+, Black, white, a lover of math, a fan of reading, big on bugs, etc. SEE themselves and the things they love in the books they read. Off soapbox.
Cover of the Week:
Flying Solo by Linda Holmes
I loved Linda's debut, Evvie Drake Starts Over, so I'm anxious to meet Laurie and spend more fictional time in Maine. The publisher's synopsis is below. This colorful and fun cover was illustrated by Jane Boyle Hallman (well done!) with the cover design by Connie Gabbert and art direction by Joseph Perez.
Smarting from her recently canceled wedding and about to turn forty, Laurie Sassalyn returns to her Maine hometown of Calcasset to handle the estate of her great-aunt Dot, a spirited adventurer who lived to be ninety-three. Alongside boxes of Polaroids and pottery, a mysterious wooden duck shows up at the bottom of a cedar chest. Laurie’s curiosity is piqued, especially after she finds a love letter to the never-married Dot that ends with the line “And anyway, if you’re ever desperate, there are always ducks, darling.”
Laurie is told that the duck has no financial value. But after it disappears under suspicious circumstances, she feels compelled to figure out why anyone would steal a wooden duck—and why Dot kept it hidden away in the first place. Suddenly Laurie finds herself swept up in a righteous caper that has her negotiating with antiques dealers and con artists, going on after-hours dates at the local library, and reconnecting with her oldest friend and her first love. Desperate to uncover her great-aunt’s secrets, Laurie must reckon with her own past and her future—and ultimately embrace her own vision of flying solo.
With a cast of unforgettable characters and a heroine you will root for from page one, Flying Solo is a wonderfully original story about growing up, coming home, and learning to make a life for yourself on your own terms.
Have a great week and I'll be back soon with more reviews, bookish news, and fun!