Hello, bookish friends! I put this post off a week due to the holiday and me being super sick with a sinus infection (and sleeping more than reading). But, as you can see from this pic, I'm feeling much better (and loving my new shirt!).
In the last three weeks, I had the chance to visit some fun bookstores and book-related places. The fam and I went to Fonthill Castle, the Bucks County, PA, home of Renaissance man Henry Chapman Mercer. We toured his amazing office and library (which even has a hidden staircase on the side of the chimney). Original books from his collection are still there, including a rare complete works of Charles Dickens. His office also has gifts he was given by friends (I always give my friends skulls, don't you?). If you're in the PA area, you should go (and make sure to get in free using the library's museum pass program! Thank you, ChesCo Library!). Some pics from this trip and my visit to the wonderful indie bookstore, Aaron's Books in Lititz are below. In Aaron's, I had a "Blind Date with a Book." It was love at first unwrap. 🤣
Do you love going places where there are books? Do you have a Bookstore Bucket List like me? I'm already planning a summer visit to the Rosenbach in Philly, which has a 1st edition of Pride and Prejudice. Be still my book-loving heart! 💓
📚 3 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Book Reviews! 📚
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
I've had this book on my TBR for a while now & finally read it for one of the book clubs I'm in. I was not disappointed!
Tookie, an Indigenous woman living in Minnesota, was sentenced to jail after mistakenly participating in drug trafficking. While there, she found solace in books so, when she gets released early, she starts working at a small, independent, Indigenous-centric bookshop in Minneapolis (yes, the one owned by Louise Erdrich in real life). Life is quiet and routine for Tookie and her husband, Pollux (the tribal officer who had to arrest her years earlier). Yet when the ghost of Flora--a customer who contended she was part native when she really wasn't--starts haunting the store and Tookie, things goes from content to contentious.
This novel takes place from All Souls Day in 2019 to All Souls Day in 2020. The pandemic, protests due to George Floyd's murder, and an overall sense of dread and unease of a community cooped up and pissed off is all represented so well here. I especially liked how the pace of the the novel completely changes as the pandemic worsens and the protests in Minneapolis swell with anger and frustration. This switch-up in cadence might throw some readers, but it didn't bother me too much and then when I thought of it in context with the story's events, it made sense.
Erdrich is a marvel. I'm continually amazed at how precise her writing is. Each little detail of each character is effortlessly expressed. All the characters in this one—from main character Tookie to others like Pollux, Hetta, Asema, Flora, and more—pop off the page with full, complex, real personalities. Dense with Indigenous culture and customs, this novel is also a masterclass in threading this fascinating information and history into a present-day narrative.
I read parts of this and listened to Erdrich herself narrate the audiobook (she's fab!). If you're looking for a book that speaks to current events/issues through an Indigenous/marginalized community perspective and is written by a superstar author at the top of her craft, check this one out. You won't be disappointed!
River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer
If you're looking for a book to read for Black History Month, this is a wonderful choice. Shearer has used her ancestry & research to write a powerful, tragic, yet ultimately hopeful novel.
It's 1834 in Barbados & Rachel, a slave, is joyous to learn that slavery has been abolished. Yet she's still forced to work at the plantation as an "apprentice" for 6 more years. Heartbroken—both due to this and the fact that five of her living children have been sold or displaced—she escapes, determined to find the fates of Cherry Jane, Mercy, Micah, Thomas Augustus, and Mary Grace. Her journey takes her from Barbados to Bridgetown to British Guiana to Trinidad.
I love books where characters go on a journey, and this one is a page-turner in that as Rachel moves from locale to locale—often with the help of strangers—the ever-present threat of being caught overshadowing her every move. Her interactions with—and the fates—of her children are varied yet illuminating, as they address the different ways slaves carved out a life of love and home amidst the violence and dehumanization they were subjected to. I also appreciated learning about slavery in the Caribbean, which had variances to the slave trade in America.
The characterization of Rachel is magnificent. Her core of strength and determination is enhanced by moments of love, bravery, fear, sadness, and exhaustion. She's especially compelling as a mother who will do all she can for her children, even after being dealt the horrific hand of slavery and, with it, the reality of being impregnated by both male slaves she loved and her white overseers. Her story is, ultimately beautiful—with the road getting there meaningful, educational, emotional, and essential. If you picked this as your @bookofthemonth, read it now!
I both read parts of this and listened to parts on audio. Narrator Debra Michaels does a fabulous job expressing Rachel's myriad emotions. I loved this book!
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
A firecracker of a book from start to finish, this is one of those novels that you will think about long after finishing the last page. I've had this one for a while now but when it was mentioned in The Sentence by a character as "transformative," I had to read it right away. It's phenomenal.
It's 1969 in South Brooklyn and Deacon Cuffy Lambkin, or "Sportcoat" as he is known by his friends in the Causeway Houses (for the wild jackets and hats he wears) is in a pickle. A lover of "King Kong" moonshine, he's three sheets to the wind when he shoots Deems, the kid he used to coach in baseball who is now a drug dealer. This action sets off several narratives that are a mix of funny, heartbreaking, joyous, and engrossing. There's the story of a lonely Italian mobster, Tommy "Elephant" Elephante who's looking for love and a mysterious windfall left by his father. There's also a white cop investigating the shooting who falls for "Sister Gee," the wise elder of Five Baptists Church who, like her neighbors, will not turn in their beloved-yet-damaged Sportcoat. And then there's Sportcoat himself, an old, drunk Black man who talks to his dead wife Hettie yet is proved to be way more profound than he would seem. He's the star of this novel for good reason. He's an unforgettable creation and the lens through we the readers view several big issues—the racism of the time, faith and how it informs a life, and the deterioration of South Brooklyn by the rise of the drug trade.
McBride is a master at keeping the novel moving at an engrossing clip, whether it's through humor or discussions about religion or talk of love and the meaning of life. He goes from slapstick humor (the inability of a mob henchmen to kill Sportcoat) to deep thought (Sister Gee's pontifications about faith and hope) easily and keeps you engrossed from page to page, paragraph to paragraph. If you haven't read this beauty of a novel yet, try and do it soon. It's wonderful and absolutely one of my favorites so far this year.
P.S. I listened to parts of the audiobook of this too (thanks, Libby!) and Dominic Hoffman is a terrific narrator. So if that's your way-to-read-of-choice, check this novel out in audio.
I also read and reviewed Secretly Yours by Tessa Bailey after getting an early copy from @NetGalley. To read my review, you can hit up my GoodReads page here.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ Nonfiction Review!
Unclobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality by Colby Martin
I'm a lifelong Lutheran. As I've gotten older and more serious about both living my faith and social justice (especially the discrimination of Black and LGBTQ+ communities through book-banning), I've started questioning the variances of Christianity. There are so many examples (past and present) of violence and hate fueled by Christianity. Is a religion that does this the one for me? Is any religion perfect? How can I reconcile my progressive-leaning life and faith with actual scripture?
When I struggle, I lean into my "go-to:" WDBS (What Do Books Say)? And by doing that, I found this terrific book.
Colby is an ex-evangelical pastor who "came out" in 2011—not about his sexuality but about his true beliefs. After revealing to his church's elders that he believed the LGBTQ+ community were children of God and their loves and lives were not sins, he was fired. He also lost a host of friends and mentors who cut off communication once he was let go. In this book, he mixes anecdotes of his story with a theological analysis of the "clobber" passages of the Bible; the passages that are used as "proof" that LGBTQ+ people are living expressly against the words of the Bible and the will of God. The metaphor is that these verses are used to "clobber" LGBTQ+ people over the head with the Bible.
I've been having a hard time understanding how or why these passages compel some Christians to denigrate or, worse, expressly work to enshrine into law limitations to how people in the LGBTQ+ community can live and love. How people can cut off relationships with their children, friends, family members, etc. over this? What in the Bible is so compelling that it steers Christians this way? So I figured a book that worked to expressly analyze scripture would be a good starting point.
Colby's personal story and his analyses are excellent—relatable, smart, and sensible. He looks at Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9 & 1, and Timothy 1:10 through lenses of scriptural translation (e.g. the story of Sodom and Gomorrah warns against power & control not same-sex relations), the difference between the Bible's patriarchal society/culture and today, how change-of-thought is demonstrated in scripture, and, most importantly, the Bible's golden rule: Love thy neighbor as thyself.
I'm happy to say this book reaffirmed my faith in a God and a religion/spirituality that accepts ALL and puts love and charity toward others before self-righteous judgement and hate fueled by strict reading of scripture (Do we cut off hands that steal? Do women live in huts during menstruating?). And, best of all, it gave me some great theological language to back up my core beliefs. If you're struggling with your Christian faith and how some versions of it dehumanize the LGBTQ+ community, this is a great resource for perspective.
📖 What I'm Reading Now 📖
🔖 Book Ends 🔖
Censorship or Sensibility?
Roald Dahl's publisher has decided now to release both edited copies of his books and the originals. For a full background on this, check out this article, which even includes a fun story of what Dahl himself thought of people censoring this work.
You all know I have many opinions about free speech, censorship, and book-banning. While in the past I cheered Dr. Seuss's estate choosing to stop publishing new copies of six of his books that had racist imagery/content, in this case I'm appalled a publisher would change the author's explicit content with revised versions. Choosing to stop publishing (with already produced copies still out there and available) is different from literally rewriting things and putting the revised versions out as "classic" books. I'll let you read up on the controversies surrounding Roald Dahl as a person, but no way should a publisher be rewriting books.
What should people do? My take: Use these books as a teachable moment. Use them as a way to show how ideas/things/society/culture/knowledge has progressed and gotten more humane, equitable, aware, and sensible over time. This is the same way I approach the books that are now being categorized as "dirty" by certain groups. Literature is a great gateway into understanding, empathy, and knowledge. And when kids and teens read, it's the perfect time to use it as a way to instill these in them. I still remember reading Charlotte's Web to my son and having to discuss why the pellet gun Avery takes to school isn't the same as the guns we speak about today. Sensitivity, knowledge, and the willingness to be open, honest, and discuss goes a long way to helping kids enjoy these books and learn while doing so.
Fun fact! Many publishers DO employ sensitivity readers. Here's an article about the newish addition to the team that works on a book before it's published. And since an editor and proofreader and more are already taking a whack at the content before it ever sees the light of day, it seems like the perfect time to add this step.
📅 Mark Your Calendars! 📅
Click to the right to find out about some very cool author events happening AND book adaptations that are just around the corner! I'm absolutely going to check out the virtual Prince Harry event AND Lisa Scottoline in person. I saw her once before and she's not only smart and a great writer, she's hilarious!
Best Wedding Invites Ever?!
Does Will Eidam (@CornFedDuck) on Twitter have the best wedding invitations EVER? I think so!
Cover of the Week!
And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle by Jon Meacham
Honestly, when it comes to American president, I don't think there's one who has a face as distinctive and powerful as Abraham Lincoln. So all this cover needed was that, some strong typography, and black and white treatment and, viola! An arresting cover that pops out from the shelves. I've had this book on my radar for months, so I was happy to finally pick up a copy. I cannot wait to have the time to give it the attention it deserves.
A president who governed a divided country has much to teach us in a twenty-first-century moment of polarization and political crisis. Hated and hailed, excoriated and revered, Abraham Lincoln was at the pinnacle of American power when implacable secessionists gave no quarter in a clash of visions bound up with money, race, identity, and faith. In him we can see the possibilities of the presidency as well as its limitations.
At once familiar and elusive, Lincoln tends to be seen as the greatest of American presidents—a remote icon—or as a politician driven more by calculation than by conviction. This illuminating new portrait gives us a very human Lincoln—an imperfect man whose moral antislavery commitment, essential to the story of justice in America, began as he grew up in an antislavery Baptist community; who insisted that slavery was a moral evil; and who sought, as he put it, to do right as God gave him to see the right.
This book tells the story of Lincoln from his birth on the Kentucky frontier in 1809 to his leadership during the Civil War to his tragic assassination in 1865: his rise, his self-education, his loves, his bouts of depression, his political failures, his deepening faith, and his persistent conviction that slavery must end. In a nation shaped by the courage of the enslaved of the era and by the brave witness of Black Americans, Lincoln’s story illustrates the ways and means of politics in a democracy, the roots and durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to shape events.
River Sing Me Home
Deacon King Kong