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The Book Beat - October 8, 2021

Hello, book friends! After my looong blog break this summer, I was determined to start posting weekly again...and here it is a month+ since my last blog post. I apologize (again)!

The new plan—a new post every other week on Monday, starting October 18. That gives me time to read more and review more and, also, gather more bookish stories for you (and work and "mom" and sleep and clean, etc.). So, without further ado, let's get to talking books!

First, see that gorgeous Little Free Library to the left?! It's mine, allll mine! I've always wanted one and since I have absolutely no carpentry/craft talents whatsoever, I asked a friend and former coworker's boyfriend who owns a carpentry business to do it (IG: @beyondthepallet). Isn't it amazing?! I cannot wait to stain/paint and "plant" it next to my mailbox. And fill it, of course!

Below you'll find my commentary on the banned books/critical race theory drama affecting school districts across the country (it's no holds barred, friends, so buckle up!), 19 book/audiobook reviews, and my thoughts about a controversial bookish article.

I hope you all are well and enjoying fall (my fave season!). If you need me, you'll most likely find me here with a book...🍁

Banning Books & Critical Race Theory: My Take

Last week was @BannedBooksWeek. The American Library Association hosts this week yearly to bring attention to the censorship of books. Before I give my strong opinion about this issue, I will say, as a blanket statement, the accessibility of books for children has been made into a political issue and it shouldn't be one. Storming school board meetings yelling about indoctrination, yelling about public libraries carrying books about diversity and anti-racism, etc. has gotten out of control. This issue—the conflating of collegiate-level critical race theory with any-and-all books in public schools and at public libraries that address racism, American history, LGBTQ people/issues, the history of Black activists, etc.—absolutely infuriates me.

Teaching kids about tough subjects (including facts from history that paint our country in a less-than-decent light) and opening their minds to the experiences of those not like them are GOOD things—and very often, these two things come from books. Books encourage critical thinking. Books impart knowledge. Books help people "live" through the experiences (fiction and nonfiction) of others. Most importantly, books encourage empathy and humanity.

This issue came to the forefront in the past two weeks, when a school district in York, PA, banned a list of books and educational resources curated by a diversity and inclusion committee. Here's the comprehensive list courtesy of the Central York Banned Book Club on Twitter. As you can see, it's huge.

Protestors, led by the district's high-school students, fought the ban. Even some of the book's authors spoke up. Brad Meltzer, the author of one of the banned books, I Am Rosa Parks, talks about it here. Several people also started a book donation plan, which included putting up several Little Free Libraries and donating many of the banned books to these libraries so that kids could access them.

After several school board meetings with commentary from the protestors, as well as parents who agreed with the ban, the school board unanimously reversed its decision. Interesting fact: The school board is comprised of all white people. Most of the items on the list are about people of color. You see where I'm going with this, right?

I won't sugarcoat it since this issue is near and dear my heart. This situation is very similar to the recent spate of "critical race theory" bills that have popped up around the country. I put critical race theory in quotes because this legal concept isn't being taught in K-12 schools. And, frankly, the idea that if kids learn the truth about the racist history of our country—including the MANY years it enslaved Black people and the continued issues of systemic racism in our government and its systems—they will be "indoctrinated" into feeling bad about being white is ludicrous (and an actual example of systemic racism). Learning how to behave—including how to accept different races and ethnicities and NOT perpetuate the racism and white supremacy of our past (and the systemic racism inherent in certain aspects of the present)—is absolutely something that should be taught and fostered in children as they grow and learn. Racism isn't innate, it's taught. So teaching kids to be "anti-racist," or actively against perpetuating the racist stereotypes of the past, especially those that still echo in the present, is important.

Kids should be taught factual American history, the good and the bad. Banning books or discussions about the very real history of our country doesn't help kids learn and it certainly doesn't make sure that the horrors of America's past won't happen again. And, conversely, it doesn't negate the triumphs and positive aspects of our country. Nothing and no one is all good or all bad (this can be applied to Jesus, the Bible, even the gloriousness that is Ted Lasso [what WAS that Coach Beard episode?!]). And the only way we work to change, to progress, and to make things better is to both celebrate our successes AND explore our faults, address them honestly, apologize for recent transgressions, and do the hard work to make sure they don't happen again. There's a quote from S.A. Cosby's searing crime novel Razorblade Tears (review below!) that sums it up nicely:

“It’s easier to keep your head in the sand than it is to try and see things from somebody else’s point of view. There’s a reason why they say ignorance is bliss.”

A stack of books that have been banned & my Banned Books Mug!

Below is a word cloud that shares the most common reasons that books are banned. I also included a pic of some banned books that I own. My final comment: The old saying goes, "Knowledge is power." By purposely denying kids access to historical facts, information about the experiences of LGBTQ people and people of color, or those with different "lived in" experiences than them, we do irreparable harm to not only their ability to think critically but also their willingness to be kind and empathetic to those around them.


Recent Book Banning/Claims of CRT Incidents:

19 Book Reviews!

📱The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters - Julie Klam ⭐⭐⭐

I enjoyed the intent of this book—to share the research process and information found by Klam about her unique, intriguing relatives, the Morris sisters—yet the execution of this endeavor left me wanting.

Klam shares funny research anecdotes with conversational ease. As a reader, you can tell she's deeply interested in correcting the family fiction and many questions about her relatives' lives and her excitement piques your interest as well. Unfortunately, as she states numerous times throughout the novel, even with all of her research and discoveries, there's still not much there, "there." The Morris sisters were experts, it seems, at living lives of barrier breaking for women at the time, especially in regards to their financial success, yet they were also very adept at keeping their lives confidential from not only the public at large, but also their own extended family.

The teases are truly intriguing: They were Romanian immigrants whose father put his daughters in an orphanage after their mother was admitted into an insane asylum. Marcella, the oldest sister, who was a whiz at the stock market (unheard of for women at the time) to the tune of a multi-million dollar legacy. Ruth, Malvina, and Selma, each mysterious and unique in their own way. The even more distant brother Sam. I don't want to give too much away re: what Klam finds out, but the tidbits certainly whet the reader's appetite for more.

And that's my main issue with this book. The tidbits don't add up to complex, well-rounded portraits of the sisters. Klam even admits this numerous times: How much she wasn't able to find out. It seems too sparse for a book. Much of the book's pages discuss the people Klam met with, the locales she traveled to, the food she ate, and there's even a long section the repeats—word for word—the judgment in a court case involving Ruth Morris. And, sadly, litigious text is dull when plopped in the middle of a book.

I appreciate Klam's zeal for search and discovery, her funny anecdotes and asides, and her deep love for these women she never met, yet this book could have probably been a funny long-form article or essay. As compelling as the lives were that these four sisters seemed to have lived, the reality of the situation—that there is so much no one will ever truly know—takes away from the enjoyment of Klam's journey/process.

🎧 The Personal Librarian - Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray ⭐⭐⭐

Expanding the worlds of actual women from history through fiction is Marie Benedict's forte, yet I still feel like even though the woman and circumstances were different this time—and she wrote this book with Victoria Christopher Murray—it still felt very much the same as her other books.

Bella da Costa Greene is a Black woman whose mother insists that she and her family "pass" as white people. While passing as white, Bella becomes the personal librarian of J.P. Morgan. This book creates a fictional narrative about Bella's extraordinary life—her romantic relationships, her connection with J.P., and the experiences she has—within J.P.'s inner circle. All in all, I liked it, but again, it seemed very familiar.

📙 Here, Right Matters - Alexander S. Vindman ⭐⭐⭐⭐

In this engrossing memoir, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Vindman tells how he went from being a Russian immigrant living in New York City to the Ukraine expert on the National Security Council whose testimony led to the first impeachment of former President Trump.

Vindman speaks about his time in the military as well as his time in the White House. He also tells the story of how him, his twin brother, and their family emigrated to America from Russia. Through all the various narratives that make up this memoir, his passion for his work and, especially, his love of his adopted country shine through. He doesn't downplay the pushback and challenges he faced as part of the Trump administration, yet his commentary about it isn't mean-spirited or catty in any way. He had a job to do, and he did it based on his knowledge of international diplomacy and the governing principles of the United States. As interesting as this section was, I most enjoyed the stories of him and his brother growing up, emigrating to the United States, and coming to love this country so much they dedicated their professional lives to defending it. This book shows again how vital immigrants are to our country's growth and its humanity.

📗Three Girls from Bronzeville - Dawn Turner ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Turner, a former journalist for the Chicago Tribune, chronicles growing up in the Bronzeville section of Chicago with her sister and her best friend, Debra. While sharing stories about their childhoods in this Black community born of formerly enslaved people coming north during The Great Migration, she highlights the divergent path her life took, compared to her sister & best friend. It’s set against a post-civil-rights time when the hope Black Americans had for long-lasting systemic changes was dashed with stark realities.

Turner’s searing prose pulls you right in. You feel as if your friend is sharing her life in intimate, vividly descriptive detail. Turner's heart is laid bare on these pages and it’s a stunning literary achievement. Best of all, her messages of hope, home, family, redemption, faith, and, ultimately, love are ones everyone can relate to.

🎧 The Bad Muslim Discount - Syed M. Masood ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The dual narrators for the two main characters do a fabulous job with this audiobook. The cover of this book made me think it would be funny more than serious, but that’s not the case—and it’s a good thing. Anvar emigrates to the U.S. from Pakistan and continues being the “bad Muslim” he was in his home country. He’s brash, funny, and resistant to Islam and its rules. Safwa, a girl from Baghdad, ends up living as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. Her story—navigating two dangerous men in her life—will truly break your heart. Anvar and Safwa’s interactions and their separate stories are enlightening and heartbreaking. This book is a truly unique way of exploring the issue of immigration and living as a Muslim in the United States. I really liked this one.

🎧 A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes - ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This clever book tells the stories of the women of the Trojan War. Everyone from Thetis, Achilles' sea nymph mother, to Penelope, Odysseus's deserted wife, get their say and its revelatory. Touching on themes of female power and their role in war and Greek life, this book takes these Homeric side characters and gives them voices, emotions, and lives of their own. Haynes narrates it and does a fabulous job. A quick, juicy listen!

A stack of books feat. Latinx/Hispanic authors in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month.
📱The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina - Zoraida Cordova ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A mix of magical realism, mystery & family drama, this enchanting novel has a bit for everyone. After receiving notes from the family matriarch, Orquidea Divina, the Montoya family gathers at her home in Four Rivers, USA, to find out what she will be leaving them when she dies. Orquidea lives in a magical house that she never leaves. When her large family gathers, they're astounded to see that she's started to turn into a tree. Before dying, she warns her family that a shadowy force from her past is coming and they need to "take back their power" to win. Through 2 timelines—Orquidea's childhood and the current lives of her grandchildren—we learn how she ended up in Four Rivers and also how a choice she made in the past has serious reverberations for her family in the future.

This story intrigued me from the start, especially with the magic-infused storyline and the mysterious character of Orquidea. It was a bit slow to get started, but once Rey, Marimar and crew were on their way to Ecuador to learn more about Orquidea's family and life, things picked up and I was immersed in the “Who is the Big Bad?" storyline. The characters are complex, the locales and food description are vivid, and the magical aspects of the story are engrossing. I really enjoyed how the main characters' personal growth was tied to the discovery and acceptance of their magical family, particularly the grandmother they truly did not know. A great read!

📕 Beautiful Country - Qian Julie Wang - ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Wang’s memoir tells the gripping story of her childhood as an undocumented Chinese immigrant living in NYC. It’s told from the perspective of her young self. Done this way, this memoir juxtaposes Wang's inherent childhood innocence with harsh realities. The racism & challenges her family face—work in sweatshops, cockroaches in a shared kitchen, language barriers—are particularly stark. Yet even as a child, the terrifying undercurrent of deportation still terrorizes. It heightens the tension throughout the narrative.

Wang’s memoir is immersive—you can virtually hear the click of the cockroaches, and you can feel when her innocent joy is trampled. It's especially jarring when you remember that, in her childhood innocence, she considers America the "beautiful country."

If you love stories about the triumph of women & women of color, read this book. Highly recommend!

📗The Royals Next Door - Karina Halle - ⭐⭐⭐

A fun take on the real-life love of Prince Harry and Meghan, this romance features a zany heroine—whose new neighbors are a prince and his pop star wife—and a broody bodyguard hero. Piper is an elementary school teacher who loves her small town. Harrison is the royal bodyguard who is, you guessed it, at first annoyed by Piper and then attracted to her. Although the usual tropes are here and they have some new twists to them, this one was good but not a star of the genre.

🎧 The Daughters of Erietown - Connie Schultz - ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This generation-spanning novel about a family in Erietown, Ohio, is heartwarming, tragic, and complex—just like real life. Ellie and Brick get married and settle in Erietown after Ellie gets pregnant at 16. The novel follows their life through heartache, struggles, kids, etc. In the deft and delicate literary hands of Schultz (a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist), this story becomes more than just a rendition of a couple struggling to achieve the American Dream. It’s engrossing, intricate, and powerful. I really enjoyed listening to it.

📘The People We Keep - Allison Larkin - ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This coming-of-age story focuses on how aspiring singer April creates a home for herself after years of heartache and neglect by her father. After leaving home at 16, April ends up in Ithaca and believes she has found love and friends who are now family. A possible betrayal upends her life and she heads off on a 3-year span of playing gigs along the East Coast. April is a vivid, complex character who'll make readers laugh, cry, and feel. Some parts of the story drag, but overall I really loved being in April's world and going along as she found the home and family she deserved.

📘 Under the Whispering Door - TJ Klune - ⭐⭐⭐⭐

👻 Wallace Smith Esq. is at the top of his game professionally. It's a shame, though, that work—and being a jerk—is kind of all he's good at. After he dies, Wallace ends up in a purgatory of sorts—a funky house-upon-a-house in the woods where he meets two humans, Reaper Mei and Ferryman Hugo and two other ghosts, Nelson and Apollo, the dog. It's here that Wallace—while deciding just when he'll let Hugo help him go through the "door that whispers" to his afterlife—learns how to be kind and to truly live.

I loved the frank discussions of death, but, at the same time, how they were wrapped up in a literary-type warm blanket of care and hope. The burgeoning relationship between Wallace and Hugo is charming, too. The scenes where Wallace is trying to learn how to touch objects—instead of going through them—are as hilarious on paper as they are when you see a ghost try to do it in a movie. At the beginning of the book, Wallace is an unlikable character. It's a credit to TJ Klune's writing that he's able to redeem him so completely and realistically. There are a few scenes with a lost soul that can be kind of scary, but nothing that takes away from the optimism of the book.

If you're looking for a book that is as funny as it is moving, I highly recommend this one. It's a heartwarming and funny ghost story! I loved it.

🎧The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo - Taylor Jenkins Reid - ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This 5-star gem is Reid at her best. 70-ish year old movie star Evelyn Hugo hires journalist Monique Grant to write her memoir and promises to reveal all of her secrets. The dual narration here is stellar too, particularly Alma Cuervo as Evelyn. This book is amazing from start to finish. You hang on every last word of Evelyn’s stories, while also wondering just why she chose Monique to tell her tale. Both answers, the love life and Hollywood gossip Evelyn shares and the reason she wanted Monique to profit from her story, pay off in big, juicy ways. Highly recommend this one!

📱The Very Nice Box - Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman ⭐⭐

A satirical look at an IKEA-type company and a product designer, Ava, who works there, this odd book did not work for me. Ava suffers a horrific loss and a romance with her new boss opens her up to coming out of the funk she's been in since that loss. Yet a certain plot point tweaks this seemingly fun and redemptive book of healing and growth into a thriller-type book that ends with little closure. Maybe I missed what I was supposed to get out of the send-ups of the IKEA-like company or the corp culture or the bro-culture that were intended, but I just ended up being underwhelmed at the end. Ava, after all the loss she suffered, wasn't redeemed or didn't really "grow." Props to the authors, though, for including some positive bisexual representation. The rushed ending seems to indicate that she is finally open to loving and growing again, but it didn't feel earned. Overall, I was disappointed with this one.

🎧 The Prophets - Robert Jones, Jr. ⭐⭐⭐

This book has been extolled everywhere, from Roxanne Gay to Publishers Weekly and was this week named a National Book Award finalist. I listened to the audiobook. The narration of Jones, Jr.'s truly stunning prose was top-notch. Unfortunately, it didn't resonate as much with me as I had hoped it would. Partly because I think it's a book that's meant to be read. As good as the audio was, it left me confused with the different time and perspective shifts. I had trouble keeping up with all the plot lines. The prose is gorgeous and lyrical, if at times a little too overdone. It also most likely benefits from the slow and savory process of reading and re-reading.

Samuel and Isaiah are two slaves and lovers who are enslaved on a plantation in antebellum Mississippi. When another enslaved man Amos sees how much his master Paul extols the virtues of Christianity, he begs to be taught it and decides to bring the "news" to the other slaves in hopes of helping them rise above their enslavement. As the other slaves start to fall under the sway of Amos and his interpretation of Christianity, they also start to become aggressive toward Samuel and Isaiah's relationship, which they previously accepted and even respected. Other plot lines detailing the horrific abuse the slaves endured are detailed and affective. I respect Jones Jr. for writing about this not-talked-about-enough subject and creating two gay men who are full, complex characters. All in all, I was impressed by Jones Jr.'s writing capabilities and look forward to reading what he writes next.

📕 Razorblade Tears - S.A. Cosby - ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This book! I don’t usually read crime/thriller books, but I’d heard great things about this one, so I took the plunge. It’s terrific, easily one of the best books I read this year.

Two ex-cons, Ike and Buddy Lee, team up for vengeance after their sons are brutally murdered. Ike, a Black man who’s gone legit with a landscaping business after spending seven years in jail, and Buddy Lee, a white man who’s been in and out of jail, both had fraught relationships with their sons as they didn’t accept their life as a gay married couple.

While trying to find out who killed their boys, these two characters deal with everything from racism to bigotry to white supremacist violence. In S.A. Cosby’s deft hands, every issue is explored honestly and openly. Although it’s violent, the gravitas that Cosby brings to this buddy comedy/crime tale is revelatory and poignant. Hope, change, and redemption are possible, even in the most horrific of circumstances.

I loved this book! It’s fast-paced from start to finish and is an emotional powerhouse. I highly recommend it.

📱My Monticello - Jocelyn Nicole Johnson ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Several short stories and one big novella, this collection is a tour de force debut. All the stories revolve around Virginia in some way, shape, or form, and all address issues of race. It's timely and gripping.

While all the stories engage with clever storylines and intricately observed comments on race and racism in America, the novella, My Monticello is the star of this collection. In a not-too-distant future, a young Black woman named Da'Naisha, her white boyfriend, and her mostly BIPOC neighbors living in Charlottesville, VA, escape white militia violence and end up finding refuge in Monticello. Da'Naisha and her grandmother, MaViolet, are descendents of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemmings.

Through Da'Naisha and her companions' experiences at Monticello, readers learn about Thomas Jefferson's abuse of his slaves and his muddled writings about it. This story is also eerily prescient of the news of today. Many of the things Americans are decrying a—white supremacist violence, racism, climate change, the breakdown of public services like an electrical grid and cell phone capabilities—have come true in this story, and it's pretty bleak. This story is part warning, part character study, and part dystopian thriller. It was riveting.

Johnson's collection is a must-read. Highly recommend.

📱Sankofa - Chibundu Onuzo ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Anna is the 40-something, mixed-race British woman who—while sorting through her late mother’s things—finds journals written by her father, a Black man who engaged in radical politics in 1970s London & eventually became the president/dictator of a small west African nation. She sets out to find her father and, in the process, discovers who she truly is.

Through sparse but powerful prose, Onuzo creates the portrait of a complex woman who is searching for her identity in several spheres. The first, as a middle-aged woman in a world that assumes that with half a life lived, she's secure in her sense of self. This struggle echoes the struggles many middle-age women face that society (and fiction other than women's fiction) often neglects to parse out time to explore.

Anna's journey also focuses on her sense of self in both the family she does know and the one she doesn't. Through these experiences, the narrative touches on elements of racial identity and national identity. As a mixed-race woman, Anna is denigrated in London for being Black and in Bamana for being "obroni," or white. I loved the exploration of this juxtaposition and how all of these identities are reconciled during the experience Anna has at the end of the novel.

The spirit of the mythical sankofa bird means going back into the past and taking what is good and bringing it into the present to make progress in the future. It's on-point with what Anna achieves in this engrossing novel. This story starts slow and Anna is a complex mix of subdued & bold. The writing is quiet but emotional. Onuzo has taken a heightened fictional situation and explored some very real, very important challenges middle-age women face in their lives,. She's made Anna's specific in various ways (race and nationality), yet I feel like even with that specificity there's a compelling narrative here that all readers can appreciate and enjoy. Highly recommend!

🎧 Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This Princess-Diaries-esque YA book takes the "I'm a surprise princess" story and moves it to Japan but has even more of the previous book/movie's charm, especially when listened to through audio. Ali Ahn does a FAB job voicing Izumi Tanaka, a senior high school student from CA who finds out her father is the "Japanese George Clooney" or the crown prince of Japan. She heads there to meet him and encounters scheming cousins, a moody-but-hot bodyguard, and the challenges of fitting in. It's funny, romantic, modern, and delightful.

Drama in Book Land: The Bad Art Friend

An article in the New York Times Magazine this week caused quite a stir on Book Twitter. Let's see if I can make this long story shortish. A writer who donated a kidney (and was put out that other writers at a workshop didn't praise her for it) found out that another writer had used her kidney story as inspiration for a short story, one that became quite popular. The donor writer had shared a note she'd sent the donor recipient on Facebook and the other author used snippets of it in the short story. The donor writer sued the other writer and has harassed this writer at work and through text. There's many more details to this story and, honestly, it's long but very much worth the read. It resurrected the frequently bandied about argument about whether a person's personal life, especially when shared publicly on social media or to a supposed friend, can/should be used in other people's writing/art.

Read the story. I promise, it's a good one.

Book Pics!

Next blog post will be Monday, October 18th (Cover of the Week will return, too)! I'm hoping to have the long-but-good Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr done by then, as well as Matrix by Lauren Groff and The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood (it's been getting major props on Bookstagram). Until then, I hope you read some great books and enjoy the (sort-of) fall weather!

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