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Six kids, one hour, once a week, no teacher. Just them, talking, telling their stories to each other and a hand-held tape recorder. As our narrator Haley says, "When you tell stories, it's like letting out all the scared inside of you... It's like you help stuff make sense." The kids in this story have adult-sized fears -- racial profiling, gun violence, family lost to deportation or incarceration. In telling their stories, the six characters become one group of friends. In listening to their stories, we learn. An important, timely, beautifully written book.
Robin Benway won the National Book Award for this fantastic realistic young adult novel. I'm going to warn you: this one is a tear-jerker, but in the best possible way. Sixteen-year-old Grace, having given up her own baby for adoption, seeks out her biological mother and half-siblings, Joaquin and Maya. In alternating chapters, we meet all three teens and learn how their very different family placements have affected them. particularly Joaquin whose father was Latino. Just as the siblings begin to grow closer, they pull back emotionally and keep secrets from each other for fear of being rejected. Sad, yes, but also funny and hopeful, this is a book about learning to trust that some people really can be counted upon to stand by you.
Here's what it says inside the dust jacket, because I can't say it any better myself:
"Jason Reynolds is crazy. About stories.
Jason Reynolds is also tired. Of being around young people who are tired of feeling invisble. So he writes books (a bunch of books) and has even won some awards, but none of them are as important as a young person saying they feel seen. The more that happens, the less tired Jason is."
Isn't this what reading is all about? Seeing yourself in a book and feeling seen? Seeing someone else who is maybe not at all like you, and then maybe they feel seen?
Read this book.
“This is who I am."
"This is what happened to me."
These are the simplest of expressions, yet the ability to speak them fully is a privilege not shared by the teenaged protagonists of this novel. Nigerian immigrant and Harvard-accepted aspiring doctor Niru is not able to tell his conservative religious parents that he is gay. The daughter of D.C.'s political elite, Meredith is not able to tell the world what really happened in an alley outside a bar on a hot spring night. Speak No Evil describes how loving relationships are strained, how trust is shattered, and how bodies can be broken when the truth is silenced. This heartbreakingly beautiful story will stay with you for a long time.
Even if you had never heard of "Mayor Pete" a month ago, you probably have now. But if not, he's the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Oh, and he's running for President. He's been described as having a bio that sounds as if it was written by Aaron Sorkin (of West Wing fame): Harvard-educated; a Rhodes scholar; Afghanistan war veteran; polyglot; and openly gay and married. This book, Buttigieg's first, is not only an autobiography, it's also a love story dedicated to his hometown and the Industrial Midwest in general. The book begins, in fact, with an especially lovely description of sunrise over the Indiana landscape. Extraordinarily intelligent, articulate and with a gift for narrative, a nuanced thinker, seemingly decent and kind, I think Buttigieg is someone we'll be hearing a lot more from.
I have been an avid reader of Coates' work for a very long time, back to when he was a relatively unknown author and blogger. At the time, he was moderating one of the most interesting online discussion groups, nicknamed The Horde, covering issues of race, comic books, the Civil War, and popular culture. Then he published his now-famous piece on reparations for The Atlantic (included in this volume), and suddenly everyone was talking about Coates and his writing. This collection includes eight previously published essays, one for every year of the Obama presidency, each with a new introduction detailing both Coates' thinking at the time he wrote them, and now looking back. If you want to understand where we are in the United States, and how we got here, especially in terms of race, this is a must-read.
I was that kid, the one who read and re-read the Little House books obsessively. Eventually I had to be forbidden from discussing them at the dinner table. I also devored every biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder I could find. As such, I thought I knew pretty much all there was to know about her. Having now read this masterful new book by Caroline Fraser, I know I was wrong. Fraser covers Laura's life- especially her development as a writer and sometimes turbulent relationship with her daughter Rose- more thoroughly and thoughfully than I've seen anywhere else. But you don't need to be a devoted LIW fan to enjoy this book. Fraser does a wonderful job of setting Laura's life within the broader American historical context. Prairie Fires' place on the NYT 2017 Best 10 Books of the Year list was very well-deserved.
You probably don't need one more person telling you to read Roxane Gay, but on the off chance you haven't yet, allow me to join the choir of her fans. Rarely have I met an author who is more poised and seemingly confident in person than on the page, but in Gay's case, it's true. In this memoir- a meditation on her life-long struggle to be comfortable in her body after being sexually assaulted as a girl- her voice is honest, self-doubting, and vulnerable. It's often painful to read, but I've never encountered another memoir quite like it. This was one of my very favorite books of 2017.
Lillian Boxfish (and what a fabulous name for a character that is!) is the intrepid octogenarian of this smart and insightful novel by Kathleen Rooney. It is New Year's Eve, 1984, and Lillian had got it into her head to trek all over Manhattan. Given her lack of fear at traversing the crime-ridden city, and her charming repartee with everyone she meets, you would think that confidence had never left her. But as she walks and reminisces, we learn the truth: her heartbreak when a betrayal is discovered; how she she had to give up her beloved job as the highest-paid woman ad writer at Macy's when she married; and her disappointment at once being a widely-read poet whose work is now out-of-print. And yet, Lillian is still witty, kind, smart, and able to walk unassisted several miles on a cold December night. We should all be so lucky, at any age but especially at eight-five, to summon some of Lillian's moxie and strength.
Anything is Possible merges the interlocking story form of Olive Kitteridge with the characters from My Name is Lucy Barton. No one captures both the decency and cruelty of small towns the way that Strout does: the kindness of a school janitor or guidance counselor bestows on an impoverished child, but also the merciless taunts that child must endure. Mothers and daughters are a frequent theme, too, and Mississippi Mary, a story near the center of the book, about a woman visiting her mother in Italy, just might break your heart. In fact, every story in this amazing collection is about the events that can make or break us- war, abuse, poverty, illness- and how the characters are able to respond. Some choose kindness, some just act in their own self-interest, and some don't seem like they have any choice in the matter at all. I loved this marvelous book and you should absolutely read it.
Seventeen-year-olf Griffin is overcome with grief. His ex-boyfriend Theo, with whom he had hoped to reunite, has died in a drowning accident, and now they'll never have a chance to get back together. He's alone in his misery, not speaking to his best friend Wade, who had a falling-out with Theo. Now Theo's current boyfriend Jackson, the guy who stole Theo away, wants to be Griffin's friend. If that weren't enough, Griffin's OCD has gone from being a "quirk" to a compulsion that interferes with his daily life. In alternating chapters, flashing back to when Theo was still alive, we see Griffin and Theo fall in love, make each other better people, fight and make up, break up so Theo can be free in college, and try to move on with other people. And we see Griffin, Wade, and Jackson make some fairly poor decisions in their sadness and anger. This book does a beautiful job portraying how all-consuming, exhausting, and lonely grief can be, and how we sometimes turn to unexpected sources of comfort and solace. Highly recommended for older teens, and especially for fans of John Corey Whaley's Highly Illogical Behavior and Patrick Ness' The Rest of Us Just Live Here.
Seventeen-year-old Katie always does what she is supposed to do. She does well in school, helps care for her mentally handicapped brother, and obeys her strict mother, Caroline, without question. Then a grandmother, Mary, she never knew appears, suffering from dementia and in need of a home. Through flashbacks into Mary’s early life, we learn the reasons for her estrangement from Caroline, and why Caroline is so overprotective of Katie now. This is a YA novel that adults will appreciate, too, a multi-generational story of three women and how the times they live in can dictate the choices they make, and the lives they lead. A great read for teens and adults alike.
It should be a truth universally acknowledged that sorting out an inheritance can bring out the worst in a family. It should also be acknowledged that a novel about an inheritance makes for some very funny social satire and entertaining story-telling. This story concerns the four Plumb siblings- Beatrice, Jack, Leo and Melody- middle-aged, upper-middle class New Yorkers, all of whom have been counting on their share of the family trust fund to save them from poor financial decisions, only to have that "nest egg" subsumed to save one of them from an extraordinarily bad decision. I loved the way debut novelist Sweeney weaves together in alternating chapters the siblings' tales, and the way that post 9/11 New York becomes a character as well. Ultimately, this book concerns what many family sagas do: are we our brother's keeper; how much do we owe family members who prioritize their needs over our own; and, are we able to detach from our family of origin and stand, finally, as adults, on our own two feet.
Elvis Babbit is an 11-year-old budding naturalist who takes after her mother, a biologist, who drowned 4 months earlier while sleepswimming (yes, sleepswimming). Elvis searches for an explanation to her mother's death everywhere she can think of: her mother's manuscript on animal sleep habits; by talking to her sympathetic school counselor; and even by calling her mother's telephone psychic. She's also trying to solve the problem of her grieving lipstick-wearing father, and her sister who has developed a dangerous sleepwalking habit of her own and a goal of baking 1000 rabbit-shaped cakes. Through Elvis's eyes we see the whole Babbitt family coming to terms with their grief, each in their own quirky way. Elvis is a wonderfully precocious, strong, and darkly funny narrator, and I loved her voice. A wonderful debut from Annie Hartnett.
If you read the description of this book on its back cover, or posted here on our website, you will have a pretty good idea of the plot. What that simple plot description doesn't convey is the fantastic character development, which is what I really loved. The main characters include: a girl named Ada overcoming a history of abuse and learning to trust adults; her younger brother, who misses his mother even though she neglected him; and a woman overcoming her own personal grief in order to offer her imperfect but much needed love to these children. This was a wonderful read, for adults and kids alike, and the sequel, The War I Finally Won, is also great!
My favorite class in college was a course called "The Social History of American Architecture." For a semester, we explored the premise of Winston Churchill's famous quote," We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." The building in this novel is Laurelfield, a century-old estate ouside of Chicago, and the "us" is the Devohr family who owns it. For its inhabitants, the house has been alternately a prison and a paradise, a place where creativity has flourished and one where dreams are abandoned, and a place where some have given up on life, while others have forged new identities. In an incredibly masterful twist of storytelling, Makkai gives us their story backwards, starting in 1999 and traveling back to the turn of the last century. I was reminded constantly when reading this of how easily the details of the past can be forgotten (especially if someone wants them to stay hidden), and yet how the past can still manage to haunt the present anyway. A wonderful riddle of a novel.
I'm a little bit obsessed with tiny houses. And by a little, I really mean a lot. I'm not kidding. And of all the books, blogs, and how-to guides I've read, this is the best. Author Dee Williams was living a fairly typical suburban life in the Pacific Northwest when she was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition. Taking stock of her life, she decides, like so many of us, that she just has too much stuff. She builds herself a new tiny home on wheels and a new life, in the process finding a new happiness, "one that isn't tied so tightly to being comfortable (or having money or property), but instead to a deeper sense of satisfaction- to a sense of humility and gratitude." A worthy goal for us all, I would say.
Are some towns more magical than others? Sixth-grader Felicity Pickle (whose name I love, by the way) certainly hopes so. Ever since her dad left, she has been bouncing from place to place with her mother and sister. Now they are moving back to her mother's hometown of Midnight Gulch, home to Dr. Zook's Famous Ice Cream Factory, and a place that used to be magical until a mysterious curse ruined it. But as it turns out, the magic may not be completely gone after all. Many of the residents possess special talents, including Felicity herself who sees words floating above everyone's head. Will the Pickles stay in Midnight Gulch, and can their "snicker of magic" bring the town back to life? This is really fun story, highly recommended for fans of Savvy, A Tangle of Knots, and Because of Winn-Dixie.
Do not be misled by the title; this collection of essays by Ann Patchett is not exclusively about marriage, happy or otherwise. Rather, it is an autobiography of sorts, detailing: love and relationships, yes, but also the craft of writing; friendships human and not; and the expectations and obligations of family. My favorite pieces in the book both happen to describe Patchett's relationship with elderly women in her life--one her cantankerous grandmother, and the other a 78-year-old nun named Sister Nena, who is moving into an apartment of her own for the very first time. Those familiar with Patchett's life and work will also enjoy reading about her bookstore in Tennessee, Parnassus Books, and catching a glimpse of Lucy Grealey. A very enjoyable read.
The protagonist of LIAR & SPY is named Georges (yes, with the 's') after the pointillist painter Seurat. And like Seurat's paintings, this enchanting novel is composed of small details which add up to a marvelous whole: the smell of a middle school cafeteria or apartment laundry room, very particular brands of candy, the best way to make scrambled eggs, a child's loft bed made from an old fire escape. It is also a novel of messages passed back and forth -- unusual fortune cookies, and Scrabble letter notes left on a nightstand. The question for the reader then becomes: What do all these messages mean, and do the details add up to the whole picture you were expecting, or not?
At age 25, Jeannette Winterson published her first novel, the semi-autographical Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal, she calls Oranges "the story I could live with...things were much lonelier than that." The central character in both books is her abusive adoptive mother (always referred to as Mrs. Winterson), "a monster, but ... my monster." Jeannette endures a childhood frequently shut out of the house, or worse, locked in the coal bin. Eventually she escapes to study at Oxford: "I wrote my way out." Later she searches for her birth mother, and suffers a nervous breakdown in the process. Why Be Happy is an incredibly honest story of how we can lose ourselves, and how literature can save us.
Steve Martin's Born Standing Up is one of the best memoirs I've read, celebrity or otherwise. This is not a tell-all; rather it's a funny and thoughtful look back at a life in comedy. It's also a great peek into the world of stand-up. Martin discusses everything from how to make balloon animals to his strained relationship with his father. A great and well-written book.
This book is not only my favorite Sedaris collection, which is really saying something, it is also the funniest book I have ever read. I have a distinct memory of tuning in to NPR one day years ago, just in time to hear Sedaris reading "Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities." In this story, a young David tries to impress his short-statured guitar teacher Mr. Mancini by singing the Oscar Mayer jingle in the style of Billie Holiday. My husband and I laughed until we cried. From the now infamous tale of Sedaris' demanding French teacher, to one about his stint as a writing instructor in Chicago, every single essay here is an instant classic and a joy to read.
You've probably read Pride and Prejudice (or seen one of the film adaptations), but have you read Persuasion? Jane Austen's last completed novel, its tone is more satirical than her earlier works. It features as its heroine Anne Elliot, 27 years old (!) and still unmarried, regretful that she let her family talk her out of an engagement years earlier. But this is a hopeful novel overall, about second chances and learning to trust one's own counsel. I've read all six of Austen's novels, and this is my favorite.