The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

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After kind of a rough start to the year’s reading, I finally broke through with Rachel Joyce’s delightful The Music Shop.  It tells the story of Frank, a record shop owner on a little commercial side street in London, and his misfit family of neighbors and fellow shop owners, from Father Anthony, proprietor of the little Catholic gift shop, and Kit, the always energetic bull-in-the-china-shop who helps out in Frank’s store to the Williams’ brothers, local undertakers, and Maud, a tattoo artist who is not so secretly in love with Frank, as they try to live their lives and make a living.  Frank has a gift–he knows exactly what music you need to hear based on what’s going on in your life, even if you don’t know it.  He’s a music therapist of sorts, and his customers are few but fiercely loyal.  Interspersed throughout the present day worries about the shops going under and the street being bought by a developer are vignettes where we see Frank’s relationship with his unconventional mother, Peg, who inspired both his intense love of music and his fear of intimacy.  That is until the day they all meet Ilse Brauchmann, the woman in a green coat who upends all their lives.

This is such a sweet, charming book!  It’s kind of like reading a Richard Curtis movie, one with a distinct About a Boy vibe.  It reads quickly, and even the more serious parts have a lightness to them.  The delightfully quirky characters are all really more defined by their quirks than any real depth, but they are distinct and enjoyable.  No one was too too, and I found myself casting the roles as I read.  And most importantly, I was rooting for them.  Not just Frank and Ilse but all of them: Father Anthony, Kit, Maud, everyone.  It is their relationships with each other, their care for each other, their willingness to help each other before themselves, and the family that they create on their little street that really bring the depth to the story.  It’s almost like these are people Joyce knows, and she is creating loving tributes to them in her novel.  By the end, I was sad to see them go and glad I got to spend some time among them.

Mostly this is a book about love and the different ways it manifests in our lives: love of music, love for your community, fear of love, second third fourth chances at love.  It’s about being open to those around us and the importance of the families we make, not just the ones we have.  And it reminds us of the all-important power of music as a healer and magnifier of life, something I think most of us have experienced at one point or another.

The Music Shop is nothing spectacular, but it is lovingly and beautifully written.  You can tell Joyce enjoyed writing it, and I, as a reader, had fun thinking about music and connections in different and new ways.  The music selection in the book was incredible, and maybe one day I’ll make my own The Music Shop Mixtape.  Overall, this was a nice uptick in quality from my initial new reads this year, especially after a few disappointments from some of my regular authors.  It was refreshing, and I felt finally launched into my reading for 2018 with it.  It’s not a book to challenge you, necessarily, but it’s a book that will make you feel good.

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The English Wife by Lauren Willig

Phew!  Finally, it’s time to start on my 2018 blogs.  After ending 2017 on a few doozies, I started 2018 gently.  In anticipation of The Wrinkle in Time movie (which I have not yet seen), I started with re-reading Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book, one of my favorites from when I was younger.  And I had an interesting experience.  I still loved it, but I don’t know what to write about it.  That rarely happens, and so I’ve decided to not write about it for now.  Then I read the last book in one of my favorite mystery series, one that was finished and published after the author’s death, and it was good and enjoyable but not the strongest in the series, and I didn’t really feel like I needed to review it.  (But if you are looking for a fun, long mystery series set in Egypt, check out the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters!)

So the first book from 2018 that I am reviewing is Lauren Willig’s The English Wife.  I discovered Lauren Willig through her Pink Carnation series, which was a really fun 18th century female spy series that I liked to call my smart girl chick lit.  I really enjoyed most of them, and so I was interested to check out some of her other novels.  The English Wife sounded interesting, so I gave it a shot.

In turn of the century, New York, Bay Van Duyvil, heir to an old Knickerbocker family, is found murdered the night of the family’s Twelfth Night ball, and his glamorous English wife, Annabelle, is missing.  The papers immediately assume Annabelle murdered Bay, and it becomes the society scandal of the year.  But Bay’s sister, Janie, is convinced otherwise and forms an unlikely alliance with James Burke, a particularly persistent journalist, to try to clear her sister-in-law’s name and discover the true murderer.  Along the way, she discovers Annabelle’s true identity of Georgiana (Georgie) and the secrets of her life with Bay.  Interspersed with the investigation are flashbacks to Georgie and Bay’s courtship in England and their early married years as Georgie struggles to fit into New York society and meet the expectations of Bay’s domineering mother.

Sounds fun, right?  It was…fine.  Janie as a protagonist is not particularly thrilling or engaging, and the whole novel was a bit boring and bland, like Janie.  The character development is not strong.  Most of the characters are pretty superficial caricatures, and the descriptions feel repetitive without actually repeating anything.  The supposed villain Gilles Lacey feels particularly inconsistent.  He is supposed to be vicious, terrifying, etc., and we see that in one scene with Georgie, but for the most part he is such a complete buffoon that Burke’s fear for Janie’s safety near the climax feels completely unfounded.  And in fact, despite having committed multiple crimes, Lacey is kind of forgotten about at the end. The pace is also really slow, which was really surprising considering how all of the Pink Carnation books just fly.  The action and pace picked up in the last 80 pages, but the ending really felt pretty rote and airless.  No stakes, no consequences.

Additionally, the book is pretty badly edited.  And I’m not talking mistakes where you’re sitting there going, “Is that right?  Maybe?  I don’t know…”  These were major mistakes like repeated and added words and character name mistakes, such as Georgina instead of Georgiana. And this was a first run publication, not an advanced reader copy.  I will be the first to admit that I make mistakes in my writing, particularly these blogs.  And I sometimes publish without catching them, but my crack team of parental editors always shoot me an e-mail to let me know if they saw something.  (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) But here’s the deal–this blog is basically just me.  Willig has a full editorial team.  These mistakes should have been caught by at least one of them, and it’s a disservice to Willig that they weren’t.

Overall, the whole thing felt tired.  This is how I felt about the last couple of books in the Pink Carnation series as well.  I think Willig is a good writer, but her writing seems like she needs a break.  If you want some fun historical fiction, check out her early work, but you can skip this.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

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Everyone should read a book that horrifies, guts, and completely upends them at least once in their lives.  For me, Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling is certainly that book.  In fact, it left me so undone that I have spent 6 months avoiding writing the review.  This is the book that has slowed down my blog, that has put me 15 books behind.  This is the one that I do not want to revisit but absolutely must.

I picked it up as part of my goal of reading about more diverse experiences.  Honestly, though, it feels wrong to label it such.  This is not the experience of someone with a different background from me.  This is the kind of experience that no one should ever, ever have to experience and yet all too many do.  I did not know what I was getting into when I started this.

My Absolute Darling tells the story of Turtle (real name Julia), a young teenage girl who lives with her father, Martin, and near her grandfather, Daniel, in an off-the-grid cabin in the Pacific Northwest.  Martin is horrifically abusive, physically, emotionally, and sexually.  It is a cycle of abuse that started with Daniel, and after Turtle’s mother’s death, Martin has taken that cycle to new depraved depths with his insistence on a survivalist training lifestyle, complicated rules and games, and cultivation of Turtle’s social isolation and dependence on him.  The book traces Turtle’s emotional journey as she struggles to deal with her complex emotions about her father and her home life, her place in their family structure upended when Martin brings home a young girl to look after her while her mother is away.  Along the way, Turtle tests the boundaries and rules set by Martin, building friendships with two boys from school, Jacob and Brett; thawing her hostile reaction to her teacher, Anna, the only relatively stable adult in Turtle’s life; and reassessing her understanding of her parents upon meeting her mother’s best friend (and Brett’s mom), Caroline.

Tallent’s writing is vivid, viscerally descriptive, and repetitive, beating in Turtle’s experiences of people and the world.  We can’t see her world any other way because she can’t.  It could easily be a movie.  The language that Turtle uses to describe the women in her life is ugly and violent, and the language that she uses to describe herself is even more so.  It physically hurts to read.  Turtle spends most of her time swinging between loving and hating Martin, trying to love but usually hating herself.  However, she has an intense desire to take care of things, to make something grow, though she doesn’t believe she can do the same for people.  It is this desire to care that is the one part of her that Martin hasn’t affected and that he can’t touch or corrupt, and it is the one thing that she can hold onto that gives her some chance of escape and recovery.  It is the key to her survival.

As Turtle ages in the book, the writing of her character changes.  There are subtle descriptive shifts.  The language she uses for herself softens just a bit, and the language around Martin becomes less about fear and more about pity.  As Turtle matures, Martin ages and weakens, and the power dynamic changes.  She starts to assert more independence.  However, abuse is cyclical and generational.  Though Daniel, her grandfather, does his best to protect her, he is protecting her from the effects of his own past actions.  Turtle, in turn, engages in fairly constant self-blame when she is blameless and finds herself acting out against Jacob, the one person in her life who seems to truly care for her, using the same language Martin hurls against her.  All the while she battles herself in her head, desperately trying to stop the words coming from her mouth and failing.

Choices and actions have consequences.  The right choices and actions can have terrifying consequences.  The result can be horrifying.  And it is.

This was a very different reading experience for me.  It was highly emotional and highly communal.  My co-worker, Kathleen, had really pushed me to read it, and every day I came in desperate to tell her my theories and to process what I had read.  And every day she said, “Ok.  We’ll talk when you finish.”  And when I did, we talked and talked and talked.  Kathleen had worked with students who had lived this experience, and it was so helpful to talk to her and come a little closer to understanding the whole of what I’d read.  This is a book that requires a post-reading catharsis.

My main issue, and it was small, was that the actual ending of the book zeroed in on Turtle and Anna and really left out these other characters that Turtle had allow herself to care for and even love.  I wanted to know what happened to Jacob, Brett, and Caroline.  But we don’t get to know that for some reason, and that felt incomplete to me.  I also wish we’d learned more about Turtle’s mom.  We only get glimpses of her from others, but it seems clear that she failed Turtle as well. Perhaps we don’t learn more because Turtle can’t or won’t learn more.

My Absolute Darling made me physically ill to read more than once.  It has stuck with me longer than many books I’ve read.  It captures a reality that I could never even begin to imagine.  And that’s what books are supposed to do.  They are suppose to challenge us, to open us up to other realities, to teach us empathy, to force us to look at things differently.  This is an excellent book.  Even if you don’t read it, you should read something like it.  I am so glad I read it.  And I will never read it again.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

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Sometimes there are books that really have an impact on you, not because you loved it or thought it was fantastic but because it imparts something on you that you very much need at that moment.  Erika L. Sanchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter was one of those books for me.  It is an unflinching, raw, occasionally humorous, and incredibly touching examination of what it is like to be trapped between two worlds and two sets of expectations.  Julia is the daughter of immigrants living in Chicago, and she already chafes from trying to be both a normal American teenager and a good Mexican daughter.  When her seemingly perfect sister dies, Julia is suddenly unmoored, flung adrift among the pressures of high school and college application, the potential loss of her dreams of success and path of escape, and the increasingly strict and seemingly unreasonable expectations of her traditional Mexican parents, for whom Julia is decidedly not the perfect daughter.  Julia and her mother constantly lash out and disappoint and fail each other in their grief, while her father retreats further and further into himself.  Her mother’s fears of the dangers facing her children increases, causing her to grip tighter and tighter to as much of her culture and expectations and way of life as she can, even as Julia fights against that way of life, trying to steady herself enough take advantage of the opportunities in the country her parents sacrificed so much to bring her to.

Sanchez’ writing is immediate, visceral, and graphic.  Nothing is sugar-coated, no blows are softened to make her audience comfortable.  No, we experience the extreme discomfort of Julia and her family.  And honestly, that’s what it should be.  Pretty much anything that can have a trigger warning is in this book, but it is not gratuitous or unnecessary.  It is true to the experiences of these characters.  And this is one of the huge values of this book.  If we are talking about diversifying our reading to learn about and better understand those experiences that are not our own, that is what this book does.  For me, this was extremely important.  It shows an experience, one that is not mine but is familiar to me from my work with young adults in Chicago, that I needed to learn more about.  Because, you see, when we assess our students’ readiness for programmatic success, we ask questions and tick boxes, and a student coming from a 2-parent household with no history of violence or abuse or divorce is seen as having a stable home environment.  But that’s not necessarily true.  Stability comes in many forms, as does the lack of stability.  We make assumptions about people and their lives every day based on outward appearances, but those appearances rarely tell the whole story or even the needed story, sometimes even until it’s too late.  For me, this book was a hugely important lesson on that, and it has materially impacted how I do my work.

That’s not to dismiss the book as a piece of literature, either.  Sanchez is a vivid, evocative writer.  Her mastery of voice and of real emotion is breathtaking, and she can create an incredibly specific image with just a few words.  She is an exciting writer, and this is an exciting book.

My only quibble with the book is when she talked about the suggested donation to get into the Art Institute of Chicago, a safe space for Julia.  Julia talks openly about how she often goes to the Art Institute and ignores the guards and the suggested donation as she enters the exhibits.  Except that’s not accurate.  The Art Institute has a fairly hefty admittance fee.  There are many ways to reduce the admittance fee, but there is no suggested donation and the staff and guards would not let a young adult jump the entrance into the exhibits without a ticket.  This really bothered me.  Almost everyone I’ve said this to kind of laughed and told me to not worry about it, it’s just a detail, it’s not a big deal, let it go.  But I can’t and here is why: this is a factual error on information that is incredibly easy to look up and, for some of her readers, will be common knowledge.  And Sanchez presents the information decisively and inaccurately.  Chicago is just as much of a character in this story as the human characters, and if Sanchez has not just included but made repeatedly emphasized an inaccuracy about the city, how can we know what is accurate and inaccurate in the stories of her human characters?  When we are entrusted with the stories of others, even fictional others, it is vital that we tell the stories both truthfully, which can be relative as your truth is not my truth, but accurately.  It is a matter of respect and trust.  For many readers, I recognize that this will not be a big deal, but for me, it was.  Fortunately, it was the only such error and ultimately did not mar the reading experience too much.

This book is an exploration of grief, family pressures, mother-daughter relationships, mental health, and growing up all through the lens of the different immigrant experiences of parent and child.  Julia and her mother’s struggles are born from their senses of identity clashing in an imperfect environment.  I found a Twitter post not long after finishing the book that I think sums it up perfectly.  @bosefina wrote, “My parents were tasked with the job of survival and I with self-actualization.  The immigrant generational gap is real.  What a luxury it is to search for purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.”  This should be required reading for all of us as we move forward in this increasingly small world.

 

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances by Ruth Emmie Lang

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“Weylyn doesn’t quite fit into the world we’re familiar with,” Daddy said, choosing his words carefully. “He’s a strange boy, but in a wonderful sort of way.”  So best describes Weylyn Grey, the main character in Ruth Emmie Lang’s debut novel, Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances.  The novel tells the story of Weylyn, his mysterious powers, and his journey across the US over several years from the perspective of those he impacts, even for a short while: the foster family who temporarily takes him in, particularly his foster sister and her father; one of his teachers; a young man trying to figure out how to be mayor in the shadow of his father; a young boy who wants magic to be real; and Mary, whom Weylyn first meets when they are children and who ultimately drives most of his choices throughout his life as their paths cross and separate many times.  And all around him, strange and marvelous things happen, though not everyone sees them as such positive occurrences.

This is a beautiful, luminous, quietly crafted story.  Lang’s writing and use of not-really-magical-realism reminded me a bit of Eowyn Ivey’s novels: the same strong character development; the same respect for the power and awe of nature; the same kind of magic flitting in and out of otherwise totally realistic situations.  The vignettes are all carefully and thoughtfully orchestrated, revealing exactly what we need to learn about Weylyn in that moment and nothing more.  The multiple storytelling perspectives reinforce that distance, revealing how the world sees and interacts with Weylyn but not much about how Weylyn sees himself.  Weylyn is a mystery to the world he inhabits, and so shall he remain with us.

That’s not to say this is not an engaging read.  Not at all.  We learn enough about Weylyn to keep wanting to know more.  He is good, he is kind, he cares about those around him, he has experienced tragedy, and his powers scare him more than anything.  And the characters who pop up throughout the story are all fully realized as can be in these snapshots of their lives.

This is a charming story, a story that desperately makes you want to believe that a little bit of magic can be real.  It came like a breath of fresh air in my reading–completely unexpected, completely different, and completely lovely.  I wish I had taken better notes upon finishing it so that I could write a more thorough review 7 months later, but I can definitely say this: Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances and its mysterious protagonist have stuck with me, frequently popping up in my mind when I least expect them to, and I’m really looking forward to whatever Lang writes next.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

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Robin Sloan’s Sourdough is a book I first heard of from Book of the Month Club (whose e-mails I check religiously on the first of every month but don’t actually spend any money on), and, for once (because BoM’s selections are fairly predictable each month), I was pleasantly surprised to see them break from their normal pattern of thrillers with woman or girl in the title and feel good sibling relationship books.  Sourdough sounded a little weird, a little quirky, and a lot of fun.  Plus it was by Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a past favorite of mine.  I was very excited when my copy finally came in at the library to see what Mr. Sloan had been up to with his recent writings.

Lois Cleary is a software engineer for a major tech firm in the Bay Area.  (Honestly, it reminds me so much of the fictional Hooli from the show Silicon Valley that I laughed out loud!)  However, her work consumes most of her life, and she soon finds she’s feeling less than fulfilled.  One night, the two young men who provide her nightly dinner of soup and sourdough show up at her apartment to entrust her with their magical sourdough starter before they leave the country due to visa issues.  This small moment leads Lois into the world of baking, providing bread every day to her company’s cafeteria, growing friendships, and ultimately the world of underground farmers markets and sends her life on a path drastically different than what she’d previously imagined.

I loved Sourdough.  First, I have a sourdough starter in my refrigerator, and while I’m not the best sourdough caretaker, sometimes letting it go way too long between feedings, I’m quite attached to it and enjoy occasionally watching TV with it as it bubbles happily away, digesting its dinner of flour and water.  I also can now make a mean sourdough pancake and some pretty tasty rolls, courtesy of my starter.  (The pizza dough still needs some work.)  So I totally connected with Lois’ concerns around caring for this quasi-living creature and the joy of making something that turns out pretty tasty.

Second, Sloan has a knack for creating fully realized characters in quirky situations without letting them drift into caricature.  He likes to inhabit niche worlds as a writer, but he makes those worlds and their denizens cozy, familiar, and comfortable.  It’s as if his stories take place in your neighborhood with your neighbors building elaborate brick ovens in their back yards or developing a new form of glowing potato or trying to create a colorless block that will taste like whatever you need it to taste like or forming a club for only people named Lois, and it’s all totally normal.  I suspect this is because Sloan himself is a little quirky with fairly niche interests and some shared background with the characters he writes.  They feel real because he’s real and he writes, as the saying goes, what he knows (at least partly).  And in the case of Sourdough, the perennial work-life balance question and the struggle to find time for things that feed your soul, not just your bank-account, are real and familiar in this age of inter-connectedness and ambition.  I especially loved the relationship between Lois and one of the brothers who left the sourdough in her care.  It’s a relationship developed through letters, each letter revealing one more bit about the Maas culture and mythology and the power of the almost-sentient sourdough starter.

Third, Sloan really has knack for creating believable stakes in situations where one might not ordinarily feel like stakes are necessary. Who knew that getting a stall at a farmer’s market could be so stressful and competitive?  Well, I guess people who have actually done so, but still!  During the Food Network-level interview and results scenes, I was on the edge of my seat!  Who knew that a shapeless, beige food-stuff could create such chaos in an underground bunker farmer’s market?  Ah, but I’m veering perilously close toward spoilers here.

Here’s the thing.  Sourdough isn’t perfect.  The ending needed a little something, I felt. Sloan is not the Great American Novelist.  But he is highly inventive, creative, intelligent, and honest in what he writes.  I like his books because they are the right balance of whimsy and real life packaged within a really good story.  Sloan clearly believes that our lives need a little magic, and I’ll take the magic he’s offering any day.  So if you have a couple of days where you just want to take a break, pick up Sourdough.  And then maybe Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, if you haven’t already.  And enjoy a little bit of magic in your day.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

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2017 was a year of mysteries for me–I spent some time re-reading old reliables, eagerly awaited the latest volume in some of my favorite series (it was a harsh blow when J.K. Rowling did not announce a release date for the upcoming Cormoran Strike novel–Jo, please, PLEASE release it soon!!!), and gave some new series a shot.  But honestly, as much as I needed to read mysteries last year, I struggled in my search for new books.  None of them were really scratching my mystery itch.  So I was very excited when Anthony Horowitz’ Magpie Murders came out.  Horowitz is a prolific mystery writer.  He’s written several young adult series, was trusted by the Conan Doyle estate to write some new Sherlock Holmes mysteries, was a screenwriter for Poirot and Midsomer Murders on BBC, and created one of my favorite British mystery series, Foyle’s War.  So you see why I was optimistic.

Briefly, the novel is two novels in one, really.  The main novel weaves the web of mystery around best selling mystery author, Alan Conway’s 9th and final Atticus Pund mystery, last in part due to his recent death.  His editor, Susan Ryeland, receivs the manuscript with the last few chapters missing.  As she searches for the chapters, she becomes increasingly convinced that Alan’s death was not as natural as originally believed.  Interspersed within the main plot is this last novel, so we as readers work with both Pund and Ryeland as they rush to solve their respective mysteries.

Honestly, I had some mixed feelings about this novel.  It’s a very clever conceit, and I was excited to see the execution.  The Pund novel-within-the novel is painstakingly  traditional–there are shouts of Foyle’s War and Agatha Christie, and Conway’s Pund apes Christie’s Poirot in almost every way.  The writing, the characters, and the 1950’s setting are self-conscious and self-consciously British.  Everything was just so, almost too so.  Everything in this novel felt like a veneer, bloodless and hollow, like the characters were just running through the motions.  I never could decide whether I thought this was on purpose or not.  It was a solid, British country mystery, but something just felt missing.

The current-day novel surrounding the Pund story is much more relaxed in it’s writing, when Horowitz felt less tied to the traditional style.  I really loved how Ryeland, the editor, became the detective.  There’s always a thrill in reading mysteries that you, the reader, could become the detective and solve it first, and that literally happens here.  I loved the moments when she tried to replicate what she knew of solving big crimes from being Conway’s first reader.  The final revelation also had some real tension, and there were a few moments, particularly in that revelation, where had anyone spoken to me on the train, I would have been completely unaware.

However, like the Pund novel, there were things that felt hollow or superficial.  Ryeland’s relationship with her long-term boyfriend, Andreas, felt very television stereotypical–he’s a free spirit, she’s more buttoned down, etc., etc.  Additionally, her boss felt very one-note and was not nearly fleshed out enough a character for the level of role he played in the narrative.  I realize these are not terribly specific or wide-ranging examples, but that’s kind of the problem–it was all fine, but a little generic.

It’s really interesting to read through reviews on Magpie Murders.  Some readers loved it, LOVED it, and thought it was perfect.  Others viewed it as a complete let-down, simply a lower-level Masterpiece Mystery in book form without much effort put in.  And some viewed it as a send up of the British “cosy” mystery, the type of mystery that Horowitz writes for television, and that it should be read with a wink and a nod.  I don’t know that any of these capture my feelings.  To me it was good, but not great.  It was fun, exciting, and dull.  Fine.  It was fine.  Just not what I wanted it to be.  But if you are really just looking for something that plays out like your favorite British television mystery and doesn’t require a ton of close attention, it will hit the spot.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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When I was in college, my program required us to take special versions for various courses as part of our degree requirements.  So instead of math, we took “Plan II Math”; instead of logic, we took “Plan II Logic; instead of bio, we took “Plan II Bio” and so forth.  But the beast, the make or break class for many Plan II-ers was Plan II Physics taught by Gleeson.  Not Dr. Gleeson or Professor Gleeson.  Just Gleeson, said with both reverence and fear.  (At least in my section.)  And I have to be honest, I was SO excited when I got into Plan II Physics because our special topic for the semester was Einstein’s papers on relativity, and I though, “YES!  A literature-based science class!  This will be easy!”  Silly me.

It was not easy.  It was really hard.  I hadn’t had physics since junior year of high school, and I was woefully unprepared for the onslaught of advanced physical concepts Einstein was hurling at us in his papers.  Now I worked really hard and must have understood enough of it to earn a good grade (that and we were allow to bring a note card with anything we wanted on it to exams), but it really was the make or break class everyone said it would be.  I don’t remember any of it now.

So why am I telling you all of this?  Because all of the physical concepts related to Einstein’s theories that I was so overwhelmed by in college pop up in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s excellent Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.  Tyson has built his career, like one of my favorite childhood tv personalities Bill Nye the Science Guy, on making science accessible to the general public.  This does not mean dumbing it down at all but rather explaining it (it being an awfully broad and ineffective term in this case) in creative and engaging ways that make sense to someone without a degree in astrophysics.  He continues this quest in his latest book, and suddenly I was understanding the physical concepts Gleeson was trying to to teach us through Einstein’s papers…mostly.  Part of it was that it was all within the context of the birth of the universe.  This was awesome because 1. I love space.  A lot.  and 2. it created more practice context around what sometimes felt like pretty abstract theories and examples.

This is not to say that the entire book is a rip-roaring, never-ending-thrills page turner.  Some of the concepts are dry.  There’s no getting around it.  But Tyson’s knack for describing these topics in unexpected, contextualized ways, along with his sense of humor, make for a much more enjoyable read with the added bonus of increased comprehension for the science layperson.  Tyson is the perfect scientist: a top expert in his field who can actually communicate and teach his subject.  He is a gifted writer and speaker who is a master manipulator of language.  And it is so clear how much he values science education and how important it to him that he use his position and celebrity to advance that cause in a way that gets people, young and old, excited to look up at the stars and learn about how a star is born or discover what’s inside a cell or understand how we impact the world around us.

So, if reading about protons, neutrons, and electrons and atomic particles is not your cup of tea, be warned.  There’s a lot of that in this book.  But maybe if you don’t like those topics, you should still give this book a shot–it might explain things in a way that makes way more sense 10 years after your first attempt to learn the subject.  (And then check out Tyson’s Star Talk podcast–it’s super fun!)

Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer

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So unfortunately, my ignoring of my book blog also meant that sometimes I didn’t take as good of notes as I usually do when I finished a book.  (Read: No note.  No notes taken.) Such is the case for David Hackett Fischer’s fantastic Paul Revere’s Ride.  But this book has stuck with me, surprisingly so for a non-fiction book, and so though this review may be short on details, it is of a book I wholeheartedly encourage you to pick up.

Last August, I went on my first ever visit to Boston.  (How you get to 30 years old without ever visiting Boston I don’t know, but it happened.  Even my parents were surprised I’d never been.)  Michel was excited, but I was really excited.  I love early American history, and I had plans to see as much of American history as I could, including walking the entire Freedom Trail in under 7 hours.  We were going to be right in the middle of it all, so clearly I needed to read something to prep me for this complete immersion in the Boston theater of the Revolutionary War.  My friend, Diane, recommended Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride, and, at first, I was like…meh.  I know about the ride!  One if by land, two if by sea, the British are coming, the British are coming, Paul Revere single-handedly saves the day!  (Thank you, Mr. Longfellow.)  But then I started reading the description and realized I knew NOTHING about Paul Revere’s actual ride!  I mean, yes, Paul Revere was involved, as was the Old North Church, and there were horses and British soldiers, but otherwise, it was COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from what I had learned (or at least remembered) from school.  (Lies, Mr. Longfellow.)

So did you know that:

  1. Paul Revere was one of many militia men who were out and about that night, riding from town to town to awaken the citizens.  He was, in fact, one of the main architects of this highly sophisticated alarm system that functioned like a horse and rider version of the giant haystack beacons in The Return of the King.  The timing was incredible–“Paul Revere’s alarm” had spread hundreds of miles up and down the eastern seaboard by the time the first shots were fired, and militias kept coming all day.  These alarms triggered a specific set of actions in each town the riders rode through, leading to a large, mostly orderly, and responsive American militia descending on Lexington and Concord.  Which brings me to my next point.
  2. The Americans were highly organized.  This was not some scrappy, rag-tag bunch of farmers and colonists who through sheer pluck, stubbornness, and determination beat the strongest military in the world.  These were trained and organized farmers and colonists who developed sophisticated military hierarchies in their local militia where everyone had a specific job (some as the towns’ alarm riders) and engaged in clear, well-organized military drills.  They also had built in time and practices for democratic decision making should they ever be called to arms.  There was no specific leader of these militias–they decided as a group whether or not to take up arms, and the majority of local militias did. Additionally, I remember learning in school about the American’s use of guerrilla warfare, but it’s because they knew the land and had practiced for it.   These Americans meant business.
  3. Paul Revere and some of his riders were captured that night.  Most of them escaped due to British incompetence.  And, because the alarm system relied on an intricate network of riders, processes, and decision that had been previously established and disseminated, it still worked even with those disruptions.
  4. Samuel Adams and John Hancock were supposedly the targets of the British march to Lexington, where they were trying to evade arrest.  They were ultimately successful, despite Hancock being a prima donna about wanting to fight and not wanting to leave until he’d eaten.  It was Adams who really put him in his place, saving both their lives while Revere dragged Hancock’s trunk full of top secret papers through the middle of a fire fight to safety.  So raise a glass to Sam!
  5. British General Thomas Gage’s American wife, Margaret Gage, is thought to be an American spy!  Dr. Joseph Warren, another leader of the Sons of Liberty, had a source high up in the British command, and while it has never been confirmed that Margaret Gage was his source, his information lessened after her sudden departure to England on her husband’s orders.  It if was her, she’s the one who shared the entire British plan to kidnap Adams and Hancock and burn the colonists stores and supplies at Concord.  #whoruntheworld #girls
  6. The Boston accent…has always been the Boston accent.  They know this because many colonists spelled phonetically rather than using standard spelling.  And my favorite examples?  The phonetic spellings of “chattaer” (charter) and “Bast’n” (Boston).  Say them out loud…

There is a ton more packed into Fischer’s exhaustive account, but it never lags or becomes boring.  This may sound weird, but reading Fischer’s account of the events surround Revere’s famous ride is like listening to an adventure radio play.  You’re not quite so immersed in it that it’s like a movie, but it’s pacing is much more thrilling than your typical non-fiction book about a military episode.  More importantly, it provided a ton of important context about events, people, and motives during this time in history, which made walking the Freedom Trail so much more meaningful an experience.  I remembered particularly the section where Fischer discussed Revere’s efforts to cross the Charles River from Boston to Cambridge to begin the main part of his journey as we walked across the Charles just above where the British ships dropped anchor, effectively blockading the city.  Standing in the Old South Meetinghouse meant so much more having just read about the impassioned speeches delivered there before and after the Boston Massacre.  Alternately, I was able to understand the paths the Sons of Liberty took through the city and the challenges they faced in their movements when I was able to walk the same streets shortly after reading about them.  Context is so important when engaging with history, and Fischer’s account, covering so much more than just Revere’s ride, really affected how I experienced my first trip to Boston, despite discovering that

  1. The first public school in the United States, Boston Latin School, is now a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.
  2. Anne Hutchinson‘s house, later the famous Old Corner Bookstore, is now a Chipotle.
  3. Lobster is not cheaper in Boston.

Clearly I recommend this book.  It was great.  I loved it and would have really enjoyed it even without visiting Boston.  But I also think that taking the time to read something about the places you are visiting, either before or after, is a great way to deepen and personalize the experience.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Alright.  I admit it.  I’ve been a slacker.  Here we are in mid-January 2018, and I have not posted a review in months.  I’m horribly behind, and the following review is of a book that I read in August 2017.  However, I’m glad I have the opportunity to review it now.  This is a glorious book, a book for learning about experience and empathy, the kind of book that is increasingly necessary in our world.  And so I give you Americanah.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is one of those books that has been floating around my periphery for a few years now.  Every few months or so, someone says, “Oh, you HAVE to read Americanah!” and I will say, “Sounds great!” but I never got around to doing it until this summer.  A friend at work had it on her desk and offered to let me borrow it when I commented on it.  Deciding there was no time like the present, I took her up on her offer.  I’m so glad I did.

Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerians in love who leave Nigeria for the US and London respectively, dreaming of higher education and professional success.  In the US, Ifemelu, finding success in academia, discovers the complexities of living in a racialized country and grapples with what it means to be black (but not African American) for the first time in her life. Obinze heads to London with plans to join her soon, but immigration challenges in a post-9/11 world leads to life as an undocumented worker stuck in the UK instead.  They reunite 15 years later in Nigeria, navigating the gulf their lives have created between them as they explore a new relationship.

I loved this book.  Loved it.  Adichie’s language is like music, rhythmical and cadential, and I just slid into the story, immediately immersed in the beauty of Adichie’s storytelling.   The book begins with Ifemelu, present-day in America, then alternates chapters and later full sections between Ifem and Obinze both past and present, all punctuated with some of Ifem’s blog posts on what it is to be a non-African American black woman in America.  The structure and non-linear timeline really emphasize the unexpected nature of life lived as opposed to life planned.  We learn all of the in-and-outs of Ifem and Obinze’s journeys, successes, and tragedies, but it was really Ifem who I wanted to know more about.  As much as it is a love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, it is really Ifem’s story: a story of her identity, her independence, her self-realization, her establishment of presence in a place that is both home and not.  There was so much that was familiar to me and yet so much that was not of my experience, and I found that to be incredibly compelling.  On the other hand, I found Obinze as hard to know as a reader as did his friends.  Yet his story is important, both in the role he plays in Ifemelu’s life and as a counterpoint to her experience.  His is the realization of the American Dream–leaving home for a better life only to find yourself lower than you ever thought and then rising again to success–all played out on a non-American playing field.  The familiar and unfamiliar battle to create a reading experience of learning and empathy.

My one issue with the book is the end and some of the choices that Ifem and Obinze make, seemingly without thinking or caring about the impact on others.  And one might argue that Obinze thinks about that impact a lot, but still the ultimate choices seem to be lacking that.  However, I can’t talk much about it without giving things away, but I do wish that they had chosen a slightly different path to their final decisions.  That’s just me, though, and I’m sure others will feel differently.

I’ve written before about how reading fiction teaches children empathy and to value of others’ experiences, and that is one reason why this book is so important.  It is, in itself, about the diversity of experience and the value or judgment we place on experience, opinion, thought, and belief depending on how close or familiar or lived those experiences are for us.  This is the point of Ifem’s blog–my experience is not your experience, and we must see and appreciate that in order to see and appreciate each other.  This book is filled with experiences I will never have but are important for me to know and, if I can’t understand, acknowledge my lack of that experience.  Even so, there are universal human experiences that all readers can find in this story

We live in a world where our president chooses to denigrate with foul language people and places he chooses not and probably cannot ever understand or try to know.  This author and this book come from one of those countries.  It is vital that we as individuals and as a country continue to strive to learn about unfamiliar experiences, to take advantage of the gorgeous literature, art, music, culture, everything being created to share those experiences, so that we can resist and rise above the cretinous model currently on display.  Even without that need, this novel is worth reading, just as a master-study on story craft and the beauty of language.  So I say don’t walk, run to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.