High Cotton

Johnson, Kristie Robin. High Cotton: Essays. Clearwater, Florida: Raised Voices, 2020.

Reason read: as part of the Early Review program for LibraryThing, this was the July 2020 selection.

While Johnson’s book is categorized as a collection of essays, her crystal clear voice trills bright honesty and makes this a captivating memoir on multiple levels: what it means to be an African American woman in the volatile twenty-first century (in addition to being the sixth generation of a family who can be trace their ancestral past to slavery in Deep South Georgia). Adding to the cultural, economic, and societal battles, Johnson is a woman with personal strife: family addictions, histories of abuse, teenage pregnancy, and ever-constant poverty. How does one explain a manicure while buying food on welfare? Why does one even need to explain? There, in a succinct nutshell, is reality of millions. Other realities include the ever-constant reminder that racism and gender bias are alive and well in our country.
My only complaint? Because the essays were so autobiographical in nature I wanted more structure in the way of chronology.

Confessional: I read On Being Human by Jennifer Pastiloff at the same time and I have to admit, their stories were so similar that I would sometimes confuse the two.

Confessional two: No. More of a question: why does one have to be a rape “victim” in order to acknowledge the bravery of an accuser coming forward? Better yet, why would acknowledging the bravery of Cosby’s accusers force one to “unearth” one’s uncomfortable truth? Couldn’t Kristie stand on the side of women who allege they fell prey to a man of wealth and power (regardless of their (or her) skin color)?


Little Wonder

Abramsky, Sasha. Little Wonder: the Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Superstar. Brooklyn, New York: Akashic Books, 2020.

Reason read: as a member of LibraryThing, I was chosen to review this for the Early Review program.

Charlotte Dod. If you don’t know her name, you don’t know the history of women in sports. Don’t feel bad though. Despite being a multitalented athlete, her fame as a star burned bright in many arenas, but faded from all of them just as quickly. First known as a tennis sensation at the age of fourteen, Lottie (as she was known), only played competitively for five years. In that time she became the doyenne of tennis, winning five Wimbledons. The only years she didn’t win she didn’t even compete. Sadly, it was as if she grew tired of smashing the competition and needed new thrills. She left the sport…at twenty one years of age. After tennis, Dod set her sights on field hockey. She helped pioneer the sport for women. Then came skating. Obsessively training for hours on end, Dod was not only able to pass the rigorous women’s skating test, she passed the much more difficult men’s test as well. When she was done with ice skates and cold weather , she moved on to golf and mountaineering and archery and Voluntary Aid Detachment nursing and choral singing. She climbed mountains in support of women seeking equal rights and won a silver medal for archery at the 1908 summer Olympic games.
While Abramsky does a great job detailing Lottie’s life, he has to fill in the gaps with speculation because sadly, much of her correspondence was lost or deliberately destroyed. Expect words like “maybe” and “perhaps” and “might.” The photographs are fantastic.
Arabella Garrett Anderson, Agatha Christie, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Nelly Bly were contemporaries of Dod’s.


Fine Mess

Duke, Kim. A Fine Mess. Plymouth, MI: BHC Press, 2020.

Reason read: as part of the Early Review Program for LibraryThing I was selected to read and review Duke’s book.

The first word that comes to mind when reading A Fine Mess is chameleon. Depending on your mood, this book could be seen as trivial happy horse you-know-what or,if you are in a good mood, poignant and heartwarming. The good news is Duke acknowledges that in the title by calling A Fine Mess “little” and “odd.” Okay, so it is a lot odd at times.
Depending on your mood, you could see the colorful illustrations and photography as evocative and capable of inspiring heartfelt emotion. On another day you could be annoyed by the self-help journaling pages; declaring A Fine Mess as helpful as the pseudo-psychological quizzes you find in the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine. How Happy Are You? Take This Test To Find Out!
Depending on your mood, you could question what making fun of a sculpture has to do with breast cancer. You could question why Duke doesn’t bemoan the loss of hair or appetite or secure body image. On another day you could applaud her ability to make connections to before cancer and after cancer and her courageous ability to make sense of the randomness of the disease.
Depending on your mood, A Fine Mess could be a humorous gift to give a struggling friend or your worst enemy.
Either way, one thing is for certain. It will take you all of ten minutes to read. Whether you go back and read it again is entirely dependent on your mood.

As an aside, I want to ask Duke if her statement about hope was intentionally similar to the Emily Dickinson poem. That seemed a little coy, even if it was a play on words.


June Travels

Of course I am not really traveling anywhere, but for the first time in a couple of months I have (finally) gotten back to reading. and. And! And, I did drive a car for the first time since 3/19/20. There’s that. In truth, I have been reading all along, just not with the pleasure and leisure I used to have. All of that is slowly coming back, in part due to the realization it’s okay to disappear into the pages from time to time. It is okay to read with no other agenda. I have started to think of the books as different forms of travel. Without further ado, here are the books for June:

Fiction:

  • The Second Summer of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares. Places I’ll go: Washington, D.C. & Alabama.
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Places: Pennsylvania & something like heaven.
  • Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Places: around Sweden.
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron. Places: Barcelona, Spain and thensome.
  • Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. Places: My back yard of Western Massachusetts and Honduras.
  • Garden of the Gods by Gerald Durrell. Place: Cofu, Greece.

Nonfiction:

  • Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro. Places: all around New England

In Search of Safety

Kuklin, Susan. In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2020.

Reason read: this is an Early Review from LibraryThing. Although I am hardly reading anything these days, this was too important to ignore.

In Search of Safety is comprised of five refugee stories from five different parts of the world yet all have two common threads. All five stories are of individuals seeking safety despite varying circumstances. They all end up in the United States in, of all places, Nebraska.
Fraidoon from Afghanistan, Nathan from Myanmar, Nyarout from South Sudan, Shireen from Northern Iraq, and Dieudonne from Burundi. Each refugee demonstrates remarkable courage, strength and, above all, trust to journey to America. In Search of Safety is compassionate and Kuklin is respectful in telling each harrowing story. The book’s hidden strength is the amount of information in Part VI: Notes and Resources.

Book trivia: there is a great number of touching photographs and (in the published edition) maps.


The 21

Mosebach, Martin. The 21: a journey into the land of Coptic martyrs. Translated by Alta L. Price. Walden, New York: Plough Publishing, 2019.

Reason read: Early Review selection from LibraryThing.

At the very least, The 21 is a thoughtful examination of the martyrs and their humble lives before they became regarded as saints. Mosebach travels to their villages, respectfully meets with their families, and comes away with a poignant picture of stoic grief and outward pride in equal emotion. The most important element to this story is its power to move people regardless of their personal beliefs. Mosebach was compelled to tell the stories of the men in orange; martyrs compared to Jesus on the cross, exposed and seemingly calm before the facing impending execution. The aftermath was just as heart wrenching as the deaths. What those families had to go through just to bring the bodies home; how they needed to search the desert sand for the bodies first before their sons, brothers, and husbands could be buried in El-Aour as saints. Imagine: sixteen of the twenty one had been neighbors; living on the same narrow lane. Unimaginable: each home had an identical iPad so families and loved ones could watch the full, unedited version of the executions. This goes to show you how differently western culture views tragedy. The families of El-Aour proved the enemy had not won as the desired effect had not been achieved. Despite all that, The 21 was a hard book to read.

Author fact: Mosebach is also an accomplished poet.

Book trivia: The 21 was originally published in Germany in 2018 and became a best seller. The foreward was written by the Archbishop of London.

Publisher trivia: Plough is a faith publication whose mission is to find common ground with all.


March Same As It Ever Was

This March will mark my eighth time running the St. Patrick’s Day Road Race. When I lived in town I would watch the runners race by, seemingly effortlessly. I could spy on them from my third floor apartment; while I sipped coffee I wondered what it would be like to able to run six miles knowing believing I couldn’t run a single one. Look at me now, Dad.

Here are the books I’m reading for the month of March:

Fiction:

  • Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear – in honor of International Women’s month and to check off a category from the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge list (a cozy mystery).
  • Miss Mole by E.H. Young – in honor of Young’s birth month.
  • The Calligrapher by Edward Docx – in honor of March is Action Hero month.
  • On the Night Plain by J. Robert Lennon – in honor of Yellowstone National Park.
  • Pandora’s Star by Peter Hamilton – in honor of sci-fi month.

Nonfiction:

  • All Elevations Unknown: an Adventure into the Heart of Borneo by Sam Lightner, Jr. – in honor of the first time Mount Kinabu was ascended (March 1851).
  • Baghdad without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horwitz – in memory of the March 2003 bombing of Baghdad.

Series Continuations:

  • Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland – to continue the series started in January in honor something I can’t remember.

Early Review for LibraryThing:

  • The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic Martyrs by Martin Mosebach (started in February).

February’s Finale

What to tell you? I spent February in a tailspin of old memories. To blame it on one singular event would be too simplistic. As they say, it’s complicated. Very. In other news I have been running! Successfully, I might add. February saw 40 miles conquered. Here are the books planned and completed:

Fiction:

  • Anna In-Between by Elizabeth Nunez (EB & print).
  • Little Havana Blues edited by Julia Poey and Virgil Suarez (EB & print).
  • The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber (EB, AB & print).
  • The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley (EB & print).

Nonfiction:

  • All Deliberate Speed: reflections on the first half century of Brown v. Board of Education by Charles J. Ogletree, Jr (EB & print).
  • Barrow’s Boys by Fergus Fleming (EB & print).
  • Rome and a Villa by Eleanor Clark (EB & print).

Early Review for LibraryThing:

  • The 21: a journey into the land of the Coptic martyrs by Martin Mosebach (just started reading).

Leisure (print only):

  • Migrations: Open Hearts, Open Borders: The Power of Human Migration and the Way That Walls and Bans Are No Match for Bravery and Hope by ICPBS.
  • Pharos Gate by Nick Bantock.
  • Morning Star by Nick Bantock.
  • The Museum at Purgatory by Nick Bantock.
  • Alexandria by Nick Bantock.
  • The Gryphon by Nick Bantock.

Fine, Thanks

Dunnewold, Mary. Fine, Thanks: Stories from the Cancerland Jungle. Texas: Black Rose Writing, 2019.
Release date: 10/24/19.

Reason read: this was a November pick for the Early Review Program from LibraryThing. I haven’t posted one of these in awhile (didn’t get chosen for October, forgot to make a selection for December, and November – this one -only came just recently).

My very first surprise takeaway from reading Fine, Thanks is how calm and pragmatic Mary is while describing her relationship with breast cancer. How is this possible when she went went a healthy mammogram to a “cancer everywhere” magnetic resonance image less than a year later? From discovery, treatment, and recovery there is a smattering of humor, a touch of sarcasm, more than a healthy strain of emotional bravery, and yes, to be expected, anger. For the most part, she is detailed and detached in such a way that a reader can relate in the abstract if he or she has never experienced breast cancer, or nod knowingly if it has been a nightmare reality. I have to wonder how many people diagnosed with any stage of breast cancer have whispered a sage yesyesyes at every truthful, clear-headed, powerful sentence Dunnewold wrote? Even when she points out the obvious I found myself making note of my emphatic agreement. For example, it is common sense that people would pay more attention to something when it relates to them directly. The greater the relationship the more one is willing and apt to sit up and take notice. But when Dunnewold points that out it becomes something different. Yes. She writes like a storytelling river; at times a crashing torrent of yelling words and roiling feelings. At other times her words are a gentle trickle of quiet and graceful acceptance.
Confessional: My favorite moment was not the height of her bravery during diagnosis or even treatment, but rather when she ended her search for religion. Odd as that may seem, it’s true. Her viewpoint awoke something deep within me. Not in the jolting sense of an abrupt aha moment. there was no visible lightning strike. But rather in the slow dawning of discovery; the way that a patch of sunlight plods across the carpet illuminating a slight discoloration in the pile never noticed before. A subtle stain. Oh. Ohhhh…now I see. There were a few of those moments.
Second favorite part – the laugh out loud moment or as I call it, the “snort coffee out the nose” moment was when Dunnewold described the “unanticipated side effect of cancer” in conjunction with pie crust. She owes me a cup of coffee.
As an aside, what is it about animals? I was f.i.n.e. with the ending of Fine, Thanks. I could close the book with a sigh of satisfaction…until I got to the epilogue. Having just helped my sister adopt a dog named Rubie…ugh.


January Jumping

Believe it or not, I’m kind of happy with the way January is shaping up already, five days in. After the disappointments of December I am definitely ready for change. I’m running more these days. I convinced a friend to see sirsy with me. I’m not sure what she thought, but I am still in love with the lyrics. Anyway, enough of that. Here are the books:

Fiction:

  • The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett – in honor of Bennett’s birthday being on the 14th of January. (EB)
  • Sanctuary by Ken Bruen – in honor of Bruen’s birthday also being in January. Confessional: I read this book in one day. (EB)
  • The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat – in honor of Danticat’s birthday also being in January. (EB)
  • Graced Land by Laura Kalapakian – in honor of Elvis’s birth month also being in January.
  • Passage to India by E.M. Forster – in honor of Forster’s birth month also being in January. Yes, celebrating a lot of birthdays this month!

Nonfiction:

  • Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten – in honor of a Cuban Read Day held in January.
  • Beijing of Possibilities by Jonathan Tel – in honor of China’s spring festival.

Series continuations:

  • Persuader by Lee Child – the last one in the series, read in honor of New York becoming a state in July (and where Child lived at the time I made this whole thing up). (AB)
  • The Master of Hestviken: the Son Avenger by Sigrid Undset – this is another series I am wrapping up. I started it in October in honor of a pen pal I used to know in Norway.

Early Review:

  • I am supposed to receive an Early Review from November’s list, but it hasn’t arrived so I can’t mention it. For the first time in a long, long time (perhaps ever, I’ll have to look), I did not request a book for the month of December.

November Accomplished

I wanted to rename November Nope the second I published it. I don’t know why I always have a pessimistic view of the month before it has even started. I think I need an attitude adjustment! For starters, I finished the books I set out to read for the month:

Fiction:

  • The Sporting Club by Thomas McGuane.
  • The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak.

Nonfiction:

  • Four Corners by Kira Salak.
  • Israel is Real by Rich Cohen.
  • Silverland by Dervla Murphy.

Series continuations:

  • Master of Hestviken: the Snake Pit by Sigrid Undset.
  • Echo Burning by Lee Child.

Early Review for LibraryThing:

  • Teaching Empathy by Suzanna Henshon, PhD.

Teaching Empathy

Henshon, Suzanne E. Teaching Empathy: Strategies for building Emotional Intelligence in Today’s Students. Texas: Prufrock Press, 2019.

Reason read: As apart of the Early Review program for LibraryThing.

The thought I kept returning to over and over again while reading Henshon’s book, Teaching Empathy, is everything she says seems like it should be common sense. I’ve come to the conclusion she gives deceptively simple advice in a very short book (less than 150 pages). Yes, we should be aware of the differences in our society. We should be taking that awareness and creating action that makes a strong and lasting impact. We know this and yet instead, we live in a society which places blame on outsiders. We are given permission to hate any and everyone we cannot understand. Our current administration encourages us to act intolerant and is completely dismissive of our ignorance. Henshon’s book is deceptively simple because in our heart of hearts we know we should be practicing empathy as well as teaching it to our children. Her book is timely, but is it too late?

Here’s what I wish I could have seen in Henshon’s book. I get hung up on how interchangeable some words can be. It seems as though people use sympathy and empathy to mean the same thing. Kindness and thoughtfulness. Concern and caring. All of these things are signs of emotional intelligence but have different meanings attached to them. What they mean to Henshon on a personal and intellectual level would have been next level.

Author fact: Henshon has written numerous books.


November Nope

I don’t have writer’s block. I have writer’s apathy. I have nothing to say. Here are the books already underway for November:

Fiction:

  • The Sporting Club by Thomas McGuane – in honor of the Mackinac bridge being built in November of 1957.
  • The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak – I needed an author with my same initials for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge.

Nonfiction:

  • Four Corners: a Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak – in honor of November being a decent time to visit PNG…if you are into that sort of thing.
  • Israel is Real: an Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History by Rich Cohen – in recognition of Resolution 181.
  • Silverland: a Winter Journey Beyond the Urals by Dervla Murphy – in honor of Murphy’s birth month.

Series continuation:

  • Master of Hestviken: the Snake Pit by Sigrid Undset – to continue the series started in October. I needed a translated book written by a woman. Voila!
  • Echo Burning by Lee Child – to continue the series started in July in honor of New York becoming a state.

Early Review for LibraryThing:

  • Teaching Empathy: Strategies for Building Emotional Intelligence in Today’s Children by Suzanna Hershon, PhD.

October Okay

Fiction:

  • The Master of Hestviken: the Axe by Sigrid Undset.
  • October Light by John Gardner.
  • Jamesland by Michelle Huneven.
  • The Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows by Patrick Chamoiseau.
  • Isabel’s Bed by Elinor Lipman.

Nonfiction:

  • Wyoming Summer by Mary O’Hara.
  • Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell.

Series continuation:

  • Running Blind by Lee Child.

Early Review for LibraryThing

  • Lou Reed: Notes From the Velvet Underground by Howard Sounes.

Lou Reed: Notes from the Velvet Underground

Confessional: I had a really hard time reading about Lou Reed. I had always heard stories about his despicable character and was hoping most of it was a lot of bunk; I wanted it to be that Lou felt he had to keep up a persona cultivated by his involvement with Andy Warhol and the drug infested 1960s. I was wrong. He was a dick seemingly from birth.
There is no doubt Sounes is very sympathetic towards Reed and his less than admirable character. He made excuses for his bad behavior throughout the entire book, calling Reed a “provocateur extraordinaire” as early as the high school years. It is very obvious Lou loved to push buttons early on and did not care in the very least about the consequences. It was if he had a bone to pick with the entire world and spent his entire life trying to get even. He was a troublemaker. He was mean. He acted strange. He was often cranky. Drugs made him even more paranoid than he naturally was. He was a chauvinist and had a thing against women. He welcomed violence against women and had a habit of smashing, shoving, smacking, slapping them. At times Sounes seems conflicted. He states Reed clearly meant to project an image by being a prick, but in the very same sentence admits Reed was the person he projected (p 160).
Reed and his “provocateur extraordinaire” personality aside, Sounes’s exhausted research and attention to detail jumps out of every page of the biography. You can smell the grit of New York’s grungy streets and feel the beer soaked stickiness of the music scene. Warhole, Nico, Bowie, Iggy…they all live and breathe with vibrancy in Lou Reed. It’s as if Sounes bottled their souls and that alone makes the read worth it.