As promised, I’m finally getting around to my wrap-up!
And because of how late this one has arrived, I’m assuming I’ll be slow in getting May’s out too… C’est la vie!
1. I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, Matt Taibbi
A work of riveting literary journalism that explores the roots and repercussions of the infamous killing of Eric Garner by the New York City police—from the bestselling author of The Divide
On July 17, 2014, a forty-three-year-old black man named Eric Garner died on a Staten Island sidewalk after a police officer put him in what has been described as an illegal chokehold during an arrest for selling bootleg cigarettes. The final moments of Garner’s life were captured on video and seen by millions. His agonized last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the nascent Black Lives Matter protest movement. A grand jury ultimately declined to indict the officer who wrestled Garner to the pavement.
Matt Taibbi’s deeply reported retelling of these events liberates Eric Garner from the abstractions of newspaper accounts and lets us see the man in full—with all his flaws and contradictions intact. A husband and father with a complicated personal history, Garner was neither villain nor victim, but a fiercely proud individual determined to do the best he could for his family, bedeviled by bad luck, and ultimately subdued by forces beyond his control.
In America, no miscarriage of justice exists in isolation, of course, and in I Can’t Breathe Taibbi also examines the conditions that made this tragedy possible. Featuring vivid vignettes of life on the street and inside our Kafkaesque court system, Taibbi’s kaleidoscopic account illuminates issues around policing, mass incarceration, the underground economy, and racial disparity in law enforcement. No one emerges unsullied, from the conservative district attorney who half-heartedly prosecutes the case to the progressive mayor caught between the demands of outraged activists and the foot-dragging of recalcitrant police officials.
A masterly narrative of urban America and a scathing indictment of the perverse incentives built into our penal system, I Can’t Breathe drills down into the particulars of one case to confront us with the human cost of our broken approach to dispensing criminal justice.
I read this book to fulfill the POPSUGAR reading requirement, “A microhistory.” This particular narrative surrounding one man’s death at the hands of the police was eye-opening and challenging to me. Like most Americans, my last few years have been shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement. This book gave me a better and deeper understanding of the foundations for this mindset, protest, and purpose.
It’s sometimes hard for me to recognize (and even hard for me to admit) my privilege, but this particular book puts it in plain sight. The narrative is as educational as it is powerful. And, while “history” books aren’t my usual “cup of tea,” I think it’s important that we engage with and take part in books like this that shed important light on the bleaker parts of our culture.
2. How to Walk Away, Katherine Center
From the author of Happiness for Beginners comes an unforgettable love story about finding joy even in the darkest of circumstances.
Margaret Jacobsen has a bright future ahead of her: a fiancé she adores, her dream job, and the promise of a picture-perfect life just around the corner. Then, suddenly, on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life, everything she worked for is taken away in one tumultuous moment.
In the hospital and forced to face the possibility that nothing will ever be the same again, Margaret must figure out how to move forward on her own terms while facing long-held family secrets, devastating heartbreak, and the idea that love might find her in the last place she would ever expect.
How to Walk Away is Katherine Center at her very best: an utterly charming, hopeful, and romantic novel that will capture reader’s hearts with every page.
I’ve already posted a full review for this one, so I’ll keep this brief:
An adorable little romance that’s super predictable, but the narrator is excellent. All around, a feel-good book with some deep, meaningful themes. I am now a Katherine Center fan, and I look forward to reading more of her stuff soon!
3. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel
In this graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father.
Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the Fun Home. It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve.
A book that has been on my TBR for way too long, Fun Home has FINALLY made it to my “completed” shelf! I’d like to say I really enjoyed this book, but it’s more like this book had a great impact on me. The content is not “happy” or “enjoyable,” but I found it extremely educational and open. Bechdel’s voice is so present and real, you can feel her processing her grief and identity through the images and the text. A must-read for those who love graphic novels, memoirs, and LGBT+ positive stories.
4. We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, Samantha Irby
Sometimes you just have to laugh, even when life is a dumpster fire. With We Are Never Meeting in Real Life., “bitches gotta eat” blogger and comedian Samantha Irby turns the serio-comic essay into an art form. Whether talking about how her difficult childhood has led to a problem in making “adult” budgets, explaining why she should be the new Bachelorette–she’s “35-ish, but could easily pass for 60-something”–detailing a disastrous pilgrimage-slash-romantic-vacation to Nashville to scatter her estranged father’s ashes, sharing awkward sexual encounters, or dispensing advice on how to navigate friendships with former drinking buddies who are now suburban moms–hang in there for the Costco loot–she’s as deft at poking fun at the ghosts of her past self as she is at capturing powerful emotional truths.
Holy crap, this book was good. I don’t usually like essay collections as much as I do memoir, but this has to be one of the best creative nonfiction books I’ve read in a while. I absolutely loved the chapters about Helen Keller (they made me laugh, and then they made me sob). And so much of Irby’s writing just feels real. I feel like I’m engaging with a real person when she’s writing, which is incredible. I’m looking forward to reading more of her essays–and checking out her blog!
5. Furyborn, Claire Legrand
Follows two fiercely independent young women, centuries apart, who hold the power to save their world…or doom it.
When assassins ambush her best friend, the crown prince, Rielle Dardenne risks everything to save him, exposing her ability to perform all seven kinds of elemental magic. The only people who should possess this extraordinary power are a pair of prophesied queens: a queen of light and salvation and a queen of blood and destruction. To prove she is the Sun Queen, Rielle must endure seven trials to test her magic. If she fails, she will be executed…unless the trials kill her first.
A thousand years later, the legend of Queen Rielle is a mere fairy tale to bounty hunter Eliana Ferracora. When the Undying Empire conquered her kingdom, she embraced violence to keep her family alive. Now, she believes herself untouchable–until her mother vanishes without a trace, along with countless other women in their city. To find her, Eliana joins a rebel captain on a dangerous mission and discovers that the evil at the heart of the empire is more terrible than she ever imagined.
As Rielle and Eliana fight in a cosmic war that spans millennia, their stories intersect, and the shocking connections between them ultimately determine the fate of their world–and of each other.
Another one that I’ve already reviewed, so here’s a quick few words:
This story has a lot of potential that I haven’t seen yet reach fruition, so we’ll have to see where Book 2 goes. I like some of the characters, although not all of them, and I’m a little concerned with the shape of the plot. But, we’ll see what Legrand has up her sleeve! I think this could still be amazing, maybe.
6. Doc, Mary Doria Russell
Born to the life of a Southern gentleman, Dr. John Henry Holliday arrives on the Texas frontier hoping that the dry air and sunshine of the West will restore him to health. Soon, with few job prospects, Doc Holliday is gambling professionally with his partner, Mária Katarina Harony, a high-strung, classically educated Hungarian whore. In search of high-stakes poker, the couple hits the saloons of Dodge City. And that is where the unlikely friendship of Doc Holliday and a fearless lawman named Wyatt Earp begins–before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral links their names forever in American frontier mythology when neither man wanted fame or deserved notoriety.
Little known fact about me: I LOVE the mythology/history of Wyatt Earp. I grew up watching westerns with my dad, particularly films like “Tombstone.” Now, I’m a fan of Syfy’s “Wynonna Earp,” which revisits the myth and turns it into a creepy supernatural horror show.
So, when I found out that an Ohio author writes books about the OK Corral, I was pretty excited! This book is really neat. It feels like a biographical account of Doc Holliday, and you get to peek into his life, personality, and heart. Kate plays a big role, too, which is great. And, overall, I felt like this book fit in well with the canon surrounding Doc, Wyatt, and the rest of the Earps. The plot fits in well with their lives and kept me reading from the beginning to the end. Would recommend to those who like history, particularly the embellished kind.
7. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.
We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist’s couch in New York City, confronting her long-standing compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then as a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to avert the suicidal impulses of her best friend. We plunge into the hidden yearnings and disappointments of her uncle, an art historian stuck in a dead marriage, who travels to Naples to extract Sasha from the city’s demimonde and experiences an epiphany of his own while staring at a sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Museo Nazionale. We meet Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life—divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed-up band in the basement of a suburban house—and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his youth, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco’s punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent. We learn what became of his high school gang—who thrived and who faltered—and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie’s catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou’s far-flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to PowerPoint, Egan captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both—and escape the merciless progress of time—in the transporting realms of art and music. Sly, startling, exhilarating work from one of our boldest writers.
This book inspired me to go to a heavy metal concert, something I’ve wanted to do for the last ten years and have always chickened out of.
I love the interplay of music and history, and this book feeds in directly. It feels so personal and intimate, yet also broad and inclusive. I loved the character-driven story line and the use of media to tell the story. I’ve heard rumors that Egan is working on a companion piece, and I couldn’t be more excited.
This feels like your usual Pulitzer winner, so the writing is a little more high-brow. However, it’s a great piece for anyone who has that deep honored appreciation for music.
8. Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook, Christina Henry
There is one version of my story that everyone knows. And then there is the truth. This is how it happened. How I went from being Peter Pan’s first—and favorite—lost boy to his greatest enemy.
Peter brought me to his island because there were no rules and no grownups to make us mind. He brought boys from the Other Place to join in the fun, but Peter’s idea of fun is sharper than a pirate’s sword. Because it’s never been all fun and games on the island. Our neighbors are pirates and monsters. Our toys are knife and stick and rock—the kinds of playthings that bite.
Peter promised we would all be young and happy forever.
This is the first Peter Pan retelling in which I have truly and honestly sympathized with James Hook. Henry stays impeccably true to Peter’s youth and frivolity, even as she turns the essential narrative on its head. The plot is dark, with a “Lord of the Flies” feel, and yet it doesn’t seem too far removed from the first myth. I loved the complexity, the interplay, the movement… All of it is so well-done, I couldn’t put the book down.
Jamie’s voice is phenomenal too. The writing feels like its coming from the mind of a boy about to grow up. His internal struggles are beautifully portrayed, as are his complex feelings toward Sam and toward Peter.
And that last line…!
All around, I loved this book. I want more Peter Pan retellings like it.
9. Invisible Emmie, Terri Libenson
This is the story of two totally different girls—quiet, shy, artistic Emmie and popular, outgoing, athletic Katie—and how their lives unexpectedly intersect one day when an embarrassing note falls into the wrong hands.
This was a cute, fast little book with a neat story. I liked the use of the two characters and their seemingly opposite personalities. This is definitely a more middle-grade read, as the storyline is super simplified and easily resolved. Yet it touches on some important themes. I could see this one being very popular with its target audience.
10. Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, Chely Wright
Chely Wright, singer, songwriter, country music star, writes in this moving, telling memoir about her life and her career; about growing up in America’s heartland, the youngest of three children; about barely remembering a time when she didn’t know she was different.
She writes about her parents, putting down roots in their twenties in the farming town of Wellsville, Kansas, Old Glory flying atop the poles on the town’s manicured lawns, and being raised to believe that hard work, honesty, and determination would take her far.
She writes of making up her mind at a young age to become a country music star, knowing then that her feelings and crushes on girls were “sinful” and hoping and praying that she would somehow be “fixed.” (“Dear God, please don’t let me be gay. I promise not to lie. I promise not to steal. I promise to always believe in you . . . Please take it away.”)
We see her, high school homecoming queen, heading out on her own at seventeen and landing a job as a featured vocalist on the Ozark Jubilee (the show that started Brenda Lee, Red Foley, and Porter Wagoner), being cast in Country Music U.S.A., doing four live shows a day, and—after only a few months in Nashville—her dream coming true, performing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry . . .
She describes writing and singing her own songs for producers who’d discovered and recorded the likes of Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and Toby Keith, who heard in her music something special and signed her to a record contract, releasing her first album and sending her out on the road on her first bus tour . . . She writes of sacrificing all for a shot at success that would come a couple of years later with her first hit single, “Shut Up And Drive” . . . her songs (from her fourth album, Single White Female) climbing the Billboard chart for twenty-nine weeks, hitting the #1 spot . . .
She writes about the friends she made along the way—Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, and others—writing songs, recording and touring together, some of the friendships developing into romantic attachments that did not end happily . . . Keeping the truth of who she was clutched deep inside, trying to ignore it in a world she longed to be a part of—and now was—a world in which country music stars had never been, could not be, openly gay . . .
She writes of the very real prospect of losing everything she’d worked so hard to create . . . doing her best to have a real life—her best not good enough . . .
And in the face of everything she did to keep herself afloat, she writes about how the vortex of success and hiding who she was took its toll: her life, a tangled mess she didn’t see coming, didn’t want to; and, finally, finding the guts to untangle herself from the image of the country music star she’d become, an image steeped in long-standing ideals and notions about who—and what—a country artist is, and what their fans expect them to be . . .
I am a songwriter,” she writes. “I am a singer of my songs—and I have a story to tell. As I’ve traveled this path that has delivered me to where I am today, my monument of thanks, paying honor to God, remains. I will do all I can with what I have been given . . .”
Like Me is fearless, inspiring, true.
This description from Goodreads says it all, almost literally. Before learning about this book, I didn’t know who Chely Wright was. I’d heard the song, “Single White Female,” but I knew nothing else about who sang it or her story. My life was very different in 2010, and a story like Chely’s wouldn’t have been on my radar. However, she was mentioned to me here recently by a dear friend, and so I decided to do some research into her life.
This book is beautiful in its simplicity. I was brought to tears by the stories Chely told, and I loved how honest and open she was. This is a great book for anyone who wants to know more about Chely, who appreciates her music, or who knows her story. I highly recommend it, even to those who may not know her well.
11. Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick
A collection of humorous autobiographical essays by the Academy Award-nominated actress and star of Up in the Air and Pitch Perfect.
Even before she made a name for herself on the silver screen starring in films like Pitch Perfect, Up in the Air, Twilight, and Into the Woods, Anna Kendrick was unusually small, weird, and “10 percent defiant.”
At the ripe age of thirteen, she had already resolved to “keep the crazy inside my head where it belonged. Forever. But here’s the thing about crazy: It. Wants. Out.” In Scrappy Little Nobody, she invites readers inside her brain, sharing extraordinary and charmingly ordinary stories with candor and winningly wry observations.
With her razor-sharp wit, Anna recounts the absurdities she’s experienced on her way to and from the heart of pop culture as only she can—from her unusual path to the performing arts (Vanilla Ice and baggy neon pants may have played a role) to her double life as a middle-school student who also starred on Broadway to her initial “dating experiments” (including only liking boys who didn’t like her back) to reviewing a binder full of butt doubles to her struggle to live like an adult woman instead of a perpetual “man-child.”
Enter Anna’s world and follow her rise from “scrappy little nobody” to somebody who dazzles on the stage, the screen, and now the page—with an electric, singular voice, at once familiar and surprising, sharp and sweet, funny and serious (well, not that serious).
In all the ways that Chely Wright’s book was emotional and heartbreaking, Anna Kendrick’s was hilarious and uplifting. I literally laughed out loud so many times, I felt ridiculous. Anna’s voice comes through her writing just beautifully, and the stories she’s chosen to tell are excellent. This is another memoir/essay collection I would recommend to even those who aren’t into the celebrity books, because it’s so well-done. It’s not “high literature,” but wouldn’t life be boring if that’s all we wrote and read? I needed this lighthearted piece to give me motivation in some of the weightier stuff I encountered this month.
12. The Healing Art of Essential Oils: A Guide to 50 Oils for Remedy, Ritual, and Everyday Use, Kac Young
Includes more than 100 recipes for everyday use
Explore a new world of aromatic awakening, physical healing, and natural delight. The Healing Art of Essential Oils is a comprehensive guide to fifty carefully selected oils, providing a master class in uses, blending, history, and spiritual benefits.
Learn how to use oils for physical and emotional healing. Prepare oils for relaxation, stress relief, and treating ailments. You’ll find all kinds of uses, such as what oils work best in love spells and how to create rituals with oils. Enjoyed for their spiritual and beneficial properties by cultures around the world for thousands of years, the essential oils presented here will help you achieve holistic wellness and personal enrichment.
I’ve recently entered the world of doTERRA Essential Oils, and I’m loving the results! I gobbled down all the literature provided by this company, and I frequently tune in to Facebook videos on different topics, but I wanted to read more broadly on the subject of oils and alternative remedies. I borrowed this book from the library and loved it so much, I ended up buying my own copy so I could write and highlight all over it! It’s the perfect balance of information, history, and application for what I need. I appreciate that Young includes recommended blends for common ailments/struggles in many forms. She also gives you, for every oils she discusses, a list of oils that blend well with that particular one. These features have come in so handy for building diffuser recipes and roller ball blends. She has also structured the book to cater to the beginner, which I found super helpful. I don’t have much use for the “ritual” sections of the chapters, but I’m sure others will appreciate them. A great book for anyone interested in starting the use of essential oils in their everyday life!
13. The Evaporation of Sofi Snow, Mary Weber
Ever since the Delonese ice-planet arrived eleven years ago, Sofi’s dreams have been vivid. Alien. In a system where Earth’s corporations rule in place of governments and the humanoid race orbiting the moon are allies, her only constant has been her younger brother, Shilo. As an online gamer, Sofi battles behind the scenes of Earth’s Fantasy Fighting arena where Shilo is forced to compete in a mix of real and virtual blood sport. But when a bomb takes out a quarter of the arena, Sofi’s the only one who believes Shilo survived. She has dreams of him. And she’s convinced he’s been taken to the ice-planet.
Except no one but ambassadors are allowed there.
For Miguel, Earth’s charming young playboy, the games are of a different sort. As Ambassador to the Delonese, his career has been built on trading secrets and seduction. Until the Fantasy Fight’s bomb goes off. Now the tables have turned and he’s a target for blackmail. The game is simple: Help the blackmailers, or lose more than anyone can fathom, or Earth can afford.
Unfortunately, this was the stinker of the month for me. I’ve had this book on my shelf for almost a year and have put off reading it time and again because I found the premise a little concerning. I finally read it in order to meet the POPSUGAR requirement, “A cyberpunk book.” I’m not sure it was worth it, in the end.
The overall writing of the book is hard to wade through. I found myself skimming large sections just to get to the point. I also felt that the characters weren’t well fleshed out, and while it’s sometimes good to be dropped into the center of a plot, the use of that tool in this particular story flopped. I wasn’t surprised by any of the twists in the ending, and I have no interest in reading the rest of the story. Really, I’m quite disappointed, because this book fits the genre of dystopia that I usually prefer. Sadly, I won’t be recommending this series.
14. When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.'” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.
Wow. What a heartbreaking piece of literature. I was gripped by this story from the very beginning, and totally touched by the ending. What an emotional piece to write, for both Paul and his wife. This book is a testament to the power of writing and literature to offer comfort and healing in times of stress, struggle, and hardship. And its portrayal of its “main character” is a vivid picture of the strength of the human spirit. Not everyone should read this one, but it’s a great book for those up for the emotional challenge.
And there you have it! Another month in the books! I hope to have May’s list published a little sooner next time. Until then, keep your eyes out for some individual reviews in the in between!