Good Reads

Books #39

I’ve read some pretty good books lately. Here is the latest installment:

1 ) The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

The whole time I was reading this book, I wondered if it was made into a movie. It felt like it and after I finished I looked it up and apparently it was!. It reads so quick and beautifully and you are immediately transported to 1964 South Carolina. The racism, the segregation, the heat of the south, the taste of fresh honey, the bonds of friendship. The book is beautiful and emotional.

Lily is 14 years old, raised by her sort of abusive (verbally) and definitely distant and neglectful father and Rosaleen, her black sort of nanny/stand-in mother on a peach farm. When blacks get the right to vote, Lily goes with Rosaleen to the nearby town to register when they are harassed by racist assholes and both of the ladies end up in jail. Lily’s dad bails her out but leaves Rosaleen in jail (where she ends up getting beaten almost to death by the racist assholes). So Lily decides to run away from her father and the peach farm and the secrets surrounding her mother’s death, breaks Rosaleen out of the hospital and the two of them run away.

They find themselves finding refuge on a honey farm where they make friends with the African American ladies who live there and their lives are forever changed. The book is fantastic and I loved the story and all the characters!

2 )  The Hunger by Alma Katsu

What a CREEPY and good book! It was absolutely riveting. Maybe because I grew up in the 80s playing the Oregon Trail video game. Maybe because I grew up in the northwest, fascinated by the Oregon Trail? I don’t know, but this book was absolutely fascinating.

It was a “re-imagining” of the Donner Party story. Think the Donner Party/Oregon trail wagon story with a horror/supernatural twist. Something dark and evil is following the wagon trail. The pioneers don’t see it but they can sense it and as time is running out before they can cross over the pass before they run out of food, water and summer weather people on the wagon trail are dying. Or going insane. It was super creepy and well written and I read it one day!

 

3 ) Talk to Me by John Kenney

Ted Grayson is a 59 year old TV news anchor. He’s been popular for 20 years. Think Brokaw, Dan Rather, Brian Williams. But one night before his broadcast, he has a very public meltdown that someone records with their phone. It goes viral and that starts the downfall of Ted’s career. Suddenly the masses are out to get him. His fall from grace is fast, furious and painful.

The book is about a man’s fall from grace. But it’s also a commentary on the cancel culture of our current times. The blood-thirsty social media that is apparently more powerful than corporations. It doesn’t seem to matter that someone had a shining 20+ year career with high ratings and Emmy’s — the TV execs just care about the comments on social media. So Ted gets the ax. It really is a sad commentary on how gross our culture is now. No one has a path to redemption–one mistake and you are OUT.

 

4 ) Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Ginny Moon is 14 years old and autistic. When she was 9 years old she was taken away from her drug addicted, abusive and neglectful mother and put in foster care. She is now with her fourth family, her “Forever Family”. She’s in therapy and learning how to be attached. She’s in the Special Olympics and has friends at school. She has to eat exactly 9 grapes with breakfast. She’s obsessed with approximate time, takes everything literally and loves Michael Jackson.

But she’s obsessed with how she left her Baby Doll behind with her mother when she was taken away. No one can get her to let it go. She has a one-track mind about her Baby Doll. The story unfolds, told from Ginny’s child-like point of view. She is determined to escape from her Forever Family and return to her mother to rescue her Baby Doll.

Ginny has a lot of set backs in her journey of both learning how to manage her autism and her emotions and how to be reunited with her Baby Doll. But she definitely shows some growth by the end of the book. It’s a heartwarming, heartbreaking look at autism and the challenges the kids and parents face.

 

5 ) The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

This was an excellent, poignant, emotional book! I highly recommend it!

It’s a story about the Butler Family. Althea, the eldest of the Butler family, and her husband Proctor were pillars of the community. They raised money to help victims of a flood. They ran a local restaurant. But then it comes out that they were stealing the money they raised and stealing food stamps to help keep their restaurant afloat in the dying town. There’s a trial and they get sentenced to federal prison, leaving behind their teenage twin daughters.

Althea’s sister Lillian takes the twins. But the twins are struggling because they are pariahs in the town and subject to abuse by the townspeople. Lillian doesn’t know how to help them so she calls her other sister, Viola, to come help.

There are a lot of big issues in this book: what happens when family goes to prison, anorexia and bulimia, abuse, grief, how to break old cycles and healing. The author does an amazing job slowly revealing the story in layers and showing the humanity of this family.

6 ) The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis

After reading “The Hunger” (fictional story about the Donner Party), I was curious and had questions so I looked around at what non-fiction was out there and this new-ish book was highly rated.

“The entwining of religion with the ideology of Manifest Destiny served as a creation myth for the country. It soon became so ingrained in the national consciousness that many Americans still accept it to this day. The belief that God intended for the continent to be under the control of Christian European-Americans became official U.S. government policy.

“It helped to fuel incentive to take the land from those who were considered inferior to white Americans—indigenous tribal people characterized as savages and Mexicans…”

Why I liked the book: because I am forever fascinated by the history of the pioneers and Lewis & Clark and people making that journey out west. My ancestors made that journey from Minnesota to Oregon (my grandma’s family settled in Bend, Oregon and built a ranch in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s) and I love reading about the hardships, the pilgrimage, what they overcame to make a new life.

“The America they were leaving behind was a nation of some 20 million people, including Indians and others held in bondage as slaves.”

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was almost part of the Donner Party? He changed his mind at the last minute. But his wife’s nephew was part of a pilgrimage that went west right before the Donner Party.

The first 20% of the book was dry, slightly boring, and a lot of background–the details and history of all the people in the Donner-Reed Party. There were actually a lot of different families and hired hands on the trip in 1846 that made that journey to pursue the “American Dream.” So if you can get past the first part of the book that is a bit slow, it gets pretty good.

The story really gets enthralling once they leave Fort Bridger, Wyoming. This is where shit gets real and things start falling apart. There are illnesses, deaths, injuries, in-fighting, bad advice, running out of supplies, starvation, a war with Mexico, curious Native Americans…the list is endless.

“The Donner Party’s collective dream, however, tragically morphed into a collective nightmare. Poor timing, terrible advice, and even worse weather meant that only about half of those who started the journey reached their final destination.”

The guide they were supposed to meet up with (Hastings) turned out to be a con-artist. Trail tradition held that wagon trains had to reach Independence Rock by the Fourth of July if they wanted to arrive safely in California and Oregon before winter. This did not happen. They were behind schedule.

The Donner-Reed party eventually splintered. Some decided to go to Oregon, some decided to go to California. The short cut that they decided to take turned out to be a bad idea.

“It did take almost a week for all the members of the wagon train to reach Pilot Peak and partake of the refreshing water from a spring that would one day be renamed for the Donners. All the emigrants survived the hellish days and nights in the desert, including the newborn Keseberg baby, but many oxen, cattle, and horses were dead or missing. Reed lost eighteen animals, and other members of the company could not account for twenty more.”

The splintered groups both ended up getting stranded in the snow, maybe 6-10 miles apart from each other. Some found some shanty cabins that they hunkered down in. The Donner Party was forced to camp out in their wagons and tents in the horrific snow storms. After weeks of this weather, starving, some of the more able-bodied people decided to build snowshoes and try to hike out of the canyon to get help.

This is where I will end the descriptions. If you know even the littlest bit of the history, you know what happens next and it’s not easy to read about. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. And very real.

“The children of the Donner Party never forgot what it was like trying to survive in their prisons made of snow. They had no interest ever again in snowball fights, building snowmen, or riding in a horse-drawn sleigh beneath a winter moon. For them, freshly fallen snow was no longer beautiful.”

After you get through the first part of the book, the rest of the story is so enthralling, heart-breaking and shocking, you cannot put it down. The author does a very good job painting the picture of what it was like for those people that were stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, freezing and starving. He described in detail what happened to the body and the mind. It was truly sad.

I’m glad I read this historical book about what happened. I think reading the fictional story first was good and then reading the actual account (with letters, diaries and other things from the people in the parties) helped fill in the gaps.

Happy Reading!

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Books #38

I read some pretty heavy books lately, so I apologize I don’t really have any light and fluffy recommendations for this month!

1 ) White Oleander by Janet Fitch

A compelling, dark, sometimes heart-warming read about Astrid’s difficult childhood. It starts with her life with her eccentric, but clearly mentally ill, mother in LA.

“Always learn poems by heart,” she said. “They have to become the marrow in your bones. Like fluoride in the water, they’ll make your soul impervious to the world’s soft decay.”

The relationship between Ingrid and Astrid is both endearing and disturbing. Even at a young age, Astrid seemed older than her years.

“I tried not to make it worse by asking for things, pulling her down with my thoughts. I had seen girls clamor for new clothes and complain about what their mothers made for dinner. I was always mortified. Didn’t they know they were tying their mothers to the ground?”

Ingrid is a brilliant poet but ends up murdering her ex-boyfriend and goes to prison. This begins Astrid’s story of being bounced around foster homes. Each place she goes she learns something different about herself, survival, life, family and love.

“Honey, this is what happens when you fall in love. You’re looking at a natural disaster.” I vowed I would never fall in love.”

It’s not your typical book. The book is written beautifully, painting pictures for the reader that will not be forgotten.

Wherever Astrid goes, she finds solace in someone. In the first house, a trailer-trash type place, she befriends one of the young boys there. In the next place she befriends one of the neighbors who teaches her a lot about life and love.

“Isn’t it funny. I’m enjoying my hatred so much more than I ever enjoyed love. Love is temperamental. Tiring. It makes demands. Love uses you. Changes its mind.”

“When you started thinking it was easy, you were forgetting what it cost.”

There was one foster home where this wealthy interior designer had a beautiful home and had several foster kids, teenage girls. It seemed like it was a wonderful home. But looks were deceiving. As soon as the social worker left, Astrid found out the foster mom was basically starving all the teenagers. The kitchen was locked and they were allowed to eat dinner and that was it. Astrid began stealing food at school from the garbage because she was literally starving to death.

There were so many horrible things in the book, but it’s balanced by some glimpses of beauty and humanity. I loved this book!

2 ) If You Knew Her by Emily Elgar

What an interesting concept! Frank is in a coma in a hospital. Alice is the nurse in the coma wing. Cassie comes in to that wing in a coma as well and the mystery of what happened to put Cassie into that coma starts to unravel. It turns out that Frank is regaining his consciousness and is hearing everything that goes on around him. He’s hearing all the visitors that Cassie has, hearing the confessions, deducing who ran her down and put her into that coma. But will he be able to regain consciousness in time to warn everyone?

The way the story is told is really well done and I did not guess the ending or who had done it! I thought I had and was wrong. Very good! I could not put it down.

3 ) The Dead House by Billy O’Callaghan

This was a good, solid ghost story!

Maggie is an up-and-coming artist in London. Mike is her agent/dealer. After a horrible domestic violence event that puts Maggie in the hospital, she decides she needs to get away to clear her head and get some space and get away from her abusive ex-boyfriend. On her wandering road trip across Ireland, she decides to buy an abandoned, run-down cottage in a tiny seaside town. She hires some local contractors to fix it up and install electricity and plumbing, and once it’s inhabitable, she moves in.

She invites Mike and two other friends, Liz and Maggie, to her cottage for a weekend to celebrate her new abode. After spending a fun day exploring the tiny towns nearby, drinking in pubs and eating good food, they open up the whisky and someone brings out a ouija board. This is where the fun night takes a very creepy, dark turn.

The cottage is haunted by the original inhabitant. The four friends unknowingly invite an unfriendly spirit into their circle and Maggie becomes a changed person.

The book is short, and that’s the only flaw. I think it could have been made longer and really drawn out the suspense. But the book is rich in creepiness. I mean it’s Ireland, full of ghosts and spirits and druids and lush history. The cottage itself is creepy–out in the middle of nowhere. It all works! Great book!

4 ) Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin

“They say when an adult dies you bury the past; when a child dies you bury the future.”

I don’t even know where to start. Every time I try to write a review, or think about this book, I get choked up. It was beautifully written by Trayvon’s parents. They were eloquent and emotional, but direct and focused.

“I could never have imagined that my son would become, in death, a symbol for injustice.”

They perfectly described the events leading up to the death of their son, the blurry fog of disbelief after, the rage of injustice with the Florida’s justice system and the lack of humanity with the police who refused to arrest The Killer.

As a mother, I don’t know how I thought I could read this powerful book and not be a crying mess the entire time. I felt all the range of emotions Sybrina and Tracy felt. I read this book in short burst because it was so emotionally heavy I just couldn’t read it for long periods of time.

“When I became a parent, I would tell my sons, “Hey, racism is alive and well, and you have to watch out for it all of the time.”

“My mother always advised her kids, “If you see somebody coming at you with any kind of racism, run.”

“So just like my mother told me, I told my kids, including Trayvon: “If you see yourself about to get into a racial confrontation, eliminate yourself from the equation.”

“Run, because the confrontation isn’t worth it. Run, because the confrontation may escalate. Don’t stop to discuss it. This is NOT the time to have a conversation about race. If you have to protect yourself, do so. But if you can, just run.”

The most interesting part of the book was about the movement that began and spread all over the country, protesting the fact that the police refused to arrest George Zimmerman. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson got involved. There were marches and peaceful protests and speeches and rallies. All of that was really empowering to read (and frustrating). It was also encouraging how many celebrities got behind the movement.

” ‘If they can bear the pain to stand up for us, then we can take the pain to stand up with them. They have woke America up. And they have shown something that this world needs to see. And that is we love our children, like everyone else loves their children. We may not have as much as others have, but we have each other, and we are not going to let anyone take our children from us.’ ”

“You are risking going down as the Birmingham and Selma of the twenty-first century!” he said. “You are making the world know you as a place of racial intolerance and double standards. “For one man, would you risk the reputation of a whole city? Zimmerman is not worth the history of this city.”

It even went to the White House. I remember watching Obama make a statement about Trayvon.

“I felt he was speaking not only as a parent but as an African American parent of African American children in a country where black children are still so vulnerable to violence of all kinds. Our children can’t just be kids; they have to be so much more. Our children don’t always feel safe in their own communities.

Later, President Obama would speak again about Trayvon’s death, at another press conference: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago.”

The second half of the book was the inside details of the trial. This part was long and sometimes redundant, but I think also important because it showed just how absurd the trial was. The issue of racial profiling wasn’t even allowed to be discussed in the trial. I don’t even understand how the judge ruled on that. That goes to the heart of what happened.

I still can’t wrap my brain around how the killer could invoke Stand Your Ground Laws when he was FOLLOWING TRAYVON IN HIS CAR. If he was so “threatened” he could have just driven away. The entire trial was a travesty.

“The problem that I had with this was: If this was a Stand Your Ground case, if the killer was in true and immediate fear for his life, why did he follow my son? Why did he trail and confront the person who caused such fear?”

“Stevie Wonder announced he would not play another concert in Florida until the state government repealed its Stand Your Ground law. (Florida still hasn’t repealed the law.)”

But in the end, Trayvon’s parents found grace and healing with their strong faith and the support of their community. They created a foundation and with the help of celebrities and activists, are doing GOOD WORK to help other parents who lost children to gun violence and try and change the Stand Your Ground laws.

“Trayvon’s spirit was still with us, but not just us. His spirit was motivating a movement.”

It was an excellent book. But you should be emotionally prepared to be gutted.

5 ) We Hope for Better Things by Erin Bartels

This was a fascinating read!

It’s three stories in one, about several generations of a family. It starts with Elizabeth Balsam in current times. She’s a reporter in Detroit. She is approached by a local man and asked to deliver a box of photos and an old camera to a relative she didn’t know she had. She says no but then she loses her job after screws up an investigation and she decides she needs a change of scenery.

So she goes out into the country somewhere in between Detroit and Flint, and stays with her great aunt Nora Balsam in a 150 year old farmhouse. And that’s where Nora’s story picks up. Nora’s story takes place in the 1960’s in Detroit. Nora comes from money. She meets an African American photographer, William, and they fall in love but it’s during a time period when interracial marriages is not ok. Nora is disowned by her family. Faced with poverty and racism, Nora and William flee Detroit and live in this old farmhouse that has been her family for centuries.

It turns out, this farmhouse has a lot of history. Nora’s distant relative, Mary Balsam, was using that farmhouse as part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. She was taking in freed slaves that fled the South, giving them a home, jobs and basically a family.

It was a super fascinating, heartbreaking, honest story about race, racism, history and love.

Happy Reading!

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