I’ve been thinking a lot about place lately: how where we are from constructs who we are. And I’ve been drawn to books that explore place as internal landscape.
My mother’s family is from South Georgia. Although I grew up in Florida, I always considered myself a dis-placed Southerner. According to my Northern oriented friends, my dad talks like a banjo. Growing up, my mother insisted we say “sir” and “ma’am” to adults, which most adults in South Florida found wildly unnecessary and sometimes offensive.
We didn’t fit there. And I knew it.
I moved up to North Florida as soon as I was free to do so (four days after high school graduation). If you’ve never been to North Florida, it’s really just an extension of South Georgia.
And there, I felt at home.
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is an in-depth exploration of the South Georgia landscape of my mother’s people. A place I visited multiple times as a child. The place we buried my grandfather not too long ago.
Author Janisse Ray explores not only what it was to grow up poor and deeply religious in the rural South, but she also details–with shockingly clear imagery–the landscape and wildlife that exists in South Georgia. Her description of deforestation, what we’ve lost that it will take a Herculean effort to reclaim, almost brought me to tears.
She pulls no punches about the South. But she also explores the “why” of the place. Her depth of understanding of both people & nature makes her a tremendous ecology writer.
If books about place speak to you, this is a fine one. As a Southern nature lover, it’s an imperative read.
I’ve never kept my love for middle grades novels secret. Given the option between a book for a full-grown & a middle grades book, well… middle grades wins every time.
As a bookseller, I have a place to channel my love of middle grades fiction: 4th & 5th grade book club!
We just finished When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. It’s become a middle grades classic over the last decade. And for good reason. Y’all, we just finished–and I already want to read it again!
It’s got some themes that I’m in love with: people are always more complicated than they seem, everyone deserves respect, and friendships shift and evolve (and that’s okay).
The protagonist is infinitely relatable–a girl who isn’t used to hanging out with girls (her bff is a boy), who is finding her place in school & in the world, who loves but pushes against her mom, and who ultimately wants to be a more giving, kinder person and is working on it in tangible ways that will make sense to kids.
I really dig books where it’s obvious that the author remembers precisely what it’s like to be a kid. Without romanticizing childhood. Or making the decision to be “good” straightforward (because it isn’t always). Life is complicated. And, for me at least, childhood was the most complicated, confusing time. This author honors that without weighing the book down. It’s not dark. It’s just … real.
Here’s the BEST part, though: for kids who like science but aren’t always into novels, When You Reach Me focuses on time travel… in no small part because the protagonists’ favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time. I love sci-fi shows, but don’t really read sci-fi, because the even the time travel talk in this kids’ book almost melted my brain. But I was also totally sucked in.
Oh! And it’s also a mystery.
Honestly, When You Reach Me may very well may be the best middle grades book I’ve ever read.
It’s a great kids’ book club pick. It would also be really fun to read with your 4th through 7th grader (I think kids younger than 4th grade might struggle to understand some of the mystery/sci-fi elements). There’s a LOT to discuss and conjecture about.
And, you know, if you happen to be almost 45… maybe its the perfect book to escape into during a pandemic.
This book is one I return to repeatedly. Partly for its clear message that, yes, enlightenment is possible for everyone. And partly because I find the discussion of how to meditate simple and refreshing.
But my favorite aspect of 3 Pillars of Zen is absolutely the personal anecdotes, transcribed and laid bare for the reader, of both dokusan (meeting with the teacher) and of the enlightenment experience itself.
Each time I re-read 3 Pillars of Zen, I uncover something new. So it goes, I suppose, with books that speak to us in a profoundly personal way. They seem to have an uncanny ability to morph & say exactly what we need to hear in the moment.
I appreciate the wide array of experience and personality of the subjects carefully chosen by Philip Kapleau: both Japanese and American, men and women, with varying (and relatable) back stories. As this reading unfolded for me, I found myself particularly amused by the Americans’ struggle with ego, which impacted their ability to grasp the simplicity of meditation, to be humble and open during dukosan, and to be patient (but still willing to work) to reach enlightenment.
It was disarming to be able to so clearly see the root of the the struggle of those zany Americans from the 50s & 60s (3 Pillars of Zen was published in 1965)… and then to (slowly) admit that some of those issues mirror my own. It was humbling–in a gentle way that allowed me to laugh at myself & release some of my take-myself-to-seriously-ness.
I also was keenly in tune with the book’s timeline this go-round. Some of the personal anecdotes of American zen practitioners begin unfolding, in Japan, in the 1950s. Maybe it’s because I finished Alas, Babylon recently, but I felt viscerally aware of how soon after the bombing of Nagasaki & Hiroshima the 1950s actually were. The willingness of Japanese zen masters to have any dealings with Americans at all made me re-evaluate my own perspective on the world around me–and left me feeling convicted about how long I’m willing to grasp at old wounds and how much more peace I might be able to bring into my own life with the practice of non-attachment.
When I want a clean slate, a fresh start, openness–I equate that feeling with painting all the walls white. All the walls in my house. All the walls in my soul.
My feelings about this book are complicated at best. If you’d asked me any time over the past several weeks (and yes, I actually stretched out the reading of this novel for w-e-e-k-s, even though its only 237 pages) what I thought, I’d have told you I hated it. With oomph. And some cuss words.
A Short History of Women stretches from 1880 to 2007 and follows the female lineage in one family, as they navigate womanhood and its complexities. And, let’s be honest, there are plenty of complexities to being a woman. The book was broken into sections specific to a woman (and a time) in the lineage: The Suffragette, The Professor, The Junior Leaguer, The 80s Power Exec, and The Yale Freshman.
Ultimately, I suppose the trouble started because the sections written from the perspective of The Suffragette and The Professor (The Suffragette’s daughter) felt so performative. I just kept thinking, “You aren’t Virginia Woolf, lady,” Which may or may not be a fair critique. (I love Virginia Woolf, for what it’s worth. And admitting that I felt this way about the first half of the book makes me feel not-real-smart. And yet.) I couldn’t find any thing to grab onto in those chapters. They felt empty and pointless. Maybe that was the point? Woman’s life as a void? A search for meaning and purpose? Maybe.
I finally started vibing with the book when we got to the next generation (The Junior Leaguer). The exploration of her journey toward self-realization happens when she’s older–in her 70s maybe. She was a housewife of the 60s & 70s (which, to square with my world view/experience, put her right between my grandmother & my mother). I fell in love with the plight & fight of First Wave feminists in college–and this character was all of the plight and none of the fight. Like she was bewildered by her own existence: “I am a hollow bone.” It was poignant and sad. And hers was a fight against futility that seemed familiar–like maybe I was raised to be that person and escaped at the last minute.
But the best part about her was the fight she found in herself toward the end of her life. The chaos she created in her own little world, simply to feel alive. I’m a sucker for women coming to realizations later in life. The idea that it’s never too late to discover who you really are. And she talks about rage a lot (which is something I uncovered in myself only after I became a mother–an odd paradox, but a truth. And I love being a mother, so the rage was particularly both unwelcome and potent).
And, toward the end, the exploration of the mother-daughter dynamic, the push and pull of closeness and separation, the painful and intriguing knowledge that all human beings remain in some way unknowable and mysterious, no matter the love in which you hold them… I fell completely in love. With the characters. With their shortcomings. With how much they wanted. And how much they might have. Or not.
Everything seemed possible toward the end. An unfurling of possibility and self-determination. A breaking open.
I still hated the first part of the book. But the slog was almost worth it for the way the end made me feel. That push and pull toward the characters–the complexity of being drawn toward the things I want/value in my own life and wanting to banish or deny the feelings/experiences I don’t want/wish I didn’t have.
It most assuredly has made me think about being a woman, what I want to carry forth and leave behind, and what I hope to pass to my own daughter. Maybe that’s enough.
I Don’t Want to be Crazy, by Samantha Schultz, made me a little cagey.
But only because her truth resonated so profoundly with me. I wanted to run away from it, brush it off, escape from the memories of living with panic disorder.
It is hell.
Schultz captures the experience of being young, wildly self-absorbed (100% a rite of passage), and battling a serious mental health issue with a laser precision. If I could, I’d make this required reading for everyone.
Because in the thick of it, all I wanted was for people to understand what it felt like to be fighting for my sanity at a party while everyone else laughed and acted like they were really alive, while I was just barely exisiting, engulfed in utter hopelessness, sure that there would never be a normal.
This book frustrated me, too—in the way that things do when they remind you of a self you hope you’ve left behind. But ultimately I felt seen, and I wish my younger, panic ridden self (or even my early 30s panicked self) could have read this book. Because then I would’ve known that I wasn’t alone. And maybe no one is really normal, after all.
Ultimately, Schultz draws hope out of despair. And she lays out the most promising part of her truth: you can get better. But it’s gonna take a helluva lot of work, perseverance, and determination. But there’s always room for hope.
I’m always on & on about how reading shifts a person’s perspective, gives them insight into feelings, struggles, and points of view that they’d never otherwise know.
But, still, it’s shocking, that jolting moment when I’m reading a book that forces me to reckon with how much I don’t know.
I came out in the mid-1990s. It was tough in various ways. But nothing, NOTHING like what the young gay men chronicled in this book experienced. I don’t often consider my whiteness in relation to my queerness—and how much privilege it gives me. I do know that racism is alive and real in the gay community, just like it is in America at large. But DAMN, I didn’t realize how vulnerable, often alone, and at-risk ALL gay youth are—but especially young folks who are BOTH LGBTQ and POC.
The author conducted hours and hours of interviews with the young gay men living in NYC, so each of them comes across as multifaceted and complex (instead of whittled down to a “victim” stereotype). He doesn’t pull any punches outlining the ways the gay community, in our rush to assimilate and convince straight folks there’s nothing to see here, has failed our own young people.
This book is sobering. But it’s eye-opening. And it’s real. If you happen to be a white, LGBTQ person, I urge you to go pick up this book at the library. Then let’s talk about how we can do better.
Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn lays out a meandering history of two prominent Atlanta families: the Allens and the Dobbs.
Both instrumental in guiding Atlanta toward living into its promise. Both local royalty in their own right. Both produced Mayors of the City Too Busy to Hate.
One was white. One was black.
Through this whopping 550 page narrative, Gary M. Pomerantz masterfully wove storytelling and history. Each page was a delight.
Reading this tome beefed up my understanding of Atlanta history. And it laid bare the wounds of racism that, at times, have almost torn the city apart. But it also uncovered brave acts by members of each family-that lead Atlanta toward a more egalitarian footing. But the little glimpses of the BIG names in Atlanta being so utterly human—for better and for worse—are what really immersed me in the saga.
I was completely taken with both these families. I admire Ivan Allen, Jr. wholeheartedly for the way he shifted his views on race through his life. The quiet ways he did the right thing resonated with me.
And Maynard Jackson, Jr…. Let me tell you, I would give almost anything to zip back in time to be at his first inaugural address—to see him do what the old school white establishment said he could not. To see him win.
But I’ll have to settle for sending my daughter to the Southeast Atlanta High School that bears his name. And that feels pretty good, too.
True confession time: I’d never read a graphic novel before Hey, Kiddo.
But, of course, the first graphic novel I grab is a memoir that tackles super-heavy stuff like addiction, loss, and belonging. Because tights and capes are overrated.
I picked Hey, Kiddo specifically because it addresses addiction. I often wonder about how to talk to my own kid about recovery (I’ve been sober for 10 years). And I was eager to see if a graphic novel could stand up to the challenge of representing the ugly, heartbreaking side of having an active addict as a parent.
It did. And it was brutal.
But it was often hopeful. And funny.
I loved Jarrett’s emotional journey toward finding his peace with his family as-is. Because, addiction or not, we all have to reckon with the family we’ve been dealt. We can embrace their idiosyncrasies, forgive their faults, own our part in the whole giant mess, and love them anyway…or not. We can create our own families with friends we collect along the way. And, no matter who we are or how we grew up, we can break the cycle of abuse, addiction, neglect.
My ultimate takeaway (a pretty powerful one for teenagers reading this book): Your family contributes to who you are. They do not define you. They are part of your story. The beginning. Only you can decide what happens from there.
Hey, Kiddo is not always a happy story. But it’s a real story. I respect that.
Amy Bloom’s collection of stories, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, sucked me in right away. I didn’t even mean to read the dang book. I was just moving it to a new location and, on a whim, flipped open to the first page. By the end of the first paragraph, I was hooked.
It’s not magical writing. Quite the opposite. The realism of her prose that drew me in. Not gritty. Just straightforward. The simple moments that slip into big ones. The miniscule choices we make that amount to a life upturned, broken wide open to make room for something else. In Bloom’s stories, things don’t turn out like you want them—they turn out the way they likely would if they were unfolding in my life or your own. I found myself nodding, thinking “yes, yes, that’s the way things are sometimes.” It was therapeutic to read a world so unromanticized. Bloom seemed to be nodding at her readers, reminding them that they aren’t alone, that no one’s life works out exactly as they had planned. But still, we all press on. And manage to live vibrant, imperfect lives.
Some of Bloom’s stories build off each other. Those were my favorites. The ones that explored grief, loss, parental relationships, and the ways that love is both more than we expected and so much less. But they all brought forth a nugget of truth for examination. And I loved them for that & for their utter relatability.
I meant to read one of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books, because I think they’re Urban Fantasy, and I’m supposed to be checking that out. Like field research for the bookstore.
But this one caught my eye instead. Because Shakespeare’s Trollop is about the best title ever. So, I read it. In just over 24 hours.
This is the kind of book people like to pigeon-hole as frivolous reading–“beach reading” people call it when they’re being polite. But all reading is important… because books will speak to you, if you let them. They’ll meet you where you are and teach you.
Shakespeare’s Trollop made some pretty strong observations about human nature: our willingness to judge others without considering the life events that shaped them; our desire to be in control constantly battling with our need for connection; our drive to categorize and label other people, without acknowledging that people can be multifaceted, complex, and human.
The truth is I didn’t love the protagonist, Lily Bard (but what a GREAT name for a book set in Shakespeare, Arkansas), or feel any real connection to her. Which is usually a deal-breaker for me. But there I went, turning one page after another because I needed to know who had committed the murder in Shakespeare and WHY. Ultimately, I appreciated Harris’ glimpses into human nature (including my own). And her writing. Which is smooth as butter.