Friday, January 26, 2018

This Week's Bookbag: Overloaded Brain Edition, Jan 19-26

Hello, bookworld! How has your week been? My brain has been buzzing all over the place, my book reading plans were completely upended, and I am paralyzed about what to read next. What fun! Come on in and let me tell you all about it. Here, have some chamomile tea and a lavender scone from the Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm that we had the good fortune to visit while in Maui earlier this month. Just thinking about the farm, tucked away in the greenest of hills and flush with color, dotted with small buddhist statues and places to sit, soothes me. The scone mix makes delicious scones, by the way, and lavender honey really should be a required daily food item. Mmm. But I digress. 

In My Bookbag Last Week:
I had grand plans to read at least three or four books this week so that (why lie?) I could impress myself with my January book tally, but then I checked my digital library book stash over the weekend and discovered that my copy of Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist was due in three days. Since it's a bit on the stout side (600+ pages),  I really needed to get cracking if I was going to read it at all! I had it in my head that one of my favorite book recommenders had suggested it in the first place, so I really wanted to read it - so I read it, and then I raved about it in the secret (not-so-secret now, I suppose!) book challenge group that we're both in, but my friend said she hadn't recommended it in the first place, so I have no idea how it wound up in my greedy little hands and will just have to chalk it up to having pleased the book gods somehow. (Whew. That was a long sentence.) In any case, you should really put this on your TBR list. Here's my review: 

The Lonely PolygamistThe Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An Epic, American Wives’ Tale

Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist will make you cackle aloud in your living room — and weep without shame wherever you wind up reading it (perhaps, like me, pulled over on the side of the road because you couldn't wait to finish a chapter, or slow-walking through Target and running into a couple of end-caps with your cart). Golden Richards might have four wives and 29 children, but he’s not exactly a paragon of organization or attentiveness, and his big family is starting to unravel as we meet him. There's a lot going on, as one might imagine, so although you're looking at a nearly 700 page book, it moves quickly, and the shenanigans that some of the kids get into and the ridiculous situations in which Golden winds up will have you barking with laughter, especially in the book’s first half. But be careful, for there is a small, viscous streamlet of grief running through the threads of the brisk story Udall unfurls, and it pools from time to time, taking over a paragraph, a page, an entire chapter that will take your breath away and stick with you even as the story moves away. By the end, I was just a puddle of pure emotion: giddy, grief-stricken, enthusiastic, solemn. It was quite an afternoon!

What really pushes this story to a new level, though, is the love. The simple humanity that radiates from every page - not perfect, not always profound. No one is truly evil or angelic and mistakes - big ones - abound. And yet. Udall gently enchants you, seeks to place into your hands and heart the very human urges of the key characters. This isn’t the story of some cult-like oddity, no (even though it sort of is - polygamy and fundamentalism is one of those sensational story lines that Americans can't seem to leave alone). These are people, living the best way they know how; Goldy and Chick and Bev and Glory and Rose and Tricia. Rusty. June. Udall manages to crowd your heart somehow with them all. You have little choice but to acquiesce and throw the doors and windows wide by the time they truly come a-knocking, slipping into the parlor of your heart before you know it, straining that space, forcing it to grow, endure, expand. I really think we could start to heal the deep divides amongst us all if only everyone would read this book and let its lessons in.

It’s that good. Good God Holy Mary Lord Almighty, is it good. (And there’s even an ostrich in it!) Happy reading.


I read Udall after finishing Souad Mekhennet's absolutely mesmerizing I Was Told To Come Alone, which made for an unusual, unplanned pairing. But the book gods, as I've mentioned already, have been with me this week, and I wound up finding some synchronicity between them both: namely, they insist on reminding their readers that we're all human, even if we want desperately to dehumanize the people who hurt or terrorize or shock or mistreat us and/or those we love. A message that I know I need drummed into me during these deeply divided days: these chasms that seem so uncrossable - they CAN be conquered. If we're all being honest, they really must be conquered if we're all to find a way forward. Udall offers this through his fiction, while Mekhennet has a true set of tales to tell. Her book is really remarkable. I can't believe I didn't know it was out there in the world until I stumbled across it last week. Here, learn a little more about it: 

I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of JihadI Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mekhennet’s Book is Required Reading for the Global Book Club We're All In

Souad Mekhennet’s memoir of working to uncover and understand the agendas of global jihadists is one of the most important books of our time. Her tenacity and resolve to follow the story where it leads rather than map the narrative and then supply the evidence she prefers illustrates why the world continues to need trained and dedicated journalists. Mekhennet’s deep knowledge, both experiential and academic, as well as her insistence on treating all sources and ideas fairly (and challenging them all, too!) allows her to operate in an almost hallowed space - able to access high level jihadi contacts while reporting for several of the world’s most influential Western publications.

Mekhennet's ability to encourage sources and relentless campaign against taking the path of least resistance are not the only aspects of her work that makes it so compelling; I would be remiss not to point out her ninja word skills. Some sections are crafted with tension of an action thriller - I dare you to try putting the book down as she lights up the trail to identify that infamous British terrorist known as Jihadi John - and other portions stand out for their poignancy. Her ability to recognize the deep grief at the core of many of her sources without falling into sentimentality is a wonder, and her tendency to obliquely challenge the reader to recognize the shared humanity of so many deeply different people, bounds and rebounds across the book's pages, gaining strength as it goes. When she comes to you in the end with the suggestion that it's not religion or politics that divide us so deeply, but rather that the great struggle of our time is between those who build bridges and those who will not, there's only the tiniest of clangs as the entire conversation she's shared is suddenly reframed and refocused - a warm little slap on the cheek rather than a chilled blow to the side of the head - because Mekhennet has set herself -and by extension, you, the reader - up so very well.

Anyone interested in “why they hate us”, whatever “they” you wonder about, look here. Anyone who wants to start to try and understand the landscape of 21st century geopolitics and religion, begin with this - the water is warm, the reading is easy, and the revelations are plentiful. There are nuanced, honest, and important answers to be found and a barrage of insights illuminated.

My only regret is that I didn’t know this book existed until the other day. It deserves the world’s attention and certainly grabbed my own. Happily, finishing the book doesn't mean finishing with Mekhennet - she's working for The Washington Post in national security these days, and she's quite prolific. Seek her out and continue to enjoy her talents.

This Week's Reading Adventure: 
So, as you saw, I read some good books this week! Two five star books in a row - highly unusual! After finishing Udall, though, I ran into some trouble. Those book gods? They started laughing and reminded me that I'm a greedy, greedy book hoarder who will never get to the end of her TBR list, because I had gone into a little bit of a book binge at some point this month and requested at least a dozen books from the library. Five of them showed up this week, of course, and then a couple of memoirs I bought for an online writing workshop I'm taking arrived in the mail, and then Ursula K. Le Guin died and even though I've never read her work, I've been meaning to and so I engaged in a flurry of reading about her tried to decide which books I should indulge in, and a couple of other things came up, like a lecture I had to give on Iceland...AND THEN I SLIPPED AND FELL INTO SOME PHILOSOPHY...and now it's the end of my week and I'm feeling a bit wild-eyed and overwhelmed, to be honest, and cannot for the life of me figure out what to read next! 

But I'll pull myself together. I always do. Let's start with the easy bits: I have some treats I've been putting aside for you all.  

First, you need to know that book award season has begun. This has contributed to my current hysteria, of course - so many books to consider! I haven't even come close to reading enough of them! - but I love this time of year. Behold, the PEN America Literary Award Finalists (click through the picture for the full press release):   

I've read several of these (Out in the Open was a favorite) and had several others on my to-do list, but now of course, I want to shift through all of them and must promote a few so that I'll feel in the know about this crop! New books are so addicting, aren't they? I just can't resist the opportunity to plunge in, plum the depths, try and ferret out what these newest offerings have to tell us about ourselves, our time, our world right now...I really wish sometimes that I could contain myself a bit better when it comes to books, but then again of course I don't. Anyway, you'll likely see me talking about No Time to Spare (convergence! aha!) and Flaneuse soon, and maybe The Changeling, because they were already at the top of my list. Unless, of course, someone insist that I drop everything and read another one of these. My book ears are vibrating with possibility!   
in honor of Le Guin's passing, Guernica reprinted an interview they did with the author ten years ago, and I read it and it was truly a revelation. This is what totally bowled me over and got me into the Le Guin dust-up that lasted half a day. You should read it, too. She was a sage and a philosopher, this woman, in addition to having a wildly impressive imagination and the ability to make worlds flow right from her fingertips.    

Speaking of philosophers, I mentioned at some point that I toppled into a bit of philosophy myself earlier this week and wound up rereading an introduction to Sartre that I had and then wandered into Simone Weil and a few other little books I had lying around. (See? This week was turned into a really weird potpourri.) Then I realized I was fairly floating away into the nether and pulled myself back to earth - by taking a Buzzfeed quiz to determine which philosopher I am. Turns out: 
You got: Michel Foucault.

You find it hard to self-define, as you believe that you're always changing. You don't believe that power is possessed by individuals, but instead think power is an action that individuals can engage in.
I've long had a soft spot for Foucault (who doesn't?), so this suits me just fine, but now I'm traipsing around rereading bits of Foucault, which is a bit ridiculous. I'm such a sucker.  You should probably skate on over to Buzzfeed, though, and find out who you are, too.

What's Next? My Book Week Ahead: 
You know, it is just anyone's guess! I really do want to dig into the new Le Guin, I'm reading a really refreshing little memoir called The Fluency of Light, plus the other memoirs I ordered are just burning a hole on my bedside table: 

aren't they beguiling? 

But I also finally started Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey (first female translation in modern times!), which came out in November and has the literary world a-flutter, and fresh off the presses, Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists and Katherine Arden's The Girl in the Tower have been patiently waiting for me. So you'll just have to come back next week and see what stuck, I suppose! 

If you're enjoying my blog, please share it with your favorite book-reading friends and neighbors. You can sign up here for email notices when a new entry has been posted (it's over on the right side, above my book lists - see it?), set your calendar to remind you to check in with me on Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings (I try to have this out the door by 4pm on Fridays so we can all start our weekends reading!), or you can stop by Friends of Bookbaggin' It on Facebook, if you're a social media sort, where you'll find my weekly blog updates as well as some fun links and the occasional musing. Hope to see you soon and thanks for reading! 

Friday, January 19, 2018

This Week's Bookbag, Vacation Edition: Jan.7-19


We just returned home from the most beautiful, serene vacation spot in the world: Maui. Check it out! 

(from left to right: Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm; Sunset at the Maui Sheraton; Orchids for Lei Making)

So much beauty everywhere!

The weather, the view, the people, the sand, the was all amazing. What  really made it perfect, though, was that there was plenty of time to read. All four of us fell into magical reading grooves just about every afternoon, when the sun was the hottest and we needed breaks after morning activities. There literally is nothing I'd rather see than my 3rd grader and my 6th grader lost in books on a tropical island. I really should have taken a picture of them doing just that...but I was too busy reading myself, of course. Come on, let me tell you about what I read!

In the Vacation Bookbag:

I read a number of books over the last week and a half, but since I was on vacation, I didn't write up reviews on all of them. I did make a point, however, to reflect on Alan Brennert's Moloka'i, a true gem of a beach read. I discovered while beach browsing on Amazon and found especially meaningful due to the fact that I had a clear view of Moloka'i itself every time I looked out at the ocean. Here's my review: 


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Beautiful Surprise

On vacation in Maui this week, I wanted to read a novel about Hawaii that wasn’t 1000 pages long and 60 years old (Aloha, James Michener!). A scamper through the googlesphere led me to what turned out to be a gem of a book. Alan Brennert blends Hawaiian history with some really lovely fiction to tells the story of a young Hawaiian girl named Rachel. Rachel is diagnosed with Hansen’s disease - better known as leprosy - near the end of the nineteenth century, when she is only 7 years old. With little fanfare, she is hustled off to live in an encampment for “lepers,” where she is expected to die from the disease. As it turns out, Rachel’s life is far from over, and we watch her grow up on Moloka’i. Moloka'i is one of the 8 major Hawaiian islands and is known (ironically, after reading this book) as "The Friendly Isle." The Hawaiian government created a leper colony on a tiny peninsula on Moloka'i that was surrounded on by immense cliffs and a beach. In 1866, they opened the colony and mandated quarantine for anyone who contracted leprosy. The first patients literally were thrown off the boat and had to swim for shore, only to discover there was nothing for them: no foodstuffs, housing, clothes, medical facilities. Eventually, a settlement developed and came to be known as Kappalua. The mandatory quarantine was in effect - and the colony still operating - until 1969! Over 8,000 people of all ages were imprisoned in Kappalua over the course of its operation, and a small number of survivors live there even today. These days, visitors may tour Kappalua but must obtain special permission.

Brennert manages to create a very believable set of characters in whom the readers become invested, and despite their unique circumstances and challenges, the fictional population is easy to relate to. By drawing out the humanity of those who lived in exile both physically and spiritually, Brennert gently challenges the reader to recognize that chronically and/or terminally ill populations are just like the rest of society. He develops additional layers of nuance and understanding by placing this story within the context of Hawaii’s modern history, which sprawls itself across the pages and years in indelible fashion.

All in all, Moloka'i sparkles. Readers interested in historical fiction, human drama, complicated families, Hawaii - or those just looking for a really great beach read! - should pick it up.

You know how sometimes the book gods smile down at you and deliver the perfect book for your exact circumstances? This was one of those books for me. Sadly, I didn't discover Brennert's work until there were only a few days left of our vacation and I wasn't able to organize a visit to Kappalua. Guess I'll just have to go back! I'm burning to see the settlement. 

I devoured several other books, too, of course: John Green's Turtles All the Way Down, which actually lived up to all the hype around its publication; Alice McDermott's grimy-yet-beautiful dive into a turn of the century Irish-Catholic working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, The Ninth Hour (link goes to my review); and Seanan McGuire's latest in the Wayward Children series, Beneath the Sugar Sky. I'm sorry to say that I found the McGuire book somewhat limp. I had such high hopes for this series after reading the deliciously dreary Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but the other books haven't even come close to that effort. Alas! 

Bookish and Creative Stuff: 
I did my best to steer clear of news and, basically, the interwebs in general over vacation (but couldn't escape the whole "a ballistic missile is headed your way, Hawaii" business, since WE WERE IN HAWAII AT THE TIME! Argh!), but a couple of items broke through the filter and stuck with me that I wanted to share:

If you're looking for a seriously good tale, you should scramble over to Amazon and pick up Hannah Tinti's The Good Thief, which is on sale for only a buck-ninety-nine! (Kindle edition only) It has thieves and hucksters and pirates and orphans...and a rollicking plot that will keep you reading long after lights out. One of my favorite books over the last 5 years; it reminded me of the classic adventure tales that all kids somehow absorb through reading, listening, or osmosis. I was really excited when Tinti dropped The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley last year, and although it's been near the top of my queue since publication, I still haven't gotten to it! Maybe by the end of the month. Remind me about it, would you?  

With immigration front and center in political culture right now, take the time to check out "Ventana" over at Guernica.  Written by a former Border Control agent and published several years ago, it only takes a few minutes to read but sears itself into your mind. 

Finally, if reading is just too much to handle today, then treat yourself to this amazing pairs routine by Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who will represent France at the Olympics in a few weeks. If you don't at least sniffle at the extraordinary artistry on display, well...

My Personal Book Forecast For the Week Ahead:
I am just finishing up Souad Mekhennet's extraordinary memoir of her time investigating Islamist jihad movements in the Middle East, I Was Told to Come Alone and I can barely wait to tell you all about it! Then I'm going to get back in touch with winter and read Katherine Arden's The Girl in the Tower, which is a follow-up to her icy, terrifying, utterly irresistible Russian fairy tale, The Bear and the Nightingale. I also haven't yet peeked at Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists; am eager to return to and finish The New Jim Crow; feel like it's finally time to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and need to speed-read Cassie Beasley's Tumble and Blue, since I stole it many weeks ago from my daughter's school library whilst volunteering and am starting to feel really guilty about keeping any longer. And of course, I just never know what else may strike my fancy! What's at the top of your TBR stack?

Sunday, January 7, 2018

This Week's Bookbag: Jan 31- Jan 6, 2018

Hallo, fellow readers! Welcome to the first weekly post of 2018. I hope you're ready to share some serious booklove with me this year. Let's get going!   

In the Bookbag:
Erika Johansen might be new to publishing, but she's a wise old storyteller on the inside. I spent the last three days in a bookish fever, reading Johansen's The Queen of the Tearling trilogy. I'm not quite finished with it yet, but it's only a matter of an hour or two. Is THIS why I couldn't sleep last night? Because every time I closed my eyes, I could just feel that book burning to be read on my nightstand? Perhaps, my friends. Purrrrrr-haps.  

Behold! I have reviewed each book!

The Queen of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling, #1)The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Inherit her kingdom yourself

The heroine of The Queen of the Tearling, 19 year old Kelsea, is a protagonist built for readers like me: a little dreamy, not used to hard physical exertion, a devoted lover of books and literacy , a bit too pragmatic to be bewildered for long, bright enough to keep herself upright. Unlike me, though, she inherits a kingdom in a fantasy world that’s somehow posited in the future, after the Americans and British have been forced to flee via boat due to...Well, I’m still working on that part. Anyway, Kelsea’s efforts to gain - and keep - her throne despite long odds is a refreshing, uncluttered, and sophisticated tale. The characters spark and sing; the plot unspools itself as it should, moving faster and faster as the end approaches. And all along, something dark is is gathering...An excellent tale. Thank goodness it’s a trilogy!

View all my reviews

The Invasion of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling, #2)The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Plots Thicken

So much revealed here in Book Two, including much of what I was working to figure out as I finished Book One. The Invasion of the Tearling picks up exactly where The Queen of the Tearling left off - no years going by in a twinkle, nothing solved or shoved aside. Queen Kelsea remains on the throne, but it’s a precarious perch, to be sure: the invasion of the Tearling by the Mortmesne Army is close at hand. As war beckons and breaks, however, the Glynn Queen’s own power grows. Her transformation from child to Queen dominates the book’s narrative arc, of course. But other important stories swell alongside Kelsea’s own, and more than a few characters - some already well established, others new - become essential, lively, complicated. This book offers a much darker vision than the first, but don’t let that scare you away, because there’s still room for wonder, and second chances abound.
Erika Johansen is a marvelous talent. I thought I’d made good time reading through Book One - I couldn’t put it down - but I *blazed* through Book Two. I’m afraid to even open Book Three, because I really need to go to bed...but a little peek, just at the first chapter won’t take long, right? Just a couple of pages...

View all my reviews

Check back tomorrow!

It wasn't all fantasy world books this week. I also read Edwidge Danicat's lyrical slip of a novel, Claire of the Sea Light, and Andy Weir's Artemis, which was lots of fun but had some disappointing limitations. Alas.

Bookish News and Views:
Seriously, how wonderful is this??  Nina Riggs's widower and Paul Kalanithi's widow are falling in lurv!

Did you promise yourself you'd read more books this year? HBR has some excellent advice about how to be the bookie monster that you've always dreamed you'd be. (Spoiler alert: first suggestion is to move your TVs to an undisclosed location...or at least an uncomfortable one. I'm totally down with that.)

Our previous President, Barack Obama, may have left the politics, but he's still in my heart, because he's a book nerd just like me. You've probably already seen this, but just in case you haven't - here's his list of favorite books and songs in 2017. I guess this means I'll have to read Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing. I know, I know. The entire world has read it and she's ahhhh-mazing...but I really have preferred her non-fiction over her fiction until now. I guess it couldn't hurt to try it...

Finally, take a minute to check out the other posts I made last week and admire my new layout! I'm so excited to share my book life with you!

My Personal Book Forecast for the Week Ahead: 
Well, my week ahead will be full of fun vacation reading, because WE ARE GOING TO MAUI!! Aloha! This is our first visit outside the continental US as a family. I'm so excited! 

In other news, two books that I've preordered drop on January 9th: Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists and Seanan McGuire's Beneath the Sugar Sky. I know what I'll be doing on the plane!  

What are you reading right now? 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

All the 2018 Bookeses: Lists Galore

Aren't you finished with your entire reading list of 2017 releases YET? Too bad, time's up! We're moving on to 2018 and you're going to be left in the cold, hard wind of yesterday's book releases if you don't jump to it! Go, go, go!


Or, just keep this handy dandy list bookmarked and check in whenever you're ready for a new release fix.  I'll be adding to this list of lists as they pop up over the course of the next few weeks - and then throughout the year, too.  You can thank me for saving you the cost of a new window (that's perfectly good book money!) later.
  1. The most important list: MINE. A full list of all the new releases I've put on hold at the library, on wish lists, on pre-order, and, yes, on the top of my teetering TBR pile. 
  2. Feeling upper crust? Here's a list from The Globe and Mail (be sure to read it in your best British accent).
  3. Always good to know what the cool girls over at Bustle are looking forward to devouring.
  4. Hello Giggles offers a relatively short list with commentary.
  5. BookRiot drives me a little insane but they do make some useful lists, like this one.
  6. This list has ALL THE BOOKS. And it's closely curated, too. Spiffy!
  7. See what the boys want to get their hands on.

So Many Books. So Little Time.

The reading clock never stops! Want a peek at what I'm planning to read in 2018? This is an ongoing list of books I've put on hold at the library, found on various "must read soon" lists, purchased but not yet dug into, and pre-ordered. Intended to be all 2018 releases, but a few others may sneak in there from time to time.

Revel in my bibliophilia!

  1. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin 
  2. Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire (Down Among the Sticks and Bones was one of my favorite fantasy reads last year. Both are part of the Wayward Children series, which follows the adventures of kids who wind up in other worlds. These worlds aren't all fun and games - the books are DARK and thrilling and wildly original. The keystone book is Every Heart a Doorway; it's about a boarding house that keeps kids who have returned from other worlds and fail to readjust to the "real world." Every Heart a Doorway isn't super fantastic, but it's useful as an intro to characters who will star in the other books.)
  3. The Grave's a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley (Flavia de Luce, the star of this series, is one of the best literary characters ever! She's like Harriet the Spy but wicked smart, always stumbling into murders that she has to solve - AND she's British!)
  4. The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss
  5. Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi
  6. A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee
  7. Treating People Well: The extraordinary power of civility at work and in life by Lea Burman (I feel like the entire country should all agree to read this book, just based on the title alone)
  8. Elmet by Fiona Mosley
  9. The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
  10. Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith. (I'm in love with octopuses ever since I read The Soul of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery)
  11. The Pisces by Melissa Border (scary merman love story? I'm in!)
  12. I Was Told to Come Alone: My journey behind the lines of jihad by Souad Mekhennet (She writes on terrorism and national security for WaPo and has been able to secure access to a impressive number of jihadists. I don't know why I didn't know about this book until a few days ago!)
  13. Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
  14. Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
  15. The Boat People by Sharon Bala
  16. The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden (the follow-up to her brilliant The Nightingale and the Bear) 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Wrapping Up the Book Year, Part Two: Non-Fiction

Ah, the new year stretches ahead on a magnificent path of books all the way to the horizon. I'm going to read hundreds of books and offer insightful critiques and be such a successful blogger that a publisher will swoop from the interwebs sky and ask me to become a book reviewer - from home, during my free time, of course. And they'll offer me an unlimited number of galleys so I'll never pay for a book again! (Unlikely, I know, but the beginning of the year just offers so much promise.)

Meanwhile, the 2017 reading year is, uh, in the books. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) A nicely paved little path runs from Jan-Dec, but I didn't read as many non-fiction books as I would have liked to. My brain was so hysterical from trying to keep up with the non-stop news carousel that was last year,  I had little patience for longer works on contemporary, newsy topics. But! The ones that did draw me in - they were powerful. Here are five of my favorites:

Very rarely has a single book forced me to completely reorient my thinking of a topic like Jim St. Germain's powerful memoir, A Stone of Hope. St. Germain shares his experiences growing up in Brooklyn's infamous Crown Heights. Left to parent himself, St. Germain turned to the streets to find support and to make ends meet - and soon took to stealing and dealing, increasingly numbed to the violence and despair he felt and observed all around him.  Traumatized and hopeless, St. Germain asked for help from the system but received little in return...until a few people took note of him and his plight. Arrested for dealing crack cocaine at 15, St. Germain wound up not entering the turnstile of incarceration, addiction, and violence that plagues so many of America's young men of color but rather in a group home.  Eventually, St Germain finds a way out of the life he had been forced to lead and finds a new purpose for living.
The searing experiences that St. Germain shares changed my understanding at a fundamental level of just how difficult it is for those born into deep poverty and injustice to escape it. He tells his story with such clarity, immediacy, and passion - I literally could not stop reading it once I started. I hope you'll find it similarly insightful and that it will renew your own dedication to working towards true social and racial justice in America. I know it did that for me.   

This is not an easy book to read. The stories told are full of trauma and horror.  You should read it anyway, though, because Marzano-Lesnevich's ability to maneuver through piles of evidence to create not just one but two riveting narratives is unparalleled.  Moreover, her manipulation of the narratives is masterful: as the moral clarity grows more distinct in one story, it becomes somewhat less stark in the other.  There's a lot of courage here, and an untold amount of pain. You can't but wonder about the stories left untold as the book draws to its end - and maybe weep a little for what these stories - told and untold - mean for humanity in general. 

Lockwood's story of growing up - and then moving back in with - a dad who just happened to be both a Catholic priest and  a bit of nut will leave any recovering Catholic wiping away tears of laughter...until it suddenly and poignantly leaves you wiping away tears of sorrow.  Lockwood steers us through experiences that are both completely alien and yet somehow familiar at times.  Offers plenty of food for thought and some terrific wordsmithing in addition to personalities that you'll be hard pressed to forget. 

I can't believe I didn't know this book existed until I went to a writing workshop in November.  This book recommendation alone made that workshop worth the price of admission! I'm not a huge King fan - I grew up reading some of his books and short stories, and I really enjoyed 11/22/63 - but after reading this, I'm more likely to read the books I've missed over the years. This is not your typical writing guide. Instead, the first half of the book describes King's youth in working class Maine. From very early in his life, King decided he wanted to be a published writer, and he worked doggedly and consistently towards that goal until it became a reality.  He writes efficiently, clearly, and with no small amount of humor. I fell in love with the narrative voice within a few pages and basically have been carrying it around with me ever since because I like it so much. The specific guidance he offers to emergent writers isn't really the most engaging part of the book (although it did make me cry a little, in a good way) - but if you read to the end of the book, you'll discover why. The afterword, in which King discusses his very close brush with death one afternoon left me on the edge of my seat as much as Carrie ever did! I had known about this episode in his life but to hear him tell it just left me with my jaw on the floor.  Any writer or King fan should treat themselves to this book. 

Nina Riggs died from metastatic cancer before her dazzling, luminous memoir made it to the bookstore, at the age of 39.  She knew that would likely be the case, but it didn't stop her from digging deep in the final months of her life and sharing her experiences as a wife, mom, and human being suddenly thrust into one of the worst nightmares one can imagine.  She reaches back, far back, into personal and literary history to connect with Emerson (he was her great-grandfather several generations back) even as she struggles to share her devastating story and ensure that her husband and two young sons wouldn't be left without her voice and perspective. As someone living through stage IV cancer myself and the mother of two children, I feel especially qualified to say that this book cracks through the shell of the "cancer warrior" stereotype and reveals how life at this speed can be terrifying, humorous, hopeful, and blessedly mundane - often all at once. A beautiful book written by an enormous talent.   

And there you have it - my favorites for 2017! I plan to share with you my reading adventures on the reg in the year to come.

Happy Reading!