Review: Hollow City, Ransom Riggs

When Hollow City, the second novel in the Miss Peregrine series, came out a few years ago, I bought it immediately. I also started reading it right away. But for some reason, I set it aside after maybe the first chapter or so, and I didn’t pick it up again until recently. I just can’t imagine now how I ever put it down! The book is nonstop action pretty much from start to finish. One of my students who had read the series last year said that I would want to start the third book immediately after finishing this one, and he was right.

Hollow City picks up right where Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children leaves off, as Jacob and the other peculiars escape their island with the injured and “stuck” Miss Peregrine. Be warned: this book does not fill in the gaps for anyone who hasn’t read the first book. You are going to have to start with the first book if you want to follow the story. I had a bit of trouble because it had been a long time since I read Miss Peregrine. In this second book, the peculiars go in search of an ymbryne who can help Miss Peregrine return to her human form. They search for and find a time loops run by an ymbryne named Miss Wren, but they learn Miss Wren is missing. She is the only known ymbryne who has not been captured by wights, so the peculiars set off to London in search of her.

Riggs writes good dialogue, and his characters are well-drawn, particularly his secondary characters like Olive, Millard, Addison the dog, and Enoch. I admit I found the “romance” between Jacob and Emma to be a bit wooden and pat, but the story itself was interesting, and the ending was an excellent surprise. The images are amazing. Do yourself a favor and read this one on paper and not on an e-reader or audiobook. You will get a lot more out of the images if you can savor them and flip through the book.

In all, I definitely recommend the book. It’s a great choice for the R. I. P. Challenge.

Rating: ★★★★½

Because I’ve had this book on my shelf and TBR (or really, a to-be finished) pile for a long time, I’m glad to be able to count it for my Shelf Love and Mount TBR Challenges. I’m also counting this book for both the Reading England 2016 and R. I. P. Challenges.

RIP Eleven

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#ShelfLove Challenge: My Literary Road Trip Bucket List

Shelf Love Challenge 2016Each month, the #ShelfLove Challenge has a different topic. This month’s topic:

So what’s on your literary travel bucket list? What literary hot spots have you already hit and is it worth going back?

I have a couple of literary bucket lists, mainly because I love my adopted home of New England, which is the cradle of American literature, and also because I am an Anglophile who lives British literature and is desperate to visit the UK, where there are many places on my bucket list.

New England Bucket List

  • Feet on WaldenWalden Pond in Concord, MA. I have been there before in the dead of winter in February. The pond was frozen over. I took this obligatory picture of my feet standing on the frozen pond. I want to go back some time this summer. I don’t live far, and it’s sad that I haven’t had a chance to go because of an unreliable vehicle, but I have a new car now, and we are road tripping the hell out of this summer. I can’t wait to go to Walden.
  • Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, MA. The Dickinson home is now a museum, and I have already visited, but I want to go back during some special occasion or event. I just became a member of the museum, so it will even be free. Oh, I was just so happy here. I visited Emily’s grave. If there is one poet I really love, it’s her. Obviously I named my blog after one of my favorite of her poems.
  • The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, CT. I haven’t ever been here, but Hartford is not very far from where I live, and Twain is a favorite of mine. Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while living here. I teach that novel and absolutely love it (until the end, which Tom Sawyer ruins).
  • Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, MA. I want to pay my respects to the authors buried there, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. There is something kind of special about visiting the grave of an author you love.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house in Concord, MA. He wrote most of his work here and hosted meetings of the Transcendental Club here as well. I think it’s open to the public.
  • Robert Frost’s Stone House in Shaftsbury, VT. I wrote a research paper on Frost in high school, and that kind of thing makes you feel ownership over a writer. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was written here.
  • Boston by Foot has an interesting-looking tour of the literary haunts of writers like Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Alcott, James, Dickens, and Longfellow. I want to try that tour for sure.

United Kingdom Bucket List

  • The Brontë Parsonage and Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire. Must see. I want especially to explore anything that may have influenced Wuthering Heights. I think some of the sites are scattered a bit, so it might be more accurate to say I want to visit Brontë Country.
  • Jane Austen’s House and Museum in Chawton, Hampshire. I don’t want to miss a chance to see where Dear Aunt Jane lived and wrote. I don’t think they let you touch anything. It’s probably like Emily Dickinson’s house that way. I would so want to touch her stuff, though.
  • Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, with trips to his birthplace, New Place, the church where he is buried, and perhaps a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The whole town, really. I mean there is Anne Hathaway’s cottage, and the home where Shakespeare’s mother lived, too.
  • Bath, Somerset. Austen wrote about this town and lived there for a time. Many films set in the Georgian era are filmed here because it still looks Georgian. Of course, Austen set Northanger Abbey and Persuasion here as well.
  • The Charles Dickens Museum in London. Dickens wrote Oliver Twist while living here.
  • Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, Wales. William Wordsworth wrote “A Few Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey” here, and I feel pretty positive pictures don’t do it justice.
  • The Lake District. Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both called it home, and there are places all over that I want to see, including Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Grasmere.
  • The New Shakespeare Globe Theatre in London. A reconstruction of the original Globe. I must see a Shakespeare play here.
  • The British Library in London. I don’t really even know where I’d start here, but I want to go.
  • The Sherlock Holmes Museum, London. Not exactly located at 221b Baker Street, but close. I do love Sherlock Holmes.
  • John Keats’s home near Hampstead Heath in London. Because Keats.
  • Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in London. I want to pay my respects to Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Edmund Spenser, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Among others.
  • Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station in London. Because Harry Potter.
  • The Fitzroy Tavern in London. I heard that Dylan Thomas would give out poems written on beer mats to any woman who asked while he was drinking here. A girl can dream.
  • Bloomsbury in London. I want to walk in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. Yeats lived nearby. I really just want to sit on a bench, maybe the same bench Virginia Woolf once sat on, and think.
  • Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire. Byron lived here. His beloved dog Boatswain is buried here. Byron was buried nearby.
  • Field Place in Broadbridge Heath, West Sussex. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was born here. I’m not sure it’s open to the public, but I could at least look at the exterior.

I’m sure if I thought about it, I could come up with quite a few more places to visit.

I haven’t made any progress on the #ShelfLove Challenge since last month because I’m in a reading slump. Just not really excited right now. I am sort of waiting for school to wrap up so I can spend more time reading. I have a bunch of books I “need to read” right now, too, for various reasons, and I am not excited about it. I don’t know why it is that when I “need” to read it, even if I wanted to read it before, I can’t get into it as much.

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#ShelfLove Challenge: Love Letter to My Library

Shelf Love Challenge 2016Each month, the #ShelfLove Challenge has a different topic. This month’s topic:

The 2nd Week of April is Library Week. Tell us about your local library and what makes is special to you.

I have to admit that I haven’t been able to visit the Worcester Public Library in a while. It is a beautiful library, but for a variety of reasons (mostly having to do with transportation, which is a problem I resolved when I bought a new car last month), I haven’t been to the library in a while, and indeed, my library card has expired, so I need to renew it.

However, because I am a teacher, I have access to a school library. When I first started working at Worcester Academy, I was a technology integration specialist, and I worked in the library. I tried to increase the size our young adult collection, and I worked to encourage young readers by recommending books and visiting classes to do book talks.

We have a new library director this year, and she has transformed parts of the upper floor into a maker space, including a LEGO wall and 3-D printers. One wall has been painted with whiteboard paint, as have several tables. The fiction collection has been “genrefied” so that students can more easily find books they like. I took my students to the library, and our new library director conducted a “book speed dating” experience for the students, who read a book for a few minutes and either decided to pass or to keep the book. It was fun for the students and a great way to have a taste of a new book. I wrote about it on my education blog in more detail. In addition to a large collection of books, my school library has many DVD’s I can use with my students to enhance their learning. Some are movie versions of texts we study, while others are documentaries or educational films.

The library is a gathering place for students, who are encouraged to collaborate. It’s warm, inviting atmosphere has turned it into a real hub on campus. I don’t actually work out of the library anymore now that I’m the English department chair, but I go there when I can to work because it’s one of the best places on campus to be. There is a special spot looking out over the small quad in front of the building that has a great view in the fall as the leaves are changing.

I definitely need to make better use of our public library now that I don’t have any constraints that make it a challenge, but I must admit my affection for the Mildred H. McEvoy Library at my school. Our librarians make it a great space for our students to learn and help our teachers as well.

A quick check-in on how I’m doing with the #ShelfLove Challenge—not much progress this month. April is indeed the cruelest month at school, at least for a person in my role as a department chair, because it involves selecting department awards, placement of students, course ballots, and scheduling (as well as the spring fever slump and senioritis). I elected to try to read between 11-20 books that were already on my shelves (either my physical shelves or my Kindle or Audible library) before January 1, 2016, and so far, of the twelve books I’ve read up to this point, five of them have been #ShelfLove books, which is one more since last month.

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Review: The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

I picked up Tim O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical novel/short story collection yesterday while trying to think of something to write for the blog challenge I’m participating in on my education blog. I have been wanting to read it for a long time, and I purchased it so long ago that I can count it for both the #ShelfLove and Mount TBR challenges, but I struggled with whether to count it as historical fiction. It blurs the lines between memoir and fiction perhaps a bit too much for me. In the end, though, Tim O’Brien says it is a novel, and I shouldn’t argue, but if you’ve read it, perhaps you will understand.

The Things They Carried is a collection of vignettes or chapters, some might say individual short stories—and most chapters certainly have a full story arc—based on Tim O’Brien’s time serving in the Vietnam War. Many of the stories were previously published. The stories are not arranged chronologically. For instance, “On the Rainy River” takes place before O’Brien goes to Vietnam as he is contemplating going to Canada to avoid the draft, while the few stories preceding it all take place during the war. Three post-war stories are interspersed throughout the remainder of the narrative as well.

I’m fairly certain I read “Speaking of Courage” in another form in college. The other stories were all new to me. I’m finding it hard figuring out what to write in this review because it’s hard to review books like this book. What can you say, aside from that the stories and writing are fantastic, and everyone should go out and read it? As I grew up, the country was still processing how it felt about this war, and in many ways, it still is. I couldn’t believe, for instance, that this novel was published in 1990. I felt sure it had been around longer than that. It’s a book I feel like I’ve been hearing about for much longer than that.

You know, Westmoreland visited my high school. I remember it. I didn’t really know or understand who he was, but I distinctly remember feeling like he expected us to be hostile. But maybe that was the teachers. I am still baffled as to why he came. We were all born during the war. Our fathers may have served in it, but beyond that, what connections did we have? And yet I still remember how his back was up as he spoke to us. He was very defensive. I can no longer remember anything he said—just how defensive he was.

When I was young, I remember the controversy over the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. I remember hearing stories about vets in the news. That war was all around me in media when I was young. I always had this powerful sort of personal connection to it because I knew my dad had been there when I was born, and I had been told the story of how he missed the first six months of my life because he was in Vietnam. He must have been there about a year. He was in the Air Force, so he was not out on patrols, in the thick of the most danger. Still, he was in a war zone, and it was all, more or less, dangerous.

O’Brien’s spare stories remind me a great deal of Ernest Hemingway. In fact, I find “Speaking of Courage” to be a descendant, of sorts, of Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home.” Of the stories included in the novel, I think “The Things They Carried,” “On the Rainy River,” and “Speaking of Courage” were my three favorites, but the stories do speak to each other and weave together. I think one of my favorite aspects of the book is O’Brien’s awareness of the importance of telling stories. O’Brien writes the reader into that time and that place. It seems effortless, like the best art is, and the reader is unaware of the stagecraft at play until the next chapter, when O’Brien uncovers it. I’ve not quite read anything like it. I was reading a Buzzfeed article the other day about a list of books you wish you could read again for the first time. I know that feeling of envy—the desire to have that wonderful book in front of you again for the first time. Someone had put this book on the list. I don’t necessarily agree with all the choices other readers made for the list—I do agree with many of them—but I can see why this book made someone’s list. I gulped it down in a day. It was one of the most engrossing books I’ve read for a while.

Rating: ★★★★★

I requested this book via PaperBack Swap in June of last year. I don’t believe I’ll be putting it back into the pool. I want to keep it. It’s been on my to-read list for a lot longer, however.

2016 HF Reading Challenge Button 2

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#ShelfLove Challenge: What I Hate About Reading

Shelf Love Challenge 2016Each month, the #ShelfLove Challenge has a different topic. This month’s topic:

What is one book trope that gets on your nerves? What do you wish the publishing world would STOP doing?

Okay, this one isn’t too hard for me. I hate that vampire books have these weak, defanged vampires who don’t prey on people because it’s wrong and have managed to find ways around being horrible killing machines. Either they kill and drink blood only from animals, or perhaps they just take a little bit of a human’s blood but not enough to kill. If you’re going to be a vampire, you should be full on Dracula. Even Anne Rice understood that with her antihero Lestat. One reason the first few books in her Vampire Chronicles were interesting was that Lestat was a killing machine. Powerful. Unpredictable. Often completely without a moral compass (c. f. the making of Claudia).

I think we can blame Stephenie Meyer for this trend. She made Edward dark and edgy, revealed he was a vampire, and then took all the real danger out by reassuring the reader that the Cullen clan only hunted animals and drank animal blood. Come on. I saw it continue with Deborah Harkness’s vampires in the All Souls Trilogy. The vampires in her books, at least the ones in Matthew de Clairmont’s family, either only take a little blood from willing donors (like Diana Bishop), or they hunt animals. They also drink wine, which is really weird to me.

What the heck is happening here? Bram Stoker would turn over in his grave. Vampires are supposed to be frightening creatures who will kill you. They can be tortured and despise themselves for what they have to do, but they do it because they are vampires and killing people is what they do.

I’m actually swearing off vampire books for a while. If writers are all collectively deciding right now that vampires have to be relatively harmless, then I quit. I truly did enjoy the first few books in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, but I haven’t really enjoyed one since The Tale of the Body Thief. I actually threw Memnoch the Devil across the room. It remains to this day the only book I have actually thrown across the room. I am just going to quit giving her more chances after Prince Lestat.

A quick check-in on how I’m doing with the #ShelfLove Challenge—so far, so good. I elected to try to read between 11-20 books that were already on my shelves (either my physical shelves or my Kindle or Audible library) before January 1, 2016, and so far, of the twelve books I’ve read up to this point, four of them have been #ShelfLove books, which is no change since last month, but I had done so well early on that I’m not worried.

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Sunday Post #44: No Snow

Sunday Post
Last year I installed a plugin that makes it snow. I can enable it whenever I like, so I let it snow on my blog most of the winter because that’s usually what it’s doing here in Worcester. This winter has been sort of mild, however, and it hasn’t even been that cold with the exception of Valentine’s Day weekend. I’m turning off the snow today until next year. I’m not sure winter is really done with us because March is typically an iffy month around here, but the weather usually calms down by April.

I can’t believe I opened with the weather.

I’ve been reading up on the French Revolution for a while now. I admit to being a bit scared to take on Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety because it is over 750 pages long, but I do love Hilary Mantel, and I imagine it’s a pretty good book. Having just finished Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette this week, I dove back into Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and it’s so long and daunting that I really wish I could read it on Kindle. I find with e-books that I don’t feel quite so intimidated by long books, not to mention they’re easier to hold up when I’m reading in bed. This book is seriously not easy to read. Interesting so far, however.

My book club is reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. We meet Wednesday, and I don’t think it’s likely I’ll be finished with the book by then, but I’m going to keep at it because I am really enjoying it. I wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own, but people I respect recommended it so highly that I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. Brown is a good writer, and heart and humanity with which he imbues the subject of the book is a master class in how to write compelling narrative nonfiction.

Now seems like a good time to check in on my reading challenges, too. I’m on track to finish 55 books this year so far. I have completed nine books. I haven’t done much with a few of the challenges, so I need to get going. I have made little progress on the Reading England Challenge (which is very unusual for me, as I typically read quite a lot of books set in England—though this ninth book I mentioned a moment ago is book number one for this challenge). I have made zero progress with the Reading New England Challenge.

On the other hand, I’m doing well with both the #ShelfLove Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge. I’m showing my shelves and TBR pile some love so far. Some small progress on the Historical Fiction Challenge, but as it’s my favorite genre, I’m not worried yet. I’m sure I’ll read more.

That ninth book I mentioned before I should go ahead and write about. It’s The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I had first read it some years ago. I am not really sure how long now, so it was a re-read. I always forget how many of Wilde’s bon mots come from his writing rather than some quip he made in his travels. He’s extremely funny. Probably one of the funniest writers I’ve read. I find it so tragic the way he was treated toward the end of his life. I’m not sure he was exactly the nicest person. It’s hard to tell when someone is as sarcastic as he is exactly what they might really have been like. It’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have liked him if he’s as catty as he comes across, but since I don’t have to be tested by actually knowing the guy, I can declare I adore him absolutely. If you haven’t read any Wilde, this play is a wonderful place to start because it’s short, hilarious, and absolutely wonderful. It’s a great send-up of Victorian mores and frivolity (Rating: ★★★★★).

Here is hoping I can catch up a bit now that some duties at work will lighten a bit starting this week. How has your reading week been?

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme. Image adapted from Patrick on Flickr.

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#ShelfLove Challenge: Fictional Friends

Shelf Love Challenge 2016Each month, the #ShelfLove Challenge has a different topic. It’s a fun idea. Most challenges involve keeping track of your books. I didn’t do the link up for last month, but I did set some reading goals for this year’s challenge.

This month’s topic:

Who is your book boyfriend or girlfriend or best friend? What qualities does this character have that makes him/her the best?

This is an interesting question. After I read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, I’ll cop to a crush on Jamie Fraser (I think just about every woman I know—and probably most men, too—has a crush on Jamie). Fun fact: I met my husband online through one of those dating websites, and the reason I contacted him was he has red hair. It was absolutely a bonus that I fell in love with him for himself later and not for any resemblance he may have to Jamie.

I wrote some time back that after I finished reading Jude Morgan’s book Passion and watched the movie Bright Star, I developed a girl crush on Fanny Brawne. She is not, strictly speaking, a fictional character, but she is a character in two fictionalized stories about the life of John Keats. I also wrote about some other historical crushes I developed after reading about historical figures.

Of course, I’d love to say that I would be BFF’s with Elizabeth Bennet. I think a lot of people feel that way about her. I would also love to say that Anne Elliot and I would be fast friends. Same with Elinor Dashwood, though I’m probably a little more like Marianne. Still I think Marianne goes a bit off her rocker over an undeserving swine, particularly if Alan Rickman is playing Colonel Brandon.

Some time back, I wrote a post about my Top Ten Fictional Best Friends, and I think what I said in that post still holds true, especially Una Spenser from Ahab’s Wife, Morgaine (Morgan Le Fay) of The Mists of Avalon, and Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser of the Outlander. I have to say that reading Ahab’s Wife made me really actually want to know Una Spenser. She is more than a match for old Captain Ahab, and I just loved the way the book wove her story together with that of her more famous husband. And the opening line of that book is memorable: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Actually, same with Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon. Talk about turning conventional wisdom about a legendary character on its head. She’s heartbreaking in her love for Lancelot, and Arthur is a bit heartbreaking, to be honest, in his love for Morgaine. If you have watched the Outlander series on Starz, you totally get why Claire gets a spot on this list. She’s amazing. We all need a friend like her. She knows simply everything about healing and herbalism. She’s the kind of lady I’d like to invite over to make soap with me.

A short check-in on how I’m doing with the #ShelfLove Challenge—so far, so good. I elected to try to read between 11-20 books that were already on my shelves (either my physical shelves or my Kindle or Audible library) before January 1, 2016, and so far, of the six books I’ve read up to this point, four of them have been #ShelfLove books. I’m finding that the challenge is motivating me to clear out my TBR backlist and get some books I’ve purchased read (finally).

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Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father Thomas died in the 9/11 attacks. One day Oskar finds a mysterious key inside an envelope inside a vase. The envelope says the word “Black” on the outside, and Oskar goes on a quest to find out what the key opens and why his father has it. Thinking the word might be the last name “Black,” Oskar does some research and determines the addresses of all the people in New York City with the surname Black. One by one, he begins visiting them to see if he can find out more about the key. He meets interesting people and leaves an imprint on all the people he touches. Interspersed throughout Oskar’s story is the story of his grandparents and their strange, fraught relationship.

I wanted to like this book a little more than I did. I think Oskar, and possibly his grandfather, are supposed to be autistic, and because of my own children, I do find books about characters with autism interesting. I did like Oskar, though I found his mother strangely unconcerned about letting her son roam all over New York City. I guess you could argue she knew he was going to what he was going to do anyway, but her absence, even if you try to explain it away by pointing out she was grieving, was deeply troubling to me. Oskar’s grandfather abandoned his pregnant wife and did not know his son. One of the reasons I didn’t quite like this book were the portions dealing with Oskar’s grandfather. I found him to be a deeply unsympathetic character, even if I took into account his troubled past and the things he had dealt with. I know some people are better at dealing with grief, and for that matter life, than others, but part of what I think made his story less sympathetic was Foer’s postmodern experiments in his storyline. My least favorite, for example, were pages in which the letters seemed to bleed together, almost falling into a puddle on the bottom of the page, until the page filled up. Rather than interesting, I found these experiments deeply annoying. I found rather than being emotionally affected by Oskar’s story (and that of his grandfather), I really felt more like the story was manipulative and self-indulgent. Not to say I totally hated it. I didn’t. I can’t even say I didn’t like it. I’ll just say it was not a hit for me because of the gimmicky postmodern style. The parts I liked, I really liked, but I did find myself in the midst of a new chapter on Oskar’s grandparents and saying, “Oh, here’s one I need to slog through to get to a good one on Oskar.” I don’t want to feel like that reading a book. Because half the book was pretty good, I can’t give it one or two stars, but because about half the book wasn’t, and also because I found the ending unsatisfying, I can’t give it four or five stars either.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I purchased this book in November, but it’s been on my TBR list for a while. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge.
 

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Review: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

I can’t believe it took me this long to finally pick up Between the World and Me. I’ve wanted to read it for months. I finally purchased it for my Kindle back in November, and it sat there on my Kindle for two months before I finally read it today.

I almost feel like I shouldn’t explain what this book is about because I feel like the last person to have read it, but in the event I’m not, and in the event you haven’t bumped into this book yet, Between the World and Me is a letter from Coates to his teenage son, but beyond that, it is a meditation on the history of race relations in America, a stark condemnation of the American Dream, and a powerful narrative of the current (and historical) climate of police brutality. In the Goodreads description:

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

I don’t often say this about a book because I think reading is often intensely personal, and what we like and don’t like doesn’t always translate to others, but I think everyone should read this book. They probably won’t. In fact, the people who most need to read this book probably won’t read it. I’m intensely glad that I did. I learned a lot, and this book has made me think more than most of the books I’ve read. In many ways, I feel like I’ve been waking up to some hard truths about the world and specifically about America, and as a teacher, I feel responsible for my role in helping students make sense of the world around them. One feeling I had as I finished this book is a sense of failure. I know, especially early in my career, that I was not a good teacher (because I was green, mainly), but more specifically, I was a terrible teacher for the young black students in my classes because I didn’t know and didn’t understand so much.

Of this book, Toni Morrison, a writer I respect a great deal, says:

I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.

I can’t make a stronger point than Toni Morrison. If you haven’t read this book, you should, but be prepared to have your world shaken. It is one of those books that might make you measure your life in terms of before you read it and after you read it. It is beautifully written essential reading.

Rating: ★★★★★

I purchased this book in November, but it’s been on my TBR list for a while. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge. I’m chipping away at both of these challenges at a clip. I may need to up my participation level. It’s been good motivation to clear out some items on my TBR list and my shelves.
 

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Review: When She Woke, Hillary Jordan

Hillary Jordan’s novel When She Woke is frequently described as a mashup of The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale (review). I wouldn’t disagree with that characterization, and it seems clear that Jordan was attempting to evoke comparisons to both books. The novel’s protagonist, Hannah Payne, lives in a dystopian near-future after which a terrorist bombing has nearly obliterated Los Angeles and a horrible new sexually transmitted disease rendered many women infertile until a cure was found. Seizing the fears of the populace, the Religious Right convinces many that the natural disasters, wars, and disease are the judgment of God against America. Out of concern for the sanctity of life after so many threats to its existence, the evangelical Trinity Party is able to pass new laws all over America condemning adultery and “fornication” and outlawing abortion. In Hannah’s America, criminals undergo a process called melachroming. They are injected with a virus that turns their skin different colors based on the severity of their crimes. Hannah’s crime is that she had an abortion, rather than expose her minister as the baby’s father and subject him to the punishment their society would mete out. Abortion is considered to be murder, and Hannah is ordered to be melachromed. When she awakens from the procedure, she is red.

Jordan is not exactly a match for Nathaniel Hawthorne or Margaret Atwood, but few writers are, and what she does manage in this book is an intriguing and quite plausible story—all the more plausible during this election season if you listen to the rhetoric of some of the politicians running for president. Hannah takes some time to discover herself, and she begins to doubt much of the religious teaching she has heard all of her life. Do I believe that some people would find the idea of melachroming people as punishment for crime plausible? Jordan’s idea is all too believable and brings Nathaniel Hawthorne’s punishment of wearing a scarlet letter to a horrifying evolution. It makes a lot of sense to me that “chromes,” as they are known in the novel, would become the targets of discrimination and all manner of ill treatment, from assault and rape to murder.

It would be easy for some to dismiss this novel as alarmist and far-fetched. However, we do engage in public shaming (think about how quickly we embarrass those who transgress on social media). Magdalene Houses bear an eerie resemblance to the halfway house where Hannah stays after she is released from the Chrome Ward—there is even a picture of Mary Magdalene in the Straight Path Center. There are always individuals who, in pretending to offer help to the downtrodden, actually victimize them further because society cares so little about them. The novel also includes a note of caution about the increasingly wired lives we are living. Chromes (and really everyone else) are all trackable; hiding is impossible, and running away is fatal. Money exists almost solely on a NIC card, and a port (a futuristic smart phone) is a lifeline to the world, but Hannah will risk immediate detection if she tries to use either device. Ultimately, this novel is all too easy to believe. However, in the end, like Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, When She Woke is a thoughtful meditation on forgiveness and the true nature of God.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I received this book free via a Goodreads giveaway (full FTC disclosure) a very long time ago, and I am embarrassed it took me so long to read and review. It’s been on my Goodreads shelf since October 8, 2011, and I imagine it’s been in my TBR pile almost that long. I’m glad I finally read it. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge because of how long it’s been on my shelf and in my TBR list.
 

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