Wednesday, March 6, 2019

An Open Book: In the dreary winter days

Wishing you all a joyful and peaceful Ash Wednesday! I hope you all have a great start to Lent :) So, I don't live in the Bitterly Cold North, but the skies down here have held a rather gray gloom on most days. So, it has been ideal "let's read books inside" weather! I told myself I would specifically read fiction for a month, and I did read some fiction-but I fell back into old habits of picking up nonfiction. So, if you want to see what I've been reading lately (and to peruse my lengthy rant about a modern P&P adaptation), then this is the post for you!

And make sure to head on over to Carolyn Astfalk's corner of the internet for more great book recommendations! 

The All of It, by Jeannette Haien.
Father Declan de Loughry hears his parishioner, Kevin Dennehy, begin to reveal something startling while on his deathbed. But Kevin dies, leaving his wife, Enda, to explain things in full to their priest, and thus tell him "the all of it." This is a small book, and set at a stream while Father Declan fishes (the story is told in flashbacks), it feels like a rather quiet story. However, the lives of Kevin and Enda are anything but tame-there is a harsh intensity to the circumstances in which they have lived. This story was very well-written (the way the chapters are set up, the way it pulls you in-this is so well-crafted, in my opinion), as it elegantly dives into the characters of Kevin, Father Declan, and Enda. I think it brings up good questions about culpability and the role priests have in listening to others. However, I was really sad to see the turn that Father Declan took-he seems to be more of "friend" than "priest" as the story goes on, and the last couple scenes, while vague and open-ended, did not give me a good feeling about his character. But, this book was really interesting and intriguing. I'm not sure that I recommend it, but it still had good parts to it.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann.
This was a gripping, horrific story that dives into the series of murders that took place in the early 20th century as the wealthy Osage tribe was attacked in sneaky ways. This provided a fascinating look at how the lives of Native Americans have been impacted, and it really shows how they have been so demeaned less than 100 years ago here in Oklahoma. Some parts of it were a little dense for me, because there is SO MUCH research with names and dates and places, but this was really interesting and I wanted to keep reading to see how the story unfolded. This book also made me realize that I am glad I did not live in the Wild West, because of how sketchy the law enforcement (or lack of) was! The author did so much extensive research in trying to unearth murder cases that have been concealed from mainline historical narratives, and I recommend this book-especially for anyone interested in murder cases or American history.

Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden. 
This is a remarkable book about Shin Dong-hyuk, a man who was born and raised in a labor camp in North Korea before he escaped as a young adult. He details the ways in which they were dehumanized in the camp, but also how he didn't see it as dehumanizing, since that was all he had ever known. He walks through how he eventually discovered that there was a world outside of the camp, and how he left and tried to adapt to life in another country-though that has been a very, very difficult process. I really enjoyed this book (thought it is sad and brutal), and the author clearly did his research and corroborated Shin's story with stories from other defectors and studies. However, the author does note in places where Shin gave him a couple different versions of events, and apparently a few years ago, Shin made the news when he publicly changed some parts of his story. Still, regardless of the timeline technicalities that may or may not have happened as they appear in the book, this is a powerful story that will hopefully shake people up to the abuses that are being done in North Korea. I highly recommend this!

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk.
This was a fascinating, in-depth look at trauma from a variety of experiences. It was pretty dense in parts and very scientific (I skimmed the entire chapter on neurofeedback, so don't ask me about that lol) but I really enjoyed how the author brought in stories of different people to illustrate the scientific facts. I learn a lot better from personal stories than just reading the straight-up science. Also, the entire section on therapy theater was so cool-I never knew this existed, and it sounds like the best thing ever. Still, this book took me over a month to get through, so I mostly recommend it if you have an interest in trauma, psychology, or just want to learn about historical developments in the field of mental health.

Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal.
This P&P retelling, set in contemporary Pakistan, is getting rave reviews-but I wasn't a huge fan of it. On the surface level, the story was a bit too descriptive for me. There were pages with several paragraphs narrating backstories and describing small details like Alys applying mascara-and while I'm sure some people enjoy this writing style, it's not my favorite (probably because I myself struggle with being too wordy!). Also, it seemed strangely self-conscious as a retelling- to see Alys Binat talking about Mr. Darcy in one paragraph (because she loved teaching Jane Austen to her students) and then a couple sentences later, to see her speaking with Valentine Darsee-was just weird for me.  As to the story itself, I wasn't a fan of the sex references that were sprinkled throughout, and then there's the whole matter of the book's message. In this book, the author was showing how the double standards and attitudes toward women at the time of P&P fit right in with contemporary society in Pakistan. In modern-day Pakistan, women and girls face discrimination and violence, and have to fight for their basic freedoms. I 100% am on board with Kamal exposing this reality in her book. However, her character of Alys-being the voice of freedom and empowerment-gets a bit extreme. Alys acts like an Angry Liberal Feminist for much of the book, even to the point of praising a supposed prostitute because "at least she was a working woman who supported her family!" So, in summary: this book had some entertaining parts, and I love the good discussions it brings up about female equality and what that can look like in a society. Also, it was nice to see Kitty's character fleshed out more. But, the Angry Liberal Feminism, the sex references, and the neverending descriptions and narrations really took this book down several notches for me.

Maid, by Stephanie Land.
This was a powerful memoir about the author's journey to fight for a life for herself and her young daughter as she supported them through her work as a maid. She intimately brings us into the discomfort and realities of living in poverty and all of the challenges that come with surviving off of government assistance. I thought the ways she discussed the complicated processes to get assistance were really insightful. She also talked about how uncomfortable it is when random people tell her "you're welcome" and how judged and self-conscious she felt for using food stamps. Land also shows her gratitude for the people who recognized her personhood and dignity-the people who called her by her name, who took time to know her during her toughest times. I highly recommend this book. It's an uncomfortable read, and I don't agree with all of the viewpoints the author proclaims, but reading about her life provides a great opportunity to grow in empathy and learn how we can better love each other.

A Girl's Guide to Missiles: Growing up in America's Secret Desert, by Karen Piper.
This was an interesting memoir about how the author spend her childhood in China Lake, the base where missiles were developed for the military's use. I started to lose interest when she began talking about college days and graduate studies in Eugene, Oregon, and hippies and drugs and "free love" and all that she experienced. While it obviously is an important part of her life, I guess I was mostly intrigued by the military base lifestyle side of things. I did find it interesting to see her wrestle with how war, while awful, provided for her and her family. Overall, this book was okay-it was interesting, but not anything super fabulous for me.

The Catholic All Year Compendium, by Kendra Tierney.
I've been following Kendra's blog for several years, so I was excited to pick this book up! Starting with Advent, the book walks through the entire liturgical year, noting seasons, feasts, cool stuff like Ember Days, and lots of awesome and obscure traditions and stories about the saints. Interspersed with all of that, Kendra shares how she and her husband deal with various issues (egg hunt invites on Holy Saturday, discussing Big Topics with young children), which I thought was a neat inclusion. This book is a fantastic resource for anyone who wants to start observing the liturgical year and celebrating the saints, but doesn't know where to begin-or someone who already observes the seasons and saints, but wants to go deeper. It was a lot of fun to go through this, and I appreciate that she speaks with clarity and humor, and I think this book will be a big blessing to a lot of people. However, it just wasn't my personal favorite. I feel a little weird saying that, because I love the liturgical year and Kendra's blog-but this book, while great, just didn't hit me in the way it's hit so many other people. It's written very casually-like a set of blog posts, and-especially for the feasts where she didn't really have many ideas on how to celebrate-I think it would have been neat if the prayers and Liturgy of the day had been incorporated. Also, she explains in the introduction that this book lays out how her family lives the liturgical year-I think it's really important to keep that in mind. I guess I would love to see more liturgical living resources that didn't just feature what large Catholic families are doing, but what single people are doing, what religious orders are doing, what priests are doing-not just here in America, but worldwide. So, this was a good book, it wasn't exactly what I wanted/needed (though it was still fun and insightful). 

We Never Asked for Wings, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.
This contemporary novel follows Letty, a single mother, as she faces an uncomfortable new reality: her parents, who have pretty much single-handedly raised Letty's kids for their entire lives, have moved back to Mexico. Letty now has to step up and take care of her kids and get her life back in order. Amid all of this, her teenage son is falling in love with a local girl, her young daughter's clinginess is making life challenging, and she's trying to find a way to get her kids in a better school. This was a moving story about family, forgiveness, and perseverance amid hardship. It also touches on the challenge faced when dealing with undocumented people, specifically children who were moved to the U.S. as babies. It was an enjoyable story, and while there were a couple scenes I could have done without (teens in a physical, romantic relationship), I did like this book and the deep questions that it asks.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, by Kate Moore.
One of our librarians recommended this to me months ago, and I finally picked it up-and I am so grateful. This book was excellent. It follows the lives and tragedies of the countless young women who worked as dial-painters in the 1920s. Their employers-along with the wider culture-all told them that handling radium in their work was harmless (and could even be good for them), but when one woman after another started experiencing extreme decay in her body, these women discovered it was no coincidence. Their employers didn't want to admit fault for endangering these women, and so a long legal battle ensued. This story was utterly fascinating, and the author did a great job making it riveting and bringing these women to life on the page. She did tons of extensive research, and uses their actual recorded words that were marked down in diaries, letters, and court reports. She also visited the graves of these women and spoke with their families, to find a good way to portray them.  The product of all of this work is superb, and I heartily recommend this. My only caution is for those who are squeamish-the author describes the fate of these young women in detail, and what these women went through is completely horrific and may be too much for some people to handle reading about (but I still recommend reading this book and skimming those parts).  

Thanks for joining me as I share about books! As always, please send me your recommendations, and I'll try to get to them eventually. I simply love discovering new-to-me books!


  1. Thanks for linking up! I LOVE that, with one exception, these are books I would NEVER just pick up on my own. But now I know about them - and will probably add a couple to my reading list! That's why I love An Open Book.

    1. Thank you for hosting the linkup! I get most of my book recommendations from blog book linkups-I love finding new titles that way! In fact, I just picked up the book about God and Guinness from the library today-the one you mentioned a month or two back! I've only read the introduction so far, but I loved it and I'm really excited to read more :)

  2. I didn't even get through the first chapter of Unmarriageable; I knew right away that I wouldn't like it despite the rave reviews. I'm glad to see my gut instinct was right.

    1. Good job listening to your gut instinct! I held on really hoping that it would get better, that there would be SOMETHING redeemable in that book (I just started skimming at some point). And I think there are beneficial things the author introduced, but I honestly should have just taken it back to the library after the first couple chapters.

  3. I get so many of my book recommendations from you! Adding a bunch to my list!

  4. So many good books! I read one that I really enjoyed - it was a murder mystery and it was about the radium girls. But for the life of me I can't remember what it was called. I will have to see if I can find it for you.

    1. That sounds so fantastic-please let me know if you think of the title!!