How to Walk Away by Katherine Center

How to Walk Away by Katherine Center

Center, Katherine 06.2018
Cover image shown with permission from St. Martin’s Press

I was recently reading some comments by the Dalai Lama (and stay with me here because I realize I’m here to write about Katherine Center’s latest novel, I promise this has relevance) about his experience being forced to flee his home country of Tibet, and to live most of his life in exile. What he said about this experience that was so painful to him, was also all the joy that had come out of the life that was forced upon him. Instead of being bitter about the unfairness of it all and focusing on the pain the separation had caused him, he spoke about the relationships and the positive outcomes that he would not have had if he had been able to live the life that he had originally imagined. How many of us could have the same outlook?

Margaret (what a great name for a protagonist!) Jacobsen has her life planned out: she is about to start a dream job in Austin, Texas after years of hard work, she is adored by her family (except for a mysteriously estranged sister), and has a successful, handsome boyfriend, who loves her dearly, and who looks like he is about to propose(!) On top of all this, Margaret seems like a really kind, hard-working person, who deserves all the success and happiness that is coming her way. Unfortunately, as in real life, bad things happen to good people.

After a terrible accident changes everything, Margaret’s world begins falling apart, forcing her to rely on people she cannot stand (see: return of estranged sister), and watching pieces of her life that were supposed to be so strong crumble around her. She has to make choices, really hard ones that make you wonder what you would do in her shoes, and cause the reader to think about people who live with disabilities every day, and what their experiences must be like. I have to admit, I was humbled when she spoke about hating the looks of pity people gave her, when she just wanted to be viewed as a normal person. I am definitely guilty of giving those looks.

I felt this story was very honest and compelling, while also upbeat considering the seriousness of the subject. Another thing I’ve learned from the Dalai Lama is the value of laughter and not taking yourself too seriously, so I found this tone to be realistic and empowering. There are lots of interesting family dynamics/drama, and yes, a love story, so as far as I’m concerned this book has it allincluding amazing inspirational quotes such as “When you don’t know what to do for yourself, do something for somebody else.” and

“You have to live the life you have. You have to find inspiration in the struggle, and pull the joy out of hardship… Because that’s all we can do: carry the sorrow when we have to, and absolutely savor the joy when we can.
Life is always, always both.”

Overall I would recommend this story to anyone, but definitely for someone who enjoys an engaging plot that’s realistic but upbeat, with a thoughtful and strong female narrator, and interesting and complex relationships and family dynamics.

How to Walk Away by Katherine Center

Published: May 15, 2018

I read this as: an ARC I received at the PLA conference 2018

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Grit by Angela Duckworth

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Duckworth, Angela 05.2018
Cover image shown with permission by Scribner from Simon & Schuster

This book was recommended to me by a fellow librarian friend while we were working at a conference a few months ago. While I had heard about the book, I’ve often found self-help books to be hit-or-miss and am reluctant to read them. With her recommendation I decided to try it out.

This book starts out discussing the tendency in American culture to prioritize talent and “genius”. We believe in the value of hard work, but when someone is labeled as special, the narrative that they will be successful automatically starts playing. However, what about people (like myself), who haven’t been labeled a “genius”? Are we destined to a life of second-rate happiness? And what about those early prodigies that end up fizzling-out after all of their talent is overtaken by the pressures of success or the first encounter with disappointment?

Duckworth’s research demonstrates that innate talent isn’t the main driver of success, in fact in some cases it is quite the opposite. Often those to whom understanding and brilliance comes easily are not prepared for the moments of failure that inevitably come. At the same time, people who develop the habit of working hard in spite of repeated disappointment discover the value of Grit, and are more likely to finesse skills that take 1,000s of hours to master. Additionally, Duckworth underscores the importance of following your passion, as it is the innate love of something that will inspire you to get up and work at it, rather than chasing a dream that never was your first love.

I found this book really inspiring, and it did speak to me as the mantra of never giving up is an important theme in my own life. Of course, there are unfortunate aspects of our society such as nepotism, institutional racism and sexism, that will continue to block even the most hard-working of us from landing deserved successes, and this has been one of the criticism of the book. However, I want to point out that barriers like those may not spell the end for someone who has Grit, and I think that was Duckworth’s point. That it is people who can find the strength to keep going in spite of the odds that are more likely to ultimately find success, and that, I think that is something we can all believe in.

I read this as an audiobook (read by the author) and found it really easy to listen to, which is a strength in a researched-based non-fiction title. This is a great book to recommend to a student, someone early or at a turning point in their career, or a parent, as she gave lots of advice for how to instill grit in your child (hint: don’t tell them they are a genius!) This book has helped me re-focus on my own goals and create strategies on how I can achieve them, and I’ll leave you with this quote that personally resonated with me:

…there are no shortcuts to excellence. Developing real expertise, figuring out really hard problems, it all takes time―longer than most people imagine….you’ve got to apply those skills and produce goods or services that are valuable to people….Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it…it’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love―staying in love.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Published on: May 3rd, 2016

I read this as: an audiobook from Overdrive

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Gyasi, Yaa 2018.05
Cover image provided with permission from Penguin Random House

This is one of the more unique stories I’ve read in a long time. Not only in its monumental telling of two families divided by an ocean and spanning many generations, but also in its endeavor to look through one of the most painful events in history, American slavery, including its causes and ramifications, and find the lives that made up this heartbreaking history. Many chapters of this novel were indeed difficult to read, but Gyasi did an unbelievable job weaving each character’s story with the next, steadily building to its final outcome.

First we meet Effia and Esi, two separated sisters growing up along the Gold Coast of Africa during the late 1700’s. Effia is married off to a white slave trader and begins raising her family in a castle, while, unbeknownst to her, Esi is trapped in the castle’s dungeon and eventually sold off to be a slave in the new-born United States. What follows is a story from each generation of their descendants as one family is thrown into slavery, and the other must face the conflicts of the Fante and Ashanti wars in pre-named Ghana. Telling this sweeping story was quite an undertaking for Gyassi to take on, I was surprised to learn this was her first novel, as it has the craftsmanship of an extremely practiced author.

Each chapter of this book is a new character, vacillating back and forth between the families. Every character experiences some aspect of the suffering brought upon the world by slavery and war. This novel is epic in its depiction of slavery’s history through so many different lenses, and I personally enjoyed the variation of characters, as the story seeks to create a greater narrative. I would recommend this book for readers interested in African-American and African history, those wanting to learn more about the injustices not only of slavery, but also of the Jim Crow era, or anyone interested in reading complex, haunting historical fiction.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Published on: June 7, 2016

I read this as: an audiobook from Overdrive

Happiness by Heather Harpham

Happiness by Heather Harpham

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Cover image provided with permission from Henry Holt & Co.

When I reflect on this book, I think of one word: Grace. It’s a story where many things go wrong, but then there are moments of miraculous blessings. Where people are given second chances after making poor decisions, and some are given the ultimate gift of life after looking death right in the eye. Unfortunately, it’s a story where the unthinkable happens, the death of children-innocents-and it reminds me of the lyrics from Hamilton, after Alexander’s son is killed:

There are moments that the words don’t reach

There is a Grace too powerful to name

We push away what we can never understand

We push away the unimaginable

Ultimately, I consider the grace with which Harpham weaves several stories that tell how she became the mother of a very sick little girl, how she fought for her with all her might, and how through a great deal of suffering and countless moments of despair, she found happiness, in spite of everything stacked against that outcome.

This book is a memoir in which Harpham deftly describes how she became pregnant with her daughter, Gracie, how this strained her relationship with Gracie’s father, Brian; a man who although loving her deeply, was terrified of parenthood and walked away from their relationship during the pregnancy (the worst I know, but Harpham tells the story so beautifully and with such clarity that you almost see where he’s coming from. Almost.) Once Gracie is born, it’s clear that she is sick, she must undergo regular blood transfusions to keep her alive. What follows is a beautiful story of hope, love, strength, heartbreak and resiliency as this little clan goes through setbacks and surprises to make Gracie well.

What I really loved about this story is Harpham’s ability to understand other people, to forgive and connect with them in a way many of us simply are not capable of.  She’s able to see her own pain, her own unlucky hand, and still find goodness and offer kindness to others. While the book’s title is Happiness, so hopefully it doesn’t spoil anything to say it has a happy ending, she points out that going through this experience doesn’t make her immune to future sadness. I find that a very brave way to look at the world.

This is a great book for someone looking for a very moving story, who is not afraid to cry a good deal while reading it. Harpham’s writing is seriously top-notch and she is a gifted story-teller, I could not put this one down because I had to know what was happening in this little world, to this family and the people who surrounded them. If you are looking for a book about family, grit, and love, this one is for you.

Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After by Heather Harpham

Published on: August 1, 2017

I read this as: a library book

 

The Gates by John Connolly

The Gates by John Connolly

A few years ago I read John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things and absolutely loved it, it’s a title I recommend to library customers all the time. I was thinking about re-reading it a few weeks ago, when I thought ‘why haven’t I tried to read anything else by him?” So I decided to check-out “The Gates” on audiobook.

What a sweet, adorable, and hilarious book based on a young boy defending Earth from Satan and his demons. One evening Samuel Johnson stumbles upon his neighbors summoning the devil, an act they try upon out of pure boredom. It all works out, you see, because the Hadron Collider over in Switzerland has accidentally released a God-particle at the exact same moment as the summoning, creating a lot of chaos as finally the gates of Hell are open to the world. Who hasn’t been there before, am I right?

Samuel and his friends team up with Nurd, a demon who doesn’t particularly want to be a demon, as they attempt to fight back against the ensuing evil army. Connolly writes these characters with lots of affection, I loved their relationships with each other and how they treated and cared for one another in the face of certain doom.

This is a great book for both adults and young adults, although the jokes about hell and demons may not appeal to a devoutly religious person, so just be forewarned. I would definitely recommend it to Douglas Adams or Kurt Vonnegut lovers, and readers who enjoy a humorous take on very serious subject. The book is also the first of a series, so definitely something to try out if you’re looking to fall in love with Samuel and his heroic dog, Boswell. Lastly, I highly recommend the audio-book version, the actor Johnathan Cake did an amazing job and truly brought these characters to life with his talent and skill.

The Gates by John Connolly

Published on: September 27, 2009

I read this as: an Audiobook from Hoopla

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

Alam, Rumaan 2018.02This book was not what I thought it was going to be at all. It started almost as a superficial take on motherhood (it’s hard y’all!), but turns into this beautiful dissertation  on the happenstance of life, family, and race relations in America.

What I like about this book is that the characters are flawed in very real ways, weaknesses that we can see in ourselves if we really look closely. Rebecca, the protagonist, is an optimist, which sometimes prevents her from seeing the truth; she acts selfishly at times, yet she does so out of love; she tries not to see herself as a “White hero”, but she takes secret pride and shame from her role as one. It also speaks a lot of truth about race relations in America: some scenes were uncomfortable, yet were so real they took me back to moments when I realized a person of color was being treated differently that I was, a white female.

This is not a plot-driven novel, but I enjoyed every moment reading it as the characters were so well developed I kept reading to see if they came out okay. Alam does a brilliant job of writing about women, I don’t think I could describe breast-feeding as accurately as he writes, and I have actually breast-fed! I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in motherhood, family, adoption, and American race relations.

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

Publication date: May 8, 2018

I read this as: Edelweiss ARC

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Lippman, Laura 2018.04
Cover image provided with permission from HarperCollins

Polly and Adam are drawn toward each other like magnets, despite each of them knowing it’s a very bad idea. Polly has abandoned her family and is running away from (or  perhaps towards?) something, what it is isn’t exactly clear. Adam has secrets too, his boss has sent him to investigate Polly, but why, exactly? The story progresses in a search to answer questions that only seem to lead to more questions, the suspense slowly building to one inevitable outcome.

Set in 1995 Delaware, this book has a noir appeal to it, Polly’s aesthetic is vintage and the restaurant that both Polly and Adam begin working in has a 1950s nostalgia flair. The writing style is also very sparse, reminding me of The Maltese Falcon and other compelling mysteries of that era. The story has many layers to it that must be slowly peeled back until the truth is discovered, the secrets of the past complicating the future, or as one character puts it:

Some people are like rabbit holes, and you can fall a long, long way if you go too far.

Sunburn is spellbinding story that kept me coming back to solve the riddles of Polly’s past and to see what violent ends awaited the people around her. It was clear that the book wasn’t going to end well for someone, the question is who that person is and by what means. Lippman is masterful in building the plot and slowly leaking the details, by the end everything is clear and the story has a resolution, even if it’s not exactly what you were hoping for. I would recommend this for lovers of a femme-fatale noir mysteries, or someone who enjoys a good suspense novel that keeps you guessing until the very last moment.

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Published on: February 20, 2018

I read this as: A library book