WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH by Elizabeth Acevedo

This is the second book I’ve read from Acevedo and I listened to both of them on audio. I believe she is an author that should not only be read, but be heard as well. Her reading is thick with a Dominican accent and her placement of words melt together like a cherished recipe, passed down from generation to generation, but mixed with individual style.

WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH is about the fictional character, Emoni Santiago, and takes place during her senior year in high school. During her freshman year, she had a baby girl and is balancing all the important parts of her life: school, being a mom, being a granddaughter, work schedules and navigating outside relationships. Her best friend, Angelica, is an encouraging and supportive friend, but Emoni’s soul belongs to cooking. She can feel the needs of a recipe and blends ingredients together so skillfully many people believe it is laced with magic. The word that kept coming to my mind while reading FIRE was vibrant. Vibrant family. Vibrant food. Vibrant friendships. Vibrant love. Vibrant writing. Surrounded by all this support and love, Emoni still struggles with what to do with her life. How does one plan for the future when the consequences of your past are always with you in the present. At her high school graduation she reflects:

And like a map I’ve been following without knowing the exact destination, I know now, I’ve been equipping myself with tools from the journey to help me survive when I arrive.

No matter your age, that is a sentiment that will resonate. Through struggles and hardship and triumphs and setbacks, we are equipping ourselves with the needed tools for our future selves.

The first book I read from Acevedo was THE POET X. I blogged about it last year and how much I enjoyed it. Especially as an audio. She will transport you with the lilt of her voice and place you firmly into the heart of her story. Acevedo is a National Poetry Slam champion and holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Maryland.

WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH is listed as a Young Adult read from Harper Teen, but I wouldn’t shy anyone away from enjoying the deep heritage and stories held within Acevedo’s books. They are strong and descriptive and culturally driven. I can’t wait to read her latest book, CLAP WHEN YOU LAND.

WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH is a celebration of young, single mothers and the role models who help shape them as mamas and as independent female leaders. I highly recommend all three of Acevedo’s books. Having read two of the three, I have no doubt her third book is as engaging as the others.

Special kudos also to the amazingly illustrated book cover by Erick Davila and Erin Fitzsimmons. What a beautiful piece of art for my shelves. Artwork equal to the quality of words that reside within.

GHOST by Jason Reynolds

I miss Castle.

I realize this isn’t something I need to hide (anymore.) But you have to understand, I started this secret habit back before it was cool.

I was a full-fledged adult with full-fledged middle school and high school children when Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants first came out. I hid in my bedroom and read every book. I was deeply invested in each character.

Hi. My name is Greta. I love to read memoirs and crime and history and fiction and non-fiction and……YA. Yes, I read young adult novels.

(Once a trend becomes acceptable and popular, it’s hard to break the habit of hiding your secrets!)

The main character in this YA book is Castle Cranshawl (aka: ‘Ghost’.) The narrative is from his own perspective as a middle schooler from a low income home. Sort of by accident, he finds himself learning a new sport: running track. What started as a competition between two students ended with an Olympic coach immediately recognizing Castle’s natural talent as a runner. As a reader, you are instantly on Jamal’s side and cheering for his new passion. If I could sit in the bleachers at one of his events, I would!

GHOST, by Jason Reynolds (a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature), draws you in quickly to Castle’s world while also addressing subjects like social inequality, an abusive parent, bullying, a hard-working mom, mentoring and what it’s like to be a Black kid from public housing learning to trust adults and even harder, his fellow track competitors. Sure – he’s got natural talent as a runner. But will his anger trip him up?

I wholeheartedly recommend this for your young reader. It’s uplifting and told from a first person’s perspective. Great conversation starters for your kids or students.

But I warn you, you’ll miss Castle, too, once the book is through. Lucky for us, however, GHOST is the first in a Track Series of 4 books.

Castle loves sunflower seeds. Readers will love Castle.

THE NAME JAR by Yangsook Choi

I remember it clearly. I was in 4th grade, Mrs. Adams’ class at Alton Elementary School and I was up next to give a talk about myself: WHO I AM. I collected the usual data about where I was born and what my birthday was, etc. I don’t remember being overly nervous about standing up and talking to my class, but I remember being very nervous…embarrassed…about my name.

Before there was a Greta Thunberg or a Greta Gerwig, or even a Greta Van Susteren – I was the only ‘Greta’ I had ever heard of. And then there was my middle name – the maiden name of my grandmother…Rains. Greta Rains. It seemed like everyone in my class had names like Susan or Roger or Kellie or Kevin. And their middles names were Sue or Allen or Edward.

Even though I was born and raised in the United States, I still felt a lot of empathy for the main character of our book – Unhei.

Unhei had just moved to the United States from Korea when she found herself a week later, standing in front of her new school classmates being introduced as a new student. When her classmates eagerly asked her what her name was she simply replied, “Um, I haven’t picked one yet. But I’ll let you know by next week.”

Her classmates dove right in to help her pick out her name. They filled a suggestion jar with possible names for Unhei to choose from. Caught between the love for her grandmother in Korea (who helped pick out her name) and the pressure of fitting in at her new school, Unhei had a hard time picking her new American name. She sought advice from her parents and even Mr. Kim at the neighborhood Korean market. But ultimately, it was her new friend, Joey, who helped her decide on the name she would be called.

May has been Asian American month. THE NAME JAR is a wonderful way of celebrating our unique and wonderful differences while also recognizing the ways in which we are all so similar.

A WOMAN IS NO MAN by Etaf Rum

I will admit, it makes me a little nervous to review a book that a) has been popular and critically acclaimed, b) promotes gender equality and c) (most importantly) is about a culture with which I have very little to no connection. So I step into my thoughts very cautiously.

A WOMAN IS NO MAN grabbed my attention very quickly and did not let go. Some reviewers have commented they thought it was repetitive, but I think the repetitivity was a significant part of the overall story. Two common phrases came to mind while reading this book: ‘The sins of the father shall be visited upon his children’ which is the biblical version of ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’.

Short review: I enjoyed the book and felt invested in each of the characters.

The longer version of my review involves a fair bit of cynicism (or is that discernment?) In general, any time I read a book that seems to rail against religious belief, I tend to wonder if the author is simply angry with the people involved in her particular religious story. Could the abuse in this book have happened in any familial situation? I think the answer to that is a resounding yes. We see this generational abuse evident in other cultures as well. But certainly, the Arab community has the reputation of patriarchal dominance and female submission – at any cost. This cyclical abuse is not something that is just portrayed in movies, but we have heard the testimony of it from many who have emerged from its conservative stronghold.

I am certain that many Arab women can identify with the stories of the women we are introduced to in this book. Isra, Fareeda, Deya and Sara lived in the same way their mothers did – in Palestine and even after immigrating to Brooklyn. Many of their customs are based in the pursuit of family cohesiveness. But many are also driven by pride and the protection of community reputation. In A WOMAN IS NO MAN, physical abuse of women is widely sanctioned for generation upon generation. It seems to be an accepted aspect of life for females – another responsibility like ironing, cooking, caring for their children and the occasional beating from their spouse. The yearnings of the female characters to want more for their life and the lives of their children, eventually led to freedom for some. Others, to a deeper understanding.

I would hate for readers to come away from this book with a distaste for the Quran or any form of organized religion and cultural traditions. Mostly, I would regret that any reader walk away with the idea that the traditional family structure is not enough to satisfy some women. And yet I also want to honor the inherent struggles of ancient customs and cyclical abuse. Overall, I hope a curiosity is raised in readers that would encourage us all to research further into what it means to be a Palestinian Muslim woman and or an immigrant from the old country, asking ourselves, Is this one woman’s story or does it mirror many Arab-American stories?

This felt like a quick read and one in which I was engaged to the point of thinking about the characters throughout the day. I applaud all authors that can foster that kind of relationship between reader and character. The book’s ending seemed abrupt. I was left with many questions about what happened after and did they survive. But that’s the point of a good story, right? Do we need to know all the answers? Is our imagination given the freedom to finish the story as we would hope to see it end? I commend Etaf Rum for championing women and allowing the reader to peek inside an unfamiliar world.

I’m glad these stories are a part of my understanding now. They have widened my worldview. I would recommend this book to others with the caveat that you read it as one author’s tale and not a collective assumption that all Arab-American families are the same. Rum will take you gently into a world you may know very little about. Let your curiosity guide you throughout the book and even more so after closing the back cover.

THE MOMENT OF LIFT by Melinda Gates

It was nice to hang out with Melinda Gates for a few afternoons recently. That’s what it felt like. As if sitting across the table from her, asking her questions about her life – which is my favorite kind of memoir.

I listened to this book on audio. I have found that memoirs and autobiographies are a genre I really enjoy listening to vs reading from a physical book. When they are narrated by the author, I truly feel like I know them on a deeper level than mere news coverage or entertainment news. The Moment of Lift was no exception.

It takes a unique spouse to be married to someone as universally known and as powerful as Bill Gates. Melinda talks about this openly and how they have had to navigate their relationship throughout their marriage. Known for their extravagant philanthropy for global poverty, it was comforting to read about the universal challenges all relationships face.

Their work with the marginalized in society is creating major shift changes in cultures and in particular, opportunities for women worldwide. Melinda talks candidly in this book about her birth control campaign for third-world women and how it aligns with her personal faith but not quite aligns with her relationship with the Catholic church (while not condemning the Catholic church.) In a group interview she had with a mother in Africa who had gotten an IUD a few years ago, she asked if there were any words of advice this women would give to the younger mothers in attendance. The mother replied, “When I had two children, we could all eat. With more children, we could not. When you can’t take care of your children, you’re just training them to steal.” In many poor nations, women were continually telling Melinda that if they had the opportunity to plan their pregnancies, then they could take better care of the children they had, could work harder for the family’s income and would make happier wives for their husbands.

Over and over again I found myself wanting to bookmark her words and insight…

Overcoming the need to create outsiders is our greatest challenge as human beings. It is the key to overcoming deep inequality. We stigmatize and send to the margins people who trigger in us the feelings we want to avoid. If we’re on the inside and see someone on the outside we often say to ourselves, “I’m not in that situation because I’m different.” But that’s just pride talking, we could easily be that person. It scares us because it suggests that maybe success and failure aren’t entirely fair.

I went into this book with a great respect for Bill and Melinda Gates. Reading the last page of the book found me with an even greater admiration. They are deeply cognizant of differing world cultures and traditions while also promoting basic human decency for men, women and children. I am profoundly grateful for the work they do.

To whom much is given, much is expected. – Luke 12:48

REFORESTING FAITH by Matthew Sleeth, MD

A friend on Instagram mentioned this book recently and it seemed to speak to many of my core beliefs. We were created to live within our natural surroundings but as a result of societal advancements, we have walled ourselves away from our native home.

REFORESTING FAITH speaks about the importance of trees within the Christian faith. On the first page of Genesis a tree is mentioned. Also in the first Psalm, on the first page of the New Testament as well as the last page of Revelation – and many places along the way. Every major biblical or theological event has a tree marking the spot.

We were given an important responsibility: to care for God’s creation. And we haven’t been doing a very good job at it. This book walks the reader through the Bible, highlighting the significant places where God mentions or includes trees in His teachings and miracles.

Because we were created to be in communion with nature, we are more able to clear our minds and feel more connected with ourselves and others when we’ve spent time breathing in the oxygen the trees so generously supply for us.

Too often we have a short-term mindset. Our 70 years of existence is nothing compared to the 5,000 years of an ancient tree.

Proverbs tells us that a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.

Christians are instructed to make this earth look more like heaven.
Plant trees, care for trees, and preserve old forests.

REVIEW:

I enjoyed the way Sleeth highlights the areas where God used trees to tell stories and to mark significant occasions. It will always stand out to me now when I read about a tree in the Bible. My initial response to the book, however, was that Sleeth seemed to ‘dummy down’ his explanations about the bible as well as the environment. Then again, I don’t know who he intended his target audience to be. Perhaps he was being sensitive to people who don’t believe in the Bible but want to live a better life in connection with the environment and its preservation.

Many years ago I read the theory that Christians are so concentrated on the next life that they don’t see the need to care for this ‘temporary home’ – Earth. This shames me as a Christian. We were given a beautiful, magnificent gift from our Creator and we’re trashing it like teenagers throwing a raucous party while their parents are out of town. REFORESTING FAITH reminded me of that theory. Have Christians resisted being actively involved in environmental issues for fear of appearing too pagan? This is at such odds with what God weaved together for our enjoyment.

I was encouraged to recommit to being aware and vigilant of the way that I live and how it elevates or depletes the gift of Creation. It also reinforced my desire to stand barefoot in the grass and walk leisurely through a canopy of trees. Not only do these two activities help calm and center my emotional well-being, but there is a positive and physical reaction as well as I, the created, am connected with my Creator.

TREE PICTURES photographed on trips to:
Big Trees State Park, California
University of California Berkeley
Lake Tahoe, California
Yosemite National Park, California

THE WATERGATE GIRL by Jill Wine-Banks

I’m really excited about this book. Honestly, Watergate was *around* when I was a kid, but I was too young to understand it. I just knew adults were talking about it – when it happened and years afterwards. ⠀

Jill Wine-Banks was an assistant prosecutor during the Watergate hearings. Her house was burgled, her phones were tapped, and even her office garbage was rifled through as she worked on some of the most important prosecutions of high-ranking White House officials. This book is her perspective of a monumental time in American history. ⠀

Thank you, Henry Holt Books, for this gifted copy. I am thrilled to get started!

The French Open

I am ALWAYS thrilled when I receive a book to be reviewed before it’s released to the public. I feel like I’ve received a huge gift every time and I am immensely grateful.

But sometimes the publishers do it up extra. Such was the case with this book. Opening this package was a Parisian delight…

Honestly, while opening this special package I realized all the Corona stress was just under the surface for me because I immediately teared up at the special care and beauty the publisher took to promote this book. Thank you, Atria Books. It was a wonderful relief to see beauty in the midst of so much uncertainty.

The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles, (releases in June 2020) is one of my favorite themes: a book about the love of books. During World War II in Paris, librarians joined the Resistance armed with the best weapons they had: the truth found nestled in the pages of a book.

The main character, Odile, is a librarian at the American Library in Paris in 1939 as the Nazis march in. Risking her life and her library, she makes difficult decisions that will redirect her life.

Years later, in 1983, she befriends a lonely teenager in small-town Montana over their shared love of language and a dark secret that connects them both.

Atria Books included macarons from Epicerie Boulud in New York City. What a lovely touch.

I am excited to learn more about this significant battle being waged within World War II and the heroic librarians who paved the way.

Thank you, again, Atria Books, for bringing delight to your readers and an extra-needed moment of clarity to me, during an uneasy time in the world.

Ode to the DNF

As readers, we’ve all experienced the mental pros and cons list we automatically go to when facing a potential DNF (Do No Finish.) It took me quite a few years into adulthood before I would actually NOT finish a book. Finally I reached the point when I realized my time and comfort level was worth more than my commitment to finish a book I wasn’t enjoying or was about topics that made me uneasy. Even still, it takes quite a bit for me to lay a book aside. Many times it’s the pure curiosity of wondering how it ends that keeps my plowing through. 

This book is a Potential DNF as I haven’t 100% made up my mind yet about it. You can see where my book tab is. I’m not quite halfway through. I’ve enjoyed the topic (although a little overdone in the past few years, it feels like. Girl spy during one of the early wars.) I liked this character and it’s based on a real person. 

But it came to a dramatic stop recently when an event in the book was more than I could swallow. It was rough. At the very least, I needed to step away from the book for a bit. I’ve read two light-hearted books since putting a pause on this one. Maybe those lighter reads will buoy me enough to step back into the dark world that this book is currently in. 

The book jumps from present to past so I’m wondering if I just skip to the next section (Part Three), if I’ll be able to catch up on the things I skipped over. The looming question, however, is will I become engrossed in it again only to have another zinger of a plot twist creep up as gross and disturbing as the one I just read??

I’ve been hesitant to use the word ‘triggering’ because I’m not sure the exact definition of it. Does it apply only if it has actually happened to you? As a mom, I am VERY sensitive to things happening to children, even mental anguish. I definitely didn’t used to be that way. I loved reading crazy, scary books as a teen. But I watched the movie Sophie’s Choice when my firstborn was 9 months old and I spent the rest of the evening sitting by his crib and crying. Seriously!, it broke me. So children being hurt – mentally or physically – is a real trigger for me. And that’s where I am in this book. I’m sure many of you have read this and it was no big deal. (The book comes out at the end of month.) But that’s the deal, right? What is triggering for one person is totally fine for another. (And if you have read this book, I’m sure you can probably guess what event stopped me dead in my tracks…)

It’s raining this week in California. Like, a lot. The days are dreary and overcast and that’s to say nothing of the whole Covid-19 situation overtaking our thoughts and moods. So for now, I’m going to stick with other books and hope I don’t forget too much of what I’ve read so far in this book. Maybe I’ll come back to it later (because it really WAS an interesting book.) Just not right now.

What items make you set down a book and not come back? What makes you say, ‘Nope!’? I’d really love to hear your experiences and what trends you see in your own reading life that make you stop and walk away.

 

Sidenote: I have purposefully not mentioned the name of the book or the author’s name, even though you can plainly see it in the picture. I don’t want any search engines to find the title and it get a bad review. I’m not giving it a bad review. Just because something bothers me, doesn’t mean it’s not a good book for anyone. In fact, it’s been an interesting and engaging book. I just need a little space from it for now. Or until it becomes a DNF.

LEADERSHIP IN TURBULENT TIMES by Doris Kearns Goodwin

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a year now. You know how it is…new books kept grabbing my attention or library holds come in or Book of the Month is asking me to choose. And now that I am reviewing books for publishers, I have a steady stream of books showing up at my door, asking to be read. (NO complaints from me!)

But as a result, this book has kept being pushed back month to month.

Thanks to Whitney and her Unread Book Challenge I was encouraged to read a ‘gifted book’ for February and I knew exactly which one I would pick. Dad sent this to me last year after seeing Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author, Doris Kearns Goodwin in Kansas City. I feel very lucky to have a signed copy of one of her books.

It was completely accidental (unless my subconscious mind got the best of me) that I read LEADERSHIP IN TURBULENT TIMES (2018) during the 2020 presidential primary season and California’s primary voting as a part of Super Tuesday. It’s been particularly interesting to compare the four men highlighted in this book – Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson – with our own political environment in 2020. Sure, there were times that made me cringe and dream for a more noble and respectful political world but I was surprised by the level of relief I found while reading it. There have been many difficult, trying and turbulent times in our country’s young history. That thought kept coming to me again and again. We’re not new to this discourse. I DEEPLY wish it was a civil discourse we were having today, but plotting and underhanded pundits and news source propaganda is nothing new. Kearns explores how each man recognized leadership qualities within themselves and were recognized as leaders by others.

At moments of great challenge, they were able to summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.

Briefly, here are the corresponding turbulent times for each president:

  • Abraham Lincoln – the splintering of America during and after the Civil War
  • Teddy Roosevelt – took office following the assassination of President McKinley and dealt with the coal strike, he curbed many monopolies (such as the railroad), constructed the Panama Canal and he brought conservation awareness to the forefront
  • Franklin Roosevelt – the disparity and bank crises following the Great Depression
  • Lyndon Johnson – took office following the assassination of President Kennedy and faced down the opposition and fracturing of America surrounding civil rights

Goodwin develops each president fully. Their personal background (which always influences our biases), their early political career and the specific difficulty they had in their presidency that greatly influenced the United States’ trajectory.

The banking crisis, admittedly, was a little over my head. Or…a LOT over my head at times. But she mixed the economic details easily with the personal stories that kept me engaged.

This book deals with the guiding principles of leadership in any field. It would make an excellent gift for a graduating student but also appeals to anyone interested in character development, dealing with failures and rising above the noise of popular opinion to make measured and enduring decisions for the betterment of the human race.

I’ll end with one such example – the skill noted in Lincoln’s emotional intelligence. His empathy, humility, consistency, self-awareness, self-discipline and generosity of spirit. “So long as I have been here,” Lincoln maintained, “I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.” There was no room for mean-spirited behavior, for grudges or personal resentments. He welcomed arguments within the Cabinet but would be “greatly pained,” he warned them, if he found his colleagues attacking one another in public. “Such sniping would be a wrong to me and much worse, a wrong to the country.”

 

Currently Reading…

 

COURTING MR. LINCOLN by Louis Bayard will be coming out in paperback on February 4. Have you read it yet? I received this paperback copy from Algonguin Books this week and got straight to reading it. It’s going to go perfectly with my February read: LEADERSHIP: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

COURTING is a historical fiction based on historical records and original documents between Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed (Lincoln’s roommate and confidante.) Bayard explores the relationship between Lincoln and Speed as well as the self-possessed debutante, Mary, who learned to discuss politics from her father. COURTING explores the ways in which all three lives intersect in Springfield, Illinois in 1840 and how the three formed the trajectory to the White House. What drew a strong-minded and opinionated woman to the understated Lincoln? What drew him to her? What was Lincoln’s relationship with Speed? Bayard explores this in detail in this fiction inspired by historical events.

“…thoroughly researched and thrillingly plotted. Filled with rich historical detail and compulsively readable. Fans of historical fiction will be up late into the night to uncover the next chapter of this fascinating time in history.” ~ NY Journal of Books

I’m anxious to delve deeply into the world of our 16th president.

EVERYWHERE YOU DON’T BELONG by Gabriel Bump

(Book Release date: February 4, 2020)⠀
Thank you, Algonquin Books for the honor of reading this debut novel.

As a white Midwesterner, I must say I felt a little voyeuristic peering into the world of a South Side Chicago teen as he navigated his way through life. ⠀

As I read EVERYWHERE YOU DON’T BELONG, I was repeatedly struck with how much mental fortitude can be cemented at a very early age. For some, strength and bravery are developed through strong family encouragement and societal achievements. For others, it is forged from repeated loss and boldly overcoming overwhelming obstacles.⠀

Often the media portrays life on the South Side of Chicago as either gang warfare or Michelle Obama. But where is the in-between? The place most urban Americans live? Author, Gabriel Bump takes us on a journey through the eyes of an everyday urban family living in a challenging neighborhood. He wanted his South Side readers to recognize themselves in his fictional (but true to life) story.⠀

The tempo of EVERYWHERE YOU DON’T BELONG moves at a fast clip. It’s a reading style that takes a second to get used to. But once you’re in the rhythm, good luck putting the book down. There are abrupt but brief jumps to the future weaved throughout the telling of this story of one young black man who can’t quite find his place in the world. Death and abandonment are reoccurring themes in this generational story. The sheer determination to do better boils underneath all the chaos.⠀

The time-period is predominantly during the Obama administration (a proud moment for any Chicagoan.) Change is promised but does the everyday black American see it? The main character is searching for the place where he belongs. It isn’t the civil-rights activism of his grandmother’s time but it also doesn’t seem to be in a college classroom either. He calls to question all of our individual stories of belongingness.⠀

Mixed with humor and racial integrity, EVERYWHERE will make you think, will awaken you to societies and cultures vastly different than your own, and will ultimately ask you how you find your own place in our world.⠀

This is a strong debut novel written from a place of knowing, believing and surviving.⠀