THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN + Book of the Month

I was very honored that Book of the Month posted one of my pictures today on their social media. It was a photo of this fantastic book about J.P. Morgan’s assistant, Belle da Costa Greene, who helped build the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City in the early 1900’s.

THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN is a celebration of art and ancient book manuscripts and Gutenberg bibles. I actually stopped midway through the book to re-watch The Monuments Men, which took place during a different time period but always gives me the same debt of gratitude for those who have gone to great lengths to preserve and uphold the honor in art.

You will stop and Google dates and names and it will spark an even deeper appreciation of the importance of the fine arts. This book will certainly be one of my top favorite books this year. Authors, Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, went to great lengths to research this novel. Each author’s note in the back of the book were fascinating to read in order to see how they went about collecting Belle’s story as well as information about the beginnings and early days of the library.

Extraordinary. Extravagant. Empowering. Thought-provoking. This would make an excellent book club read and discussion. I highly recommend this book about a section of our history you may not know much about. I will be thinking about it for a very long time.

Thank you, Book of the Month, for using my picture but mostly for bringing to the forefront a life story that needed to be told.

Sidenote: I have been a BOTM member for five years and have very fond memories of the catalogs that used to come in the mail to my parents each month. I read the book descriptions in awe and thought that BOTM must be the most grown up thing you could possibly do. What a dream to have books sent to you in the mail, I imagined! I’m so glad I get to enjoy them now. Each month is a new adventure that begins with an exciting blue box waiting for me at my front door.

Another sidenote: the decadently delicious waffles were a new recipe that my DEAR husband was trying out. It very quickly went into the MUST MAKE AGAIN section of our recipe file: whole wheat waffles with bananas and walnuts baked inside. (They’re practically health food.)

SING, UNBURIED, SING

This family drama was true southern prose full of spirits and stories and spells. Sin and family and forgiveness. No one dies quite like a southerner, taking their specific cooking and unique lineage, leaving us our heritage and pockets full of stories to embellish for many generations to come.

“…. sorrow is food, swallowed too quickly, caught in the throat, making it nearly impossible to breathe.”

This was a book with a strong second half. I appreciated the lyrical writing and ghostly references only a southerner could fully appreciate.

THE INVISIBLE LIFE of ADDIE LARUE by V. E. Schwab

What is it about my weirdo brain that says, ‘Oh…this is a really popular book out there in the world? Then let’s be sure and NOT read it yet.’ What? Why??

Whatever mental defect I have, it happens every time a book skyrockets to popularity. But I’ve heard so many fantastic things about this one, maybe it’s time I ignore myself and dive in? What do you think?

Have you read it? Did it live up to the hype?

INTIMATIONS by Zadie Smith

I didn’t check to see what this book of essays was about before starting to read it. Some respected people recommended it, so I opened the front page with no expectations.


I found a collection of essays filled with reflections on the first half of 2020. Unique reflections. Powerful comparisons. But all with room enough for me to think about other perspectives and process my own 2020 experience.

Powerfully beautiful essays, not overindulgent in trite hope nor overwhelmingly oppressive in gloom. I closed the back cover, filled with new insight.

THE GREEN WITCH by Arin Murphy Hiscock

To be honest, I’ve put off posting about this book wanting to make sure it wasn’t going to be too offensive to anyone – or to myself. I wanted to get far enough into the book to see if it was just too ‘woo-woo’.

⁣Thankfully, it is what I hoped it would be – a celebration of living in partnership with our environment.

There is a craving – similar to pregnancy cravings – that will strike me and I’ll say to Scott, ‘I’ve got to get out in nature.’ When I have been isolated too much, or too busy trying to meet deadlines or too ANYTHING, my therapy is to place myself into nature. Tree bathing. Grounding. Whatever you want to call it, there is a recalibration that happens when I can breath in clean air and notice the magnitude of the natural world around me.

Of course, that’s not always an option, so I try to work with scents and homegrown elements for natural healing and mood enhancement and many many many times, for antioxidants and anti-inflammatory treatments. Whether it’s the sourced food we eat or the natural cleaner made with rosemary from our backyard, I truly believe the further we get from nature, the further we are from the environment in which we were created to live.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I am neither vegan nor a purist, but we can all attempt to make changes in some areas of our lives.

THE GREEN WITCH includes ways in which we can use the natural things around us whether it be wood for cabinetry or gardenias for tranquility. There are recipes for Digestive Tea or a homemade balm for colds and headaches. It even includes celebrations you can have for each of the season changes. (Happy Autumnal Equinox on the 22nd!)

As far out there as it seems, it is all really quite logical and simple. I love combining things together for scrubs or oils or to clean my kitchen counters. It makes me feel part gypsy (don’t we all want that??) and part Native American – working with the seasons and the fruit of the land. Farmers determined our school year based on harvest time. Many churches follow the liturgical cycles that correspond with the seasons. There are ways that you participate in these cycles without even realizing it.

After bashing my leg a few days ago (in a super dumb way), tonight is all about grilled salmon with ginger and spinach – natural ways to reduce swelling. Lemon verbena, lavender and grapefruit are my favorite essential oil combinations to slow my mind and my breath. And of course, caring for houseplants and learning from their rhythm and cycles.

Our environment (of which I believe was created for us by God as a gift) is worth preserving. Living within. And voting for.

Finding Calm

These are a few books that have meant a lot to me personally during this pandemic season. I find reliance on the liturgy comforting when you don’t feel like praying. Leaning into ancient traditions (even rote memorization) gets you through at times when your heart just isn’t in it.

I especially recommend the book, Flee. Be Silent. Pray. by Ed Cyzewski. I’ve found a great deal of comfort (and shame release, to be honest) reading this book. It’s no accident I bought it right before the pandemic.

“Find a space for walking with God”, Cyzewski writes. Thomas Merton wrote about the moment he walked into his monastery to stay for the first time: ‘Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.’”

Has Quarantine 2020 been our own monastery? Has it forced us to slow down, to engage more authentically with each other, to pay closer attention to the blatant injustices that have been hiding in plain sight? I keep using the phrase ‘Quarantine as monastery.’ That’s what it’s felt like to me. I’ve been stir crazy at times, yes. But I also have come face to face with Greta in a way I haven’t taken the time to do before my regular routines were broken apart. I’ve learned some ugly traits and I’ve seen talents I have stepped around too often before. I am processing my own prejudices and I’ve embraced a forced contentment with less. I’ve found, through this pandemic of all things, the newly available space to walk intentionally each day with God. I want to go to movie theaters and hug people and travel, but I don’t want my ‘quarantine monastery’ to disappear too quickly. Or to be forgotten too easily. My mind and my heart still has so much work to do. In time. No hurry. Let’s have just one more chai together as I continue to try to memorize this nightly prayer:

‘Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Attend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest for the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love sake. Amen.’

MUSICAL CHAIRS by Amy Poeppel

“To drink coffee on my stoop each morning and gin on the roof at night…” – Will, commenting on what he loves about living in New York City

MUSICAL CHAIRS was an enjoyably quick and entertaining read and my first Amy Poeppel book. It has been sitting on my shelf for a few months now, and honestly – I was a little thrown off by the cute cover. My brain (…feeble as it is…) registered this as a YA book. I was wrong. 

As a musician nerd in high school and college, I enjoyed the perfect music-snobbishness in this book. Musical arts can be so high brow, each of us thinking we’ve rediscovered the most subtle art of listening to and participating in the creation of music. But the arts in New York City? Welllll, you’ve just raised the stakes even higher. Poeppel captured this tone with humor and accuracy.

Bridget and Will are the best of friends. They are two members of a classical musical trio in NYC. Will plays the piano, Bridget the cello and the position of violinist is an oft-revolving seat for newcomers. Taking some time off during the summer, Bridget heads to her family’s country home in Connecticut with hopes of romance and reading and quiet, lazy summer days. Through various happenstances, her two grown children end up moving home to find themselves and her anticipated summer love ends up breaking her heart and never arriving. While Bridget nurses her own dismay, her children bring their love woes to the table, topped off by home repairs and questions of her musical future just as her elderly father (a renowned pianist/composer) announces he’s getting married.  How will the summer play out??

The stories each evolve and intertwine with humor and accident and forgiveness. Secrets revealed. Grace offered. Relationships sway and strengthen.

small spoiler ahead…

As Bridget’s father, Edward, gives the toast at his wedding I resonated with it completely. My father (…also named Edward and a pianist – go figure) remarried after my mother died 11 years ago. He chose another interesting and fascinating woman (lucky him to strike gold twice). They have traveled the world and continue to explore and live interesting and fulfilling lives. 

Edward’s toast included these words:

Bertrand Russell said, “Man needs, for his happiness, not only the enjoyment of this or that, but hope, and enterprise, and change.” Edward discusses the musical score he wrote decades ago called Synchronicity and compared it to the Victorian dances of generations past. “Life is a perfect combination of chance and choreography. Imagine a group of people come together and delight in the act of re-arranging themselves into new configurations. One person turns, leaving a space, upsetting the arrangement, but the other dancers follow suit and they all align themselves anew. For a moment they are all in motion, shifting and crossing over, until a new constellation forms giving way to a moment of equilibrium… before it all begins again.” 

This was such a beautiful example of the totality of our lives. There is balance, then upset, then a new equilibrium settles in. A grand dance. We are in constant movements of reinvention. This can be very reassuring when we are in the middle of the rearrangement parts of our life. It will fall into place again soon once the right people turn and sway into new alignment.

Lord Tennyson reflects: “Death closes all. But something near the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done.”

Certainly an admirable goal in life: A work of noble note.

 

* Thank you, Atria Books, for this advanced reader copy.

 

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett

I was glad to finally be able to sit down with this Book of the Month feature and all-around popular Bookstagram book, The Vanishing Half.

The concept intrigued me. Stella and Desiree are twins and both born light-skinned Black. Both of them wanting to escape the confines of their small town and to live a fuller life experience, they run away to New Orleans. But one twin, Stella, after easily passing as White, decides to leave her twin and join a race that was not quite her own, but one in which she had fewer limitations. Even Stella’s husband is unaware of her true racial identity.

Negroes always love our home towns even though we’re always from the worst places. Only White folks got the freedom to hate home.

From the 1950s to the 1990s, this interwoven, generational story captured my imagination with thoughts of ‘what if it were me‘ as well as ‘how could she do that?!‘ indignations. Just what the author, Brit Bennett, was aiming for, I’m predicting. What decisions lead us to live lives filled with secrets? Are they our decisions that determine that trajectory or are they the decisions made long before we are born? What masks do we each carry daily?

THE VANISHING HALF was an engaging story that explored racism, abuse, wealth and poverty as well as familial relationships and the ongoing dichotomy of mother-daughter relationships. How do we determine and define ‘family’? While provocative and a page-turner, VANISHING seemed to wrap up quickly and ended fairly abruptly and open-ended.

Perhaps I always think this, however, about characters I’ve invested in…

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.