Tag Archives: book review

Gravity Is The Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty

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3/5 stars

I saw a post on Instagram from @thedtrblog the other day that I feel sums this book up perfectly:

Boss: What are your goals while you work here?
Me: Thriving not surviving
Boss: And how exactly do you plan on doing that?
Me: Live Laugh Love
Boss: Can you give me specifics?
Me: Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain
Boss: Are you done?
Me: *whispering* Footprints in the sand.
Boss: *walks out* 

I keep telling myself I do not like these types of books, and yet here I am, reading yet another one.

It is a fun plot. 20 years ago, at age 16, Abigail Sorenson started receiving mysterious chapters from a self-help book in the mail. Through loss of family, college years, marriage, divorce, motherhood, business-ownership, and all the ups and downs of life, the chapters keep coming. The story starts when she gets invited to an all-expense-paid retreat where she is told she will finally learn “the truth” about the chapters and why she has been sent them all these years.

I guess the synopsis made me think more And Then There Were None than Tuesdays with Morrie which maybe explains why I struggled to get into it. The story is much more interested in exploring the meaning of life than keeping things exciting. Which is fine. But it took me a while to find the rhythm.

If you like quirky, loner-female-main-characters novels like Where’d You Go, Bernadette or Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine or The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, this is the book for you. It leaves you with a warm glow, spouts some heart-warming language, and yet contains little more by way of substance than Live. Laugh. Love.

At the same time…it is Jaclyn Moriarty. She is one of my favorite YA authors for a reason. And while her first foray into adult novels didn’t exactly win my heart, there were still many moments that conveyed her genius with human emotion.

But I still prefer her books Feeling Sorry For Celia and The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone.


Hear This Woman by Ann Pinchot

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Written in 1949, the cryptic plot synopsis on Goodreads states: “Follow Faith Holmes in her journey to bring all American Women together.”

Rather unhelpful, if you ask me. It sounds trite. Like vintage war propoganda. I expected Faith Holmes to unite all American women in buying war bonds or something.

But that is not this story at all.

Published 29 years after women got the vote, this novel is a rallying cry for women to take up the political cudgels, defeat cronyism and corruption, and finally come into their own as political actors.
It is tough, pro-women, and pro-grassroots activism.

But admittedly, it takes a while to get there.

The book reminded me of All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. (Incidentally, a book published only 3 years prior to this one.) In fact, I would go so far as to call this the female version of All the King’s Men. The answer to it, so to speak.

But while All the King’s Men traces the journey of a young ideologue politician becoming part of the corrupt establishment, Hear This Woman takes a more holistic look at its heroine and ends on a more optimistic note.

The book introduces chunks of the heroine’s life through the opposition “dirt” on her. Faith Holmes, ensnared the richest boy in town to escape poverty. Divorced him when the Depression made him poor. Faith Holmes, bright young thing too busy for children. Faith Holmes, abandoned her mother to a nursing home.

It then goes through those same years but with the whole story. The reader sees Faith Holmes’s unhappy home life, her early marriage, her despair when she can’t have children. It is a frustrating, heart-wrenching slog as the Great Depression hits and slowly destroys her marriage. She is dragged into the world of journalism and politics and begins to see more of the injustice in the world.

As the story traces her ups and downs, the same theme continues. Every time she tries for conventionality, her own convictions lead her to break from it.

It makes the first two-thirds of this book hard to get through. Hers is not a happy awakening. Perhaps, I’m making it sound too gloomy. It isn’t all dark. There are themes about work and meaning throughout. Her story has both happy and sad moments. The book is populated with characters–some good, some bad. Each contributes in some way to the woman she becomes.

And finally, in the last third, the reader sees her begin to come into her own…which in turn means helping the American women come into their own and become a force in politics.

This is not as glorious a novel as All The King’s Men. (I mean, what is, really?) Part of the problem, I think, lies with the fact that it tries to do two things. On the one hand, it is a call to women readers who recently got the vote not to sit on their hands but to actually engage in politics and fight the good fight. On the other hand, it is a novel with all the drama and tension of a novel. And so things fall together too neatly for a rallying cry. The two feel conflicting for either to really shine.

But it is an interesting mix and definitely made me curious to find more by this author. If you are looking for a vintage read and stumble upon it, it is worth picking up.


Schooled by Gordon Korman

Homeschooled by his hippie grandmother, Capricorn (Cap) Anderson has never watched television, tasted a pizza, or even heard of a wedgie. But when his grandmother lands in the hospital, Cap is forced to move in with a school counselor and attend the local middle school. While Cap knows a lot about tie-dyeing and Zen Buddhism, no education could prepare him for the politics of public school.

3.5 stars

I feel a teeny bit irritated with this book. As a former homeschooler, I put up with far too many people assuming my education resembled Cap’s to read about someone portraying exactly that kind of homeschooling with any equanimity. Let’s be clear, yo. I did have friends. I did use books. I did use a computer. I did not have goats. And yes, I did do school in my PJs. And with quarantine, I still do.

So, please, stop portraying homeschoolers as a bunch of weirdos!

But I get it in this book. The point isn’t so much that Cap was homeschooled in a hippie commune. (Though obviously, that plays a central motivating role.) The premise is what happens when you drop a kid raised by hippies and without much sense of modern technology in a public school.

It actually paints a really affirming and sweet look of a kid raised to know at his core who he is. And while his extreme naivety gets him in some unlikely situations, I liked how his personality changed the people around him. The book does not sugar coat middle school. And because of that, it shows why homeschooling helped Cap become his own person without dealing with all the crap associated with school.

There was a lot to like. Thanks for the recommendation, Dad!


The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson

I’ve recently been enjoying the works of D.E. Stevenson, a writer from around WW1. I have avoided posting reviews of her books because I think several will appear on my end-of-the-year favorite book list. But as The Young Clementina only garnered three stars from me, I thought I might share this (unsuccessful) venture into vintage fiction. 

Written in 1935, the story follows Charlotte Dean—a woman life seems to have forgotten. At 35, she lives a monotonous life in London with no friends. Her life takes a dramatic turn when her former fiancé suddenly appears and asks her to take care of his daughter while he travels in Africa. Now Charlotte must face her past to bring healing to the difficult and withdrawn child.

D.E. Stevenson is a master of human emotions. Her comedy of manners books (like the Miss Buncle trilogy) somehow make the whole world feel cozy and good. Alas, with The Young Clementina she goes more Brontë than Gaskell, and the end result whips from excruciatingly depressing to predictably trite.

The description I gave of the plot, while the crux of the story, really doesn’t kick in till halfway. First we get to relive Charlotte’s childhood, her experience with WW1, and the tragic break with her fiancé . And despite how depressed it made me, I still low-key loved it. I felt moody and depressed reading it, but I also felt like it summarized how WW1 changed people. I read into it a bigger analysis about dreams and hope and lost youth.

Turns out, I was too ambitious in my interpretation. I still held hope for an alternate love interest to pop up and change the path the story was heading towards. No luck. The story shoulders on with some rambling paragraphs that don’t hide the very obvious, sappy conclusion. Characters generally get their comeuppance. I think I still would have rated this book 4 stars because I did love the tragic nature of the beginning, but the ending killed it by undercutting much of the character motivation.

If you like melodrama that feels vaguely Gothic without being so, you might enjoy this one. But personally, I found it underwhelming.


If You Can Keep It by Eric Metaxas

If You Can Keep It | Eric Metaxas

Several of my students recently participated in a writing competition where they answered a version of the prompt, “Should patriotism be taught as part of a liberal arts curriculum?” It came as no surprise to me when they all answered, “Yes, but….”

(Actually, I guess that did surprise me some. I expected at least one of them to say no.)

Anyway, patriotism has been on my mind recently and I picked up If You Can Keep It as an interesting foil to the essays. The students all struggled the most with defining patriotism. “Love of country, but not nationalism or jingoism” came up a lot. One person described healthy patriotism as falling between “hot dogs and baseball” on the positive end and “Civil War Reenactment” on the negative. Other students referenced reciting the pledge of allegiance or gathering around the flag.

They all definitely sensed that some love of country must be passed down, but that historically the United States has veered too far into the love and not far enough into self-criticism.

Although he takes an opposite view of America’s current way of teaching patriotism (too much criticism, not enough love), Eric Metaxas’s definition of patriotism surprisingly resembled my students’. I think I’d loosely define his interpretation as “love of country and the values she stands for, but not to the point of nationalism or jingoism.

The addition of “values” is where he manages to hit on something my students missed and so struggled with in their definitions of patriotism. How do you love your country and not become a nationalist? What do you focus on? Baseball and hot dogs might represent “America” to some, but at the end of the day, a love of baseball and hot dogs really means a love of a specific sport and a specific food, not a country. And even if you could somehow prove the three things infallibly interlinked, what do you do when someone claims to love America and yet prefers soccer and kimchi? Do you write off their patriotism because they do not share your preferences? It should also strike us as absurd because things might be inextricably American and still not the sole summary of our culture. Such a box presents too narrow a definition of patriotism.

Even the most stereotypical of red, white, and blue hot dog lovers recognize that many cultures fed the American melting pot. America is as much kimchi and tacos at hot dogs. Or to be more specific, America strives to tolerate kimchi, tacos, and hot dogs equally. You might love hot dogs and despise kimchi, or vice versa, but the fact that you can express your preference and then act on it, that is what it means to be American. Because by toleration I do not mean the false sense that you must accept my preference without question. I mean toleration as a virtue that allows people to vehemently disagree about their preferences and yet still live together.

This interpretation of patriotism also answers the opposite side of the spectrum: the one that praises multiculturalism so insistently that it ceases to truly praise anything. I mean the view that hot dogs and kimchi and tacos and really all food everywhere define America. And also, just about every other country. If patriotism means embracing all cultures, peoples, and food groups equally without any defining lines or common virtues, then what boundaries exist? Why should I love the United States when it is no different from any other country? Perhaps it is even worse than other countries, because it allowed white slave-owners to design its system of government. It permitted slavery. It only gave women the vote 100 years ago. Should the fact that I was born here really make that much of a difference? America did horrendous things; America perhaps did a few good things. In this it is no better or worse than any other country. I can feel the same emotions towards the place of my birth that I do towards China, or Chad, or Chile. And I can easily love those countries more because I do not live there and so do not have to deal with any of their flaws.

So, patriotism becomes more subjective. Love what your country does well, but hem it in on all sides with critique and complaints so that you never love your country too well. But by taking patriotism outside of its box altogether, any common interpretation of “love of country” becomes groundless and probably pointless. It is a matter of personal preference whether you love it or not. And if I don’t love it, who are you to say that I should?

But if the focus of patriotism shifts to the values that created this country, a slightly different pictures emerges. We can love America not for hot dogs but for toleration. Apple pie has nothing on freedom of religion. Free speech means I can criticize baseball as much as I desire and not fear the government telling me otherwise, even a government inextricably linked to the sport.

Of course, you might the problem simply shifts to defining values. What does liberty or equality or freedom even mean? But those debates take depth and discourse. They begin to push us outside of the gut reaction of “that’s different and I do not like it.” It also pushes the debate outside of “does America always do the right thing?” Because the answer of course is no, and we need to acknowledge that America frequently messes up. But that shouldn’t prevent us from still loving America as a place that strives for toleration or equality or freedom because though it often fails, it also often succeeds.

The consequence of this view, so Eric Metaxas presents, is not nationalism, but a love of virtue. We praise the virtues that define our country. We can praise those same virtues in another country. But we at least have a foundation for our praise and a commonality that goes beyond personal preference.

It is a much more nuanced and affirming view of patriotism than we typically hear. Eric Metaxas spends a great deal of the book looking at how to nurture patriotism. He praises patriotic statutes, heroic stories, and sacred ceremonies. And I think to an extent he rightly does so. “How do you pass patriotism along” is a vital question.

But it jumps to the “how” a little too fast for my taste. I really didn’t grasp his definition of “patriotism” till the end, and so any discussion of how fell flat for me while I remained stuck on the what.

The what needs more fleshing out. It is fine to point to Judeo-Christian values as a foundation, particularly since he aims this book at Christians. And I guess I can even see the merits of not “listing” the exact values that unite Americans (toleration, equality, rule of law, etc). A detailed list arguably falls outside the scope of this work. But I was still left hanging with a big question about what values specifically defined America.

At the end of the day, this is a popular text and not a political treatise. Nor is Metaxas strictly a political philosopher. This book really shines at its best when it falls squarely in the author’s wheelhouse: namely, biographies of various figures in the American Revolution. It becomes merely okay, but still interesting, when describing Metaxas’s own experience with patriotism. And finally, it becomes the least tangible when analyzing patriotism. But the view still stands surprisingly strong and made this a book I definitely recommend picking up.


Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy

It took me till 2 am last night but I did it. I finally finished the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy. 

Crazy Rich Asians (Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy): Kwan, Kevin ...

China Rich Girlfriend (Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy): Kwan, Kevin ...

Rich People Problems (Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy): Kwan, Kevin ...

I kind of feel like I deserve an award now. I’ve been reading the series for a year and though nominally its only 1,190 pages…it feels like ten times that. 

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ve got a slight taste of what the books are like. I’d say the first book was the best and the third one was a very satisfying ending. The middle one was sensory overload, and I didn’t even know you could get sensory overload from a book.

Have you read the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy or seen the movie? What are your thoughts?


Evicted by Matthew Desmond

I’m throwing a pity party because the trip I’ve planned for months got canceled so instead of dragging you into it, I’m just going to share a book review I wrote a few weeks ago. 

Evicted:Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond–2/5 stars

Evicted purports to look at homelessness and evictions in Milwaukee. This book has an average 4.47/5. And I just…could not get into it. It occurred to me as I made my way through the author’s “solution” in the back of the book that if this was an article submitted to the law journal where I am an articles editor, I would probably recommend against publication. So, in the spirit of the criteria I would use to objectively analyze an argument submitted to my law review, here are my thoughts on the book:

Thesis: the article has a strong and clear thesis that predominates throughout.
Agree.
The subtitle says it all. “Poverty and Profit in the American City.” Matthew Desmond blames capitalism–i.e. profit–for tenant turnover rates. Ironically, the narrative nature of this piece often feels like a direct contradiction to this argument. To give him credit, he gives it all. He reveals the good and the bad choices made by the people he highlights. But when reading about their choices, it quickly becomes apparent that how you interpret their behavior will depend on how you view poverty and the problem of generational poverty in America. (Generational poverty being a phrase he would actually probably strongly object to.) How do you react to a person spending food-stamps on lobster and then having nothing left over to eat for the remainder of the month? A conservative leaning reader will view it as wasteful and part and parcel for why the person remains poor. Desmond views it as a way of “fighting back” against a lifetime of poverty. And he says so.
Initially I thought Desmond did a good job giving glimpses of the landlords as well as the tenants and their varied motivations, but it quickly becomes apparent where his loyalties lie. And it isn’t with the landlords. The fact that anyone gets rich off real-estate appears to offend him. While I agree that some really shady behavior seems to be going down, he doesn’t go there but instead strives for a much more morally righteous tone with capitalism in general. So while I do think his extrapolation of the “data” could get interpreted differently, the author’s thesis remains fairly consistent throughout.

Novelty: the article contains original analysis that is convincing and in proportion to the background provided
Neutral.
It depends what you mean by analysis. In his explanation at the back of the book we learn Desmond moved to a trailer park and lived with many of these people. Good for him. But if I was actually writing this as a review for law review, I’d flag the narrative nature of this piece. It makes it readable–there is a reason this book appeals to a wide, non-academic readership–but is not particularly empirical. So any “analysis” he does at the end when he describes the “solution” feels…less than backed up by actual data. Or possibly even logic. It comes from a place of moral outrage. And I’m all about moral outrage, but just because he lived in a trailer park does not mean he knows the best solution for poverty in America. Talk about entitlement. You live with people for a period of time and suddenly know how to fix all their problems. But Desmond wants to provide a solution. As a reader, we want a step by step solution to combat the tragedies we just read about. I’d be mad if he did not offer one, to be honest. The thing is, solutions do not come from moral outrage. And they do not come by suggesting we throw more money at the problem. If anything, his stories reveal that programs set up by the government to address homelessness don’t do much to actually solve homelessness. Instead, they fund slumlords raising their rent because now there is more money pouring in. So why is more government the solution? I needed more than “countries we consider backwards do this so what is America’s problem.”
So, yeah, I needed more analysis and less storytelling.

Utility: the article solves an important, current legal problem in a nonobvious way and will continue to be important by the time it goes to print.
Neutral.
No matter who you blame for it, homeless is a problem. It doesn’t take a book like this to point to the education and job opportunities lost because of a lack of housing. (But trust me, this book will point it out anyway. Because that fact is about the closest this comes to data.) I already laid out above why I feel like his solution is insufficient. But it bears repeating–after 300 some pages telling heart-yanking stories about why the system fails people, Desmond provides a handful of pages that amount to: “We need a universal housing voucher system. Other countries have it. Why not us?”
Y’all, that does not address the problem. Or if it would, Desmond does not give me nearly enough arguments to prove it will. Desmond thinks that if people aren’t afraid of getting kicked out of their homes, they will pursue education and keep their jobs and pursue better relationships and make better financial decisions and everything will become kumbaya. It is quite an optimistic opinion for someone who got to return to academia (Harvard no less!) after his stint in a trailer park ended.
But perhaps you think I’m being too negative. After all, I am not offering a solution to homelessness, poverty, and racism all in one go. And this book isn’t trying to provide a solution. It is exposing the problem. The details get worked out farther down the line.
Here is my biggest problem with this book’s “solution”: first it wins over your pity, then it says “we can solve the problem by throwing money at it.”
And you what that means? You, the reader, can sit back satisfied because you, the reader, can feel engaged and indignant and cry out for the government to ‘do something!’ while not actually having to do anything yourself to help these people or address their situation or look beyond the problem. Because we have the problem: greedy landlords. Not drugs, not poor financial decisions, not violence.
No, greedy landlords who use the government to their advantage by having sheriffs engage in evictions. So apparently the decision is to get government more involved. And possibly not have sheriffs carry out evictions.

Soundness: the article addresses counterarguments, provides explanations of prior literature in the area, and generally demonstrates mastery of the subject.
Disagree.
Here is where my academic and legal training particularly kicks in–I was driven crazy by the lack of counterarguments in this book. I thought maybe the parts where the Desmond follows the landlord would make up something of a “counterargument.” After all, they’re just trying to make a day’s wage too. But no, as the book goes on, they increasingly become scapegoats for the inner city ills. And maybe rightly so. But the result is that we don’t get alternatives here–alternative solutions or alternative explanations. We simply get one morally charged outrage.
I was particularly struck by how Desmond dismisses an inner city pastor who doesn’t help a woman with her rent. I don’t have the exact quote but it was something to the effect of, “He preached loving your neighbor until it came to actually doing it.” And I’m not saying I would not have handled the situation the same or that I understand it fully. But the fact is, we’ve seen the woman make poor financial decisions left and right. And then the author wants us to get mad that the pastor won’t pour more money into the situation after even calling up her family members and asking them what they think. You’re probably noticing a theme but…less moral smugness and more facts would go a long way for my appreciation of this book.

Clarity & Organization: the article uses clear, efficient, and organized writing to convey ideas.
Neutral.
I mean, it is prettily written. It is easy to get engaged, enraged, energized. A lot of the more negative reviews dismiss the “academic” portion at the back after the more narrative beginning, but I certainly preferred the academic portion. Still, overall, he is trying to put a face to poverty and I can give him credit for it. The problem is, poverty is multifaceted and complicated and often generational. It does frequently occur because of mental illness and childhood trauma, as Desmond illustrates with many of his subjects. Much of it is cultural.
And it means no easy solution emerges. But to make a book like this tenable, you have to provide a solution. I don’t know how you get around it. And Desmond provides his solution. It is one firmly rooted in his worldview.

Your political worldview will likely impact how you read this book. It will tug on your heartstrings. It will give you the moral indignation to cry out for change. But it will not provide you with something workable or sustainable as a solution. And that is where I was left frustrated and why this did not get a higher rating from me. 


China Rich Girlfriend (aka Crazy Rich Asians #2)

I’ve been reading China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan over the last few days and let me tell you, it is one weird book.

China Rich Girlfriend (Crazy Rich Asians, #2)

Like, the first one was weird. No doubt about it. But maybe because I saw the movie first, I could follow what was going on fairly easily. Not so with China Rich Girlfriend. Months, years even, pass from chapter to chapter. Characters come and go intermittently. It is hard to pin-point who the main character(s) are because they seem to change and only a few consistently circle back again. 

It is sheer sensory overload. I feel vaguely exhausted every time I pick it up. In some ways I deeply admire how the author keeps it all going but in other ways I just cannot wait to be done!


Keep Moving: And Other Truths About Living Well Longer by Dick Van Dyke

Keep Moving: And Other Truths About Living Well Longer by Dick Van Dyke – 3/5 stars

If deciding between this one or My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business, an earlier memoir by Dick Van Dyke, read this one. It is shorter, contains many of the same stories, and actually was a little bit more interesting. Not that I consider that saying much. See my review of My Lucky Life.

Dick Van Dyke gives more opinions in this book. He takes a stand and I like that. He talks about his favorite presidents, historical events he lived through, and his daily routine. It actually provides a picture of who he is, not just people he knows.

But I think it falls into the same trap his earlier memoir does. I really feel like his earlier memoir lost me when he started justifying his divorce from his first wife. ‘She didn’t understand.’ ‘He was caught between two strong women.’ ‘Show business was his life! He needed someone who understood that.’ etc. etc.

Here the justification is not why he left his wife but why his third wife is 43 years younger than himself.

(Frankly, I’m more curious as to why he never “got around” to marrying the palimony woman. There is a good story there. You don’t live with a person 30+ years and just “forget” to get married! Especially not her!)

But anyway, if this book has a theme besides thoughts on growing old, it is a justification of his new wife (who is about the same age as his grandchildren.) 

I enjoyed it. It was a fast read. And I think my favorite takeaway came at the beginning where he says, I paraphrase, “When you are in your 20s, you have Plan A. When you are in your 40s, it is Plan B. And when you make it to your 70s, you finally realize there is no plan at all.”


My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business by Dick Van Dyke

(Wrote this review a few weeks ago but honestly it is this or my rambles about the evidence quiz I just completed. Consider yourself fortunate.) 

My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business by Dick Van Dyke – 2/5 stars

I struggle with giving this book a low rating: I mean, it is Dick Van Dyke! He is classic. He is defining. We all cheered loudly when he appeared in Mary Poppins Returns because he is, simply, an icon of multiple generations now. Picking up this book, my question was not if it would be great but how great.

The thing is…there is not much of interest here. Oh, I suppose as a recap of Dick Van Dyke’s life it is interesting enough. He worked hard, embraced many cool opportunities, and overcame quite a bit. But it fails to satisfy in any regard.

  • As a look at life in Hollywood, it provides very few details besides a list of people he met, worked with, or particularly liked.
  • As a narrative of his varied acting experiences, he gives very few (almost no) details besides how much he loved the Dick Van Dyke Show. (Did you know everyone thought his co-star was his wife? He will remind you of it. Often.)
  • As a story of his life, it provides the facts but often with little more than you would expect from a Wikipedia page. His wife’s early miscarriage, his own alcoholism and affair, the loss of a granddaughter…none of it gets more than lightly brushed over.

If there is one reoccurring theme, it is his seemingly deistic perspective on “love” and “good works.” In short, his worldview boils down to everyone should be the affable, non-confrontational person that Dick Van Dyke is. And really, what this book is.

It is a very bland, very polite, very grateful, but altogether uninspiring story. Which is too bad. It didn’t need lots of Hollywood gossip. But it did need a little more vulnerability to make it more than an informational, and yet somehow uninformative, story.