Favorite Books of 2019

Hi!

Remember me?

I’m still around. Kind of. I’ve just been busy.

My life revolves around books. I work with books. I plan vacations around books. I research books. I buy books. I go to meetings about books. I recommend books. I write about books. Occasionally I get to read books. And here are my favorite books that I read in 2019:

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Severance by Ling Ma: This was the first book I read in 2019 and I’d been looking forward to it for a few months. A global epidemic is wiping out most of humanity, but Candace, a New York City office worker who is so wrapped up in her job, barely recognizes what’s happening around her. Her company execs have promised her big things if she sticks around to continue manning the operation. So she does. At the same time Candace starts a blog in which she photographs and documents the city in its abandoned state. In time, she joins up with other survivors. The group travels to a place called The Facility to create a new society. Here they must decide if their leader, Bob, is in it for the right reasons. The book is very subtle – there are no wow! moments, no shocking confessions or emotional peaks. And I liked that about it. The shock and awe has already happened. Most of humanity is dead. Instead, the novel focuses on these people who are just traveling through the world, trying to rebuild what they can while trying to decide if they should.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Prepare to be heartbroken. Jojo and his love for his little sister, Kayla, and his messed up mother, Leonie, was so complicated and beautiful. The characters are as complex as the consequences their decisions have created for them, or in the case of Jojo, the decisions his drug-addicted mother has created for him. Leonie, a black woman with a rich family history in Mississippi, packs up her children for a road trip to greet the children’s white father upon his prison release. The ghosts of Mississippi’s deep-seated racism and that of Parchman Farm come to a head as young Jojo tries to find his place among the multitude of haunted worlds in which he lives: black/white, mother/father, brother/caretaker, past/present/future. It’s a lovely story.

The Wall by John Lanchester: This was, quite frankly, a bit terrifying because of the possibility of it becoming so real. The world has been taken over by the rising seas. People are risking their lives traveling by sea to breach the wall, a massive structure protected by armed guards called Defenders who will risk their own lives to keep The Others out. The Others come from different parts of the world. They are desperate to reach dry ground. They are running out of time. As the Defenders grow closer in their camaraderie, they begin to question their leadership and their role in keeping the island nation safe from outsiders. However, if they fail at their task they will put out to sea themselves. This book isn’t even trying to be a metaphor; it’s a warning for what could actually happen.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: I lived in North Florida when stories of physical and sexual abuse that had occurred at the state’s reform school became public. This book is based on those stories, except Whitehead offers up the narrative from a young black boy’s point of view. Elwood and Turner become unlikely friends at The Nickel Academy, a school for boys who misbehave, commit petty offenses, run their mouths, or simply take up too much space in their own impoverished family’s homes. The staff behave in unspeakably horrific ways and the children, as they seem to have done their entire short lives, continue to endure. One scene in particular has stuck with me since I read it, in which I, a modern-day middle-aged white woman, found myself having judged a justifiably angry but scared young, black boy. What happens to him is unforgettable, unforgivable, and heartbreaking. But isn’t that how it is these days? We judge. We react. We move on. Except I couldn’t move on for over a month. The Nickel Boys was, hands down, my favorite read of the year.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: This book about a single plane crash survivor, a young boy named Edward, is also based on a true story. The other passengers’ complex lives and tragic ends are partly the basis of this book; the other part is how Edward manages to live each day after he is discovered to be the sole survivor amidst the wreckage in a Colorado field. After he learns his parents and brother have been killed in the crash, he is taken in by his childless aunt and uncle. Throughout the book, Edward tries to understand why he was given the opportunity to live and so many others were not. The story moves between Edward’s recovery (a process of years) and the terrifying unfolding of the doomed flight itself. (My suspicion is that Napolitano was inspired by what happened to Northwest Airlines Flight 255, the plane that crashed outside of Detroit in 1987. It killed all but one of the 155 people on board. The only survivor was Cecelia Cihan, a 4-year old who lost her parents and brother that day, too.)

I read over fifty books this year, some through audio during my long work commute, and most in actual print. And, while my list might not reflect it, I did take in a healthy amount of nonfiction. After looking through all the books I’d read in 2019, no nonfiction books were absolute standouts. Most were good, but not as good as the fiction books I listed above.

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As you’ve probably noticed, I have no interest in writing much these days. I’ve taken up painting, rescuing hamsters (totally serious) and road tripping (my most recent adventure trips have been to Mystic, CT and Burlington, VT) as more enjoyable ways to spend my time. Writing is a chore, but maybe I’ll pop back here once a year to write about my favorite books. Maybe I won’t. We’ll see.

Favorite Books of 2018

Every year I set a personal challenge for myself on Goodreads. This year I set the number of books I would read to 50. I ended up changing that to 40 once I realized how demanding my job was (I often worked involuntary overtime and often worked until midnight) and how much I valued sleep over reading. When we found out we would be moving to New England, I all but gave up on even reaching 40 books.

But I managed to read 57 books this year! And I’ve started two more – one, My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares, is an audiobook; the other is Severance by Ling Ma, a new release I picked up from my December Book of the Month selection.

A few other interesting numbers: Of the 57 books I finished, 31 of them were fiction. This actually surprises me and makes me a little proud, too. It wasn’t too long ago that I found myself unable to choose a novel to read for fun. Everything I was reading, and had been trained to read, was a historical document or a nonfiction account.  Additionally, 35 books were written by female authors and only 13 of my 2018 reads were actually released in 2018.

Favorite Fiction:

The Girls by Emma Cline – This was one of the first novels I really got into this year. I’m certain The Girls was meant to mirror some aspects of Charles Manson’s followers, but I found myself appreciating the situation these young girls found themselves trying to navigate, and with little to no guidance from people they trusted. A coming-of-age story in a time when finding yourself could mean losing yourself.

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin – Hands down one of the best books I have ever read. Only Child gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of school shooting survivors, and in this case we meet the little brother of a fifth-grader who was gunned down in his classroom. Released only a week before the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Navin’s book was a raw read for me. And an eye-opening one, at that. Because we all think about the parents of the dead, but we never think about their siblings. Now I will always think about their siblings.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave – Little Bee was one of my commuter books that I was lucky enough to listen to on audio. I made the mistake of also reading The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya at the same time. Both books are incredible! However, Little Bee is fiction and I found myself confusing the stories. I feel like I did a disservice to them both. However, I will warn you: Little Bee has an emotionally graphic gang rape scene that will tear your heart to pieces. I remember telling myself “It’s not a true story,” over and over, just to shake it from my memory. But because I was becoming familiar with Wamariya’s account of her country’s civil war, I was not so naive to believe such a rape had not actually happened to someone. Something to keep in mind.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal – Why is this not a movie? I want to see these characters in real dimensions. I want to see them cook the food. I want Eva to be my best friend. And her cousin! Both of her cousins! Every character in this story is absolutely lovable, even when they’re being horrible. I’ve considered purchasing a copy of the print book simply so I can bring to life the recipes that featured so prominently in these people’s lives. Mostly I just want to get my hands on Pat Prager’s award-winning peanut butter bars, even if I have to make the damn things myself.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin – I loved everyone in this story except for Varya. I’m not sure why, since all the other characters had ample development and some emotional legitimacy, but Varya came off at the end like the author panicked and threw a bunch of emotional problems together. Did Benjamin believe Varya should be the carrier of all burdens? I actually find myself having more sympathy toward Bruna than Varya. This was still a wonderful book. And I think Benjamin touched on a very real and very human idea – would you live your life differently if you knew when it would end? My answer: YES.

Favorite Nonfiction:

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides – I read this book on a whim, really, and only because I had developed some unexpected Polar-centric interests when we moved north to Cleveland from Oklahoma. Now that I’m living a few hours from Canada, I’m practically obsessed with Polar exploration (this theme continues…you’ll see). Sides is an accomplished writer (he has a number of nonfiction books to his credit) and I’m convinced that everything he does is pure gold. In the Kingdom of Ice is a non-stop thrillfest of misery and endurance, from which you’ll find in yourself a deep appreciation of basic comforts, like heat, food, and a shelter that isn’t being crushed by early-forming pack ice.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann – Oklahomans, this should be required reading. Grann is a meticulous researcher and a skilled wordsmith, both of which lend to this incredibly readable account of the government’s poor treatment (that’s putting it lightly) of the Osage people and the tribe’s rightful claims to oil and money. Our library director also selected this book for our book club discussion, months after I had read it, but it was fascinating to hear others’ perspectives on just how and why local, state, and federal officials treated the crimes against the Osage so differently.  (I just ordered Grann’s newest book The White Darkness. In it, Grann tells the true story of a trio of descendants of Shackleton’s crew and their attempt to cross Antarctica by foot.  Tomorrow I’m ordering two more books of Polar fiction. I’m Polar-crazy.)

Dopesick by Beth Macy – Dopesick was the only book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading and wanted to throw against the wall when I was finished. The last page broke my heart. If you’ve read it, you probably know what I’m talking about. Macy gets so deep into her research that she finds herself becoming a part of the story. I can’t imagine that not happening when dealing with a topic like this. But Macy does humanize many of the people we seem to place so much blame upon, even as she tries help those who just can’t help themselves. I was absolutely furious when I closed this book, but not at Macy. Mostly at a particular doctor who tried to prescribe me some Oxy when I tested positive for strep throat. STREP THROAT, people.

The Butchering Art by Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris – I love my diseases and I love President James Garfield, so this book was a delightful marriage of the two. Fitzharris, an American, is a medical historian who lives in England. It seems only natural that Victorian medicine would become her favorite thing in the world. In this book, Fitzharris explores the evolution of anti-sepsis. It’s really that simple! Anti-sepsis and its benefits were not so simple to sell, however. Imagine how sick or dead we’d all be had it not been for Joseph Lister and his tenacity, his ability to convince the right people at the right time that he had the right solution to saving lives. Unfortunately, those who could have saved President Garfield’s life just by washing their hands were not immediately receptive to the idea. Thanks for trying anyway, Joseph.

What Remains by Carole Radziwill – It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am a Real Housewives junkie. I watch OC, Atlanta, New Jersey, Dallas, and New York (Beverly Hills is laaaaaaame). When Carole joined the New York cast a few years back, I found myself immediately fascinated with her. She comes from a middle-class family; she was a war journalist; she was married to a Kennedy (cousin, but still); she became BFFs with Carolyn Bessette; and she can write. How this woman endured such tragedy and grief in such a short amount of time (she loses Carolyn in the infamous JFK, Jr. plane crash, then her husband dies of cancer a few weeks later) is beyond me. So this is a really good book if you like crying in bed.

 

Audiobookworm

I now live in a place where driving time is measured by doubling, and sometimes tripling, the mileage between where you are and where you are going. My 19-mile commute takes me on roads with maximum speed limits of 40mph. Which means when I need to be at work at noon and I want an iced latte from Dunkin’ (which is quite often), I gotta leave my house an hour early. Commuting around here is no joke but at least the scenery is pretty.

During my first week of commuting to my job, I discovered my XM radio is kind of useless. I’m surrounded entirely by trees and rock walls against the roadside. There is hardly an open space for a satellite signal to reach me. If I’m driving anywhere else it works, though. But I’m rarely driving anywhere else. Occasionally I drive to the dentist (35 minutes away to the north) or to my brother’s place in Portsmouth (55 minutes away to the south). Sometimes I visit my daughter at work on the weekends (20 minutes away to the northeast). Distance is measured in time out here. And spending that time and distance with no working radio and only the thoughts in my head was starting to make me a little crackers.

The library I work for has a limited catalog of audiobooks, and audiobooks were never something I listened to before. I can barely pay attention to podcasts when I’m cooking or vacuuming because my attention is elsewhere, like focused on cooking or vacuuming. But a couple of months ago I gave audiobooks a chance (rest assured, I am still focused on driving), simply because I had no other options. And you guys! There’s some good stuff out there.

1. Still Alice by Lisa Genova

This was my first audiobook ever, and it’s a story that I kind of wish I had read in print form. The author is the narrator and I had a really difficult time in the beginning getting used to Genova’s lack of emotion while telling the story. This might have been why I wish I had read it myself. I learned an incredible amount of medical knowledge (for someone who hasn’t had to deal with Alzheimer’s disease in any way, directly or otherwise), and I hope the compassion this book compels its reader/listener to have is something I gained in the process. Genova is a gifted writer and Still Alice is a remarkable book. I just wasn’t a fan of the narration.

2. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

All of my fretting over narration and wondering if I would be able to get into another audiobook were pointless with this story. It’s narrated by B.D. Wong. HE’S INCREDIBLE! Every book should be narrated by B.D. Wong. Aside from my excitement over the narration, this was a truly lovely story. And I know for a fact that I would never have been as enthusiastic about reading Sijie’s novel as I was about listening to it as I drove back and forth from work. Balzac is a story about stories – the ones we read, the ones we tell, the ones we write, the ones we hide – and it follows three main characters as they grow up in re-education camps during China’s Cultural Revolution. And Four Eyes was probably one of my favorite characters ever, even if he was nothing more than an opportunistic little twerp. Maybe B.D. Wong had everything to do with that.

3. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Published in 2011, years before the rise of Trump and the need to make television series like The Handmaid’s Tale, When She Woke is a pretty realistic interpretation of what could be our near future. Hannah has had an abortion, a criminal offense in the new church-controlled America. As a result, she, and every other criminal in the country, are chromes, sentenced to live in their newly-colored skin that reflects the severity of their crimes. Hannah is a red, a murderer. However, When She Woke is just as much about Hannah’s past as it is about her future, and how she still holds steadfast to certain moral obligations (but not others). When I was finished with this one I felt…unsatisfied. There were just moments when I wanted her to do the exact opposite of what she was doing and it was unbelievably frustrating. I ignored that, though, simply because I couldn’t wait to back to this story everyday. As a matter of fact, I’m still rooting for Hannah.

4. Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

Ford’s first novel Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is one of my favorite works of historical fiction. There is no other author out there who can take some of the worst things that America has done to a culture, that Americans have done to immigrants and minorities, and turn them into a beautiful story. Love and Other Consolation Prizes covers a lot of ground, from China to Seattle, and unfolds over the span of decades, moving back and forth. The transition from the 1900s to the 1950s and back is simple to follow, thanks to a gifted narrator. Jamie Ford also lends his voice to his final notes on the story, emphasizing the historic event on which the story is centered and how much we haven’t really changed. It is a hopeful story, but heavy with regrets and the acceptance of how life plays out.

5. Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

I’m only on the second disc, but I already know this will be a favorite. Remember Holly from The Office? That’s Amy Ryan, and she’s a prominent narrator in this story! And my goodness, she’s fabulous! Unfortunately, I had a four-day break from work so I had to find ways to drive here, drive there, drive somewhere just so I could get a fix every day or so. The characters in Kitchens are tremendously likeable, even when they’re being awful, because Stradal just knows how to write them as simple people with not-so-simple problems.

My favorite quote so far: “Even though she had an overbite and the shakes, she was six feet tall and beautiful, and not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most.”

Part of me wants to get my hands on the print book just so I can continue reading where I’ve left off in the car. The only problem with that is I would totally miss out on the narrator’s glorious attempts at mimicking the Upper Midwest accent from my Upper Michigan childhood. Think Fargo, but in an argument. It’s so darn polite.

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I have been reading a ton of book books, too, and I hope to put together an update on my most recent reads. Last year, I joined the Book of the Month club, in which I pay $14.99 each month and get to choose a new release (or more books from the archives). I recently considered cancelling my subscription because I have read so few of my actual selections. The new books just pile up and continue to exist on my shelves unread, so what was the point? Then I laughed and quickly got rid of the idea of getting rid of my Book of the Month membership.

Only a few weeks after I moved here I started a book club with a few local women and we’ve been meeting each month. Including my audiobook (Kitchens…) I am currently involved in a five different books. There were only four books until I hit a wall, you know when you just can’t get your head into anything? So I browsed the stacks of my local library (not the one I work in) for some new inspiration and found it: Roxane Gay’s Hunger. I likened this successful trip to the library to eating something someone else cooks. Sometimes it’s just better when someone else makes it.

My Summer of Disease

This summer I was mostly focused on disease. Not that I had one, nor did anyone else I know. At least, nothing outside of the norm. Allergies came and went, then came back again. A pestilence struck down two members of the family, one of whom was visiting while on vacation (sorry). The last rounds of that stomach virus left the house before anyone else was infected. My hands nearly bled from all the washing; I didn’t eat very well for days. I am emetephobic, yet I spend my free time learning about plagues.

Before we drove to Buffalo and Niagara Falls in July, we visited the James Garfield Monument at Lake View cemetery in Cleveland. He is entombed inside, with his wife, and the cremated remains of his daughter and her husband are next to them. A private organization raised the money needed to build the monument, which speaks volumes to the legacy he left behind after his presidency was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

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That’s not really true, though. Garfield could have, and most likely would have, survived the shooting, had American doctors not probed his bullet wound with their filthy hands. Sterilization and cleanliness of tools and hands – anti-sepsis – were mere suggestions in those days. What actually killed Garfield was the infection that raged through his body for months. Sepsis. His was a miserable, painful, torturous death caused by an imbecile of a doctor (who’s actual first name was Doctor, but was not highly respected by other doctors) who refused to believe in the recent European work on germ theory.

Needless to say, I fell in love with Garfield the moment I heard this story. Not only because of his suffering, but also because he was a president who aimed to ease the suffering of others. He even out-Lincolned Lincoln. If you know anything about him, I think you would agree that his voice in this era of failing leadership is exactly what we could use. He was the anti-sepsis. In a way, he still is.

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Throughout the summer, I focused on my upcoming thesis, my final requirement before I graduate with my Masters in American History early next year. I made myself familiar again with the miseries of smallpox, cholera, and the influenza outbreak of 1918 that killed millions around the world. Eventually, I decided to commit my research to yellow fever. Always a believer in the threads that connect one event to another (history has just as many examples of cause and effect as science), I began to look around me for closer sources.

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Had yellow fever ever struck Cleveland? The answer is no. But Cleveland had suffered an outbreak of smallpox back in 1902. I learned this one morning when I dropped my daughter off at her new high school’s orientation and, with three hours to kill, walked over to the Dittrick Medical History Center inside Case Western Reserve University’s Allen Memorial Medical Library. The museum is small, but ever since I’d heard about it from a friend in Oklahoma City, I knew I had to go. Where else could one spot this gem of a antique plate? “But my friend, this enema is fine for a horse but not for a gentleman.” 

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Fancy some disease reading? Here’s my recommendations:

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (the story of Garfield’s life and death)

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (the Bubonic plague, fictionalized)

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss (essays on disease and vaccinations)

Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs (an investigation into how Reconstruction failed and created America’s greatest biological crisis)

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson (cholera, freakin’ terrifying)

Yellow Fever narratives:

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

An American Plague by Jim Murphy

Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793 by J.M. Powell

Fever Season: The Epidemic of 1878 That Almost Destroyed Memphis, and the People Who Saved It by Jeanette Keith

Smallpox narratives:

The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by Elizabeth Fenn

Indie Bookstore Day 2017

Last month I rallied up the family for a literary adventure through Cleveland. I had recently heard about Independent Bookstore Day, which is celebrated annually on the last Saturday of April, and I thought it would be a fun way for us to see some of the city while we supported local businesses. Since I was finishing up a final assignment on this particular Saturday, we didn’t have a lot of time. Otherwise we would have hit up more than just the two stores we visited.

Our first stop was Loganberry Books in the Larchmere neighborhood of Cleveland. Right away I knew I was going to love this place. I mean, just take a look at the mural that’s painted on the side of their building. It pretty much gives you an idea of how seriously they take their books.

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Once inside, it’s easy to see how Loganberry Books serves as a community anchor. Not only does it extend back and feature a fair amount of new and used books of every genre, but there are other rooms off to the side for author signings and art exhibits. They even have live music events.

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And in the back room, the Lit Arts room, is a bookstore cat. His name is Otis. He really didn’t seem to care that so many people were hovering around, and why would he? He’s used to it. But the day was especially drizzly and gray, and the cat bed was warm. The cat bed was electric! (I have something similar. I have an electric heated mattress cover.) I left Loganberry with two books: Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Land by Lauret Savoy and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America.

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Our second stop was to Appletree Books in Cleveland Heights. It’s a much smaller bookshop, but it still felt very much like a bookshop. The owner seemed very excited to meet and greet everyone who came inside, and was super helpful in locating for me a copy of American War by Omar El Akkad.

The walls of Appletree are papered in book pages. And then there’s the staircase…

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After our short tour of Cleveland area bookstores, we found a soul food restaurant on Shaker Square, splurged on some shrimp po’ boy sliders and red Kool-aid (that’s how it’s listed on the menu: red or purple Kool-aid).

And then we returned home so I could finish a paper on the role smallpox played in the founding of America. I submitted it the following day and received a note from my professor urging me to consider the topic as my master’s thesis. I chose another topic, though, which I’m excited to share here on this blog once I get everything approved. And so it seems I’m committed to one final paper before I graduate, before I can finally get around to reading those three books I just bought.

Believe me, I’m looking forward to it. And I’m looking forward to Independent Bookstore Day 2018. For now, I’ll leave you with a closer look at that beautiful book mural.

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Favorite Books of 2016

On New Year’s Day of this year, I set my Goodreads challenge to 40 books. This seems to be my standard goal. I try and account for busyness, which would average me out for 1 to 2 books a week, depending on how many pages I’m up against. I include in this mix all of my academic textbooks, too. Considering they are the reason why I don’t read more books of my own choosing, I’m counting those, even if it’s just because of interference.

This year I surpassed my reading goal (51 books!) and, quite honestly, I was surprised. I took four months away from graduate school, in part to recover from the emotional exhaustion of back-to-back-to-back courses in Russian history/the Third Reich/African-American history. With four months of freedom from multiple academic history books, I thought I’d fall short. And I had less free time than I thought I would since we spent all it preparing for a move we didn’t even know we’d have to make – and then we made the move. Sitting down for an hour with a book became a luxury.

Here’s a look at my favorite books I read in 2016. You may notice a theme in both genres. Nonfiction favorites are, of course, filled with misery and tragedy and trauma and WHAT DO YOU EXPECT FROM ME? but you should pick up on the fact that one is not like the others. And my fiction favorites were all written by a diverse group of women. This was a happy accident.

NONFICTION FAVORITES
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A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold: As soon as I heard Sue Klebold had published a book, I knew right away I wanted to read it. Often we forget that there is a family behind the shooter. We also forget that their lives continue amidst the death threats, the grief, the guilt, the questions. Anyone who is a parent knows that raising kids is a crapshoot. I live near a town that was the site of a mass school shooting in 2012. Just recently, the state of Ohio proposed new hearings for violent young offenders and this law, had it passed (which it did not), would have affected the life sentence imposed on this young, troubled teen who shot five people, killing three students. I don’t know where this shooter’s family lives now, and I don’t know how they’ve been supported throughout their own ordeal. Klebold’s book poses a question many of us have often wondered ourselves: When one family’s tragedy becomes the entire country’s tragedy, who is or is not allowed to mourn?

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger: This was in no way written with the same dramatics as The Perfect Storm, and I think that was Junger’s intention. The information in here is dramatic enough. I was originally drawn to this book because of my own sense of geographic misplacement, but also because PTSD is, sadly, more prevalent than we as a society seem ready to accept. Most countries in Europe have been tackling the issue of trauma for decades. As usual, the United States is behind and, as usual, nobody knows how to deal with it.

Sick from Freedom by Jim Downs: This should be required reading for all high school history students. Emancipation was just the beginning of a very long road to freedom for African-Americans. However, emancipation and the subsequent humanitarian failures during Reconstruction led to the worst biological disaster in American history. What does that mean? Death, disease, and suffering. It affected mostly freed blacks who no longer had access to healthcare and proper nutrition once they’d fled the plantations and fields and the care of their masters. Disease was rampant throughout the country. Uncontrollable outbreaks traveled with the freed men and women as they made their way to large cities in search of work and shelter. The War Department, having been tasked with funding both Reconstruction and the newly created Freedmen’s Bureau, failed the newly freed slaves by giving most of its budget to Reconstruction projects.

Masters of Death by Richard Rhodes: The Einsatzgruppen isn’t often talked about in the grand scheme of Nazi Germany. However, once you start digging into the details of Nazi atrocities you can’t avoid learning more about the them, probably more than you bargained for. Comprised of three groups (officially referred to as A, B, and C), they terrorized villages all across Europe one by one. Known as the Nazi Death Squad, they encouraged villagers to turn against one another within days, which led to mass killings and even parades celebrating the deaths of tens of thousands of these villagers’ former neighbors. The Einsatzgruppen’s sole job was not to fight, but to kill. Although a few death squad soldiers had what could be called a conscience, and they would press villagers to do their killing for them. This is one reason why European countries have been successfully dealing with trauma and PTSD. It’s in their history. Everyone suffered in 20th century Europe.

The Residence by Kate Andrews Brower: What’s this? A feel-good book? YES! Well, kind of. I was not aware that the White House staff remained intact even as the president’s administrative team was constantly restructured. This book led to a few a-ha! moments, because I was reading it (voluntarily) in tandem with my required readings for my American political history course. Was Lyndon Johnson a horrible president? No. Was he a jackass? ABSOLUTELY. Did this seep into his presidential abilities? No question. It’s the little things in this book that make sense of some of the big things. Johnson had an obsession with his shower’s water pressure. It might have been one of the few things he felt he had control over. Hillary Clinton once removed the kitchen staff so she could personally make Chelsea scrambled eggs while she recovered from a stomach virus. Sometimes being a mother comes first.

FICTION
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The Vegetarian by Han Kang: There is no way to accurately describe this book. The main character, Yeong-hye, is convinced that the only way to save herself from seeing the gory, bloody images in her mind is stop eating meat, start eating plants, become a plant. Her relationships with herself, her husband, her child, with everyone, begin to change so dramatically that you realize you are reading about someone’s uncontrollable fall into the depths of mental illness. I was conflicted through most of this novel. Part of me wished, as her family did, that she could just find her way back to herself. The other part of me wished everyone would let her be. It was almost like her mental illness was her way to finding inner peace. The scene in which Yeong-hye is being force-fed meat is traumatic. With writing like that, Kang’s debut has made me look forward to every word she writes from now on.

Blue Angel by Francine Prose: Blue Angel was one of the first books I read after we started to settle in our new home. I couldn’t wait to get back to it every night! It’s a story about the inevitability of getting older, of reevaluating your life and accomplishments. It’s also a story about being young and mapping out your life and future accomplishments. The reputation that followed this book in reviews made me feel like there would be a lot of inappropriate meetings of the two, of the young and the old, but the scene in question is brief and hardly graphic. What follows, however, is how such a lapse in judgment can alter the lives of all involved, directly or indirectly. Manipulation runs thick on both sides, proving that older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser, and that self worth is a thing we all struggle to determine. Some for our entire lives.

Speedboat by Renata Adler: I chose to read this book on two points alone. First, the cover. I totally judge a book by its cover (have you seen the cover of Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho or Heidi JulavitsThe Folded Clock? For real, click on those links!). Second, a textile artist I follow on Instagram recommended it. I really like her art so I was certain I’d like her book recommendation. I was right! How does one explain the premise of Speedboat? There really isn’t one, but there is. The main character, Jen, doesn’t exactly tell you anything about herself, or about anyone or anything. Everything you learn is from the bits and pieces she shares in an almost diary-like order. Her life is so uninteresting to her, yet it was so interesting to me. I couldn’t put it down.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: How many time can we survive heartbreak? (Numerous times, actually, as evidenced by my own ability to survive 4 out of 5 of my nonfiction picks, and both this novel and McCreight’s.) I’m not giving anything away when I tell you the daughter dies. That’s what this entire novel is about – the daughter’s death, the family’s (in)ability to recover, and how each of them respond to what is now required of them to help each other. Throughout the book, I couldn’t help but imagine this was my own daughter. My one and only child. Gaaaawwwddd!!! Ng just kept breaking my heart, over and over and over again. And the story’s ending? Kablooey. You’ve been warned.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight: I had apparently not learned my lesson when I read Celeste Ng’s novel about the sudden, unexplained deaths of teenage daughters. McCreight’s novel explores the relationship between a single working mother and her only child. So how well do we know our kids? Even though Amelia’s shocking death is ruled a suicide, her mother is unconvinced. What follows is her heartbreaking discovery of what Amelia’s life was really like in the months leading up to her death. Did she jump from the roof of her NYC school? Or was she pushed? McCreight’s character development is enough to leave you suspicious of everyone, but I was left with questions. Was this intentional? Am I supposed to just accept what I know, just as Amelia’s mother had to? Maybe. And while that’s disturbing, it doesn’t take away from the novel at all. Do we ever know all the details, about anything?

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And there you have it!

Anyway, I’m currently working my way through This is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick. What about you? Tell me, what are some of your favorite reads of 2016? And what are you reading now?

The Migratory Instinct

Years ago when I first moved to Florida, I thought I was done with all the moving. That that move was the last move. At least, the moving from state to state, country to country – it was all over. I had a baby in Gainesville and moved to Jacksonville, so the whole idea of relocating within Florida wasn’t out of the question completely. But I believed and finally felt like I was a Floridian, once and for all. I’d grown up in places that were not Florida, yet my parents held Florida residencies no matter where we lived. Their driver’s licenses, the tags on every vehicle we owned, absentee voter’s paperwork. All Florida. They were Floridians and I, by familial association, always thought I was a Floridian, too.

I made it to Florida in 1996 and it felt good to have a legitimate residency, a place I didn’t have to leave unless I chose to do so. And I eventually did just that. The move to Oklahoma was traumatic, to say the least. I fought any and all nesting instincts that tried to surface. The idea of settling in was completely rejected. Why was this so hard? Why was this so much work? So for three years, when I talked about the South, I called it home. When I talked about Florida, I called it home. When I talked about my parents’ house, I called it home.

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Well, I finally had a breakthrough. And I have New Mexico, of all places, to thank for it. I am not special, this I know. At least not in the sense that I used to think I was – a global nomad, a restless spirit, wandering the continent (or, really, the East Coast) in search of home or, when times got really desperate, any sense of belonging. Somehow, though, halfway between Oklahoma City and Santa Fe, I felt another connection to another kind of landscape. A landscape that features tumbleweeds, coyotes, mesas, and sagebrush. These few things are what brought back my migratory instinct.

Since we returned from our spring break vacation in New Mexico and Colorado, I have found myself pining for the desert and mountains of the southwest more often than I have been pining for Florida. This in no way means I don’t think fondly of Florida. In fact, I think we had one of the best relationships ever! That’s a trick I’ve learned to employ recently – thinking back on my connections to certain places and considering my relationships with them. Like former boyfriends, I have my favorites: Italy, Upper Michigan, and Florida top the list. Prince George’s County, Maryland? You’ll always be the worst and I never want to see you again. Go to hell.

Oklahoma, on the other hand, has been good to me. Oklahoma has been patient with me. Oklahoma has offered me so many different landscapes. It’s like she’s trying so hard to get me to connect with her, to connect with something about her. Like me, Dena. Please! She has mountains, forested hills, lakes that are covered in morning fog. She has wild weather like ginormous tornadoes and ice storms, but she makes up for that with sunsets that knock my damn socks off. She has tallgrass prairies, canyons, and my beloved bison, which I’ve resorted to calling Land Manatees. She even has mesas and salt flats. So what took me so long?

Me. I was the problem this whole time. That is usually the answer to most of my problems and, to be honest, the hardest truth to swallow. But I’ve gulped it down, along with my pride (because I’m so sorry you all had to listen to me whine for three years!), and I have learned to just be where I am. And where I am ain’t too shabby.

Take a look:

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Things I wish I'd known prior to my canyon hike: 1. Wagon wheel ruts are still visible in the park, which once served as part of the California Road. 2. The canyon is the only place the native Caddo Maple tree still grows and thrives. 3. Yes, Oklahoma h

It turns out I live less than an hour away from a canyon. Considering how badly I want to return to New Mexico, to the mesas and the sagebrush, I thought it was a good idea to take a walk through a canyon. It’s very un-Oklahoman, a canyon, but it’s not very New Mexico-ish, either. The visit to Red Rock Canyon didn’t necessarily scratch the New Mexico itch, but it gave me back my migratory instinct – that inner restlessness and rootlessness that has always felt like a curse to me. Except it doesn’t feel like a curse anymore.

Oklahoma and I had a good heart-to-heart this year. I have left this place to go to other places – Santa Fe, Denver, and again to Florida. But in the end, I always come home to Oklahoma and I am quite alright with this arrangement. Finally. I’m a Third Culture Kid, there’s no denying it. I will still call myself a Floridian, but I also call myself a Wisconsinite and a Yooper. I have called all those places home. They are all a part of me. These are the places my family comes from. But I am also an Oklahoman. This is where my family is.

Until we move somewhere new…

(I can’t tell you what a relief this is. Migratory instinct, WELCOME BACK!)

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Books I’ve read (and recommend):

The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits (which has the most stunning cover art, because I do judge books by their covers) – I can’t even explain this one. Julavits uncovers her childhood diary and decides to take up the art form as an adult. Her writing is gorgeous, just like the cover.

Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Gulia Enders – I will never be able to feel unwell again without considering yogurt for dinner. Something most of us should probably do more often, anyway.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Stories From the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty – I always thought I wanted to be cremated and to have my husband take me in a small container on all his global adventures. His future wife would have to be okay with me always being on vacation with them, but only to scatter me into the wind in whatever country it is they’re visiting. I still want that to happen (does a blog post serve as a legally binding notice as far as dealing with my remains?), but I would also like to be put into the ground somehow, too. Animals and vegetables gave me life and I’d like to return the favor.

Currently reading:

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert – I love this woman and I plan to drive to Wichita, Kansas, in a few weeks to meet her. Another thing Oklahoma has provided me – proximity to Liz Gilbert.

Stayin’ Alive

Did you know that the Bee Gee’s hit song “Stayin’ Alive” is the best song to have stuck in your head while performing CPR? It’s all about the rhythm, or the compressions per minute. And how fitting is that song title? I wonder how many lives the Bee Gees have saved just by writing that catchy little tune.

But prior to CPR (and the Bee Gees), there was the Silvester’s Method. It was occasionally referred to as Sylvester’s Method, as you can see from the illustrations I found in The Soldier’s Handbook published in 1909.

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When I was a little girl I had quite the crush on Andy Gibb. It was probably because of his hair. He had great hair. My early childhood and teenage crushes all had really great hair – Eddie Rabbit, Jon Bon Jovi, Sebastian Bach, etc. But I digress. The reason I bring up Andy Gibb is to point on the irony of his early death. Andy died from complications of myocarditis which causes sudden cardiac arrest and even death – a death that, incidentally, can sometimes be prevented by administering CPR.

Go West!

We took a vacation. Like, a real vacation. And by real I mean there were no relatives to visit and no friends to catch up with, which has been the basis of all our other vacations. This time, though, the three of us piled into our van and headed west to visit places we’d never seen and to be surrounded by people we didn’t know. Do you remember my excitement at crossing the Mississippi River pretty much every single time I cross the Mississippi River? Well, last month I crossed the Rio Grande. TWICE! It was just as exciting, even though the river was barely a trickle in the dry New Mexico landscape.

As you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t posted in quite a while. An 8-week condensed graduate class on the History of the American West pretty much took up any desire I’ve had to write anything for the last two months. I was clever enough to make sure this class and our trip to the Rockies happened at the same time. Why? Because I have never in my life had a desire to go west. I just figured I’d read about something interesting in one of my textbooks that would get me excited. And it worked. Partly through New Mexico I saw a sign for the Chisholm Trail and didn’t shut up about its namesake and history for a good twenty minutes.

We spent our first night in Santa Fe. The town closes up pretty early, which surprised me since it’s both a booming arts community and historical tourist destination. After a quick dinner downtown and a stop at a local bookstore, the three of us went back to our hotel to binge on HGTV. We don’t have cable at home so this HGTV thing turned out to be a heavy theme on our family vacation.

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We headed north the next morning, toward Colorado and Great Sand Dunes National Park. I don’t remember how I discovered this place even exists but the NPS website photographs are incredible! Basically, there are these gigantic sand dunes that sit right at the base of the Rocky Mountains near a town called Mosca. The elevation change from 1,200 feet above sea level in Oklahoma City to over 6,000 feet in Santa Fe had made us all tired and headachy. Even though visiting the Great Sand Dunes was my idea, I was starting to second-guess this side stop. My husband insisted, though, and thank goodness he did. It is really one of the coolest things I have even seen – the tallest sand dune is currently 699 feet high. Visitors can walk to the top and head back down the dunes…on sleds! Of course, walking from the parking lot to the visitors’ center was difficult enough because there is NO OXYGEN up there so I commend anyone who makes it ten feet up the dunes.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

We rented a cabin in the tiny Colorado town of Twin Lakes. Our view was spectacular! We spent the first two days learning how to breathe (again, no oxygen!) and cursing ourselves every time we had to go up and down the stairs. Even turning over in bed left us winded. Since moving our bodies was such an uncomfortable thing to do, we tried not to do it. And this is where HGTV comes in. Like, HEAVILY.

We skied on day 3. It wasn’t a complete fail, but tempers flared and tears were shed. It’s probably best that I do not go into detail. Was it fun? After a while it was, and only for two of us. Will we do it again? Er…maybe the two of us who had fun will do it again, but skiing is an expensive sport. Why? And all the layers! When you’re that close to the sun, and the UV index is off the charts, the fewer clothes, the better. At least that’s what my mountain-top panic attack said. But, no details.

On most days the deer visited our cabin while we acclimatized to the thin air. We found a restaurant/brewery in nearby Buena Vista that we really, really loved. The town of Leadville, just north of the cabin, is full of all kinds of mining history. I convinced the family to humor me and we hit up the National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum. It was so interesting! And practically the only thing open in town…well, that and a Safeway grocery store. So Leadville was a bit disappointing, especially when one considers how much history could be shared in the off-season. (I hate that term.)

Twin Lakes, CO

Twin Lakes, CO

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Twin Lakes, CO

 

By the time we figured out how to breathe without oxygen, it was time to head home. I had been arguing for the Santa Fe route again, since we’d had no time at all to tour the town. My husband was arguing for Denver, though. Elle sided with him and, since I was outnumbered, we went to Denver after our 5-day stay in the mountain top cabin. Denver is really, really cool! Breweries everywhere, it seems, and the landscape is such a contrast within the city itself. To the west are the Rockies and to the east is nothing but flatness. It was a nice change to see flatness. For me, anyway.

I have no photos of Denver, unfortunately. Our short time there consisted of walking to Steuben’s for dinner (where I enjoyed the most delicious macaroni and cheese, hands down) and driving to a brewery downtown. There was more HGTV, but then we decided to spice up our television viewing by watching a spin-off of What Not to Wear called Love, Lust, or Run. When you don’t have cable, hotel television binging is always allowed as part of the vacation experience.

The next day we drove through Kansas. Everything you’ve ever heard about Kansas is probably true. There are no trees in Kansas but the speed limit is, like, 75 mph on the interstate, so that kind of makes up for it. Gets you out of Kansas a lot faster, I guess?

By the time we made it home Oklahoma City was in bloom and I had one week to research and write a 12-page paper on the history of the American bison. I wrote it in three days. Then, I think, I slept for two more. I decided to take a month off from school and it’s done wonders for my mental health. My family thinks I’m a nicer person when I’m not in school and they enjoy the fact that I’m cooking again. In fact, I woke up this morning and made blueberry pancakes then turned around and baked a bourbon bread pudding with homemade caramel sauce.

Free time is fun. Speaking of which, here’s what I’m up to book-wise:

What I’ve read:

The Martian by Andy Weir: One of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read. There’s a lot of space-science and technology talk, but don’t let that get in the way. It’s one of the few books that’s made me laugh out loud. You’ll be recommending this one to all your friends, too.

The Returned by Jason Mott: I just finished this one last night and I was sad to let these characters go. However, if you’re familiar with the French version of the television series, the characters and plot are quite different from the book’s, but not so much that it distracts. It’s more like another version of a great, great story. The American version, though, is not streaming on Hulu or Netflix or anything else, so I don’t know how closely it follows Mott’s book. Read it, though.

The Bear by Claire Cameron: I listened to this on audio while traveling. The story is told from the point of view of a child. It’s…okay. It’s not Room, but good enough. And it’s always interesting (I think) to try to see a story from a perspective outside of the norm. I recently discovered a book about the Battle of Appomattox told from the perspective of a rabbit. I’m not sure how I feel about that one, but it’s getting decent reviews.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai: Malala spends little time talking about the event that led to her becoming a household name, and more time sharing the history of Pakistan and her family. It’s a beautiful story.

What I’m reading:

Redeployment by Phil Klay: I’m taking in this collection of essays little by little. It’s overwhelming, the sadness. Everyone I’ve told about this book has been warned about the language and the violence. It’s a part of war. But I’ve also mentioned that I believe anyone who is considering enlisting in military service should read this book, just so they’re aware of what they’re getting into. I read maybe one essay every few days. I can’t do more than that in one sitting.

There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: Don’t let the title throw you off. There is a short story included that is about that very thing, a woman who tries to kill her neighbor’s baby, but it’s only a few pages long. It’s a good story, as are all the others I’ve read so far. If you like dark fairy tales and otherwordly characters or parallel universes, this is the short story collection for you.

You Are What You Read?

 

My reading preferences seem to surprise a lot of people. It’s not a matter of me preferring dystopian YA fiction over the works of Margaret Atwood. It’s not a matter of me preferring Amish romance novels over the meatier, literary stuff*. It’s that I tend to read books based on the horrible aspects of what it is to be human. My shelves are overflowing with texts on infectious diseases, genocides, slavery, and Holocaust literature. I own memoirs written by survivors of natural disasters, combat, and terrorist attacks. Lately I have found myself watching Netflix documentaries about honor killings and war refugees. I tell myself it’s to help me with my history studies, and it is. Culturally speaking, it opens my eyes to a lot of things I would have never known about otherwise and I can use those new perspectives in my future historical interpretations.

When I was younger I always gravitated toward reading the darker stuff, mostly books about old hotel hauntings or serial killers. This never seemed to bother my parents. As a kid I visited my grandmother often when she lived in the same Milwaukee suburb as Jeffrey Dahmer. Later I moved Gainesville, Florida, a town that became infamous after the gruesome murders of five university students. One victim’s mother frequented the pharmacy I worked at. I always stared at her in awe (tactfully, of course), and thought Jesus. How have you managed to get on with your life?

I’m just a curious person.

It got me thinking about the way people grieve. All of us will experience a devastating loss at some point in our lives, and it is likely that we will be able to grieve privately. We will get to choose the people with whom to surround ourselves and we will all recover, over time. But how does one grieve privately when one’s loss is so public and only a fragment of the whole? In the event of enemy occupation, I could lose my home. In the event of a terrorist attack, I could lose my family. In the event of any mass trauma, I could lose my identity along with millions of others. How does one grieve when one’s loss becomes a thing the entire community, nation, or even the world claims as their loss, too? How does one grieve when the pharmacy technician keeps staring and thinking I know what happened to your daughter and I can’t un-know this.

Just this weekend I scanned and organized all my books into virtual shelves with my Goodreads app which I have set up to interact with my Facebook page. I mentioned this shelving frenzy on Facebook, and encouraged my friends to notice all my chick-lit and feel-good books. I’m not all gloom and doom, I told them. Yet the only book that showed up was a paperback I recently found called Night of Stone, an account of 20th century Russia and the culture of mass death in the wake of famines, political violence, and war.

Is it a wonder nobody believes me, that I can actually be found reading Sophie Kinsella or Elizabeth Gilbert? So this weekend I decided I would toss aside the Auschwitz book, ignore the collection of Holocaust poetry on my beside, and read an honest-to-goodness book of fiction.

I was immediately taken by In the Shadow of the Banyan and fought to stay awake on my first night with this book. The narrator is, at the moment, a 7-year old Cambodian girl trying to understand why her family has been forced from their home by men in black pajama pants. I was able to read a little bit at work on my break, during which two coworkers brought up my penchant for “happy” books (oh, the sarcasm). By this point, my book’s narrator was getting a lesson from her father on the push and pull of the river’s tide, the forceful expulsion of water that sometimes leads the river into unknown territory (a metaphor, yes, for forced migration).

Surprised that I was not delving into a detailed report on Ebola, my coworker asked, “So, what are you reading today?”

I showed my coworker the book’s cover and, without apology, explained, “It feeds into my genocidal interests, but this really is fictional.” We had a good laugh. Oh, that’s just Dena.

I don’t want to use the word fascination when trying to describe just how intense my interest is in traumatic recovery. There just isn’t any other word. Nothing that seems suitable, anyhow. My interest in this stuff is one of absolute respect. I am completely in awe of how one reconciles the loss of their homeland, culture, or every single member of their family, to violence, and can wake up the next day with…what? Hope? It obviously exists. Why else would a person want to go on?

While my studies are focused directly on American history, I choose to use much of what I read toward understanding cultures in general. Whether it’s learning about families who live in border refugee camps, or about the mother who lost her child at the hands of a serial killer, there is this kind of hope that each one of them carries. Their stories are out there and, in my privileged position as a graduate student with all the freedoms and securities I can ask for, I feel a responsibility to learn them.

* I am not one of those types of readers who looks down upon those who choose to read Fifty Shades of Grey or Beverly Lewis’ Pennsylvania Dutch love stories over, say, any other book. I don’t read that stuff, but if that’s what you wanna read, read it! I’m just happy you’re reading.