Book Review: “Home” by Toni Morrison

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Last year, I read my first Toni Morrison book: Beloved. It was extremely well-written but deeply heavy in subject matter, so I had to take some time before I was ready to dive into another Morrison novel. Home is the story of Korean War veteran Frank and his quest to save his sister, Cee, and somehow find his place in a world that he doesn’t recognize. Coming in at less than 150 pages, it’s a short and fast read.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Home gets right: Cee’s struggles as a black woman trying to support herself were portrayed with compassion and understanding. Sure, Cee makes some honest mistakes, but by the end of the novel she has grown up and will hopefully be able to heal from her trauma.

Frank’s and Cee’s stories are sad ones, but Home ends on a hopeful note. Their sibling bond is powerful in a world where relationships between many men and women are difficult and even abusive.

What Home does wrong: This is a Toni Morrison novel, so if you thought you were going to get out of this reading unscathed and completely emotionally sound, you’re wrong. Morrison really surprised me with one of the plot points, and this unfortunate surprise made the rest of the book hard to read. However, having read Beloved, I knew that Morrison often tackles uncomfortable and disturbing issues in her books. Should have seen it coming!

Who should read Home: Readers who are interested in history, veterans, African American experiences in the U.S., and superb literary writing.

Who shouldn’t read Home: Readers who are looking for lighter subjects and writing styles.

 

Home is currently available at the library.

Content note: flashbacks include a disturbing scene, and Cee is horribly mistreated at the hands of a corrupt doctor. Reader discretion is advised.

Book Review: “Dreams From My Father” by Barack Obama

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Right now, I want you to set aside what you know about politics and Republicans and Democrats. Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father is not really about any of these things. It’s about racism and identity: a black man with a white family trying to find his place, and who he is, in an unfair, confusing world. Dreams From My Father follows Obama’s life through his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia to his acceptance to Harvard and his journey to Kenya.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Dreams From My Father gets right: Whether or not you voted for Obama or enjoyed his presidency, you can learn so much from this book. Obama speaks with the voice of someone who has thought a long, long time about what he’s going to say and how to say it in the best way possible. He’s not afraid to use harsh language or metaphors, but he tempers this anger with understanding. Even as a fiery college student, he recognizes that others haven’t read what he has, or don’t struggle with their identity in the same way he does, and he’s willing to look past the differences and reach across the boundaries.

I’m white, so I will never have the racist experiences and burdens that Obama has faced. Racism shaped and scarred his entire journey of self-discovery. Despite my own ignorance and disconnection to Obama’s struggles as a black man, I appreciated his willingness to open up; and what I can relate to and aspire to in his narrative is Obama’s drive for truth and justice. Like Obama (although for different reasons) I also went through several months of reading every black thinker I could find in the library: W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marcus Garvey. And like Obama, I found that the man who made the most sense and greatest impact on my way of thinking, even though I definitely didn’t agree with his religion or his views on women, was Malcolm X.

Obama read these books as a young man for his survival; he did not have the luxury of reading a persecuted peoples’ history from a place removed as I did. I read these books to try and see the world through an opposite perspective of my own: a black male experience. Whatever your reason for reading these timeless classics, though, you will emerge with an enlightened view of how the world works and what we can do about it- the same tried and true lessons that you can learn from Dreams From My Father.

What Dreams From My Father does wrong: I loved this book because of how it fed me intellectually, so it’s hard for me to find much fault with it. I will note that there’s some uncomfortable language in it, but I think it’s warranted by the subject matter. It was also hard to read how women were treated in Obama’s Kenyan family (who were in a patriarchal culture where men could beat their wives and take multiple wives, whether the women consented or not).

Who should read Dreams From My Father: People who want to learn more about racism in the United States, and what it was like to grow up as a biracial man in the sixties and seventies. Readers who are interested in Obama’s life story and how he became the man he is today.

Who shouldn’t read Dreams From My Father: If you’re looking for something light to read or for a fiction book, then just add this one to your “TBR” list for now.

 

Dreams From My Father is available in print book and audiobook formats at the library.

Content note: language.

 

Book Review: “Educated” by Tara Westover

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Educated took the book-loving world by storm when it was published in 2018. It’s also been consistently checked out from the library since we ordered it. In this powerful memoir, Tara Westover describes her unconventional upbringing and how finally gaining access to formal education changed her life.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Educated does right: Westover’s story is heartbreaking, but it needs to be told. You’ll learn about the horrors of family violence, abuse, undiagnosed mental illness, and willful ignorance in this book. However, you’ll also learn about the power of education and the hope for a better tomorrow. The times I teared up from the book were not because of the sad situations (although there were many), but because of how proud I was of Westover for doing well in school, in spite of all odds.

What Educated gets wrong: This is not a critique of the book (it’s hard to critique memoirs from a content standpoint anyway), but more of a warning for readers: this one will hurt you. My student assistant, Mya, warned me that I would be angry while reading this book, and she was 100% right. There’s a lot of misinformation and injustice regarding Tara Westover’s family and upbringing.

For example (spoiler): the Westovers survive a bad car wreck but don’t go to the hospital due to their distrust of the “medical establishment,” which results in serious trauma and long-term injuries. So what do they do the next time they’re driving on a long trip? They let the dad take the wheel; he drives super fast to prove a dumb point; and then they have ANOTHER deadly car wreck in which, guess what, they don’t seek medical attention AGAIN. It’s infuriating to read this through the lens of a brainwashed child who knows something isn’t quite right, but who can’t articulate what it is and defends her father even though he constantly endangers her life. It’s even sadder when she’s old enough and educated enough to know that her family is not treating her the way they should, but she still reaches out to them and tries to help them even as they destroy her.

Who should read Educated: Fans of true stories. Family members who have lived with and understand serious mental illnesses. Teachers of rural children. Anyone who wants to know how NOT to raise your child (like, living in a rural area is totally fine, but throwing scrap metal at your child is not).

Who shouldn’t read Educated: If your blood pressure goes up every time you read about children in danger (like mine does), think twice before picking this one up. The negligent and downright abusive way that these children were raised is mind-blowing.

Book Review: “Bad Days In History” by Michael Farquhar

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To kick off the start of a new semester and to put a little bit of a spin on my Moments in History blog series, I have found an interesting book that chronicles random events that occurred on each day of the year: Bad Days in History: A Gleefully Grim Chronicle of Misfortune, Mayhem, and Misery for Every Day of the Year by Michael Farquhar. The events include various political disasters, military blunders, international scandals, and general accounts of bad luck.

One example is on November 2nd, 1932: The Great Emu War in Australia began, which pitted a company of soldiers against 20,000 emus that were destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of crops. Another grisly incident is how on January 15th, 1919, two million gallons of molasses exploded in a storage tank in Boston, Massachusetts, sending a 15 foot wall of hot molasses rushing through the streets at 35 mph (killing 21 people and injuring another 150). The book brings up other malicious events, like how on January 27th, 1595, the Ottoman Emperor Mehmed III had his 19 brothers put to death on the day of his coronation. This practice was instituted to prevent rivalry and potential civil war in the empire.

Those are just 3 of the 365 moments in history this book has to offer. I encourage you, if are a fan of random history moments like myself, to give this book a read. I found it thoroughly entertaining, and I hope you will as well.

This book is available at the Union University Library.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: “A Heart In A Body In The World” by Deb Caletti

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After completing my first marathon, I wanted to read a young adult (YA) book about running. I picked up A Heart In A Body In The World by Deb Caletti from the library’s Family Room. This novel is about much more than running (it has the major theme of dealing with a traumatic event) but running sets the framework for the main character, Annabelle, to begin the healing process.

Annabelle is a high school cross country runner who is in therapy and trying to deal with PTSD after a terrible event. On a whim, she decides to embark on a giant run from Seattle to Washington, D.C. Her grandfather helps her out, providing her with food and support from his RV. Soon her run turns into a cause, with hundreds around the country tuning in and showing support.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What A Heart In A Body In The World gets right: This has nothing do with the actual story, but wow, what a great cover!

As for the actual story: the hazards of running are really well described! When Annabelle freaked out in the shower because she hadn’t realized that she was chafed from her run, and the hot water was stinging her? That’s real, y’all . . . just take my word for it. And while she wishes for some Body Glide for chafing, let me tell you, that stuff only works some of the time.

It’s sad that recent, real-life events have made a novel like this so timely and necessary, but I’m glad that author Deb Caletti wasn’t afraid to tackle this kind of subject.

This book will show you the worst of humanity, but it also shows you the best of humanity: the surprising kindness of strangers, the willingness to support a good cause, and the love that a family has for each other. Annabelle’s story is both sobering and inspiring. It’s a story worth reading, even if you end up crying a little along the way.

What A Heart In A Body In The World does wrong: I personally am not the biggest fan of books that are written in present tense, so that took a little getting used to with this novel. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the “heart facts” that prefaced many of the chapters- they were interesting, but they took me out of the story.

Who should read A Heart In A Body In The World: Readers who enjoy running and young adult novels.

Who shouldn’t read A Heart In A Body In The World: While this book is certainly inspiring, it’s also very sad at times. If you’re looking for something more lighthearted to read, then pick up something different.

 

A Heart In A Body In The World is available in the library’s Family Room.

Content note: PTSD, gun violence, language.

Book Review: “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami

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If you’ve read anything by author Haruki Murakami, you’ll have noticed that he likes to write about 3 things:

  • cats
  • people with very specific routines for daily chores
  • men who are visited or contacted by mysterious women

All 3 of these topics pop up within the first 9 pages of his acclaimed 1994 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. This is the 5th Murakami book that I’ve read, and at this point his writing style and preferred subjects are familiar and comforting, like a warm blanket, even though he also likes to constantly surprise his readers with wild revelations (like, for instance, a villain who is trying to enter another world via the souls of cats or a place where you see two moons in the sky).

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about an unemployed, passive man who begins searching for his wife’s missing cat (and then his wife) throughout Tokyo. He meets many weird and mystical characters along the way- some of them sinister.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle does right: This book is like a Japanese Twin Peaks with a healthy side helping of The Shining: neurotic characters, long backstories, mysterious disappearances, claustrophobic hotels, struggles between bodies and souls, and a world beyond the regular one we know. I’d love to see David Lynch make a movie out of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Just like in a Lynch film, you never fully know what’s going on in a Murakami book (or at least, I don’t. But that’s part of why I enjoy them so much).

You can tell that Toru Okada (the narrator and protagonist) is up against something big- possibly even something supernatural or paranormal- but, like Toru himself, you’re not really sure of what he’s fighting against or how he has gotten involved in this vague battle of good vs. evil. It’s exciting to try and unravel the mystery as the book continues and more information is slowly revealed.

The book’s climax had me on the edge of my seat. I’ve never read a book that was so dreamlike and yet so gripping. It was stressful, but ultimately I enjoyed the ride.

What The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle gets wrong: It’s a bit of a slow start, but it does keep you wanting to know more about the characters and what’s going to happen next. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is divided into 3 “books” or parts, but I didn’t realize that at first. The structure of the book makes more sense once you know how it is segmented.

There are a few sexual scenes that I found unnecessary, but I knew to expect them going in. Murakami uses sexual expression in his fiction as a gateway to parallel worlds and understanding other people’s souls; it’s rarely used as a means of procreation or recreation.

While I reveled in how the book finally concluded, it took so long to get there. I think parts of the book could have been shortened or streamlined. And while I enjoyed the historical narratives about events in the second Sino-Japanese war, their connection to the main story was only a vague one, and sometimes I wanted to skip ahead.

Who should read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: Readers who are fans of magical realism (i.e. pairing everyday things and settings with characters or events that are out of the ordinary or practically impossible). Nobody does contemporary magical realism like Murakami, in my opinion.

Readers who are interested in Japanese history, especially their involvement in WWII, may also enjoy this book.

Who shouldn’t read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: With any Murakami book, things are going to get really, really weird. If you don’t like bizarre or uncomfortable scenes in books, then don’t pick this one up. There were several scenes that, while pretty brief, were shocking. In particular, the scenes from the war period are disturbingly violent and described in detail.

 

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is not currently available at the library, but you can request it through Interlibrary Loan.

Content note: suggestive scenes, war violence, emotional trauma. If this book were a movie, it would be rated R. Reader discretion is advised.

Book Review: “Neuromancer” by William Gibson

neuromancer

Neuromancer is a classic science fiction novel written by William Gibson. The story follows Case, a cyberspace hacker, and his new assignment from a mysterious figure called Armitage. Eventually, a powerful AI comes into the mix, and Case is in for way more than he bargained for.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Neuromancer gets right: It’s a lot like The Matrix, and who doesn’t like The Matrix? (Technically I should say that The Matrix is like Neuromancer, since the book came first.) Case’s world is flashy, fake, and fun. Neuromancer was one of the forerunners of the cyberpunk genre when it was released in 1984, so it’s certainly interesting for historical value.

I also enjoyed the various villains and ambiguous characters in the book (particularly the AI ones). They kept the story fresh and were always adding to the suspense.

What Neuromancer does wrong: It’s hard to follow. I found myself rereading sentences, wondering what I’d missed and confused by the vocabulary that Gibson never explained. I wouldn’t mind if a few terms flew over my head (I’d rather read on than get mired in semantics) but I was lost for the first half of the book. Neuromancer demands your full attention, and even then you still might miss something.

Like Ender’s Game, Neuromancer was a book that, while intriguing, ended up falling flat for me. I felt like I was being kept in the dark about Case’s mission a little too much. Sure, Case himself barely knows what he’s getting in to, but when you’re reading about a completely unfamiliar setting with barely fleshed-out characters, you need something to understand and relate to.

One of the characters, Molly, does get more backstory and nuance toward the end, which I was grateful for. I also liked what I saw of the characters Wintermute and Hideo, and I wished we could have learned more about them.

Who should read Neuromancer: Fans of classic science fiction, Blade Runner, and The Matrix.

Who shouldn’t read Neuromancer: Readers who don’t enjoy technical descriptions, unfamiliar words, or lack of character development.

 

Neuromancer is available here at the library.

Content note: brief sexual scenes, language, violence, substance abuse.

Book Review: “The Sight” by David Clement-Davies

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Have you ever picked up a book about wolves with powers and then realized that it’s really a thinly-veiled hot take on creation myths, religion, faith, and humanism? That’s what happened when I dived into The Sight, a novel I’ve been waiting to read for a long time and finally got my hands on recently. I read it in two days because I just couldn’t put it down.

Mild spoilers ahead.

 

What The Sight gets right: I loved The Sight pretty much right away. I mean, the book opens with a haunting description of a Carpathian castle; to a vampire fan like me, this is easy bait. But it’s so much more than the fascinating wilderness setting. The wolves in The Sight have their own gods and stories and, in fact, everything in nature is connected and respected (even their prey). Yet, just like with humans, not every wolf has the same beliefs, and these ideas clash as different packs are formed.

The main focus of the novel is the power of the Sight, which is essentially increased intelligence, the ability to see through another’s eyes, and the ability to see visions and recall memories (which is something most animals can’t do very well). Some wolves are afraid of the Sight, while others want to embrace its power for good or evil. Eventually, a terrifying prophecy comes into fruition as the wolf Larka struggles to protect a stolen human child and learn the ways of the Sight.

What The Sight does wrong: The Sight doesn’t have the friendliest view of religion, as some wolves come to realize that the stories they have believed in are just that, stories. The main antagonist, Morgra, uses some of the stories to make her followers obey her, using their fear to control them.

However, I think The Sight ultimately takes the view that having faith in something can be good and helpful as long as it doesn’t blind you to “the truth,” which is what the book’s protagonist, Larka, values the most. This is definitely a philosophical book that will make you think; for example, the wolves have their own version of Jesus Christ (a sacrificial wolf named Sita). At the same time, if you’re a believer, it can be disappointing that the wolves seem to reject their religion toward the end- but this is a work of fiction, after all.

Who should read The Sight: Lovers of philosophy, creation myths, Romanian history, fantasy, and wolves.

Who shouldn’t read The Sight: There are some reviews on Goodreads that call this book boring and sad? I don’t personally agree with that judgment, but I suppose some readers might get bogged down in all of the legends and folk tales that the wolves tell each other. And The Sight definitely has sad moments, but many of them are foreshadowed, and an older reader won’t be caught off guard by them.

 

The Sight isn’t currently available at the library, but you can request it through Interlibrary Loan.

Book Review: “Machines Like Me” by Ian McEwan

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I read Atonement a few months ago (you can read the review here) and fell in love with how Ian McEwan writes. So when his new book about an AI man came out this year, I had to get my hands on it. Machines Like Me is about an impulsive man, Charlie, who buys an AI named Adam. Their interactions grow increasingly strange and morally compromising as they navigate dilemmas with their mutual love interest, Miranda. The setting is an alternative 1980s England.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Machines Like Me gets right:  I loved reading about the philosophy and morality behind AI versus humans, and Adam was fascinating to me from the beginning. It was hard for me not to read ahead to see what he would do next. I mean, he figures out how to make haikus! And his version of morals- well, let’s just say it doesn’t mesh well with his human companions.

There was a weird tone throughout the book- one of both curiosity and dread- that kept me interested even through some of the less exciting scenes. Everyone who Adam comes into contact with is a test- what will he say to them? Will they recognize him as an AI? And why did Charlie buy him in the first place? Machines Like Me will keep you guessing until the end. And the ending, while a little unexpected, is mostly satisfying.

What Machines Like Me does wrong: As usual, Ian McEwan’s writing is superb, and I was hooked on the premise from the beginning. However, I couldn’t help but think there was a lot of unrecognized potential. AI is such a controversial topic, but McEwan’s story sizes it down to make it seem almost pedestrian. I thought Adam could be a true villain, but I think his potential was ultimately unrealized.

Charlie and Miranda were both boring/frustrating people, so they were hard to read about at times (especially because Charlie narrates the story). Charlie makes the weirdest, most random decisions, which is entertaining but so annoying. It’s like he doesn’t think about any consequences, ever- which is dangerous to do when dealing with AI.

Who should read Machines Like Me: Readers who are interested in AI, science fiction, and history. The alternative 1980s setting would be especially fun to read about for fans of Alan Turing.

Who shouldn’t read Machines Like Me: Readers who don’t care for science fiction or don’t know much about the history of AI. This book will be a little confusing if you are not familiar with certain historical events.

 

Machines Like Me is not currently available at the library, but you can request it through Interlibrary Loan.

Content note: brief suggestive scenes, brief language. There is also a subplot that involves a terrible crime.

Book Review: “Hitler’s Collaborators” by Philip Morgan

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In one of the darkest periods of European history, much of the European continent was under the direct control of the Nazi regime. Following its conquest and subjugation of nearly the whole of Europe, the Nazis sought to establish administrative rule over their vast territories. The problem facing them was that they did not have the man power or resources to effectively administer and police these newly conquered countries. The political leaders of the occupied countries also sought to adapt to their new circumstances. While a small percentage of the populations joined secret resistance groups, an equal part of the population turned to actively supporting their Nazi occupiers and acting as collaborators. The library’s new book, Hitler’s Collaborators, explains this part of history.

The collaborators joined with the Nazis for a variety of reasons; most just wanted some version of a say in their country’s future while under occupation. Others started puppet governments and actively sought to establish their own version of the Nazi party to curry favor with the Germans. In doing so, they gained a semblance of independent control over some areas of their countries. This freedom from direct German control came at an often terrible and unpopular price. Most, if not all, economic output was to be used to aid the German war machine. This would also mean that hundreds of thousands of men would be shipped to areas where they would be used as free labor for the Nazis. The worst to come were the collaborators who chose to aid the Nazis in turning over their own Jewish citizens in an attempt to appease the Gestapo.

In nearly every occupied nation, the Nazis were able to find thousands of volunteers to join the Waffen S.S. in its crusades to exterminate Jewish people and end Soviet Bolshevism. Many of these ardent volunteers were some of the last remaining soldiers defending Berlin in the final days of the war, as they knew they would be put on trial or executed as traitors to their own countries following the defeat of Germany. The day of reckoning for the collaborators would come at the end of the war, in which thousands were put on trial for aiding the Nazis. Many received prison sentences, and others had their citizenship stripped away. The guiltiest parties were tried for treason and executed.

Hitler’s Collaborators documents in stunning detail the motivations and degrees to which various collaborators sought to empower and/or retain some form of control over their countries while in service to the Nazi regime.  This book will be immensely useful for anyone interested in learning what life was like in Nazi-occupied Europe.

This book is available at the Union University Library in our New Books section.

*written by Matthew Beyer