Book Review: “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

night circus

The library ladies chose The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern for our second book club pick. This popular novel is a favorite among readers who enjoy books with magic, secrets, and romance.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Night Circus gets right: I love the magical realism in this book. Some magicians are faking it, but others have an innate gift for real magic, and it’s fascinating to read about.

The Night Circus introduces the reader to the two main characters and gets the plot going quickly. I flew through the first few chapters, excited to find out what was going to happen next and how Celia and Marco would eventually meet for their challenge.

What The Night Circus gets wrong: To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of either of the main characters. They were both selfish and deceptive. The book only scratches the surface of the problems and baggage that they carry into their relationship.

I didn’t love the book’s ending, either. It was a little too happy and tied things up too neatly, which was a stark contrast to the darkness in the plot throughout the rest of the book.

Who should read The Night Circus: Readers who enjoy fantasy, magic, and character-driven books. People who love movies like The Prestige.

Who shouldn’t read The Night Circus: If you have a hard time reading about child abuse, then maybe skip this one for now. The book doesn’t linger on these scenes, but Celia suffers a broken wrist and damaged fingers from her father’s abuse.

 

The Night Circus is available here at the library.

Content note: abuse, a mildly suggestive scene.

Book Review: “Black Water” by Joyce Carol Oates

joyce

There’s a Joyce Carol Oates short story called “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” that scared the daylights out of me when I was a teenager. There’s something about the story’s villain, Arnold Friend, that gave me the creeps; he’s meant to be a metaphor for death and loss of innocence, but he’s something more than that. He’s the terrifying sense that your life, your personal likes and dislikes, and everything that makes you you has all been done before, and what’s more, isn’t that special at all.

That sense of dread is present in a different way in Oates’s novella Black Water. The story’s protagonist, Kelly, is a young woman who is trying to sort through conflict with her parents, political ideals and disappointments, and confusing romantic entanglements. Her youth is a big part of who she is, and yet a car crash is threatening to take away everything from her (much like Arnold Friend wants to take Connie away from her family in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”).

I didn’t realize this until after reading the book, but Black Water is based on the real-life Chappaquiddick incident. If you’re familiar with this historical event, then this book will come as no surprise to you; if you’d rather go in without knowing anything about it, then don’t read the review part below.

Mild spoilers ahead.

 

What Black Water gets right:  Black Water focuses on Kelly, a young woman whose life is endangered by the Senator’s reckless, drunken driving. Historically, the focus was put on the Senator (Ted Kennedy), so Black Water‘s point-of-view is a welcome, if not very sad to read, change. This book also introduced me to a tragic event that had historic consequences, so it can be educational to those of us who were born after the Chappaquiddick incident or who don’t know much about the Kennedy family.

What Black Water does wrong: Sometimes the stream-of-consciousness style makes it difficult to read. Oates randomly leaves off commas and punctuation. For the most part it didn’t bother me too much, but it did take me out of the story a few times.

Who should read Black Water: Readers who enjoy hard-hitting, emotionally-wrenching books based on history.

Who shouldn’t read Black Water: Readers who love the Kennedy family. (Black Water makes the Senator, who is based on Ted Kennedy, look very bad; although to be fair, what Ted Kennedy did in real life was absolutely inexcusable, so it’s not hard at all to paint him as a bad guy when it comes to this particular event). Readers who want something light to read; this book is heavy and sad.

 

Black Water is available at the library. For more information about the Chappaquiddick incident, check out this DVD which is also available.

Content note: language, brief sexual scenes.

 

 

 

Book Review: “I Wear The Black Hat” by Chuck Klosterman

i wear

Have you ever thought about why we enjoy watching a good villain onscreen? Or why some people enjoy bands or public figures who go against social norms?

In I Wear The Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real or Imagined), journalist Chuck Klosterman examines the concept of villainy and what makes us so interested in villains. According to Klosterman:

The villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least.

Following this definition of a villain, the book continues to look at examples from both real life and pop culture of villains and how the general public reacts to them. It’s written in the format of loosely connected essays.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What I Wear The Black Hat gets right: The quest to understand and analyze human nature is enjoyable to read about. Klosterman obviously did a lot of research (and watched a lot of movies and read a lot of books) to put together these ideas. His tone is often funny, but sometimes he dives into more serious musings that will quickly make you somber.

My favorite essay by far was about Batman and Bernhard Goetz. I would love to see an updated version that includes the movie Joker, as it deals with the same themes of controversial vigilantism.

What I Wear The Black Hat does wrong: There are moments where Klosterman goes off on rabbit trails. He has hilarious examples to prove his points, but sometimes he goes a little too far and forgets what he was originally writing about.

A personal (and completely arbitrary) reason that I disliked parts of the book: Klosterman admits to hating R.E.M. in 1988. As someone who literally still runs an R.E.M. lyrics Twitter account that I started years ago for no particular reason, hating R.E.M. is just unacceptable to me. At least he admits to learning to love R.E.M. and even claiming them as one of his favorite bands now, but still. How could you start off hating them?

Who should read I Wear The Black Hat: People who love a good, complex villain in fiction (and people who don’t understand why anyone would love a villain). Readers who enjoy philosophy, pop culture, history, music, and current events.

Who shouldn’t read I Wear The Black Hat: If you’re not interested in nonfiction essays, don’t pick this one up.

 

I Wear The Black Hat is currently available at the library.

Content note: Acts of villainy are described (including real-life, violent crimes).

Book Review: “The Giver Of Stars” by Jojo Moyes

the giver of stars

This spring, several members of the library team decided to read and discuss a book together. Our first pick was The Giver Of Stars, a recently released historical fiction book by Jojo Moyes. It’s about a group of women who become “packhorse librarians” in rural 1930s America.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Giver Of Stars gets right: Margery, one of the main characters and the leader of the packhorse librarians, is a delight to read about. She’s strong-willed, stubborn, and perfectly at ease even in dangerous situations. She’s also hard-set against marriage, even marrying the man she loves, which makes for an interesting battle of wills.

The Giver Of Stars doesn’t shy away from social issues such as racism, sexism, and anti-intellectualism. The women have to fight these issues almost daily to do their jobs. However, the story of the women who are willing to make a difference is an inspiring one. While the book acknowledges their struggles, they never succumb to them.

What The Giver Of Stars gets wrong: The pacing is a little slow. I wasn’t always sure where the book was going, since it seemed to be meandering around a lot. There are a few moments where you’ll need to suspend your disbelief as well (most people in the 1930s were not as progressive as these ladies by a long shot), but keep in mind that this a fictional account of history told through a modern lens.

There are a few scenes where I think the old art of “show, don’t tell” would have been helpful, too. Readers don’t need a narration to explain how a man feels if he’s violently chopping wood right after a hard conversation. We get it!

Also, did people really love coffee this much in the 1930s? Was it even readily available for rural communities? There’s enough history to determine that coffee was slowly becoming a commodity in the 30s, but I’m a little iffy on how much coffee is beloved in this book. People in the 30s were in the first wave of coffee timeline (Folgers and Maxwell House were founded in the mid-1800s), so I have to wonder at the quality they were getting. First wave coffee was meant to be a helpful, fueling substance, not an all-encompassing need like second wave coffee (Starbucks, Caribou Coffee) set out to develop and capitalize on.

Who should read The Giver Of Stars: Fans of historical fiction, women’s history, nature, libraries, and books.

Who shouldn’t read The Giver Of Stars: Readers looking for something more fast-paced and action-packed. This book is more about developing its setting and characters.

 

The Giver Of Stars is located in the library’s Recreational Reading section.

Content note: A few slightly suggestive scenes, mild violence. One married couple has some trouble with intimacy, and this issue is addressed several times.

Book Review: “Home” by Toni Morrison

home

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

barack

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

educated

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

bad days in history

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

a heart 1

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

wind up

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.