Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Fact of a Body

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (2017)

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich went to Louisiana for an internship at a law firm, where she learned about the case of Ricky Langley, who was convicted of murdering a 6-year-old boy. He was a pedophile and the more she learned about his case, the more memories it brought back about her own childhood and the grandfather who had abused her. The story of Ricky Langley and the story of Marzano-Lesnevich's childhood are both told in alternating chapters, resulting in a book that is both true crime and memoir.

Neither story is simple or straightforward. Ricky's life even began in a strange way, born while his mother was confined to a body cast after an accident that killed two of Ricky's siblings. At the time of the murder, Ricky was living with a couple and their two kids. Apparently the man, Terry, had been known to abuse at least one of his own kids. Ricky maintains he did not sexually abuse the young kid before murdering him, but there was some physical evidence showing that he was possibly abused at that time. However, DNA tests showed that evidence wasn't related to Langley. Just a few months after the murder, Terry drove his motorcycle into the side of a moving train, killing himself and his son. Ricky kept asking for help and it was denied. He tried to educate people about pedophilia in an attempt to help deal with other pedophiles and nobody wanted to listen. He wanted to be in prison so he wouldn't hurt anyone.

Marzano-Lesnevich, coincidentally, also lost a sibling. She and her brother thought they were twins until it was revealed they were actually triplets, and their sister died as an infant. Her grandfather sexually abused her and her sister for several years. As if the abuse itself weren't enough, her family later denied that it ever happened. Her parents consulted a child psychologist at the time who advised them not to press charges, not to even confront the abuser, in an effort to minimize impact on the kids. As an adult she overheard a conversation at a party in which her father told someone, and I think he was laughing about it, that she was the only one who remembered the abuse. Her sister made a conscious decision to pretend it never happened.

Reviews of the book make too much of the author's views on the death penalty and her reaction upon meeting Langley, when she suddenly felt that she wanted him to die. I thought this whole book would be about how her feelings about capital punishment changed through this case, but it wasn't. There is so much to this story, to both stories.

Her writing is beautiful and evocative, and I became completely wrapped up in both stories. Part of what made it so immersive are the detailed descriptions that go beyond what you normally find in nonfiction. She cleverly achieved this by using words like "maybe" and "perhaps" to describe what things may been like for a particular character. For instance: "Standing outside is a woman. Maybe she's leaning against the side of the building, one hand resting on the top of the trash can, her head thrown back as she exhales into the night sky." In this way, she was able to paint a scene quite vividly without actually making it into fiction. It was brilliant.

In fact, the whole book was brilliant and powerful and thought-provoking. If you like true crime or memoirs - and especially if you like both - I highly recommend reading it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Top Ten Books On My Fall TBR List


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is the top books we're looking forward to reading this fall.

I only recently began adding books to my To Read shelf on Goodreads again, and I've been exercising a lot of restraint so it's not (yet) out of control as it used to be. Of course in some cases I've just put the books on hold at the library and then frozen the hold, which is basically just adding another list altogether. At any rate, I have grand plans to fly through my To Read list(s) before the end of the year. I still have some things to read for the Community Read committee and my personal reading challenge, but still. I have more than 3 months to do all of this. No problem, right?

Here's what I'm most looking forward to reading this fall:

1. Middlemarch by George Eliot
Ok, this might put a cramp in my plans to "fly" through my list. This isn't even technically on my list, but I recently made plans with some friends to read it together beginning in October. I just bought my own copy and I really love the cover. I'm excited!

2. Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart
I have a library copy and plan to start it later this week. I adore E. Lockhart and the reviews for this new novel have been pretty great.

3. Hunger by Roxane Gay
She's just an incredibly talented writer, and I've heard from two different friends that this book is amazing. Also, I've already bought a ticket to see her speak in March!

4. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
New John Green! I don't even know what it's about! It doesn't matter!

5. Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
A new book by Tom Perrotta is always cause for celebration. And reading.

6. The Burning Girl by Claire Messud
Initially I wasn't thinking I'd necessarily read this, but it's a pretty short book with a compelling premise, and I'm still rather haunted by the last Claire Messud book I read.

7. Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too by Jomny Sun
I don't even remember where I heard about this. It's a graphic novel about a lonely alien sent to observe Earth, and I just now discovered that it's based on the author's Twitter account. Anyhow, it looks so adorable I might die of cute overload.

8. What Happened by Hillary Clinton
At this point I just want to read it because everyone right now is so indignant about the fact that she had the audacity to write it, and honestly is there anything she can do that people won't be upset about?

9. Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu
Speaking of unruly women and books that have gotten flak for stupid reasons...

10. We Are All Shipwrecks by Kelly Carlisle
I think I mostly added this to my list because it's my favorite book title that I've seen in a while. But it also sounded pretty good from the reviews.

There are so many exciting books that didn't even make this list, but these are the ones that I'm the most urgently interested in right now. Which, obviously, could change at any moment.

What are you most looking forward to reading this fall?

Monday, September 18, 2017

In the Shadow of Liberty

In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives by Kenneth C. Davis (2016)

When we learn about U.S. presidents in history, what is often left out of the stories is that many of our early presidents owned slaves. In fact, the centrality of slavery to the formation and growth of the United States is barely, if at all, menioned. Kenneth C. Davis is telling exactly that part of our history in his book for teens which focuses on the lives of five enslaved people who worked for presidents. Billy Lee, Ona Judge, Isaac Granger, Paul Jennings, and Alfred Jackson were slaves who worked for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson.

Of course these presidents all had a whole slew of enslaved black people working for them, many of whose stories have been lost to history. The lives of black people in early America weren't documented as they were considered property, not people, and even the stories of these five people had to be pieced together, sometimes imperfectly. Kenneth C. Davis (and I think it's worth mentioning that he's a white man) has endeavored to tell their stories as respectfully as possible. He usually uses terms like "enslaved people," pointing out in his "Note to the Reader" that he hopes this will emphasize that they were people with a condition forced upon them, and that it doesn't define who they are as the term "slave" does.

I'll admit that I haven't read as much about slavery as I probably should have. I've picked up some things over the years from my fiction reading, movies, and that sort of thing but I don't recall when (if ever) I've read an entire book on the subject. It was completely glossed over in school when I was growing up, just a line here and there in a textbook that we read out loud in class but didn't really discuss in any meaningful way. And of course most of what I learned about the early presidents amounted to hero worship, as though they weren't regular people who lived in the context of their times like everyone else. A lot of the way I remember learning history was just a collection of facts that didn't really come together to tell any sort of story. I sure wish we had read a book like this in school.

Some of the details we got included the early lives and family background of the enslaved people, their skills and interests, and their relationships with the people they were forced to work for. The presidents had varying relationships with their slaves, but often considered them part of their families, which is very strange when you think about it. Some of the presidents were actually against slavery, so owning slaves seems pretty hypocritical. Of course, in some cases had they tried to free their slaves, they just would have ended up being "owned" by someone else, so maybe they were better off staying with someone who had appreciation for the unfairness of their positions. Davis doesn't try to gloss over the hardships endured by enslaved people who were often separated from their loved ones and had to work cruelly long hours. I did notice that a passage about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings didn't at all dwell on the fact that she was a teenager when she first bore a child by Jefferson and didn't note that their relationship was almost certainly not consensual. Is this because the book is geared towards young people? Or did the author just not get into the details of the Jefferson/Hemings story because that wasn't his focus?

Between chapters were timelines of historic events in the U.S. especially having to do with slavery. On these pages Davis also included periodic population numbers, noting how many of the population at that time were black, and how many were enslaved. At one point 1/6th of the U.S. population was enslaved. When I think about these numbers, it paints a very different picture of the United States than I've ever had from studying history or even watching period movies.

Although it was an informative nonfiction book, which I never enjoy as much as I do a good novel, I found In the Shadow of Liberty to be pretty fascinating reading. The author's style was easy to read, there were a lot of illustrations, and I learned a lot that I didn't know. Honestly I have no idea if there are other books like this for young people, but I like to think this isn't the only one that tries to tell a truer version of history than we all learned a couple of decades ago, and before. It made me want to learn more about certain parts of U.S. history.

I read this for my Not-So-Young Adult Book group, but it satisfies a category for my Personal Reading Challenge. The category is U.S. History/Politics and I'm not sure what I had in mind with the "politics" part, but this was certainly about U.S. history. I have two more titles and two more categories on my challenge, which means I'm doing better than I predicted a couple of months ago.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Day of the Duchess

The Day of the Duchess (Scandal and Scoundrel #3) by Sarah MacLean (2017)

Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, hasn't forgotten about his wife since she day she left. He searched everywhere for her, and now she is back and she wants a divorce. But that isn't easy in Regency England and the only way Malcolm will consent is if Seraphina helps him find a new wife. So they're off to the country together to meet some eligible young women and determine which one the Duke should marry. Of course his only plan for the summer is to win back Sera, the only woman he truly cares about.

This is a great setup because the hero and heroine are already married. But boy did they both mess things up early in their relationship! They had been in love, but Sera wasn't certain he wanted to actually marry her because of her family's reputation so she tricked him into marriage. He was outraged, thinking this meant she didn't actually love him, and wanted nothing to do with her. They were brought together again briefly by an event that turned tragic, and that's when Sera fled to America and started a new life. But her goals now involve owning a business, and married women can't own property, hence her need for a divorce.

You might remember the Dangerous Daughters from my post about The Rogue Not Taken, the heroine of which was Seraphina's sister. In fact, during one memorable scene Sophie found Sera's husband, Malcolm, in a compromising position with another woman and pushed him into a fish pond. Now, Sera has brought all of her sisters with her as she undertakes the job of finding Malcolm a new wife. It's quite a support system too, especially given how much they all dislike him for making their sister miserable. Sera's sisters are outspoken and hilarious, though I keep confusing them all with each other since their names all begin with S.

Of course it all becomes obvious very soon that Sera is just as much in love with Malcolm as he is with her, despite all they've been through together. They both hurt each other in pretty intense ways and getting past that is difficult. In this way, this is probably one of the messiest and realistic romances I've read. The current story is alternated with flashbacks to their early relationship and all the events that surround it, so the full story is filled in as we go. This is pretty common in books these days, but I don't think I've read a romance structured this way, so that was a nice surprise as well.

As one would expect from any novel by Sarah MacLean, it's filled with cheeky humor. In the scene when Seraphina first meets Malcolm and addresses him as "my lord" he responds by telling her it should be "Your Grace." To which she replies: "How did you know how throughly women enjoy being corrected by men? And over forms of address, especially. It is a great wonder that none of us have ever fallen in love with you."

In another part, when Malcolm says he wouldn't trust Sera's sisters around unmarried men because of their reputations, she laments: "Oh, yes. Poor unmarried men, weak-willed, doughy boys with neither control nor intelligence. So easily marked and ruined by women-- ever more powerful...Poor, sad men, so kind and blameless, fairly wandering the streets in their impotent impressionability." I really enjoyed Sera a lot.

But her sisters were just as cutting. When a man tells Sesily what he thinks he wants, she responds, "I do like it when a man tells me about myself. It's positively aphrodisiacal." To which he says "I'm an American, my lady. Don't flummox me with all your big words." It was all so very satisfying.

When I began this series, I think I assumed there'd be a book for each of the five sisters, but then the second book was about someone outside of the family, and a couple of the sisters got married between books. I know MacLean has a new series coming out so this might be it for this series, except for what I think will be a novella about the relationship between Sesily and the aforementioned American. At any rate, I'm sure whatever she writes will be her usual mix of smart, feminist, fun and delightful.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Top ten books I read the first year I had my blog


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. I feel like I haven't done one of these in a while! They were on hiatus for a bit, and I've just been very busy/tired/lazy and sometimes the topics haven't appealed to me. This week's topic is a throwback freebie. One of the ideas was Ten Books I Loved During the First Year I Started My Blog. I really like that idea!

These are all books I read in 2007 and loved, in the order that I read them.

1. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

2. The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

3. The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

4. Sunshine by Robin McKinley

5. Firmin by Sam Savage

6. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

7. The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken

8. A Secret History by Donna Tartt

9. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

10. Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Fun fact: when I started this blog it was primarily going to be about knitting and librarianship. I hardly posted about books at all! A couple of these were mentioned in passing in posts on other topics, but only one had a full post devoted to it.

The complete list of books I read in 2007 is here. (Thank goodness I was doing that from the very beginning!) What an amazing reading year that was! It was HARD to narrow down this list. There were so many other great books by some of my favorite authors, like Tom Perrotta and Nick Hornby. Wow. The books on the list are not just books I loved, but ones that I still consider favorites, and in most cases really want to read again.

That was a fun trip down memory lane!

Monday, September 11, 2017

They Can't Kill Us All

They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America's Racial Justice Movement by Wesley Lowery (2016)

If you've paid any attention to what's been going on in the United States in the last several years, you know about the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and many other black men at the hands of the police. Journalist Wesley Lowery was on the ground in Ferguson, MO and several other cities over the course of the year, observing the aftermath of these shootings close up. His book is a different perspective on the stories we're familiar with, but it also puts these recent events in a larger historical context of racial justice movements.

This was not at all a pleasant book to read, though it was short and fairly easy to follow. It's just not a story one wants to delve into for pleasure so I sort of had to force my way through it. I knew about all these deaths already, have closely followed the aftermath (well, from afar anyhow), and have made a point in the last year or so to read about race and policing and related issues. It's not a pretty picture.

I remember after Michael Brown was shot, when Ferguson was in chaos, and many well-intentioned people pointed out how unnecessary the rioting and burning and looting were. But what many of us didn't realize is that police had been shooting black people in that neighborhood for years, and before it blew up into a newsworthy revolt it didn't grab anyone's attention. This particular shooting was the straw that broke the camel's back, and the people of Ferguson made sure everyone knew about it.

The fact is that police are all local, the decentralization making it hard to hold them accountable at any but the most local level, and they have an almost unilateral right to kill people. This is horrifying. And it doesn't help that our police forces have the power to arm themselves with military equipment. Their job - or so I was always taught - was to keep the peace. But as Lowery describes in one scene about a demonstration in West Baltimore, it was volunteers who had to stand between protestors and police and de-escalate. Why aren't police taught to de-escalate situations? It looks an awful lot like they don't want to. And no, not all police are horrible. Lowery includes a passage when a Black Lives Matter volunteer named Mica Grimm attended a small conference at the White House. A police chief in attendance slipped her a note saying "Don't be deterred from speaking truth to power." Yet the violence and racism is undoubtedly systemic and pervasive.

It made me so mad, and I was already mad about this. I'm mad that we have to come out and say things like "black lives matter" AND that so many people are upset by that statement. I'm mad that this is all ingrained into the fabric of our society in such a way it's hard to get at, and it feels like there is literally nothing I can do about the injustice. Lowery includes the following Einstein quote: "The world will not be destroyed by evil, but by those who watch without doing anything." This is similar to the oft-quoted "First they came for the Socialists..." piece, and it's all true. I guess just speaking out whenever there's an opportunity, protesting when there's a protest, and learning as much as possible about these issues is a start. I'm sure not going to sit by and just watch it all continue to happen. I'm sorry it's taken me this long to even realize the extent of the problem.

Anyhow, this is less a review than an angry diatribe about racial injustice in the United States, but I do urge you to read this book if that's something you want to learn about. (And you do, right?) I've already read The New Jim Crow, which I think should be required reading, and this is a great follow-up as it gets into events that have happened since The New Jim Crow was published. I'd love other suggestions of books on this topic if you have them.

This book fulfills the "race" category of my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge. I've read other books this year that would probably have fit, like You Can't Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. But I wanted to pick something that focused exclusively on race and this was the first one picked up that does so. I've ready plenty of articles, watched YouTube videos, and listened to many episodes of the Code Switch podcast, so it's not as though I haven't been paying attention to these issues, but this is the first book I picked up this year focused solely on race.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Miracle Morning

Miracle Morning: The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life (Before 8am) by Hal Elrod (2012)

I wasn't going to post about this book that I picked up impulsively and was very cynical about. I mean, when I saw the "before 8am" part, I almost didn't open it. But the thing is, as much as I hate getting up early, I've always thought I'd be way more productive and together if I made it a habit to get up at an excruciating hour and get stuff done. I think I first heard about this book in the FB community for the By the Book podcast - which you should totally be listening to. It's two women reading and living by self-help books and talking about their experiences. A couple of people suggested this as a future book, and then it popped up somewhere else - a blog? A list of recommend self-help books? - and that was enough for me to request it from the library.

The basic idea of the book is that you should start your day with a series of activities abbreviated with the handy acronym SAVERS. Silence, Affirmations, Visualization, Exercise, Reading, Scribing. Silence is meditation or prayer, and I already meditate, but not in the early morning because for a time I did get up extra-early to meditate and it just felt like an extension of sleep. Affirmations are new to me (I just think of Stuart Smalley, and Elrod admits that was also his first thought) but apparently the idea is that you rewire your thinking about yourself by replacing your negative thoughts ("I always screw up everything!") with positive ones ("I am a competent professional who excels at my job".) It makes a sort of sense. Visualization is basically what it sounds like, visualizing what you want your life to be like. Exercise is exercise. Obviously. Reading refers specifically to that related to personal development (i.e. self-help books), and Scribing is writing (because SAVERW is not a good acronym) and can be anything, but Elrod recommends writing in a journal.

The book is only about 128 pages, which includes a lot of padding and repetition because honestly this is not a difficult concept. There's also a lot of the irritating cheerleading that is present in pretty much every self-help book ever. You can make your life whatever you want it to be! If your life isn't awesome, it's your own fault! You can make a ton of money if only you want it enough! Seriously, he says that if you surround yourself with wealthy people you will be wealthy. Most infuriatingly, he says that 95% of people are just settling for mediocrity because they can't be bothered to make their lives better. Yes kids, most people are lazy and they suck. Super nice, Elrod. Way to show compassion for your fellow humans. As much as he insists he's not blaming people when bad things happen to them, he really sort of is. Oh, and he also says that writing a bestseller is "easy." Ugh. Anyhow, I ignored the stuff that annoyed me and focused on the bits that seemed helpful.

One thing he said really stuck with me. He talked a little about one's life purpose, a concept that I find frustrating and confounding. I don't know my life's purpose and with a lot of self-helpy stuff, you can't go anywhere if you don't know that. Anyhow, Elrod said at one point that it's not something you "figure out," you "make it up, create it, decide what you want it to be." It might be a semantic nuance, but the way he put it makes me feel so much better. I can totally just pick something! And then if it doesn't seem right, pick something else! This makes so much more sense than the idea that you must look deep within yourself to try and discover your life's purpose which is surely hidden in there somewhere.

There are some practical considerations to doing all these 6 things before getting for work. He suggests either a 30-minute or 60-minute Miracle Morning, with some suggested breakdowns for how much time to spend on each activity. My concern, though, is the time it takes to move from one to the other. And, like, the first day I tried doing all the things, I started with meditation and spent the whole time thinking about how the other activities would go and what order I should do them in and I never write in a journal so what should I write about? Elrod says that he arranges everything he'd need the night before so it's all ready for him when he gets up. Journal, yoga DVD, etc. This makes sense. I suspect that some of the other kinks might work themselves out with practice.

I'm still concerned about the actual getting-up-early aspect though, which I think is where I'm going to get stuck. I wonder if it's enough to just do all these things every day and not necessarily all in the morning, but I guess the idea is that you're starting your day off making sure that you feel like your best self before you tackle everything you need to do. I don't know how much of this I'll implement, but I do know that currently I'm not off and running in the mornings, and I don't always go into work with the best mindset to do a good job, so I'm willing to try. I'll be sure to let you all know how it goes in my monthly wrap-up!