Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Silver Sparrow

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (2011)

James Witherspoon is a bigamist. It's 1980s Atlanta and he balances his time between two families - the "legitimate" one and the secret one. In each family he has a teenaged daughter, each of whom in turn tells this story. The first half of the book is told by Dana, who has grown up knowing that her father has another family who he lives with most of the time, just stealing away regularly to visit Dana and her mother. Because his other daughter Chaurisse is around the same age, great pains were taken to make sure the girls didn't come into contact with each other and the sacrifice always had to be Dana's. In the second half of the book, the narration is from Chaurisse. Rather than getting the same story from another perspective, it picks up after the events of the first half, though we do get some back story as well.

I've been wanting to read this book since I first heard of it, soon after it was published. I'm not gonna lie, I was drawn to it because my father also had another family and I had never read anything about that kind of family situation before. This was a very different situation on the outside - these are black families in Atlanta as opposed to white families in rural Maine - but thematically it is the same and even took place in the 80s when I was also a teenager, though I think Dana and Chaurisse were a couple of years older than me.

The story is written in an easy conversational style that I really liked reading, and I think it would have teen appeal. I also really loved how 1980s it was - there was even a reference to George Burns in the Oh, God! movies, which I had completely forgotten about, so I had a nice moment of nostalgia there. Of course the meat of the novel is about the two related families and the man who ties them together. I like that Jones didn't paint James Witherspoon as a horrible person, just a flawed one, and didn't make either of his families more or less sympathetic. Everyone in this story is imperfect, but they feel real and their problems are no more or less dramatic than real life.

I found the ending a bit rushed, to be honest. There is a climactic event, shall we say, and it all wraps up pretty quickly after that. The second half of the book is told from Chaurisse's perspective, but the epilogue goes back to Dana and I wish it had been much longer. I want to know her motivations for doing things we learned she did from Chaurisse's story, and I wanted more about the emotional fallout from the events from both views. So my only criticism is that I wanted more, which means that I'll definitely be interested in reading more from this author.

Tayari Jones has a new book out, in fact, called American Marriage. It's very popular as it was picked as an Oprah book so I've already put myself on the wait list. I really like how Jones writes about unusual family situations so I think I'm really going to like the new book as well. As I mentioned, I first heard of Silver Sparrow several years ago, but I kept being reminded of it through recommendations such as this great list of 100 Books by Black Women Everyone Must Read. I put it on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge and it's now the 3rd book from my challenge list that I've read so far this year.

Monday, February 19, 2018


Tempest (Old West #3) by Beverly Jenkins (2018), narrated by Kim Staunton

In this third and final book in the Old West series, Regan Carmichael leaves Arizona Territory for Wyoming to be a mail-order bride. During her first encounter with her husband-to-be she shoots him, so they're off to a pretty rocky start. (It was a misunderstanding, but still.) Dr. Colton Lee has been clear from the start that he's not looking for a love match, but only a mother for his daughter Anna. When he meets Regan he starts to have second thoughts, but remembers how difficult it was to find a woman willing to move to this wild land for him. So they carry on with their plan to get married and, of course, their marriage of convenience becomes something more.

Like in the last book, Breathless, there was very little angst between our hero and heroine, just a slow realization that they meant more to each other than they expected. When they first met, Colton was taken aback by Regan's outspokenness, her ability to use a gun, and the fact that she sometimes put on jeans and got dirty. His first wife, Adele, was traditional and ladylike, and it took him a while to get used to Regan. Oh, and Regan wasn't a virgin either, and she was honest about that. She and Colton had a great conversation in which it became clear that he thought sex is basically something that men desire but that women just provide. Regan schooled him on this topic pretty quickly.

But most of the tension in the story came from others in their town who made it difficult for Regan to settle in and feel at home. First and foremost was Colton's aunt Minnie who, up until now, had been a very big part of Anna's life. She was a strict, unkind woman who ruled by fear and discouraged Anna from having any sort of fun. Consequently, Anna was rather meek and afraid. Now that Regan was there, encouraging Anna to come out of her shell and be more confident (and get dirty!) Colton didn't want her around Minnie as much, especially when they learned that Minnie told Anna it was her fault that her mother died. Meanwhile, someone was threatening Regan's life, although it was unclear who or why. This family had some major hurdles to get over before they could really settle down.

As I know I've mentioned before, one of my favorite setups is a woman moving to a new place and setting up a life there. This had all of the elements that make that kind of story work for me. Regan is getting to know people in the town and trying to figure out who will be her friends. One of the first people she met and liked was Spring, Colton's sister, who was somewhat of an outcast in the town. But she was friendly and down-to-earth and the two became fast friends. Regan was also invited to a gathering of ladies in the town where the reception was a bit cooler. Some of the women were nice, and some were more stand-offish. It was a mixed-race group and it was clear that some of the white ladies weren't especially pleased with that. And of course there was a woman in town who had hoped that she would be the new Mrs. Lee.

I loved watching Regan settle into this town, develop a relationship with her new husband, and with his daughter. Colton was a country doctor who would treat anyone who needed it whether they could pay or not, so he was a bit financially strapped. Regan, however, came with her own financial independence which caused some heads to turn in the town when she began upgrading their kitchen so she could do some decent cooking and baking. The owner of the general store doubted her ability to pay for the items, and I loved watching her stand up for herself and buying the things she needed - and wanted - despite the judgement cast upon her from the townspeople. I also loved her relationship with Anna, who needed a mother like Regan and thrived in her company.

As with the other books in this series, I listened to the audiobook version which I pre-ordered so I could begin listening as soon as it was released. This one had the same narrator, Kim Staunton, who always has a pleasant easy voice that is enjoyable to listen to. I wish she hadn't tried to do the Chinese accents (and I think I had the same complaint about the last book) but those were just a few short parts and didn't really detract from the overall experience.

I've really enjoyed this series and I'm a little sad that it's over, but I know that Beverly Jenkins is a prolific author so there's lots more out there from her to read. One of her older books, Indigo, seems to be recommended everywhere, and I'm also interested in her Destiny series, one of which I think is about a lady pirate which, yes please. She also has a popular multi-book contemporary Christian series called Blessings, which isn't my jam but might be yours. I do encourage any romance reader who hasn't yet tried Beverly Jenkins to check her out.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Knitting

I have not done one of these posts in forever because I haven't been knitting very much and my progress is so slow there's not often anything to show. But today! Today I have an exciting update on the sweater I've been knitting since the spring of 2016.

I have finished the hood!

And that's not all. I also had to go around and pick up stitches and knit the trim.

It gets a little fiddly at the end, because you have to sew down the edges at the bottom, crossing a bit like so:

I seriously don't know why I bothered with the button holes as I don't have buttons. I'd only want ones that match the yarn color and I have no idea how I'd find buttons that match exactly, especially considering I'd have to order them online. But also maybe it should have buttons to make the neckline look right? I didn't think to try it on after I made the edging so I don't know.

This is supposed to be the end of the project, except I went out of order and now I have to make sleeves. Two of them. So expect photos of this finished project sometime in 2019. (I wish I was kidding.)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes (2015)

Since she was five years old, Minnow lived with her parents in a cult in the middle of the woods. They called it the Community and their leader was known only as the Prophet. No matter what he asked of them, they unquestionably obeyed. If anyone rebelled, they were punished severely. Minnow rebelled, and they cut off her hands. Now the Community has been destroyed, the Prophet has been killed, and Minnow is in juvenile detention for assaulting, and almost killing, the first person she encountered on the outside.

Although it's a punishment, being in juvie is liberating compared to her previous life. Minnow is still adjusting to living without her hands, but she also must adjust to this whole new world full of things like television and candy and scientific facts. In the Community, women and girls weren't even allowed to read, so now she's learning to read for the first time. Her roommate is a tough girl named Angel who is in for murder, and many other kids there are afraid of her, but she and Minnow become friends. Angel is always reading, hungry for knowledge, and obsessed with Carl Sagan. I kind of loved her.

But the past isn't entirely behind her. She doesn't seem to care much about what happened to her family, but in the melee that ended the Community, a boy she cared a lot about was killed. Jude wasn't from the Community - he lived out in the woods with his father. They were also cut off from the outside world, but basically just lived in their own private world. She would sneak away to spend time with them, at first as friends when they were kids, but as they got older their relationship became deeper. It was bad enough that she had contact with an outsider, but he and his father were black - the Community called them "Rymanites" and forbid any interaction. In addition to dealing with her loss of the only person she felt really close to, Minnow was regularly visited by Dr. Wilson, who wanted the full story about who killed the Prophet and was convinced that Minnow had the answers. Minnow didn't want to talk about Community or how it ended; she wanted to just live her life. But she wasn't going to be able to move forward without dealing with these parts of her past.

I don't know why I so enjoy reading about people living in oppressive societies, but I was pretty sold on this book as soon as I heard what it was about. But this was so much more optimistic since it begins with Minnow's freedom from her oppression. Despite everything she lost and all that she had to deal with, I found it to be mostly positive. She finally had hope for the future, and a new best friend who taught her so much about the world. (And ok, her friend was a murderer, but she had a very good reason for doing it.)

Oakes's writing was a pleasure to read. Her turns of phrase were inventive and perfect and often evoked a strong visual image. One passage I liked came after Dr. Wilson gave Minnow a copy of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which is a bit beyond her reading capabilities.

"There's plenty in the book I don't understand, and those parts stay behind, bolted to the pages, but there are things I can skim from the surface like fat from a milk pail, and I sort through all the information with something like fingers, fingers inside my mind."

Here's another part I liked:

"All around, the rigid trees groaned with human-like voice, their insides frozen in the position they'd held themselves before winter hit. I imagined how it might've gone, one night in November, they were sleeping and suddenly their entire bodies became stuck like steel. And, now, suddenly, I could pick my head up and face the winter sky and glimpse the tops of trees and move my body in any motion I chose."

I think my favorite description is one I can't share because it's at the end during a fairly significant reveal.

There's so much interesting stuff going on in this book - I haven't even mentioned the secrets in Jude's family - and I'm hoping it will lead to a good discussion at my book group at work next week. (I also hope I don't forget all the details before then!) I think it was someone from the group who suggested it, and I'm glad they did because I hadn't even heard of it. All in all, a great story well told.

Thursday, February 8, 2018


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (2017)

When we think about retirement, most of us envision hours of leisure, maybe travel, and perhaps a scaled-down living situation like a condo or an "active adult community." Most of us don't expect that we'll be doing backbreaking work in an Amazon warehouse while living in a van. But that's what many retirement-age people in the US are doing, and Jessica Bruder reports on this little-known subculture in her new book.

The author meets lots of people but mostly follows one - Linda May is in her sixties and moved into a small camper she called the Squeeze Inn once she could no longer afford to stay in the mobile home where she had been living. Her dream was to buy a piece of land and build an Earthship, an off-the-grid house made of natural and recycled materials. In the meantime, she needed to earn some money while living very cheaply. So she traveled from place to place following seasonal work at Amazon and at campgrounds while living in her tiny mobile space.

Although Linda and the other "workampers" are mostly forced into the lifestyle by their financial situations, many of them embrace this new way of living. It's an escape from what they see as a consumerist rat race. Although Linda May ultimately does buy her land so she can build a permanent dwelling, it's because she knows the lifestyle will be harder as she ages. In the meantime, she has made very close friends of others like her. Although they travel, they see each other at jobs and at annual get-togethers. In the winter, many gather in Quartzsite Arizona, and attend an organized get-together called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Their subculture even has favorite books, such as Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, Walden by Thoreau, and Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

Most of us wouldn't happen to come across these van dwellers in our daily lives, or recognize them if we did. After spending time in this community and even living in a van herself, the author recognizes some lived-in vehicles back home in Brooklyn, now that she knows what to look for. Of course this makes me wonder if I've ever come across any "workampers" myself. I love learning about hidden cultures or communities I didn't know anything about, especially ones that exist right here in the U.S. It's just neat to know how very many different kinds of people there are who have such different experiences from each other.

Of course, some elements were pretty depressing. I mean, none of this would even exist if there wasn't such a huge and unjust income disparity in this country. And the fact that people who have worked hard for decades are being forced into such hardship is appalling. Amazon complete exploits these workers, which is confirmed again and again in this book and I can't believe they're getting away with it (except of course I can because that's totally America.) And it's noticeable that the members of this community are almost entirely white, which the author attributes to the dangers of traveling while black. Throughout my reading, I was so aware of the fact that many of these people had stable professional careers until one thing went wrong, and I kept wondering "Could I live in an RV if I had to?" because it seems like it could happen to any of us.

Bruder seemed to focus on the positive, but perhaps the people she encountered really did remain positive about their situations. I really admired the resilience of everyone I met in this book, and I can see a sort of freedom in their lives on the road with few possessions and a new appreciation for non-material things like friendship and community. My only criticism was that it didn't really address what happens when they simply become too old for the lifestyle, or became too ill, and I wondered about that a lot. Otherwise, I really enjoyed this glimpse into a world I didn't even know existed.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris (2017)

The author of 10% Happier is back with his second book, which is part-memoir and part advice. After his first book, he set out on a bus trip around the country with his friend and fellow meditation guru Jeff Warren, meeting people and spreading the word about meditation. The advice part of the book is organized by various reasons for not meditating. In each chapter that reason is examined and advice is given on how to get around it. They range from not having time to "people might thing I'm weird." It's filled with stories of people Harris and Warren met, their concerns about meditation, and the practical suggestions about how to make it work.

I liked the stories about everyone he met along his tour and how they were using meditation in their lives. From prisoners to police, it seems like many people are turning to meditation to quiet their minds, strengthen their focus, and help them be a little bit better at whatever they do.

The book also contains lots of wisdom that I'm going to try to remember. For instance: "Getting lost and starting over is not failing at meditation, it is succeeding." I also really like the concept of the "second arrow": when someone hurts us, that is the first arrow, but we often compound the wound by our self-pitying secondary stories of how we didn't deserve it, how this stuff always happens to us, how this injury will ruin everything, etc. We'd be less hurt if we didn't add insult to our own injury. And of course there are helpful tips about making meditation part of your life. I especially like the encouragement to do it regardless of how little time you can spare: if you only have a minute, then meditate for a minute.

Harris is a bit judgy about traditional meditation. It's nice to point out that you don't have to sit on a special cushion listening to pan flute - and I think it's super important to let people know this - but there's also nothing wrong with it. (I'll admit I like the pan flute.) I like how practical their advice is, and how Jeff uses regular language in his meditations, with no mystical flourishes. I think this guide is very accessible to the general population in a way that most meditation books aren't.

Another way in which it stands out is that Dan Harris is pretty damn funny. There's a bit where he talks about making meditation relatable by pointing out those who are definitely not New Age-y who meditate, like the Chicago Cubs and Target employees. He says, "It's not entirely dissimilar to the way I've long defended myself against people who accuse me of being soft for liking cats. I point to icons of machismo such as Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, and Dr. Evil." And in the epilogue when he is giving examples of the thoughts that run through his head while he's trying to meditate, he lists "From a pamphlet spotted in the Colby College health center in 1993: 'Chlamydia Is Not a Flower.'" Let me tell you, I was also at Colby College in 1993 and I REMEMBER THAT PAMPHLET. (Well played, pamphlet writer. Well played.)

Personally I wished the ratio was a little more story and less advice. As much as I want and appreciate meditation advice, I find it a little boring to read about. I could also have easily skipped reading the meditations, but I'm too curious. This isn't a criticism of the book so much as a commentary on what I personally like to read. Ok, I'll criticize one thing (in addition to his being judgy) and that's how he brings up his wife so much as a critic of his behavior and habits. I mean, I think he's actually very grateful to her support and appreciates her feedback but it came off a little stereotypically male in that my-wife-is-always-nagging-me kind of way (though to be clear he definitely never said that.) But that was very minor.

So how does it differ from Dan Harris's first book? That one was definitely heavier on the memoir aspect as it really delved into his personal journey with meditation. Though he explained how to meditate and did a little myth-busting, this book is where he really gets into the thick of it. As I mentioned, there are several guided meditations included, and the the bulk of the book was focused on addressing many common reasons why people resist meditating even if they know it will be beneficial. So he spends a good amount of time talking about how to fit it into a busy schedule and make it a habit, which is pretty valuable. All in all, I think the two books complement each other quite well.