April: My Month in Books

I recently signed up for a new email newsletter called Make America Read Again by Hillary Copsey and a standing section in the newsletter is called “Read Harder.” I love this sentiment. It aligns with what I’ve been trying to do this year in terms of reading classic novels and books that challenge me. The month of April included no classic novels, although one retelling of a classic novel that challenged me in unintended ways, but did include several books that pushed my thinking.

Sorta Like a Rockstar by Matthew Quick,Sorta Like a Rockstar by Matthew Quick

I love all novels by Matthew Quick. All. To my knowledge, the only one I haven’t read is the Silver Linings Playbook, but that’s only because I saw the movie first and it’s just so out of order. What I like about Quick is that he writes about mental illness and social awkwardness and general weirdness so well, so respectfully and with such a great infusion of humor. In Sorta Like a Rockstar, a YA novel, Amber Appleton lives on a bus and is surviving with little help from her mom but lots of help from an oddball support system she’s created for herself. Also, her pet dog is named Bobby Big Boy, or Thrice B, and I love that. If you don’t enjoy YA novels, skip this. Otherwise, I thoroughly recommend.

And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer.And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer

I’m not sure where I found out about And After the Fire (I wish I could annotate my To Read list in Goodreads), but it was all right. I didn’t find it to be amazing, but definitely interesting. Don’t listen too closely to me on that though, because it turns out last year I gave a book only one star and then it later went on to win a Pulitzer. So…
And After the Fire is the story about an original piece of music from Johann Sebastian Bach that was gifted to a Jewish woman and then later stolen during World War II. It jumps back and forth in time between people learning about the music and the story behind how the music was gifted. I’ve read many stories taking place in World War II and this one was unique. I’m not sure why it fell flat for me, but I think it had more to do with the present-day aspects.
Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh.

Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age by Amanu Al-Khatahbeh

Amanu Al-Khatahbeh is the founder of MuslimGirl.com, which is a place for Muslim girls to connect and own their own narrative. What Al-Khatahbeh has created is amazing and her story, as told in Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age, is interesting. I struggled reading this because I think the book has flaws from a literary perspective, but I’m hesitant to state them for fear of them sounding like critiques of her or her story. Where I left in my own internal conversations was that I was happy I read this and I that I intend to view it as one piece of a series of stories. It’s my job to find other women’ stories that I can add to the collection – stories that represent Muslim women but women of different ages and more varied experiences. All that said, I’d recommend reading Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age. It’s very clear at the end of the book that Al-Khatahbeh has a long, successful career ahead of her. By reading the book now, I feel like I am a little getting to the party, but still ahead of many others.

Gunslinger by Stephen King.

The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1) by Stephen King

Here’s the deal. I read this book because it’s going to be a movie this summer starring Idris Elba. I think Elba is one of the most handsome actors out there, and that was motivation enough for me. All that said. I. Did. Not. Understand. ANY. Of. This. Book.

Maybe the movie will make more sense to me?



The Song Rising by Samantha Shannon.The Song Rising (The Bone Season #3) by Samantha Shannon

I read the first in The Bone Season series in 2014. In the introduction of the first book, Samantha Shannon stated it would be the first in a seven-part series. I thought that was such a audacious statement to say about your first novel that I was hooked before I started. The Bone Season series is dystopian fiction that pulls from all of the tropes you know, but it’s darker than many of the books I read and complicated without getting too bogged down in its huge cast of characters. If you’re interested in a new sci-fi series, check this one out.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld.Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Earlier this year I read Pride and Prejudice and just could’t see what the fuss was about. Eligible is a modern day retelling of that classic novel and set in my hometown of Cincinnati. It should have made the classic novel knowable to me, right? I hated it even more. I don’t think that’s the fault of Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing, though. If’ I am being picky about the writing itself, I’ll say that I thought placing the plot in Cincinnati was a bust because she included way too much detail. Had she tried less and maybe halved the localized details, I would have been more of a fan. Listening to characters running routes was like listening to Siri, in not a good way. That gripe aside, my main issue with the book, and the one it’s based on, is that I find the people to be deplorable. By setting the story in Cincinnati, Sittenfeld successfully pulled out every aspect I disliked about the wealthy girls at my high school and amplified those traits tenfold. I happily invite anyone to sit down with me and explain why either Eligible or Pride and Prejudice is beloved. Until then, yuck.

The Winemakers by Jan Moran.

The Winemakers: A Novel of Wine and Secrets by Jan Moran

If you’re looking for a fluffy Summer read, check out The Winemakers: A Novel of Wine and Secrets by Jan Moran. It’s an entertaining romance that takes place in vineyards both in California and Italy. There is a near-incestual aspect of the plot that’s a little gross, but aside from that, grab a glass of wine, sit outside and enjoy.




Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins.

Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins

Wonder Boy is obsessed with Phil Collins. Loves him. Named his car Phil Collins in homage. So when I started reading Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins, it was sort of a joke and sort of a way for me to expand my knowledge about my husband’s favorite musician. I was being a little glib, but also honest, when I rated this book as such: First half gets four stars and second half gets three, just like his career. Glib but accurate. The earlier part of Phil Collins career is fascinating and hearing him tell of it is like going back in time to great music history. As he aged, though, his insecurities got in his way. I don’t think that’s me being judge-y; he says as much. For music fans and people who love music trivia, I would at least suggest the first half of the book. When he gets to marriage number two, you can probably set it aside.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance.Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

I have a lot of friends and family who grew up poor and have their roots in Kentucky. Reading Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis gave me such insight into their life. I have increased appreciation and admiration for the people who “got out,” by which I mean moved out of poverty, earned an education and ended a cycle of poverty that potentially goes back generations. J.D. Vance, the author, is strikingly honest in this book. Because he grew up partially in Middletown, Ohio, which is just up the highway form me, a lot of his stories hit close to home, literally and figuratively. I can’t recommend this book enough, have already suggested it to many and am looking forward to hearing him speak in September at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Long Ago and Far Away by John Coyne.

Long Ago and Far Away by John Coyne

Although the plan itself feel very long ago and far away, last Fall, Wonder Boy and I were planning on visiting Ethiopia. As in my norm, I started researching by getting lots of novels that take place in that country. And then the trip had to be cancelled due to political unrest and my books started collecting dust.

Well, our visas are still good and we’re planning for this Fall and Ethiopia could (unlikely) be on the table as a destination, so I went back to my bookshelf. Long Ago and Far Away is about a groups of young people’s experience in Ethiopia in the 1970s just before the Ethiopian Civil War, as told in flashbacks. By having the different characters reflect on that time in Ethiopia, just before the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie, author John Coyne is able to share the anxiety and danger of being a resident in that country at that time without distracting from the main plot line. Despite the fact that the book is really about murder and isn’t exactly happy, Long Ago and Far Away made me more excited to visit Ethiopia. Travel research success.

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan.The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Remember when I said one goal for reading this month was to “read harder” or challenge myself? Well, The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan certainly fits the bill. It was good for me though, especially during this tumultuous political climate where, for the first time ever, I find myself a little scared to travel the world. Did this book about suicide bomber make me feel better about traveling? Of course not! But it gave me the teeniest, tiniest, most minuscule encouragement to try and learn more about the violent situations I read about before making judgement. My main takeaway from the book is the nothing is as simple as it might appear on face value. How I’m translating that to action is to try and keep myself better informed and to do so from multiple perspectives.

George by Alex Gino.George by Alex Gino

My second favorite April read was George by Alex Gino. For whatever reason, I added all of the top ten banned books for 2016 that I haven’t yet read to my reading list. Common theme: people are scared. That’s the only reason I can think of for why anyone would ban books.

George is a delightfully sweet book about a girl who is born a boy. It’s a feat of playing with pronouns and challenging me to be more careful in how I apply the words she, he, his and hers. It’s gives guidance on how to be supportive, under the guise of a children’s book. I’ll be keeping this one in mind as I interact with questioning young folk and suggesting it to kids and adults who are doing the same. Banned by damned.

Eight Hundred Grapes: A Novel by Laura Dave.Eight Hundred Grapes: A Novel by Laura Dave

Do you like to be able to guess how a book will end? I don’t. I mean, I feel clever when I do, and sometimes it helps prevent heartache or reduce the terror. But in general, I want to be surprised. I like when I story doesn’t follow the tried and true course. A lot of people I know loved La La Land but hated the ending. I thought the movie was just okay but loved the ending. I don’t think it’s me being contrarian, although that’s certainly a possibility. Life just doesn’t always work out so neatly and I don’t believe books should either.

Eight Hundred Grapes: A Novel by Laura Dave is about a family at the brink of implosion. Georgia returns home because her relationship is falling apart. She’s in good company because her parents and brother are experiencing the same. The Sonoma County vineyard her father runs is in the process of being sold, which means the foundation Georgia could always rely on is going away. Throughout the story, pieces fall apart and fit together and people gets their acts together. If you’re like me, you’ll complete the puzzle in the first quarter of the book.

This was a nice story. A nice, forgettable Summer read that is great for any vacation or time in the park.

Wanderlust: Seeing the World via Public Transit

When you visit a new place, how do you try to ensure an authentic experience? For me, it’s through public transit. While I certainly don’t accomplish it in every new place I visit, public transportation has provided with me with an inexpensive insight into many new places. That realization dates back to my second international trip when Delicious and I realized how cheaply we could explore Portugal. At that point, budget was one of our top priorities so it was wonderful. A side benefit was that we saw the countryside and met a lot of new people. Since then, I’ve ridden tuk-tuks, subways, trans, buses, junks, motorbikes and boats. It’s my favorite way to travel and, I think, gives me the best exposure to a place and its residents.

Riding the suite, or subway, Buenos Aires, Argentina.


Riding the train to Aguas Client, Peru.


Riding in a junk in Halong Bay, Vietnam.


Riding in a Tuk Tuk in Ica, Peru.

When you’re fulfilling your wanderlust, how do you travel?

Josh Ritter and Me: Redeeming the Past, With Hugs

Once, years ago, I hugged someone and I’ve had regrets about it ever since.

My aversion to hugging is no secret. I generally avoid it at all costs. I’ve learned to handles myself through goodbyes with my in-laws, and will occasionally hug someone if it seems like the socially correct thing to do, but as a general rule, I do not hug.

A Hug Gone Wrong, Twice

But once, I was at a sparsely attending music festival that my friends where helping organize. There were many good folks acts on the bill, but I was there for Josh Ritter. The lack of attendance at the festival was terrible for the organizers, but it did hold some perks for the attendees. We didn’t have to fight crowds to get to the front of the stage, we never had to wait in line for food and drink, we got to meet many of the artists, and as friends of the organizers, we were able to partake in some of the back-stage beverages.

The combination of those last two is killer.

I remember the day. It was fun! But I also remember drinking too much and being distinctly aware of being just on the wrong side of out of control. At one point I had a conversation with Zach Hickman, the bassist in the Josh Ritter’s band and a musician I greatly admire. The conversation went something like this:

“I like your mustache.”
“Thanks. Me too.”

That was it. That was my moment and all I chose to say was, “I like your mustache.”

And still, it gets worse.

Later in the evening, when I was nearing the pinnacle of my drunkenness, my brother-in-law approached Josh Ritter and said, “My sister-in-law over there loves you and you would make her day if you gave her a hug.” And so Josh did. And while he did, I stood like a cement column. It was so awkward that he didn’t know what to do to end the interaction and so just hugged me again. Which would have been awesome, if I could have appreciated it.

And so, I added a goal to my 100 Things list that read: “Hug Josh Ritter … sober this time.”

It’s a goofy addition to the list and one that I always thought would be difficult to achieve. But if I managed to have The Features over for dinner, why not a sober hug?

A Chance at Redemption

Over the years I have seen Josh Ritter too many times to count. My conservative guess is 8-10 shows. No hugs. Recently, while on a trip in Argentina, I got an email from the Mercantile Library that they were hosting a new series called the Words and Music Lecture Series and the first guest would be Josh Ritter. My wi-fi was too spotty to buy tickets overseas, but I managed an email to my mom asking her to purchase memberships to the Library for Wonder Boy and I and to reserve tickets for this event. She totally saved the day and hooked us up.

And so this past Thursday, I went to the event with one task in mind. A hug.

To start, the event was great. Josh Ritter sang several songs, including a few of my favorites. He answered questions from the crowd that reiterated the importance of being creative and how all sorts of creative ventures can add fuel to the creativity you need for your main venture. He was personable and smiling the whole goddamn time and it only reiterated while I love him as an artist.

After the talk, there was a book and album signing and I scooted my way immediately over to the line. Thought only maybe 15 people back in line, I waited a bit. Josh talked to every person, answering their questions and taking whatever time was necessary. It sounds like I am gushing, and I am, but I am not the only person who made this observation. As I moved up in line, I tried to prepare myself to do better than the mustache question and way better than the inanimate object hug.

It went lovely.

Josh Ritter was the first person to be featured by the Mercantile Library for their Words and Music Series.He greeted Wonder Boy and I with hugs (check!). Then I explained to him about the last time I met him and how my goal since then was to give him a hug sober. And he smiled and said, “But I’m a little drunk. Is that okay?” It was, so he gave me a hug. (Check again!) And then I asked him the question I would have asked during Q&A if my voice could carry across a crowd: For someone who is constantly touring, how do you make time to write and create? Here is how he answered … I’m paraphrasing but it’s close:

I used to travel with my family so it was great because I did’t have to take time off from them to write. Now my daughter is in school so I can’t do that and I have to write while I am on the road more. I’m lucky because my team is great and I can trust them to set up while I get to walk around and work on songs. I have to write every day in order for it to feel like a good day.

And then he gave me another hug. ANOTHER HUG.

I think this instance totally redeemed the first one. I asked a smart question, or at least I think I did, and kept myself more composed than I have in previous celebrity interactions, and I got my hug(s). I left the Library floating and smiling from ear to ear.

That 100 List has turned out to be an inspired idea. The most ridiculous things are coming true. I need to aim higher.

Redeeming two bad hugs with several good ones, by hugging Josh Ritter at the Mercantile Library.


2016: Reviewing A Year of Reading

This horrendously long image shows all of the books I read in 2016. I love many things about Goodreads: It helps me share books I love with friends and get recommendations from the books they loved, it alerts me to new books I might like based on past books read and, most importantly to me, it keeps track of the books I consume so I can refer back to them later.

In 2016 I read 86 books, a total of 27,993 pages ranging in book length of 186 pages to 766 pages and averaging out at 341 pages per book. My average rating to the books I read was 3.2 stars, giving some validity to Outside’s theory that I rate books a little too critically. Goodreads isn’t perfect, at all, and was quick to point out what I read turned out to be most and least popular with it’s members, I had to work to see what got my highest and lowest ratings.

My favorite books of 2016 were:

  •  The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
  • My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederik Backman

I tried to locate my least favorite book for the year and all I will say is that it was the longest book I read. That earned only one star. I was pretty liberal with two star ratings, handing out 11 of those.

My 2016 reading list

At the beginning of 2016 I started to do a reading challenge that would put me on course to read books by more diverse authors. I hated the challenge through. I found myself selecting books based not on if they interested me but on the color of the author’s skin. I felt guilty about it but I quickly dropped the challenge. I needn’t have worried!

This past year I read more books by people of color and people from different countries that I ever have before. My embracing audio books, I was able to consume more and persist through some more difficult books that, in truth, if that had been in print, I might have stopped. I feel better, smarter and like my world is bigger for heaving had so much diversity in my literary life.

Some common themes across this past year are four authors: Matthew Quick, Kathy Reichs, Alan Bradley and Kerry Greenwood. It’s such a wonderful thing when you find an author or a series you really like!

All of the books I read in 2016, listed in chronological order by date read:

  • The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
  • Ghosts of Bergen County by Dana Cann
  • What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman
  • The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Flavia de Luce, #2) by Alan Bradley
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
  • At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen
  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce, #1) by Alan Bradley
  • Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
  • A Red Herring Without Mustard (Flavia de Luce, #3) by Alan Bradley
  • The Considerate Killer (Nina Borg, #4) by Lene Kaaberbøl
  • A Good Doctor’s Son by Steven Schwartz
  • In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
  • I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Flavia de Luce, #4) by Alan Bradley
  • Speaking from Among the Bones (Flavia de Luce, #5) by Alan Bradley
  • Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
  • The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
  • My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1) by Elena Ferrante
  • Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
  • Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick
  • No Shred of Evidence (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #18) by Charles Todd
  • The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
  • The Girl in the Well Is Me by Karen Rivers
  • The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce, #6) by Alan Bradley
  • The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
  • Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick
  • What the Waves Know by Tamara Valentine
  • The Doomsday Key (Sigma Force, #6) by James Rollins
  • Boy 21 by Matthew Quick
  • The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
  • Summerland by Michael Chabon
  • The Passage (The Passage, #1) by Justin Cronin
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen,
  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
  • Me Before You (Me Before You, #1) by Jojo Moyes
  • Weep Not, Child by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
  • The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
  • Nor The Moon by Night by Joy Packer
  • And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard
  • Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
  • How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu
  • No Direction Home: A Novel by Maria Silver
  • A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray by James Renner
  • Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
  • Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb
  • Girl at War by Sara Nović
  • Virals (Virals, #1) by Kathy Reichs
  • Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • The Rocks by Peter Nichols
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  • What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins
  • Seizure (Virals, #2) by Kathy Reichs
  • Code (Virals, #3) by Kathy Reichs
  • The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel
  • Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher, #1) by Kerry Greenwood
  • Flying Too High (Phryne Fisher, #2) by Kerry Greenwood
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • Murder on the Ballarat Train (Phryne Fisher, #3) by Kerry Greenwood
  • The Yard (Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad, #1) by Alex Grecian
  • Britt-Marie Was Here by Frederik Backman
  • Death at Victoria Dock (Phryne Fisher, #4) by Kerry Greenwood
  • The Guineveres by Sarah Domet
  • The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick
  • The Green Mill Murder (Phryne Fisher, #5) by Kerry Greenwood
  • Blood and Circuses (Phryne Fisher, #6) by Kerry Greenwood
  • The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer
  • Ruddy Gore (Phryne Fisher, #7) by Kerry Greenwood
  • Exposure (Virals, #4) by Kathy Reichs
  • Terminal (Virals, #5) by Kathy Reichs
  • The Black Country (Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad, #2) by Alex Grecian
  • We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
  • Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir
  • Best Kept Secret (The Clifton Chronicles, #3) by Jeffrey Archer
  • Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows, #2) by Leigh Bardugo
  • Trace Evidence: A Virals Short Story Collection by Kathy Reichs
  • Smoke by Catherine McKenzie
  • My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederik Backman
  • Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini
  • Urn Burial (Phryne Fisher, #8) by Kerry Greenwood
  • Raisins and Almonds (Phryne Fisher, #9) by Kerry Greenwood

Hidden Figures and Being a Critical Consumer of Media

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. The book is an important contribution to the body of knowledge out in the ether about African American history.According to Nielson, “U.S. adults spent 10 hours, 39 minutes a day consuming media in the first quarter of 2016.” When you consume so much information, how do you evaluate what is legitimate, accurate and useful information? This is something that’s become increasingly prevalent over the last few months in the new/fake news storm that has occurred around the election, but it applies to more than just news. It applies to all media.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought over the past few days while I read Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. The book is an important contribution to the body of knowledge out in the ether about African American history. It helps reshape stereotypes about the roles of women in general, and African American women specifically, in science, math and history. It sheds new light on the American history of discovery.

But here’s the thing. I found the book dreadful. It was like listening to someone read out a timeline of facts, at time repetitive and frequently reliant on clichés.

I believe in holding up all media, which certainly includes books, up to high expectations. And I’m torn on if I evaluate Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race as it’s quality as book or its value to our greater historical knowledge.

I have friends who comment on how harshly I evaluate books I read when I log them on Goodreads. I don’t think I am harsh but I do think I am critical. My system is consistent and straightforward, though influenced by the headspace I am in during reading.

  • Five Stars: Loved it, adored it and will be recommending it to everyone I know.
  • Four Stars: Really liked, will likely recommend it but don’t love it so much I have to keep a physical copy of the book on my shelves.
  • Three Stars: Entertaining and enjoyable, but likely forgettable. Most books get this ranking.
  • Two Stars: Didn’t care for the book.
  • One Stars: Hates the book. Few books have received one star from me.

So what do I rate this book?

I’ve gone back and forth on this and think I will be giving it three stars. As a contribution to my knowledge of history, it gets five stars. But as a book, which is how I approached it, maybe two stars? I know no one else might care how I rate my books, but it’s important to me that I apply a critical lens on my media consumption so I can make the best use of the 10.65 hours of media I am consuming each day. I try to apply all media I consume to the same set if high standards, because without those standards, we end up in situations where the headline of the day is about fake news.

I do want to add that I am excited to watch the movie Hidden Figures. I am interested to see how the script for the movie was adapted from what is shared in the book. And I am, always, excited to see the work of Taraji Henson and Octavia Spencer.