My Journey Through the Fun Home: A Review

Hi Friends,

I’m convinced that every theater kid has a show that is irrevocably linked to them. It may not be their favorite, but there’s something about it that seeps into their skin like a heroin needle to the vein. Destructive and compelling and dangerous.

My Fun Home journey began 85 years before my birth. If you’re a Denver native, you might know where I’m headed with this. In 1912, the Titanic sank. One woman, a Denver socialite, boarded the legendary ship as it was the fastest route to her dying grandson. When the Titanic struck an iceberg in the early morning hours, Miss Molly Brown jumped into action, assisting passenger after passenger into lifeboats. When she was finally forced into Lifeboat #6, she persuaded her lifeboat passengers to turn around and look for survivors. Years later, a musical would be made about her life, and, years after that, the show would return revitalized on one of the smaller stages in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts complex. Beth Malone, an old friend of my theater director, starred as Molly Brown.

My high school theater company went and met up with her after the show. Weeks later, during a performance of Lord of the Flies, our company recognized a familiar face in the private box across from ours. We met Mrs. Malone for a second time. We knew Unsinkable Molly Brown was closing and asked her what she would do after. She mentioned working on a show about a funeral home and a weird father/daughter relationship. Um… no thanks! Not for me!

A year later, some of our company, loosely guided by our director, ventured to New York to see 6 shows in four days. Our theater director made some calls and got us tickets to Beth’s show Fun Home. None of us were excited to see it, but accepted due to a talk back with Beth after the show. We barely made the showtime but scooted in as the house lights faded. The musical, played in the round, irrevocably changed my life.

It made me a better artist and storyteller, stimulating design ideas and plot construction. But it reached beyond that and forced me to face my own unconventional family, my own humiliation and family difficulties. My house was broken since the day I came out, words unspoken and lines crossed. Two years later, the tour came to Denver, and, being season ticket holders, my family had two tickets. I was still at school but I encouraged my mother and sister to go. They did and were devastated by the story line. I’d like to think that night softened their perspective.

It was because of my intimacy with Fun Home, the way it seemed to stare down into my naked soul, that I avoided reading Bechdel’s graphic memoir the musical was based on. Yesterday, as I was picking up a book I ordered from Barnes & Nobel, I found myself inexplicitly drawn to the history and biography section over and over again. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was supposed to pick something else up. And then, on my fifth time around the shelves, I spotted the shiny green spine. It was time.

I curled up on the couch and dug in. I love graphic novels. I love memoirs. Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir seemed like a perfect fit. But as I turned each page, I felt a gnawing surprise. Fun Home has a depth and intelligence I’m unused to in the genre. This isn’t to say I think graphic novels are shallow or dumb. Tan’s The Arrival, Tomine’s Killing and Dying: Stories, even Collins’ The Gigantic Beard that Was Evil all exhibit great depth and knowledge. But Fun Home has such literary depth. It’s an elongated metaphor; it builds from literature’s greats; it’s artistic and beautiful and illuminating. It is wholly original, not just for the story, but for the storyteller’s wit, charm, and class in delivering her story.

On a product level, Bechdel’s book is almost perfect. The jacket design (unlisted) seems like it should be unsuccessful. The sheen green is an ugly color, and yet, for some reason, it’s wildly successful. The title font evokes a type writer, a common theme for the novel. The cartoon caption font is carried throughout the novel – from the copyright page to the acknowledgements – and makes the story seem well rounded and hyperrealistic – as though it exists outside the covers (which it obviously does).

Overall Fun Home is a life changing story in whatever form it takes. I’m glad I finally heard it in the original voice.


What art piece has linked itself to you? What did you think of Fun Home? Let me know in the comments!

You can follow Ben on TwitterTumblr, and read along with him on Goodreads.

 

Book Club Recommendations

Hi Friends,

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I’m an uncle again! Meet Steve! 

I’m asked by a lot of friends for book recommendations. More often than anything else, I’m approached by friends seeking help with their turn at book club selections. I’ve read a lot of good books this week, and two of them happened to strike me as perfect for a book club. One is a creepy car ride between soon-to-be ex-lovers. The other is a lonely expose on the end of the world.

Book One: I’m thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

What It’s About

girl is on her way to her boyfriend’s parent’s house. The car ride from the city to their farm takes several hours. “I’m thinking of ending things,” the girl tells us, “Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It dominates.” As the car rolls into the farmland, the girl contemplates her six week long relationship with Jake. Does she really like him? Actually? In the back of her mind, a sinking suspicion lurks – something is terribly wrong.

My Review 

It’s rare for me to finish a book and immediately need to leave my house. It’s incredibly rare for me to be out of breath, dizzy, and totally overwhelmed after finishing a book. Even for books I’ve reeeally enjoyed, it’s rare for them to stick with me. I don’t know why but it’s true. I’m Thinking of Ending Things left me with all of the above.

I love being scared. I love horror movies and suspenseful books. But I’ve never had to actually walk away in the middle of something just to decompress for a few moments. Reid’s short novel is so atmospherically dark, it was jarring to look up and see the noon sun high in the sky. If it were just dark and scary, it would be enough, but Reid’s novel is also deeply profound and lyrical. As often as I was scared, I was awed. His perspective on love and life were interesting and struck chords down inside me. His character building and prose really sealed this novel as a gut punchingly good read. I truly can’t gush enough about this book.

For those who liked The Girl on the Train because of it’s disorienting nature, or for those who liked In A Dark, Dark Wood because of it’s slow build up, pick this up.

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What Makes It A Good Book-Club Pick 

The ending to this short novel will split your brain in two. You’ll need to talk to someone about what happened, need someone who will understand. The version I purchased (linked below) will offer you some starter questions in its Reader’s Guide, but I doubt you’ll need them. After you come down from the high of the thrill, you’ll have enough questions of your own.

Book Two: Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

What It’s About 

The outside world has fallen silent, marred by some unknown disaster. At the top of the world, Augustine, a 70 year old astronomer, having declined an opportunity to evacuate, sits in an empty research station.. All that’s left in the Arctic Circle is Augustine and a small child of unknown  origins. Millions of miles above them, six astronauts are on a long journey back home following their trip to Jupiter. Houston has stopped responding, but their comm. system seems functional. Each person, on Earth and in the sky, must grapple with a rocky future, and process a lifetime’s worth of regret.

My Review 

Lily Brooks-Dalton delivers a quiet novel that’s hard to accurately encompass, let alone encompass without ruining anything. It was interesting to read a book that uses the apocalypse as a theme rather than a plot point. This isn’t a traditional apocalypse book in that it isn’t really about how the world ended, or even really how it’s going to rebuild, but is rather about what it means to be lonely and afraid and human. It’s a book about regret and acceptance, love and desolation. It’s beautifully written and wonderfully engrossing. (Full Review)

What Makes It A Good Book Club Pick 

Similar to I’m Thinking of Ending Things the ending in this book leaves you with more questions than answers. It’s turns, themes of loneliness, and desolate tone and landscape, will no doubt provide endless questions and interesting discussions among you and your bookish friends. This book is a tear-jerker, and nothing breeds comradery like walking to the ends of the Earth together, and staring back into the void.

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You can buy I’m Thinking of Ending Things here, and Good Morning, Midnight here.


You can follow Ben on TwitterTumblr, and read along with him on Goodreads.

Goodbye, Vitamin: ARC Book Review

Hi friends,

At this point, you know how worthwhile my promises are so I won’t try and promise that I’ll be back more because it’s summer (though I hope I am). Regardless, here’s a book review for you all. Hopefully I’ll put up the past few months here in a bit!

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ARC cover – the final product may look differently

Ruth Young’s been dumped by her fiancé just in time for Christmas. She decides to spend the holiday with her parents, a first in several years. But things at home aren’t quite how she left it. Her father, esteemed history professor Howard Young, is grappling with the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Her mother, whose neurotic enough on her own, only complicates issues further. Newly unattached, Ruth decides to move back in, just for the year, to help her dad and mom through the illness. Told in a series of diary/letter entries, Goodbye, Vitamin is a touching (and surprisingly comical) look at lives caught in the middle of a disastrous diagnosis.

Being that this is Khong’s debut novel (she’s written an encyclopedic cookbook on eggs), Goodbye, Vitamin is a bit messy. While the epistolary format is nice, it isn’t ever entirely sure what direction it wants to go in. First, it feels as though Ruth is writing to herself, a way to remember all that is happening before it’s gone. But as the novel progresses, she jarringly switches perspectives and seems to be conducting letters to her father. In the end, she switches back again to a more diary perspective. As a result, it was a bit hard to follow. Her characters, particularly in their infancy, feel a bit unsecured as well. As the novel progresses, they gain their footing, but by that point, it’s almost too little, too late. Ruth’s voice grew on me as well, but I could never shake the feeling that she was written too young. Ruth is a thirty year old, but, save for a few instances of cussing, feels like a schoolgirl. While Alzheimer’s, like any terminal diagnosis, is life-altering, it feels like Ruth’s reality has been too significantly altered, for she seems to have a hard time understanding much of life.

Yet Khong’s novel is still a treat. Her ability to weave humor effortlessly into a plot not made for it, without it coming off as overpowering, offensive, or unfunny, is a talent not overlooked by this reader. Her family portrait is beautiful too. The ways in which the Young clan struggle, and beautifully succeed, was an absolute delight to read. I was also surprised at the nuggets of brilliance laid throughout. Ruth, when she chooses to be, is wise narrator. Having just been through a breakup myself, my heart broke alongside hers, and, as she healed, was given permission to soar. The novel is currently slated for a 208 page release, making it the perfect length for a binge read. I, myself, read it in a glorious 4 hour sitting. Every time I tried to pull away, the early morning hours ticking by, my eyes wouldn’t let me leave. Whatever a novel’s faults might be, the one, overarching redeeming quality is if I actually find it addicting. In the scope of the novel, Khong’s shortfalls are dwarfed. Goodbye, Vitamin is a testament to the power of family, and a poignant tribute to the victims of Alzheimer’s (3 Stars).

Goodbye, Vitamin is currently slated for a July 11, 2017 release (subject to change) and can be added on Goodreads here and preordered on Barnes and Nobel here.

What new releases are you looking forward to? Drop a comment below!


You can follow Ben on Twitter, Tumblr, and read along with him on Goodreads.

* ARC provided by publisher through a Goodreads giveaway. This did not affect my review* 

 

February Reading Wrap Up

Hi Friends!

Exciting news! I’m getting my act together and there will hopefully be posts every week from now on! This week is my reading wrap up for February (in case you couldn’t tell) and next week I’ll be sharing some ideas for books to read in pairs! Anyway, here’s this wrap up! Sorry it’s so short – bad reading month!

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View on the way to Eagle Harbor, a bookstore on Bainbridge Island, Washington 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

If your reaction to this heading is “Ben, are you telling me this was your first time ever reading TKaM and you didn’t actually read it in my seventh grade LAS class?” then Hi, Mrs. Lloyd – I’m sorry for disappointing you. I also didn’t read Lord of the Flies (but I’ve read it now), but I did read Animal Farm so I think it balances out. Anyway, for the rest of you, I take it you either know what Mockingbird is about, or you’re basing your decision to read it/not read it, solely based on its legacy (which is why I did) so I just skipped the little blurb I normally put.

I might lose some readers over this, but I didn’t love this. My biggest issue with To Kill a Mockingbird was the characters. I thought the characters were shallow and undeveloped. Scout and Jem are very unlike children in their wisdom and predictability. Atticus and other town members are boring to accompany around, being entirely good, or entirely bad, with little character development or complexity. To read my full review click here. (3.5 Stars

When We Rise: My Life in the Movement by Cleve Jones

When We Rise is a deeply relevant, if somewhat boring, look into the history of Cleve Jones’ historic life of LGBT+ rights and protests. Jones covers his own journey into historic and widespread activism, including his friendship and apprenticeship under Harvey Milk. He details his long fight for equality, beginning on the streets of San Francisco and moving into D.C.

At a time of Milo Yiannopoulos, and other, predominately white, gay males, forgetting their history of activism and struggle, and a time when a large portion of Americans regard marches and protests as lazy entitlement, it is both refreshing and humbling to see the benefits of the activist culture. I would strongly recommend this to anyone irritated at Womxn Marches or the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Change is a slow and bitter uphill battle, and protests are sometimes the only way to wake others up. When We Rise isn’t a great book, but it is a necessary one.

*PS: If you’re looking to save space on your TBR pile, but are still interested in this story, check out When We Rise, a new miniseries airing Monday nights on ABC*

A Thousand Miles from Nowhere by John Gregory Brown

Henry Garrett speeds away from his home as Hurricane Katrina tears into the Louisianian coast, destroying everything in her path. But destruction is familiar to Henry. He has lost his marriage, his inheritance, his job, his sanity. So when he pulls up to a rundown motel in Virginia, hoping for a brief reprieve of chaos, it’s no surprise he finds himself in the middle of a horrific and unexplainable tragedy. What is surprising, however, is his journey to discover what a man possesses when everything he has has been lost.

Brown’s novel triumphs. His prose is haunting and lyrical, without ever sounding pretentious, and his style echos Henry’s transformation. In the beginning, Brown paints in confusing tones and jarring perspective shifts. But as Henry gains clarity, Brown does too. For anyone who has ever been loved by art, made mistakes, or reached rock bottom, John Gregory Brown’s disastrous novel will be a trusted and loved companion. (Full Review) (3.5 Stars)

The Backstagers #1 by James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh

Jory moves to an all boys, private school “St. Genesius” and struggles to fit in. After some encouragement from his mom, he joins the drama club. The two diva brothers who run the drama department send him on an assignment to travel backstage in search of a prop.  What Jory finds instead amazes him. A whole world exists beyond the backstage door, full of wonderful new friends and terrifying creatures. Could backstage be the place Jory finally belongs?

It isn’t my style to pick something up simply because it features LGBT characters, but when I stumbled on a list compiled by Book Riot, I was too intrigued not to click it. And when I found a graphic novel that surrounded technical theater, I could not not pick it up. I was a stage manager in high school, and worked professionally in the community circuit my freshman year of college. I had high hopes going in to this series, and the first instillation blew me away. The characters are so interesting and the story is compelling. The art is beautiful (even in my Kindle black and white) and I so look forward to what’s next!! I’ll do a full series review when I finish, so be on the look out for that! (4 Stars)

School Reading: Tally’s Corner by Elliott Liebow (3 Stars), All Our Kin by Carol Stack (4 Stars)

In March, I’m hoping to finish reading The Futures, and finish listening to Sing For Your Life and The Underground Railroad. I’d also like to start Britt-Marie Was Here and hopefully get a few more under my belt. Anything I should add to my TBR? Leave a comment below!

You can follow Ben on Twitter, Tumblr, and read along with him on Goodreads.

 

December-January Reading Wrap Up Part 2

Hello friends!

I hope your winters are wrapping up nicely. Though winter is my favorite season, I look forward to the spring’s sense of change and excitement. We still have about a month left of winter, though, so I’d like to take a final look back at what books kept me warm this past holiday season.

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Can you believe this constitutes as a snow day in Seattle?!

 

The Girls by Emma Cline

If you’re like most people, you’ve already read Cline’s debut novel about a group of fictional girls in a Manson Family-like cult. The Girls takes place in Northern California, at the end of the 1960’s. Evie Boyd is a typical teenage girl, fighting with friends and exploring boys, when she stumbles upon a group of beautiful girls walking through the park. Caught up in their allure and charm, Evie joins them on the family ranch, and falls in love with the charming and soon-to-be-infamous cult leader. Before she knows it, Evie’s life is sent into a tailspin.

Emma Cline’s debut novel has good bones but rotting meat. Cline gained her footing in the last moments of the novel, but I had been drug around too long before that to truly enjoy it. Her prose was overwritten and pretentious and her plot was little more than awkward and graphic sex scenes. She wraps up the excitement in the final moments of the novel much too quickly, and moves too slowly before that to capture, or keep, my attention. I’m planning a post where I’ll say more about this, but if you’d like to catch the full review, click here. (2.5 Stars).

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

In her sophomore memoir, Kaling discusses her hit TV show The Mindy Project, life as a woman in Hollywood, and more outrageous stories from her life on and off the camera.

Why Not Me? is a vast improvement over her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and I really enjoyed her debut). There’s something in this book for everyone. There’s anecdotes for the die-hard fans, love stories for the romantic, fictiony fun things for those who just want to be entertained, and an inside look at being a Hollywood boss for everyone in between. If you deserve a treat (and you do), pick this up. It’s a great read from someone who could be your best friend. (4 Stars).

 

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd, dreams of a world beyond his flock – one full of travels and treasure. But it isn’t until an encounter with a strange man that Santiago begins the journey of a lifetime, teaching his readers the importance of acting on one’s dreams.

I know the year has just begun, but The Alchemist is already a serious contender for my worst book of 2017. Coelho doesn’t know how to write. His great brilliance and quotable moments are stifled by his inability to craft a novel. Rather than incorporating his philosophies and wisdom into his novel through metaphor or craft, he will quite literally place a character in the story and say verbatim what he wishes to say. This was lazy and talentless and made for a boring read. His plot is boring, his characters are flat, and his prose is bland. I cannot imagine a more “meh” feeling novel. (Full Review) (2 Stars).

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I enjoyed getting off campus this winter by taking a walk around Discovery Park

Happy Family by Tracy Barone

Happy Family is full of anything but. Cheri Matzner is the middle-aged version of a child abandoned in an inner city health clinic. Her marriage is in shambles, and, to make matters worse, childless. Her relationship with her parents is complicated, and with little hope of repair as her father has recently passed. Those same parents were the ones who adopted baby Cheri, after suffering a hopeless tragedy that leaves one of them feeling ostracized from the family unit.

much fuller review will be posted when I review all books published by Lee Boudreaux Books, but overall, Happy Family is a breathtaking debut. Barone’s novel is expertly paced and full of rich and consistent characters. Her plot is a bit scattered, as she changes directions several times, but her overall work is a beautiful tribute to families, broken and otherwise, and I strongly urge you to pick this up. (Full Review) (4 Stars).

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

You may know Trevor Noah from his stand up comedy, or his new position as the “anchor” of The Daily Show. His accent, look, and comedy are well known. Less known, is his story. The son of a black woman and a white man in the height of South African apartheid, Noah’s very existence was a crime. In his searing and honest memoir, Noah recounts his South African childhood, and sprinkles in a good deal of South African history and culture as well.

As is my style, I knew very little about Trevor Noah before diving into his book. Perhaps for this ignorance, I preferred the essays on South Africa, more than I enjoyed the ones on Noah’s life. But I think my preference came more from my dislike of his portrayal of himself. I didn’t find his anecdotes to be funny or relateable. In fact, I found them to be off putting. Maybe pick this up if you’re a huge fan of Trevor Noah, but otherwise, it really isn’t worth too much of your time. (Full Review) (3 Stars).

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Did I mention how beautiful it is in Discovery Park?!

 Uninvited by Lysa TerKeurst

This is a devotional/memoir style Christian book addressing the topic of rejection – rejection from lovers, from friends, and from life itself. It is a story of accepting yourself, and accepting Christ’s love for you in the middle of pain and insecurity.

Not only is Uninvited not too feel-goody, a common pitfall for the genre, but TerKeurst’s theology is deeply developed too. She doesn’t just drop in a Bible verse for fun; she dives into its deeper meaning. Occasionally, she, like many pastors, over-enunciates an incidence’s theological meaning. Sometimes a dinner party really is just a dinner party, and not a divine message about your loneliness. Generally, however, Uninvited is a wonderful portrait of human brokenness and longing, relieved only by a divine maker who is truly all we need. This book came at a critical juncture in my life, and its message is wholly applicable and appreciated. (Full Review) (4 Stars).

You Fall Off, You Get Back On: A Patchwork Memoir by Mary Stobie

Mary Stobie, a former columnist for Rocky Mountain News, gives a peek into her life as an American cowgirl, mother, and friend. Some essays are recycled from her journalism career, and some are brand new to readers. Stobie’s story is one of resilience, triumph, fun, and family.

You Fall Off, You Get Back On is a charming memoir, if a bit disjointed as a collection. She manages to say a lot, yet not make much ground. While her work is funny and full of unique perspectives of a true rural-fringe Denverite, her amateur hand shows. Not that this should be all that surprising or annoying, her book is small market, and blissfully non-pretentious. I walked away from my reading feeling a lovely sort of connection with Stobie, even if it was a bit shallow. If you’re a Denver native, or have fond memories of the Rocky Mountain Post, as I do, feel free to give this a read! You may just reclaim a bit of the old small-town feeling Denver. (3 Stars).

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Wise words from “Uninvited”

 

DNF: This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab (2 Star Review); Two By Two by Nicholas Sparks

 

Let me know what books you read this past month, or if you’ve read anything I have, by posting in the comments below!

You can follow Ben on Twitter, Tumblr, and read along with him on Goodreads.

 

 

 

 

 

December-January Reading Wrap Up Part One

Hi friends!

As I mentioned in my last post, I know I’ve been missing these! I’m so sorry!! I felt like this list was too big for one post, so check back soon (or follow) for part two!

Love you all!!

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Discovery Park in Seattle is a Great Stop if You’re in Town!

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries From a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

Peter Wohlleben’s non-fiction best seller focuses on the forests of Europe as living, breathing creatures, with a surprising amount of social interaction and dependency. He uses groundbreaking science to explain how trees communicate, build social networks, and reveals a entirely new world of nature.

My first DNF of the month, Wohlleben’s work is unable to stand on his interesting subject matter alone. As all translations are muddy, it isn’t clear whether this bad prose is Wohlleben’s fault, or a victim of translation. Nevertheless, this book reads like it was written by a third grader (who happens to be very smart in the sciences). No matter how interesting a book is, bad writing simply won’t do, espcially with a book that is comprised of dry science. I wouldn’t recommend unless you are greatly interested in forestry. (2 Stars)

Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser

Part love story, part ghost story, de Krester’s novella flips the conventions of a typical ghost story on its head. There are no stormy nights here, no abandoned, isolated protagonist. Instead, Frances, a young art historian, spots a ghost in the most unlikely of places – a suburban garden in sunny, subtropical Sydney.

I was really excited for this story, but found it to be too disjointing. de Kretser had an interesting concept with an anti ghost story but she got too distracted. Had this been longer, perhaps it would have been better, but such a short novel was jam packed with too much and it was a letdown. Cannot recommend, unfortunately. (1 Star).

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

This debut novel, due out in February 2017, was the subject of my latest ARC Review you can find here!

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Wish I Had More Time to Read but Thankful for the Opportunity to Learn feat. my real name  

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This National Book Award Winner is an essay-style letter from Coates to his teenage son on what it means to be black in America today. It is part memoir, as Coates explores his time at Howard University, and part history lesson, as Coates explores topics from the Civil War. It is an analysis of the Black Lives Matter Movement, police brutality, and slavery. It has been hailed by Toni Morrison as “required reading,” and can be found on shelves across the nation.

feel like I missed something. While I appreciated Coates stories and ideas, I longed for more organization. Coates’ work was stylistically disjointed and fast paced, so I felt like I never got my feet underneath me. Between the World and Me was wonderfully written and, when I fully understood and digested, powerful and fresh. But overall, I simply felt I had missed a great many somethings (3 Stars).

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

In 1920’s Australia, we meet Tom, a former solider fresh off the Western Front. Craving peace and quiet, Tom takes up a lighthouse keeper’s job on Janus Rock, an island far off the coast. Secluded from society for years at a time, the only company Tom has is his new wife, Isabel. After two miscarriages, the grieving and angry couple gets a second chance at parenthood when a living baby and dead man wash ashore. Isabel decides to keep the baby, whom they name Lucy, and raise her as their own. When they return home, however, Lucy is two, and they remember they aren’t alone in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.

enjoyed the end of this book much better than the beginning. Though I consistently felt engaged with the story, and surprised by it, it seldom felt great or strikingly special. I enjoyed reading this, and commend the work for taking control of my emotions so powerfully. It was similar toThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in that it was good and delightful, but not particularly special or well written. A great, easy beach read, but perhaps not entirely deserving of the warm water-cooler recommendations it has received (Full Review). (3.5 Stars)

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Young Ben (L) Crushin’ the Game Circa 1998(?) 

Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives by Gary Younge

On average seven children or teenagers will be murdered by a gun each day in America. Younge’s project focuses on just one day, November 23, 2013. Through extensive research and interviews, Younge located ten people, all between the ages of 9 and 19, who died via gun violence on that day. Detailing their lives, deaths, and social/political factors for them, Younge leaves few stones unturned in his examination of America’s gun problem.

When successful, Younge’s necessary and timely book is a beautiful tribute to dead children, accomplishing, if nothing else, a medium of which to say “I see you.” Its less successful moments came in organization. While most of the chapters (1 chapter per victim) focused on a balanced (or somewhat balanced) mix of story and societal factor, several chapters lacked any balance, if it included both facets at all. Additionally, particularly towards the end, Younge becomes less focused (or, perhaps more so) and drags well beyond the point in which I had lost interest. These were minor points though. Younge’s book makes you cry, seethe in anger, and understand an issue like gun violence as an entity far more complex than extremists on either side of the aisle may lead you to believe (Full Review). (4 Stars).

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Challenger Deep focuses on Caden Bosch. An offbeat novel about life with mental illness, Caden’s story is told in two parallel story lines. In one, he is Caden Bosch: high school student, track team member, and geek. In the other, he is the artist-in-residence of a ship headed straight into Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench. As the two stories collide, Caden will race to make it out alive.

Challenger Deep is an interesting, odd little story. Neal Shusterman paints an incredibly vivid portrait of mental illness in this work, but outside of those suffering from brain illnesses, this novel offers little. While there was a time when my mental illness was parallel to the illnesses of Caden Bosch, I no longer feel the same way that Caden does. So, for me, there was already a bit of a disconnect. Further, while the novel took on an interesting shape to begin with, and was compelling, it quickly stagnated, and fell back into cliches and became repetitive and boring. As a result, I made it out 75% of the way through before abandoning. There just wasn’t enough substance to keep me going. (2.5 Stars).

SFO #noban Protest -Jan 29, 2016
“SFO #noban Protest – Jan 29, 2016”  by Kenneth Lu is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

The poorest residents of Milwaukee are the focus of Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond’s powerful fieldwork project. Desmond’s readers journey through the American renting process as two landlords and a host of renters. Some lead happy lives, getting by the best way they can. Others are junkies and addicts, scrambling to get a fix. All, however, are key players in the system of American poverty.

Evicted deserves six stars – it’s that good. Desmond’s project is not only a richly documented field study, it’s an engaging page turner that’s so well structured it reads like fiction. I loved every minute of it. Desmond’s greatest strength is his unflinching honesty.  He simply introduces us to a cast of characters, all a little good and a little evil, and draws his truthful conclusions from there. Desmond makes his readers angry, depressed, and hopeful. He makes us so invested that, like a train wreck, we do not dare to turn away. I loved this book. Please, pick it up (Full Review). (5+ Stars).
And, to learn how you can help homeless or at risk families and individuals, please visit the author’s site, justshelter.org 

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

In silent graphic novel form, Shaun Tan crafts a story about a young immigrant moving to a new country. Infused with horrifying and stunning magical realism, Tan communicates the confusion, terror, and loneliness of the immigrant experience. A timely read, Tan’s masterpiece is a must “read” for anyone hoping to understand the ramifications of a Trump presidency.

It is a common “ice-breaker” question to ask “if the whole world were listening, what would you say?” I’ve never had a good answer to that question, and I still don’t, but if I had all the world’s attention in this moment, as we watch children in Aleppo buried under rubble, as we’re taught to fear our Mexican and Muslim siblings, as we’re waging wars of division, I would simply say “please take Shaun Tan’s message to heart.” Then, I would give each member of the human race a copy of this book to review. While not perfect, and certainty not the best graphic novel out there, The Arrival takes a deeply relevant and important stand, and it does it without ever saying a word (Full Review). (4 Stars).

 

Let me know what books you read this past month, or if you’ve read anything I have, by posting in the comments below!

You can follow Ben on Twitter, Tumblr, and read along with him on Goodreads.

 

Harmless Like You: ARC Book Review

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel about identity, abuse, art, and familial bonds, packs several punches. Harmless Like You is a breathtakingly crafted story of mother and son. First, we meet Yuki Oyama, a teenage Japanese-American immigrant, caught in the cross heirs of identity in an early 1970’s New York. Her father has been on a years-long exile to America for work when he is finally called back. Torn between leaving the only land she’s ever known, and losing her family, Yuki ultimately decides to remain in the Big Apple, with her only friend, Odile, the beautiful and cunning aspiring model. Then, we meet Jay, Yuki’s adult son in 2016 Connecticut and Berlin. Still dealing with the abandonment of his mother when he was just two years old, Jay enters into fatherhood, reeling with discontentment and frustration. As the novel builds, Hisayo Buchanan seeks to answer “how does a mother desert her own son?”.

Full of beautiful, literary prose, Hisayo Buchanan’s novel is hard to get into. Once there, however, I was hooked. Her voice is fresh, intelligent, and compelling. The characters are well crafted, and, unlike other books detailing abuse and abandonment, feel real and consistent. Only Jay’s father feels forced for the narrative, but the other characters don’t excuse his behavior, and call him for being unlike a human, flawed and difficult, making the improbability of his character feel possible.

Hisayo Buchanan’s biggest asset though, is her climatic structure. She arrives with a big sense of occasion and gradually and consistently builds the action, never dragging anything out, or forcing us to choke down the complexity of a fleeing mother in the last 20 pages of the novel. Authors I’ve read in the past err on one side or the other, but Harmless Like You splits the difference, making this one of the best crafted novels I’ve read in a while.

And yet, as with any debut, there is room for improvement. At times, it feels Harmless Like You is too big, trying to do too much. While Hisayo Buchanan’s ideas are breathtaking and well argued, they can fell a bit pretentious and awkwardly placed. Similarly, she crammed a lot of themes into this book, all of which were wonderfully crafted, but occasionally felt overwhelming.

Nevertheless, I read Harmless Like You in two blissful, desiring sittings, and wouldn’t have put the book down for anything. It is a breathtaking, accomplished novel, so rich and full, your next read will dull by comparison. For a debut, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has much to be proud of. (4 Stars).

Pick up Harmless Like You when it’s released in February 2017.

ARC provided by publisher via a Goodreads giveaway.