Archive for the ‘True Stories’ Category

Review of Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston, read by Robin Miles

Monday, June 28th, 2021

Barracoon

The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

by Zora Neale Hurston
read by Robin Miles

HarperAudio, 2018. 4 hours, 25 minutes.
Review written August 22, 2020, from a library eaudiobook

A barracoon is an enclosure used to hold people who were abducted and then shipped to America to be enslaved. In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis, the last living survivor of the last ship that had brought captives from Africa. This book tells his story.

Cudjo Lewis was eighty-six years old in 1927 and had outlived his children and his wife, so his story is a tough one. I did enjoy listening to this rather than reading it, because the narrator Robin Miles did a wonderful job reading his dialect so I could listen to it smoothly, and I think that reading it might have made me stumble. As it was, she captured the character of this old man remembering an eventful life.

The Introduction at the beginning is dry, and I almost gave up, but the narrative once Cudjo starts his story is gripping. He was an older teen when his whole village was slaughtered or abducted in Africa. Then there was a secret voyage across the ocean, since shipping captives from Africa was then illegal. He was enslaved for five years. After they told him he was free, those who had come from Africa were looked down on by the American-born freed people, so they formed their own town and built their own church and school. He wanted to go back to Africa, but it was far too expensive, so he made the best of life in America.

A lot of the book is devoted to what his life was like in Africa. He was not yet considered a man when he was abducted, but he was old enough to remember experiencing his entire childhood in Africa.

The story of his children’s deaths is hard to listen to, though at least he had grandchildren left and one daughter-in-law. He was sexton of his church and clearly had a community looking out for him. I like the way he’d tell Zora Neale Hurston to stay away for a few days when he planned to work in his garden. She didn’t insert herself into the narrative much, but I did like hearing about them sharing peaches and watermelons together. He appreciated someone listening to his stories – and now you can hear them, too.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Talking to Strangers, by Marianne Boucher

Thursday, May 6th, 2021

Talking to Strangers

A Memoir of My Escape from a Cult

by Marianne Boucher

Doubleday Canada, 2020. 176 pages.
Review written September 8, 2020, from a library book

This is a short and sweet graphic novel memoir about when the author was 18 years old and got sucked into the Moonies.

She was all about ice skating and got an audition in California for the Ice Follies. But while she was there, she met some strangers on the beach. They showered her with love and attention and talked with her about not conforming to expectations.

One thing led to another. First, she was just going to go to a weekend retreat. They added teaching and community and before long she was fully involved.

Her mother back in Canada couldn’t get the California police to intervene, since Marianne was 18 years old. So she found people who specialized in extracting people from cults. They laid plans and got help from a former cult member. Since Marianne didn’t want to leave, they had to get her away from the group in order to convince her, and none of that was easy.

The graphic novel format makes this a quick read, but it’s still a powerful story and a frightening one. At the end, the book does touch on her difficult healing process, and it provides a resource list at the back. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help thinking that there were some similarities with our current political climate. But may we all find healing with Beauty and Truth.

penguinrandomhouse.ca

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi

Monday, April 26th, 2021

Stamped from the Beginning

The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

by Ibram X. Kendi

Bold Type Books, 2016. 583 pages.
Review written April 25, 2021, from my own copy
Starred Review

I got to hear Dr. Ibram Kendi and children’s author Jason Reynolds speak about this book at ALA Annual (Virtual) Conference in June 2020. Jason Reynolds used the research from this book to write a version for young people. Soon after the conference, I listened to the audiobook where Jason Reynolds reads his version, and I was amazed. I ordered myself a copy of the original book – and it took me much longer to read it and absorb the information.

It’s not that it’s not amazingly good and thorough and eye-opening. But it’s densely written and packed with information. I only read a chapter at a time, so it took me a long time to get through it, but I’m deeply glad I did.

This book doesn’t make me comfortable. I didn’t know much about systemic racism at all. I didn’t recognize the racist ideas that I always accepted as normal, from the time I was a kid. But wow – it is a good thing to learn about.

This is a book about racist ideas, not a book about racist people. It’s fascinating to me that the author presents that a single person can have both racist ideas and antiracist ideas. And those may change over time. It’s not that a person is hopelessly racist, but they may put forward racist ideas and act on racist ideas.

He also distinguishes between two kinds of racist ideas – segregationists and assimilationists. I’ll quote a section in the Prologue that talks about the three kinds of ideas, and this will also give you an idea of the style of the book.

In 2016, the United States is celebrating its 240th birthday. But even before Thomas Jefferson and the other founders declared independence, Americans were engaging in a polarizing debate over racial disparities, over why they exist and persist, and over why White Americans as a group were prospering more than Black Americans as a group. Historically, there have been three sides to this heated argument. A group we can call segregationists has blamed Black people themselves for the racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities. During the ongoing debate over police killings, these three sides to the argument have been on full display. Segregationists have been blaming the recklessly criminal behavior of the Black people who were killed by police officers. Michael Brown was a monstrous, threatening thief, therefore Darren Wilson had reason to fear him and to kill him. Antiracists have been blaming the recklessly racist behavior of the police. The life of this dark-skinned eighteen-year-old did not matter to Darren Wilson. Assimilationists have tried to have it both ways. Both Wilson and Brown acted like irresponsible criminals.

Listening to this three-way argument in recent years has been like listening to the three distinct arguments you will hear throughout Stamped from the Beginning. For nearly six centuries, antiracist ideas have been pitted against two kinds of racist ideas: segregationist and assimilationist. The history of racial ideas that follows is the history of these three distinct voices – segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists – and how they each have rationalized racial disparities, arguing why Whites have remained on the living and winning end, while Blacks remained on the losing and dying end.

The title of the book is taken from a speech by Jefferson Davis and points out his racist, segregationist thinking. But it’s tougher to recognize that assimilationist thinking is also racist. Here’s more from the Prologue:

It may not be surprising that Jefferson Davis regarded Black people as biologically distinct and inferior to White people – and Black skin as an ugly stamp on the beautiful White canvas of normal human skin – and this Black stamp as a signifier of the Negro’s everlasting inferiority. This kind of segregationist thinking is perhaps easier to identify – and easier to condemn – as obviously racist. And yet so many prominent Americans, many of whom we celebrate for their progressive ideas and activism, many of whom had very good intentions, subscribed to assimilationist thinking that also served up racist beliefs about Black inferiority. We have remembered assimilationists’ glorious struggle against racial discrimination, and tucked away their inglorious partial blaming of inferior Black behavior for racial disparities. In embracing biological racial equality, assimilationists point to environment – hot climates, discrimination, culture, and poverty – as the creators of inferior Black behaviors. For solutions, they maintain that the ugly Black stamp can be erased – that inferior Black behaviors can be developed, given the proper environment. As such, assimilationists constantly encourage Black adoption of White cultural traits and/or physical ideals.

He admits this is a complicated book:

There was nothing simple or straightforward or predictable about racist ideas, and thus their history. Frankly speaking, for generations of Americans, racist ideas have been their common sense. The simple logic of racist ideas has manipulated millions over the years, muffling the more complex antiracist reality again and again. And so, this history could not be made for readers in an easy-to-predict narrative of absurd racists clashing with reasonable antiracists. This history could not be made for readers in an easy-to-predict, two-sided Hollywood battle of obvious good versus obvious evil, with good triumphing in the end. From the beginning, it has been a three-sided battle, a battle of antiracist ideas being pitted against two kinds of racist ideas at the same time, with evil and good failing and triumphing in the end. Both segregationist and assimilationist ideas have been wrapped up in attractive arguments to seem good, and both have made sure to re-wrap antiracist ideas as evil. And in wrapping their ideas in goodness, segregationists and assimilationists have rarely confessed to their racist public policies and ideas. But why would they? Racists confessing to their crimes is not in their self-interest. It has been smarter and more exonerating to identify what they did and said as not racist. Criminals hardly ever acknowledge their crimes against humanity. And the shrewdest and most powerful anti-Black criminals have legalized their criminal activities, have managed to define their crimes of slave trading and enslaving and discriminating and killing outside of the criminal code. Likewise, the shrewdest and most powerful racist ideologues have managed to define their ideas outside of racism. Actually, assimilationists first used and defined and popularized the term “racism” during the 1940s. All the while, they refused to define their own assimilationist ideas of Black cultural and behavioral inferiority as racist. And segregationists, too, have always resisted the label of “racist.” They have claimed instead that they were merely articulating God’s word, nature’s design, science’s plan, or plain old common sense.

Racist ideas began in fifteenth-century Europe – and were developed and promoted in order to justify slavery. In this book, Dr. Kendi traces those ideas from their origin all the way through Obama’s presidency. There’s a little bit in the Preface to the Paperback Edition about the election of Trump, but not much because it had recently happened. He does sum up what comes across in the book, that the history of racist ideas is not a simple progression:

Stamped from the Beginning . . . does not present a story of racial progress, showing how far we have come, and the long way we have to go. It does not even present a story of racial progress of two steps forward – as embodied in Obama – and one step back – as embodied in Trump.

As I carefully studied America’s racial past, I did not see a singular historical force arriving at a postracial America. I did not see a singular historical force becoming more covert and implicit over time. I did not see a singular historical force taking steps forward and backward on race. I saw two distinct historical forces. I saw a dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism. I saw the antiracist force of equality and the racist force of inequality marching forward, progressing in rhetoric, in tactics, in policies.

When the Obamas of the nation broke through racial barriers, the Trumps of the nation did not retire to their sunny estates in Florida. They created and sometimes succeeded in putting new and more sophisticated barriers in place, like the great-grandchildren of Jim Crow voting laws – the new age-voter ID laws that are disenfranchising Black Americans in the twenty-first century. And the Trumps of the nation developed a new round of racist ideas to justify those policies, to redirect the blame for racial disparities away from those new discriminatory policies and onto the supposed Black pathology.

That gives you an idea of how dense and packed with information this book is. It includes what scholarly and popular discussions occurred at various times in American history and is backed up with amazing research. I do highly recommend approaching it the same way I did and listening to or reading the young adult version by Jason Reynolds first. That will give you the big picture before you tackle this high-level academic tome. I’m planning, in fact, to listen to the Jason Reynolds book again, in order to solidify the ideas in a more graspable form, now that I’ve dived deep.

This is an amazing work of scholarship, and I highly recommend it for every American. You’ll gain a much better understanding of racist ideas and where they came from, and your eyes will be opened to some of them that you may have always taken for granted.

ibramxkendi.com
boldtypebooks.org

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Every Penguin in the World, by Charles Bergman

Sunday, March 28th, 2021

Every Penguin in the World

A Quest to See Them All

by Charles Bergman

Sasquatch Books, 2020. 193 pages.
Review written September 30, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

I wouldn’t have called myself a penguin lover before reading this book, though I certainly don’t dislike them. Who could? But reading this book has me fully converted.

The author is an English professor. He and his wife decided to take trips to see every current penguin species in the world. And he took wonderful photographs on these journeys.

The photographs do steal the show. Penguin chicks are adorably cute, and adults are sometimes comical, sometimes beautiful, and always striking. Their location in remote southern locations adds to the beauty of these photographs.

And it’s difficult to get to the remote locations where penguins live, so the story of this quest is a story of adventure. The author does a great job of communicating the dangers and difficulties of their travels while also conveying the way the penguins changed his life spiritually and called him to this pilgrimage.

Of course, there’s also information about how so many penguin species are endangered and what we can do to help. If a universally beloved creature is in danger, how can we expect to save creatures that aren’t so adorable? So this book is also a wake-up call.

I found myself looking at the photos here over and over again, but the words drew me in as well. This is a wonderful little book that you can be sure you’ll want to come back to. I think I’m going to order my own copy to be able to look at pictures of penguins whenever I want to be uplifted.

sasquatchbooks.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Earth in Her Hands, by Jennifer Jewell

Monday, January 25th, 2021

The Earth in Her Hands

75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants

by Jennifer Jewell

Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2020. 324 pages.
Review written September 22, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#5 General Nonfiction

This amazing and beautiful book features seventy-five plantswomen who work in a multiplicity of jobs, mostly jobs I didn’t even know existed before reading this book, and serve plants and the earth in some way.

The format is consistent for all the featured women. On their opening spread in this generously-sized book, one page is filled with a picture of them among their plants. There’s a quote from the subject next to the picture. The text of the feature begins with “Her Work,” telling what she does. Then either “Her Plant” or “Her Landscape” featuring a plant or landscape that’s special to her. The bulk of the feature is the next part, “Her Plant Journey,” which goes into the next spread, giving an outline of her life story and how she came to her current work and the things that excite her about what she does. The second spread has another, smaller picture. The features finish off with “Other Inspiring Women,” a list of women whose work has inspired the featured woman. And yes, some of those are featured, too.

The women are listed alphabetically rather than by type of work, but there’s such a wide variety of work, that approach probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. Some jobs are a little more traditional – nursery owners and farmers, photographers, artists, and writers. There are many horticulturists, gardeners, botanists, and landscape architects. But then we’ve got the owner of a houseplant shop in New York City, seed savers, and collectors, floral designers, garden directors, educators, advocates, herbalists, a soil scientist, a plant pathologist, and a horticultural therapist. And that doesn’t express the many aspects of these jobs that I learned about in these pages, each woman bringing love and passion to what she does.

Also amazing are how these women are located all over the world. Yes, the majority live in the U.S. or the U.K., but there are also women featured from India, Japan, Canada, and Australia.

This is a beautiful book. The photos of the women on the large, glossy pages usually highlight flowers, or maybe some lovely landscape or setting. I read the book usually one feature per day (I confess I had this book out from the library while we were closed for the pandemic so I had extra time.), and it made me want to get out there and do something with plants – at the very least got me noticing plants more on my daily walks by my lake and taking more close-ups of flowers.

This is in the adult section of the library, but I think putting this book into the right teen’s hands might set someone on the path of working with the earth, because it opens your eyes to all the possibilities.

For me, I found that sitting and spending a couple minutes reading one of these features was guaranteed to put me in a peaceful mental state, like taking a deep breath.

timberpress.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Know My Name, by Chanel Miller

Monday, November 9th, 2020

Know My Name

by Chanel Miller

Viking, 2019. 357 pages.
Review written October 3, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 General Nonfiction

Know My Name is a memoir by the victim in the famous case where she was raped while she was unconscious on Stanford campus by a member of the swim team. He was found guilty and then given a light slap-on-the-wrist sentence. Chanel wrote a letter as Emily Doe to her rapist that was published on BuzzFeed and went viral and touched hearts and lives across the world. (I love the little detail that Joe Biden wrote to her after reading it and said, “I see the limitless potential of an incredibly talented young woman – full of possibility. I see the shoulders on which our dreams for the future rest.”)

Chanel Miller is an incredibly skilled writer. She takes the story of her own rape and explains its terrible impact on her life. She doesn’t excuse it. She doesn’t take it lightly ever. She explains that it impacted her life every single day since the event and will continue to impact it. She points out the many, many failures in the system that made things worse for her. She explains how wonderful it was that her life was saved by two Swedes who happened to bicycle past and took the time to save her. But she gets all her readers wondering what would have happened if they hadn’t come along. You’d think with such witnesses, it would be an easy conviction, but it wasn’t. Not easy in any sense at all.

And yet she leaves us with hope. Her letter, which is included at the end of the book, touched lives across the world. Her book cover design represents the Japanese art of kintsugi, “in which pieces of broken pottery are mended with powdered gold and lacquer, rather than treating the breaks as blemishes to conceal. The technique shows us that although an object cannot be returned to its original state, fragments can be made whole again.”

I checked out this book after I’d already learned I was going to be a panelist for Young Adult Fiction and Speculative Fiction for the Cybils Awards, but I thought I’d read it slowly, a chapter at a time and just draw it out. Instead, I ended up binge-reading it to finish it the night before Cybils nominations opened. Even though I knew what happened, the book ended up being impossible to put down. She makes you understand how it felt to be violated in this way and how difficult it was to put her life back together and go on.

I’m going to finish this review by quoting her final paragraphs. I’m not giving anything away. Most of you will have heard of her story. But I’m quoting her to show how powerfully she brings hope to victims everywhere, and to people everywhere who ever wonder what their own lives are worth.

I began this story alone as a half-naked body. I remembered nothing. There was so much I did not know. I was forced to fight, in a legal system I did not understand, the bald judge in the black robe, the defense attorney with narrow glasses. Brock with his lowered chin, his unsmiling father, the appellate attorney. The obstacles became harder, I was up against men more educated, more powerful than me, the game rougher, more graphic, serious. I read comments that laughed at my pain. I remember feeling helpless, terrified, humiliated, I cried like I’ve never cried before. But I remember the attorney’s still shoulders as guilty was read. I know Brock slept ninety days in a stiff cot in a jail cell. The judge will never step foot in a courtroom again. The appellate attorney’s claims were shut down. One by one, they became powerless, fell away, and when the dust settled, I looked around to see who was left.

Only Emily Doe. I survived because I remained soft, because I listened, because I wrote. Because I huddled close to my truth, protected it like a tiny flame in a terrible storm. Hold up your head when the tears come, when you are mocked, insulted, questioned, threatened, when they tell you you are nothing, when your body is reduced to openings. The journey will be longer than you imagined, trauma will find you again and again. Do not become the ones who hurt you. Stay tender with your power. Never fight to injure, fight to uplift. Fight because you know that in this life, you deserve safety, joy, and freedom. Fight because it is your life. Not anyone else’s. I did it, I am here. Looking back, all the ones who doubted or hurt or nearly conquered me faded away, and I am the only one standing. So now, the time has come. I dust myself off, and go on.

I recommend many books. Let me urge you to read this one. It will leave you with more compassion than you had before, and with more power, and more hope.

chanel-miller.com
penguinrandomhouse.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Women of the 116th Congress: Portraits of Power

Friday, September 11th, 2020

The Women of the 116th Congress

Portraits of Power

Foreword by Roxane Gay

Portraits by Elizabeth D. Herman and Celeste Sloman

Abrams Image, 2019. 208 pages.
Review written September 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a lovely book that fills my heart with pride in our nation. It consists of 130 portraits of the 131 women (one was not available) serving in the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States of America after the 2018 elections.

The portraits are presented alphabetically by the state each woman represents. A list of firsts that woman has achieved are presented, many of them being the first woman from their state or their district in the House or the Senate, or the first woman of their ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation. And there’s a paragraph quote from each woman talking about what it means to them to serve in the United States Congress.

Throughout the book, there are short interruptions with spreads about historic women who paved the way for these ones, such as Jeannette Pickering Rankin: “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.” Or Shirley Anita Chisholm: “In the end anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing: anti-humanism.”

I never thought of it as an important cause to elect more women to Congress – until I looked through this book and it made me so happy and proud. I love to think that the day will come when we can look back on the 116th Congress and think how relatively few women they included back then.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me, by Jason B. Rosenthal

Tuesday, August 11th, 2020

My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me

by Jason B. Rosenthal
read by the author

HarperAudio, 2020. 7 hours on 6 CDs.
Review written August 11, 2020, from a library audiobook
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 General Nonfiction

On March 3, 2017, beloved children’s author Amy Krouse Rosenthal (okay, she wrote things for adults, too, and even made films, but being a children’s author is what I loved her for) had a column published in the New York Times, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” It told about her impending death from ovarian cancer, which indeed happened ten days later, but also about what a wonderful man her husband was, how beautiful their life together, and hoping that he would start a new love story after her death, because she wanted him to have a happy life.

This book is Jason’s follow-up. It tells about his life with Amy and their joyful partnership, about the two years he cared for her after her cancer diagnosis, and about dealing with grief. Amy gave him the gift of a platform to talk about end of life, the grieving process, and meeting life after loss with resilience.

As a divorced woman, I’ve dealt with loss. I’m glad that Jason acknowledges that he was lucky to have the loving relationship he had. And Amy blessed it with her last loving act of writing that column. Divorced people (especially those blind-sided by a spouse who leaves before they realize anything’s wrong) don’t get that benediction, but we still have to deal with the absence of someone we love. I appreciated that Jason doesn’t shy away from telling about the good times as if to avoid pain. And his insights are helpful for anyone dealing with loss, even if on the surface, your loss seems quite different from the too-early death of a beloved spouse.

Another thing I have in common with Jason is a succession of losses. Both my parents died, two months apart, last Fall. In the two years since Amy’s death, both Jason’s father and Amy’s father died, as well as the dog that was their family’s companion for many years. Loss piled on top of loss has its own difficult impact. Jason expresses so well the process of dealing with loss upon loss while remembering the love and joy. He doesn’t pretend to have it all together. He talks about times of weeping. And he is again and again thankful to Amy for urging him to fill those empty pages with a new love story.

Listening to Jason’s own voice makes it all the more personal. Listening to this audiobook feels like a brother or a close friend sharing their life and offering encouragement. I understand why hundreds of people have written to him. Amy’s column alone makes me wish it just so happened that I was right for him. (For starters, I don’t live in Chicago.) I have no doubt he’s going to again be a wonderful husband to some lucky woman. (And he has started dating someone. I’m a little envious that he was able to find someone “organically” without using online dating, but hey, everyone’s life is different.)

The part about his life together with Amy was full of joy. I drooled at the description of the home they built – with a wall covered with bookshelves from the basement to the third floor. And I love that they set goals for their relationship while on their honeymoon. They traveled the world together. They made room for quality time with their children and with each other. And they were each other’s biggest fans.

But he’s also got encouraging and uplifting things to say about his life now and about dealing with loss and having resiliency. This is not a sad book, even though it’s centered around a very sad event. It’s the story of a joyful and loving partnership and about someone learning to continue to live a joyful and meaningful life after that partnership ended far too soon.

Like I said, it feels like the author is talking to you personally. I will resist the urge to add to the pile of letters he’s received. Let me just say it now: Jason, thank you for this book. Thank you for telling Amy’s story and your story. Thank you for giving others a window into navigating the journey of loss and new beginnings.

jasonbrosenthal.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on an audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of A Game of Birds and Wolves, by Simon Parkin

Monday, July 6th, 2020

A Game of Birds and Wolves

The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II

by Simon Parkin

Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 310 pages.
Review written April 23, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

A Game of Birds and Wolves is the story of how Great Britain used an elaborate war game to strategize and win the war against the U-boats during World War II.

I hadn’t realized how important the Battle of the Atlantic was. Britain came perilously close to starving. During World War II, 2,603 merchant ships and 175 naval vessels escorting merchant convoys were sunk. More than 30,000 merchant seamen and more than 6,000 Royal Navy sailors died in the Atlantic, mostly because of attacks from U-boats.

The subtitle is a little bit misleading. This book is mostly about the man, Gilbert Roberts, who developed the giant board game and taught it to British naval officers. But his staff, the people running the game, were indeed women, officers in the Wrens, the branch of the British navy for women.

I’ve been reading a lot of children’s nonfiction, so I did get impatient with the extreme level of detail in this book. We hear about the establishment of the Wrens, about specific ships getting sunk in the Atlantic, about the glamorous lives on shore of U-boat commanders, and how Gilbert Roberts had been rejected by the navy. It seemed like the first half of the book was establishing the many, many different characters and the situations for both the Germans and the British.

But the tension does heighten as the WATU – the Western Approaches Tactical Unit – begins deducing the strategies that U-boats were using and developing ways to combat it. At the same time, we read about an admiral asking for more U-boats and finally getting them. It all builds to a dramatic battle where one of the Wrens charting the position of the ships in a giant sea battle is aware that her fiancé is in the thick of things.

As a gamer, it made sense to me that playing strategy games helps admirals devise effective strategies in real-life scenarios. They developed a 6-day course and captains coming in from time at sea would go through the course. They simulated visibility at sea by putting the captains behind a canvas screen and plotting the positions of small models of ships on the linoleum floor. They used green chalk for the U-boats, which couldn’t be seen from an angle. They made a dramatic simulation before computers could be used to do it.

The Wrens on staff were responsible for moving the models and marking the courses of the ships and U-boats involved. I enjoyed the scene where they had a young Wren play a scenario against a high ranking naval officer. She was experienced with the game and soundly defeated him.

It all gives an interesting side of World War II that I’d never heard about before.

simonparkin.com
littlebrown.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Kindness and Wonder, by Gavin Edwards

Thursday, June 4th, 2020

Kindness and Wonder

Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever

by Gavin Edwards

Dey St. (William Morrow), 2019. 248 pages.
Review written December 29, 2019, from a library book.

Kindness and Wonder is a biography of Mr. Rogers, followed by ten lessons from his life, with anecdotes. I like the biography. I had tried to get through the much more detailed biography, The Good Neighbor in audio form, and hadn’t ever finished it. This one gives you the basic facts and the basic story of his life without getting bogged down.

The ten lessons are:

Be deep and simple.
Be kind to strangers.
Make a joyful noise.
Tell the truth.
Connect with other people every way you can.
Love your neighbors.
Find the light in the darkness.
Always see the very best in other people.
Accept the changing seasons.
Share what you’ve learned. (All your life.)

Some of the stories presented alongside these lessons weren’t what I expected. For example, the “Love your neighbors.” chapter told how the lives of Andy Warhol and George Romero paralleled the life of Mr. Rogers. I’m not sure I cared about them!

But mostly, this book tells about a man’s life who saw his ministry as using television to reach children, and who took children’s developmental needs very seriously.

As a children’s librarian, of all people, I need to learn everything I can from Mr. Rogers. I like the way this book points out the lessons from his example.

rulefortytwo.com
harpercollins.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/kindness_and_wonder.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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