Published September 4, 2018 by Atria Books | 336 pages | ARC provided by NetGalley and the publisher
“The truth is I’m not comfortable unless something’s on fire or someone’s having a meltdown. I don’t know what to do with things that aren’t broken.”
Well, this was a pleasant surprise. Leave No Trace was another one of those books that I didn’t read too much about before jumping in (especially because it was an ARC, and with those I normally just go off the few existing GR ratings), so I had no idea what to expect.
Maya Stark is a 23-year-old speech therapist at Congdon, a psychiatric facility making news in Duluth, MN because of its newest resident. After over a decade missing, 19-year-old Lucas Blackthorn emerges from the Boundary Waters like a bat out of Hell, causing chaos in his wake. He is hardly fit to handle civilization, much less tolerate the people working to keep him committed. Needless to say, he’s a beautiful firecracker.
At first, Lucas refuses to communicate with anybody. He was more or less raised in the wilderness, so he’s extremely out of his element in the sterile environment of the psychiatric institution. After a while, he communicates minimally and cryptically with Maya alone; she has a troubled past, so they have more in common than their young age.
“I’d spent my life separated from the rest of the world, first by my mother’s illness, then her ghost breathing in every rock around me, and by the dead man whose eyes wouldn’t stay shut when I fell asleep.”
As the book progresses, the focus starts to include Lucas’s father, Josiah (which happens to be my very favorite name, so I had to try not to be biased). He went missing with Lucas all those years ago, and though both were presumed dead, Lucas begins to hint at his father’s possible survival.
Mejia did a fabulous job with both the pace of the novel and the distribution of focus among her characters. Equal time was spent developing Maya and her home life, Lucas and Josiah’s past, the daunting Minnesota wilderness, and the mysteries that slowly unravel. I normally have a hard time getting into eBooks, even if I like them, because I find the medium more tedious than physical books. However, I sped through Leave No Trace.
A lot of that had to do with Mejia’s technical strength as a writer. This was unlike many suspense novels in that it didn’t just rely on the reader’s desire to reach the “twist at the end;” Mejia’s sentences, moments, and dialogue were all detailed and believable. She took the time to develop rich relationships, letting them steep for just long enough before throwing more action into the mix. It isn’t just about who or where; the nucleus of this novel is about abandonment and the confines we force ourselves to live within, forming a spiritually-layered explanation of why.
“Her eyes shimmered with dead pools of tears. I’d never seen an eye hold on to that much water, refusing to let it go.”
My only qualms with this book didn’t detract very much, but I think a lot of people would relate to them. Frankly, I think any author who chooses to write about hospitals – psychiatric or otherwise – is taking a risk and opening themselves up to nitpickers and reality sticklers. While there was nothing too egregious, you might have to suspend a bit of disbelief to get through some of the more tense scenes that take place within the walls of Congdon. Likewise, some of the choices that Maya and her superior, Dr. Mehta, take in Lucas’s treatment are questionable and felt a bit off.
Also, Lucas is presented as being unhinged and violent at the beginning, and this has the potential to be triggering, especially as he and Maya start to become closer. While I understand the whole “broken stallion” thing, and his hostility toward the clinical world makes sense in conjunction with his upbringing, I think the bad boy-ness was taken a bit too far. Lucas would’ve been an intriguing character even if he hadn’t been quite so unglued.
“Belief is a powerful thing. It grabs you, unmakes you, changes the tilt and angle of everything around you into an entirely different geometry. You see the world in a new shape and no matter how horrible the belief, no matter what awful things it makes you do, a part of you is still grateful for the structure.”
Have you read anything by Mindy Mejia before? What are some other thrillers that you think did a great job of character and setting development?
Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by Jana @ The Artsy Reader Girl, so don’t forget to mention her if you hop aboard the TTT train! One list I really love this week is Amanda’s @ The Limit of Books Does Not Exist. This week’s theme is Top Ten books in our Fall TBR pile. The novels I listed below range from new releases to upcoming to things that were released in the past few years that I own and haven’t gotten around to. Plus, I’ll link you to the two AMAZING books I’m currently reading at the end.
Have you read any of these books, or do you share in my excitement for them? I’d love to hear about some of your anticipated fall novels, so post them or link me to your TTT in the comments!
We live in an interesting time. We have antibiotics, vaccines, and procedures to treat illnesses that would’ve put us all in the ground by age 40 less than a century ago. However, whether it’s due to lack of insurance, bad experiences, religious beliefs, or simple ignorance, there are people from all walks of life who are dubious of anything that even hints at Western medicine.
People actively choose not to vaccinate based off one defunct article from decades ago, despite the fact that we’re more likely to die from a shark attack. Everyone has that grandpa who refuses to go see a doctor unless he’s literally on fire. And, if you struggle with mental disorders, you’ve likely encountered someone who thinks an expensive herbal supplement you’ve never heard of is better than any doctor.
Medicine isn’t just limited to the pills we take; it includes the doctors and therapists that we see. Often, people end up avoiding doctors altogether because they’re afraid of being encouraged to take a million drugs. The first time I went to a psychiatrist, he talked to me for 15 minutes, wrote me a prescription, and sent me out the door. I was shook. Movies and TV had me believing that the same person who listens to you talk for an hour every week is the same person potentially writing the ‘scripts, but that ain’t the case. Therapists and counselors do the talking; psychiatrists do the writing.
This distinction is especially important if you think talking to your friends gives you the same insight as talking to a therapist, or if you have a T-shirt that says “Don’t Trust Big Pharma.” While it’s in our interest to stay up-to-date on which medicines have been recalled and the latest CEO to be indicted, having an actual doctor you trust (with an actual degree) is as crucial as having a go-to, certified repairman.
While it’s nice to believe we don’t need to be chemically altered just to feel a little bit better, some of the most prevalent mental disorders stem from a chemical imbalance, so it would make sense that it would take chemicals to tip the scales back to neutral. Even if your mind is not currently open to medication, a professional may be able to ease your concerns, and good old therapy can do wonders. So when your BFF Annabelle regales you with the horrible story of the shrink that made her swear off shrinks, take it with a grain of salt.
When it comes to mental health advice, the giver is usually well-intentioned, as is the seeker. Unless you’re a shameless shill like Alex Jones or David Wolfe (whose nickname is apparently “Avocado”), you probably mean well when you suggest your friend try a supplement that’s worked for you. Likewise, when you seek these answers for yourself, you aren’t thinking, “What alarmingly falseBS can I buy into today?”
I don’t mean to imply that everyone who is leery of medication is an uneducated skeptic; some people have truly horrible reactions to medicine, and this can scare them off for life. Recently, 4 whole years after my mom died, my dad finally opened himself to the idea of starting an anti-depressant. However, he quit after 3 days of a not-so-great reaction, and I haven’t been able to convince him to try again.
Personally, it took no fewer than 4 tries to find the right anti-depressant – one that didn’t make me more sad, increase my appetite, or turn me into a ball of rage. When you start an anti-depressant, the goal is to be a bit happier, so why persist if it automatically makes you feel worse? While there’s no right or wrong answer to this question, my tipping point was this:
Do the potential benefits of finding medication that works for me outweigh the time it might take for my body to adjust, even if my body ends up rejecting it? Seeing as how my natural state is constant self-doubt and anxiety that everyone else is better than me, my answer was a resounding yes.
It took me several less-than-ideal meds and as many lackadaisical shrinks, but I found something that worked. Now I can go to the grocery store without getting tunnel vision from the reckless nightmare carts, wanting to run away from all the doomsday people, or crying at the amount of avocados that go bad before anyone purchases them.
But the fact remains that mood-stabilizing drugs can have traumatic side effects, especially in conjunction with certain lifestyle habits, alcohol, or other medications. Unless you’re 100% honest with your doctor about your routine, medicinal or otherwise, you could be in for some trouble.
If you’ve ever tried to get in better shape (and even if you haven’t), you’ve probably heard that long-term success won’t come from either eating better or exercising; you need both. As I discussed in a previous MHM, it’s about time we start treating our mental health the same way we do our physical health. In much the same way as getting physically fit, it will likely take a combination of factors to get you to a place where you don’t feel controlled by your depression or anxiety.
So, in conclusion to this long AF post, easing your mental health woes is a multifaceted operation similar to improving your physical health. I tend to think of it as a three-parter: Effective Medicine, Support System, and Self-Care Routine.
If you are up on your self-care (take time for yoga, massages, etc.) but still struggle, it’s possible you should see a doctor. If you’re on medications that seem to work but still feel lonely, try to reach out to your friends and family to build your support system. And if you’re seeing a doctor, have awesome friends, but still get into frequent mental ruts, try taking better care of yourself, whether that be by exercising, reading more books, or just getting more alone time.
Confidence-Boosting Jam: “Flawless” by Dorothy
How have you coped with the big question: do I medicate or do I stick it out? What balance works best for you?
Throughout my reading of A Possible World, I couldn’t help but think, “Something major had better happen, or this is going to be one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write.” Unfortunately, that prophecy came true, and I’m left at a bit of a loss. Overall, I think this was the exoskeleton of a phenomenal book, but the interior was a bit unsteady. If I had to rate it, I’d say it was a 7 of 10.
First and foremost, this novel blooms with fresh and intoxicating prose from every nook and cranny of its pages. This took me several days to get through, a relatively long time for a book of average length, because I was fully invested in every word. Blink, and you might miss an incredible nugget of Schwarz’s gilded language:
“I couldn’t confess, though; a proper confession requires both contrition and a sincere resolve not to repeat the sin. The sin I was about to commit was one for which I would not feel contrite, and one I planned to commit for as long as possible.”
Setting: Rhode Island. Three main characters: Lucy, an ER resident who has recently separated from her husband; Leo, the alter ego of a boy named Ben, who is experiencing amnesia after witnessing an unthinkable massacre; Clare, a 100-year-old nursing home patient with no known descendants and a secret past. The blurb for this book states that their stories “converge,” which implies some sort of intersection, a clear connection that we can hold on to. I would not go so far as to say these plots “converge.”
Rather, I’d say they kiss. For one or two fleeting moments, they touch in a way that’s neither permanent nor satisfying (in my opinion). After becoming so intimately acquainted with each character, I was waiting with bated breath for that promised “convergence,” a climax of epic proportion that would perfectly explain what these stories had to do with one another.
While somewhat the fault of high expectations on my part, I think a lot of people would come to expect the same and potentially be let down or confused by the ending. My frustrations with this book have nothing to do with it being bad, by any means. There was a litany of outstanding elements that I loved, but several key ones didn’t live up to their potential. As previously stated, Schwarz does a magical job of character-building and pulling the reader’s heartstrings directly into her world – The Possible World, as it were.
“When they ask me to open the book of my story, every page is blank. But then when I’m not trying to remember, things swim up in the corners of my mind, like bright fish that dart out of view when I look.”
This novel is absolutely worth a read for anyone who places language and character development above plot. This is not exactly a page turner; things progress slowly, and the only discernible plot is learning tidbits about our main characters. Even this is unbalanced, however: Clare is by far the most interesting of the three MCs and has the most growth. Lucy is more of the “straight man” in this book; she’s there to form a bridge between the young boy and the elderly woman, but not in the way you’d like to think.
Then there’s Ben, the sole survivor of a wicked tragedy, who gets almost no attention. The book opens with a vague but powerful description of the nightmare he endures, but nothing ever comes of it. After this, he becomes “Leo” in his mind, a boy who existed many years ago and who may or may not have a connection to Clare. But again, it’s not in the way you might expect.
“‘Fear of Hell shouldn’t be what drives a person to do right,’ I told him. ‘And besides, why would God create all of this’ – I swept a hand around at the vivid green, the trees vibrating with birdsong – ‘and then wait for us inside a dark building?'”
Another thing that the blurb gets wrong is its omission of one of the main forces driving the connection, however loose, between Ben and Clare. While it isn’t pixie dust or telekinesis, there is a supernatural element to the ties that bind them, one that you’ll either find compelling or tedious, depending on the type of books you normally read. Furthermore, there’s significant doddling in the chapters that are told from Lucy’s POV. Liese O’Halloran Schwarz in an ER doctor herself, so I understand her desire to flesh out Lucy’s professional experience, but there’s an awful lot of medical jargon.
While it’s explained in an accessible way, I think it was only necessary about half of the time, in the moments where it built suspense. In the other instances, it kind of read like the way doctors in medical dramas speak to each other as filler, when programming time needs to be eaten up. This is especially unfortunate because, as I said, Ben is neglected in an almost alarming way. I find it hard to believe that anyone could finish this novel without wanting several more chapters about his character alone.
Regardless, Schwarz’s scene-work is remarkable, and it’s nearly impossible to read without hearing, smelling, and tasting the atmospheres she creates. The hairs on the back of your neck will stand on end.
“Flat against the earth, I felt a deep sense of belonging. No past or present, not even a person but a soul, liquid and blank. Unmoving, I was yet moving with everything on the earth, no boundaries between me and the stars and the ground and the grass and whatever roamed or hunted nearby. No sorrow, no hope or fear.”
Did you notice the overwhelming amount of Fs? Consider this my way of saying “F* you, Florence!” This hurricane has had everyone in a tizzy for the last week, clearing all grocery stores of bottled water and all gas stations of regular gas. Luckily, I live inland enough in SC that I’ll just get a bunch of wind + rain, but that doesn’t change the fact that my chickens are hella scared and the coast is going to see some major devastation.
Florence might want me to sit around in fear all weekend, but I’m not gonna. Okay, maybe I will, but that’s why my doc prescribes me the good stuff. I’m ALSO going to make some delicious food and make sure I get in some strength training just in time to punch this hurricane where the sun don’t shine.
Recipe: Mini Frittatas
Servings: 4 | Prep: 5 min | Cook time: 30 min
By now, it’s well-established that I own two hens. They’re both molting right now (shedding old feathers, growing new ones, and being broody AF in the process), and one of them has decided that she isn’t going to LAY ANY EGGS while this happens. Normally, however, we get two eggs per day, which can add up quickly. Therefore, it’s pretty crucial that I have an arsenal of eggy recipes to use ’em all up.
Versatility is your BFF in the kitchen. These mini frittatas can be made with any combination of veggies. You can use bacon or sausage or no meat at all. You can use feta, like I do, or a heartier cheese like cheddar. You can substitute any type of milk your heart desires. Plus, these are basically egg muffins, and that’s super cute.
1/2 cup milk of choice (I use almond)
4 strips bacon
2 cups chopped veggies (I use broccoli, onion, mushroom, bell pepper)
1 cup spinach
4 cherry tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 350º F
In saute pan, cook bacon. Pour out excess grease, leaving a thin layer in the pan.
Add two cups chopped veggies and cook over medium heat. If using tomatoes and/or spinach, do not add these yet.
While the veggies cook, whisk together 6 eggs and 1/2 cup milk for a total of two cups egg/milk mixture. Depending on size of eggs, you may need slightly more/less milk. Whisk in salt and pepper.
When veggies are almost cooked, add garlic and spinach. Cook for 1-2 minutes until spinach is wilted.
Use nonstick spray to grease 12-ct muffin tin. Divvy veggies and bacon in the 12 spots. Now would be the time to add the tomatoes. Pour egg mixture carefully over the fillings, making sure that there is room at the top for them to rise a little bit (SEE ABOVE). Top with feta or cheese of choice.
Cook for 20 minutes. Let cool, then serve with salsa, avocado, and fresh fruit.
You’re ready to work out now, right? RIGHT? Honestly, I was NOT feeling it today (enthusiasm in above photo 100% simulated), which is probably why I’m not getting this post up until 6:30 pm EST. Well, that, and the fact that we had to storm-proof our yard and jury-rig our chicken coop so that we don’t fly away in the impending winds or float away in the floodwaters.
Okay, now the F-words are getting a bit ridiculous, but I digress. My husband and I have budgeted a good amount of money to our home gym, but I understand that it’s not everyone’s top priority. Plus, it can take up a lot of space. If you want to start strength training but don’t feel comfortable joining a gym or don’t have extra money to throw around, there’s only one thing you need: a weight plate.
Well, one thing might be exaggerating, but honestly, the limit of exercises you can do with a grip-able weight disc does not exist. Though the main purpose of these weights is to slide onto an Olympic barbell, you certainly don’t need one to use them. I vary between 25 and 35 pound plates for the following exercises, but you’ll want to start with 10 or 15 lbs. Mine came in a set, but you can get individual plates on the cheap from Le Mart de Wal.
Note: Please pardon my idiotic outfit. Sometimes, one of the best ways for me to get pumped about doin’ stuff is to don some silly socks.
15-Minute Strength Training:
V-crunches: Hold plate firmly to chest and extend legs out in front of you. Squeezing abs, bring knees in to the chest. Keep toes pointed and back straight. Do 3 sets of 20 reps, pausing for 30 seconds between sets.
2. Tricep Row: Lean over, gripping something between knee and waist height. With a straight back and knees slightly bent, lift the weight until your triceps are parallel with your torso and your elbow is at a 90 degree angle. Do 3 sets of 15 on either side.
3. Standing Oblique Bend: With feet hip-width apart, take weight in one hand and lift other hand to your head. Slowly lower the weight, contracting obliques/abs opposite the side with the weight. (If the weight is in your left hand, you will be isolating the obliques on your right). Do 2 sets of 20 on either side. This exercise is simple, but it requires proper form. Unless you actively feel your obliques being isolated, do not proceed. Many diagrams online will show the opposite hand resting on your hip or holding another weight.Do not do that. I have found that the obliques are isolated the easiest if the opposite hand is raised, as demonstrated.
4. Calf Raises: Stand with feet hip-width apart and weight held firmly to your torso. Lift your body up so that you are on your toes, then lower back down. This is one rep. While this is primarily a calf exercise, you should be squeezing your abs and glutes throughout the movement as well. Do 2 sets of 30.
This is my go-to routine for when I don’t feel like busting out the barbell because it targets virtually every muscle group. Your back, shoulders, arms, core, glutes, hamstrings, and calves will all be awake and alert after this quick boost.
I hope everyone in the Southeast is staying safe! Where I am, we are slated to get the brunt of it tomorrow and Sunday.
Welcome to another Top 3 Thursday, a weekly meme hosted by A Cosy Reader! This week’s theme is impossible to resist: Bookish Merch Stores. I think this is meant to be about mostly-online shops from Etsy and the like, but I’m kind of switching it up and hyping my favorite brick-and-mortar indie bookstores around the country that also sell some AMAZING merchandise.
Tucson is my very favorite city. It’s where my husband and I hope to settle down once he’s out of the army, there’s no limit to the amount of bomb hikes to go on, and it is ABSOLUTELY STUNNING. One of the trendiest areas of Tucson is 4th Avenue, where you can find everything from handmade southwest decor to bitchin’ one-of-a-kind clothing and yes, BOOKS + MERCH. I could literally spend days in Antigone Books. They sell new releases, classics, multicultural lit, LGBT lit, and children’s books.
You can also snatch up cute journals, t-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, decorative trinkets and basically everything that you’d want to throw your money at. During the 5 months I lived in Southern AZ last year, I purchased basically all of my gifts from Antigone.
Austin is my hometown. I couldn’t be more proud to have been born and raised in such an eclectic city, and although it is becoming overgrown with new residents, that just means it’s becoming even more eclectic (I think). Though the store itself has only been around since 2011, the books inside it have stood the test of time.
One of the coolest things about SoCo is its many rare books. From first editions to signed copies, you can easily get lost in its shelves. They also sell rare records, maps, art, and posters. While you might not be able to drop an entire paycheck on a signed Vonnegut, there are thousands of gems to be found. I got myself a cloth-bound, first edition Library of America boxed copy of Carson McCullers’s best work, and it was only $35 and well worth it.
A Wicker Park staple and one of my regular haunts during my 4 years in the Windy City, Quimby’s is a real trip. According to their website, they are “specialists in the importation, distribution & sale of unusual publications, aberrant periodicals, saucy comic booklets and assorted fancies – as well as a comprehensive miscellany of the latest independent ‘zines’ that all the kids have been talking about.”
If that sounds like a tongue-twister out of the mind of Hunter S. Thompson and the mouth of Vincent Price, that’s probably exactly what they were going for. Quimby’s is an independent store that supports independently- and self-published artists and authors. While you might be able to find some deep cuts and cult classics, this is mainly the place to go when you’re feeling weird AF or need a gift for that art school cutie you’re trying to woo.
Let me know if you participate in this T3T, and don’t forget to mention A Cosy Reader! If you don’t make your own post, add your favorite book-related shops in the comments. What are some local bookstores that add major vibes to your city? What online sellers have convinced you to spend wayyy too much money on mugs + bookmarks?
“Maggie begins to drift off, lulled by the rain battering the windows. In that place between sleep and alertness, the name comes back to her. She whispers it into the night. Elodie.”
Don’t worry, there are no spoilers here. Anywhooooo. I’ve been sat here, staring at my computer for five minutes, trying to figure out how to start this thing. I’m drawing a blank, so the best way to fix that is just to dive in, right? Umm, okay. Big breath. This book was the bee’s flippin’ knees. Although it was easily one of the saddest novels I’ve ever read, the feelings I had at the end were of lightness rather than darkness, which, all things considered, is an amazing feat.
I always skim the Goodreads blurbs because they have a tendency to give away a bit too much, and I prefer to go into a book knowing little. I know most people aren’t that way, and a plot synopsis is vital. Without giving away too much, I’ll tell you a few things: Maggie is sixteen in 1950, living in rural Québec with her father, who owns a seed shop and her mother, who really just sucks. Her world is fairly limited to her immediate family and a few friends at school. She also has her neighbors, the Phénix siblings, among them Gabriel. If you’re thinking that Gabriel is a dreamboat, you’re absolutely right. Ah, mon cœur.
After Maggie becomes pregnant, her parents are so ashamed of her circumstances and afraid for her reputation that they put her baby up for adoption against her will. As Maggie grows older, the thought of what happened to the daughter she was never able to hold torments her, but she tries her best to move on.
The baby, Elodie, was never adopted. Rather, she was put into an orphanage that kept her safe, educated, and well-fed for the first several years of her life. But then Maurice Dupplessis, the Premier of the province, realizes he can save money by converting all of the orphanages to insane asylums, because the government allots less money per child or, um…patient.
To be clear, this was an actual thing that happened. I have no idea how I hadn’t heard about this beore, but I. Was. Floored. The things that take place in the orphanages/asylums in this novel, in real life, were appalling and tragic and easily qualify as crimes against humanity. And in Canada, of all places. EVERYONE’S SUPPOSED TO BE SO NICE, because I’m a dumb American, and I have to believe that somewhere, things are pure.
So, about the writing. Maybe I’ve just gotten lucky lately, but I’m definitely becoming comfy + cozy in the genre of historical fiction. We all know what it’s like when characters and/or their relationships are awkward: the world doesn’t feel real, we are constantly pausing and wondering whether the dialogue seems authentic, and we just can’t fully submerge ourselves in the book. This causes us to kind of sit on the outside while reading, so finishing it doesn’t seem like much of a big deal.
This was fortunately not the case with The Home for Unwanted Girls. I fell headfirst into this thing and had to slowly crawl my way back out. I finished this three days ago and am just now able to formulate sentences about it. I can’t even remember the last time that’s happened. I’ve had book hangovers before, but this is a doozy.
“If she stares at a single seed long enough, she can forget what it is. She can even forget it’s a seed at all, the way when you say a word over and over again, it loses its meaning. Her mind does funny things like that up in the attic.”
The thing about novels like this is that you don’t realize how suspenseful they are until suddenly you have goosebumps. The language is so gorgeous and the characters are so vivid in your mind that you are completely absorbed; you don’t think about finding the answers to questions until they slap you right in the face.
The same can’t be said for most books, even page-turning thrillers. Of course it’s a good sign if an author has you desperate to reach the last page, but it’s an even better sign when you don’t want it to end. The way the two stories in this novel were woven (Maggie’s and Elodie’s, over the course of 20 years), I was left formulating a dozen different endings in my head. But I was never thinking, “Get to the point already!” I was never tempted to skim.
Whether it was the description of Elodie’s growth, plants and flowers in Maggie’s family shop, or the various romances, I wanted to spend as much time inside the covers of this book as possible. I loved every second of the rich narratives, and I really feel like I’m walking away from this with a new place in my heart for these characters. Even when I’m as picky as can be about which books I read, that just doesn’t happen too often.
“The sun is just beginning to rise, giving Elodie her very first view of the world outside the walls of Saint-Sulpice. The train rolls past miles of bright orange and red trees, vast fields, farms, and cows. Elodie is mesmerized and pensive as she takes in the unfamiliar landscape, trying to imprint all of it in her mind. Her whole body is tingling with anticipation, curiosity, wonderment, until, with a sudden bolt of dread, something occurs to her.”
See? That train was headed STRAIGHT for Goosebump City, I was on it, and I was sobbing like a fool when I stepped off.
Published April 17, 2018 by Harper – 364 pages
Have you read this book or anything else by Joanna Goodman, and if so, what did you think? What are some other works of historical fiction that you found both entertaining and educational?
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. I first came across it via Two Sisters Lost in a Coulee. Each week a topic is provided, and you are free to use that topic and/or variations to make your top ten list. You don’t have to do all ten. Instead you can do three, five, fifteen, whatever you want. A full list of the weekly themes can be found here.
I have to admit I’m falling in love with these weekly memes. I’m sure I’ll mix and match rather than stick to a set schedule, because some are just so fun! For this week’s theme of hidden gems (books that are underrated), I’m splitting things up into three categories.
Underrated Books of 2018
1. I have to start with The House of Broken Angelsby Luis Alberto Urrea. This was the first book of 2018 to truly take me to new places, and I’ve been wondering all year why it isn’t more popular. This is the story of an entire Mexican-American family coming together to celebrate two dying family members, but it is laced with humor. From my GR review:
“I seamlessly alternated between laughing, crying, and general shook-edness, and I became mind-friends with each character…I got a substantial idea of who each family member was, even if they only had a few pages to their name, because of the intimate nature of the stories and, most importantly, Urrea’s smell-before-rain poetics.”
2. Meghan MacLean Weir’s debut work of fiction seemed to gain traction pre-release, but I don’t think it’s gotten quite the attention it deserves since its publication. From my GR review:
“The Book of Essie is about a young girl whose evangelical family has been featured on TV since before she was born. It obviously evokes certain TLC shows, but it isn’t exploitative or sensationalist. It’s raw and charming and heartbreaking and every other word inherent to a 5-star rating. There are themes of feminism and anti-consumerism and anti-radical religion; however, it’s well-balanced and doesn’t come across as fierce or vindictive or bitter.”
3. The Masterpiece is an intricate yet super tight work of historical fiction about Grand Central Terminal in NYC. I can’t possibly overstate the fabulousness of all of Davis’s character work or how stunning her language is. One timeline focuses on Clara Darden, a teacher at a real-life art school in the Depression era. In the other timeline, as per my GR review:
“…we follow Virginia Clay, a recently divorced woman who is left with no option but to take a job at a dingy kiosk in the middle of Grand Central. Naturally curious, she stumbles upon hints of the former school’s decadence, and she works to unlock the answers to her deepening questions – answers that some people would like to keep secret.”
Underrated Books from The Last Few Years
4. Evictedby Matthew Desmond is exactly what it sounds like: multiple families are constantly on the fence between homelessness and living in derelict conditions. Their lives are in the hands of seedy landlords and a government which profits substantially off of income and housing inequality. For this book, Desmond focuses solely on the rental market in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (a city that happens to be close to my heart). The humanity is gripping, and it’s full of uncomfortable yet vital lessons for every American.
5. The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol truly was everything, and it far surpassed my expectations. It was one of those books that had me sitting still and holding it in my hands in total awe after finishing it. Utterly brilliant storytelling. From my GR review:
“A young girl named Morgan is doing community service at a retirement home after she left graffiti on its fence. She has angst. Elizabeth Livingstone, born in 1925 to a mother and father who manned a lighthouse on the nearby shores of Lake Superior, is one of the home’s elderly residents. She has spunk. Both have foggy pasts, but they find that they can help each other immensely…Every page of The Lightkeeper’s Daughers breathes as if very much alive. It wrapped me up so entirely that I’m having a hard time coping with the fact that it’s a work of fiction.”
6. Who wants to read about politics? This bitch right here. In the age of “fake news” (i.e., attacks on long-standing press of stellar repute), it’s crucial to make sure your information is coming from a solid source. In Dark Money,The New Yorker‘s own Jane Mayer slings some profoundly detailed political history and science, so get ready.
Why do people distrust climate change? Why do they vote in favor of corporations that cut employee benefits while lining executive pockets and paying fewer taxes than the lower class? Of course, the Koch brothers are at the heart of this, but the network is broad, and they are systematically working to get their hands on everything from education to climate regulation to labor laws. Dark Money also explores the dire consequences of the Citizens United decision, which allows for unrestricted political funding.
7. I know, I know. Homegoingby Yaa Gyasi has received TONS of fabulous press/reviews, so it doesn’t qualify as “underrated,” but it will always deserve more. I’ve purchased it as a gift for several people because I really think it’s critical reading. I will hype it whenever/wherever I can.
This novel is formatted in vignettes, with each being told from the perspective of a new character, who is either a descendant of Effia or Esi. These half-sisters were born into different villages in Ghana, and while one was raised in the slave trade, the other was forced to marry into a wealthy British family. The threads of memory through multiple generations are woven in a remarkably delicate yet strong way.
8. This is Edward Abbey’s 1968 memoir about his time as a ranger in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. Left alone in the vast desert with nothing but a few clothes and camping essentials, Abbey is able to zero in on his surroundings in ways that are poignant, hilarious, and heartbreaking.
WhileDesert Solitaire is a cult classic among naturalists and National Park lovers, it’s not a book that’s likely to fall into the average reader’s hands anymore. I’ll admit that I’m a hiking nerd and have personally been to Arches, so this speaks to me in a certain way. While I think everyone should visit as many National Parks as possible, I also think Desert Solitaire would resonate with just about anyone.
9. Simply put, Carson McCullers was a badass. By 23, she had published The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, a gorgeous novel which I also considered for this list. However, my favorite McCullers work (that I’ve read so far) is The Member of the Wedding, which is a shorter book about a young girl named Frankie, who has a lot of ennui for a 12-year old. From the GR blurb:
“Bolstered by lively conversations with her house servant, Berenice, and her six-year-old male cousin — not to mention her own unbridled imagination — Frankie takes on an overly active role in the wedding, hoping even to go, uninvited, on the honeymoon, so deep is her desire to be the member of something larger, more accepting than herself.”
10. I’M SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST, FOLKS! Originally published in 1999, Cruddy is a title that didn’t even come into my consciousness until last year. My fantastic brother-in-law got this for me for Christmas (Thanks, Micah) and I couldn’t put it down for the life of me.
Lynda Barry created what is probably my all-time favorite literary character in Roberta Rohbeson, a 17 year old who thinks life is just downright cruddy. Though her current escapades with unlikely friends are fantastic and dream-like, it’s the past timeline that will have you rolling on the floor laughing and not quite believing what you’ve just read. Accompanied by fantastic illustrations, Roberta details the time her dangerous dad swept her away on a crazy trip across America when she was younger. And when I say crazy, I mean it.
HONORABLE MENTION: The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman published this past April, and I just recently read it. The reason it’s not on this list is that I am going to publish a full review of it tomorrow, so be watching for that. It was fantastic!
If you participate in this Top Ten Tuesday, give me a link and don’t forget to mention The Artsy Reader Girl! Have you read any of the books on my list, and if so, do you agree or disagree with their rating? What are some books you think are underrated?
I’ve known my best friend for 24 years. I vividly remember the day we met, although we weren’t even 3 yet. Her family had just moved to my neighborhood, and her mother walked her to my house after seeing that there was a girl her daughter’s age just a few houses down. As our parents introduced themselves, this tiny child and I scoped each other out from opposite sides of the threshold.
Both of us were and still are only children, so we adopted each other as sisters. When we were younger, she’d claim authority by pointing out that she was two months older than me, and it didn’t help that the August-October difference meant she was in the grade above. We’ve butted heads on countless occasions, and one time, when we were 18, I pissed her off so bad that she didn’t talk to me for like six months. The big offense? She told me that I once left her house and walked home because I was too scared to watch Star Wars. I told her no, I just freakin’ hated Star Wars. She was livid.
But I love her with my entire heart. I’d go to the ends of the earth for her, and she’d do the same for me. Maybe. She’s a Leo, so it’s hard to tell. (No offense to Leos – I married one.) Sometimes it’s as if we were cut from the same cloth, but other times, we couldn’t be more opposite. One of the most interesting differences between us as we’ve grown up is how we view organization in respect to our mental health.
Yeah, it’s not as steamy a topic as most twenty-somethings are supposed to discuss, according to sitcoms. I’m not the neatest person, but when I see that I’ve let my space get messy, I know it’s for one (or both) of two reasons: a) I’ve been busy AF and have put it on the back-burner or b) I’m in a rough spot with my depression, even if I don’t actively feel more depressed.
She doesn’t have this reaction. I can’t tell her what to do or what her actions mean in regards to her depression, although I’ve suggested that it might be therapeutic for her to organize things more often. Note: this is not something I would say to just anyone; our relationship means we can be more frank with each other than most. Don’t go around telling people to clean their houses.
What interests me is the spectrum between keeping your space so immaculate that it becomes an obsession and letting things pile up so badly that you run out of dishes and forget where everything is. While my friend and I each fall comfortably in the mid-range of this spectrum, one of us associates organization with mental health while the other doesn’t.
I’m in advertising, so I do a lot of work on my cell and therefore have 735 sticky notes at a given time. These notes often get swept up into the ether and dragged off to some godforsaken corner of the house by my two mischievous cats. I’m also a voracious reader, frequent exerciser, and deft home cook (if I do say so myself). This means I leave behind trails of books, free weights, and dishes wherever I go. I despise doing laundry. I can’t explain why it’s my least favorite thing, but it’s my least favorite freakin’ thing.
So I’m far from perfect. I might get a bit disappointed in myself if I let things get out of control, but I don’t beat myself up over it. (After all, I have plenty of other things to beat myself up over. Lololol @ GAD.) I don’t take it too personally if my husband points out that I haven’t cleaned the cat box in a while, because he’s probably right. I just sigh, put on some music or a podcast, and get to business. My friend, on the other hand, takes it as a serious blow to her ego, and I understand. Like I said, I don’t run a very tight ship, and I haven’t even discussed my car yet. (It’s where all chap-sticks go to die.)
My point is that it can be a very sensitive subject. The general consensus is that one’s spaces are a reflection of one’s inner mechanics – a cluttered space is a cluttered mind, and all that – but it’s not always so simple. You can say it until you’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t really matter what you think would make someone happy. If they take your advice and it works, great. But unless you have an incredibly strong relationship with someone (or you’re their therapist), telling them they’d be happier if they cleaned more often can be pretty condescending. It’s akin to insulting their hygiene, so approach with caution.
The reason I struggle with this is because cleaning improves my mental state exponentially. When something helps you so much, it’s hard not to shout it from the rooftops and urge everyone to do the exact same thing. The problem is that we’re all different. Some people would insist I’d be happier if I spent 5 hours a night watching TV, if I dropped everything and spent all my savings on traveling, if I had lots of babies, or if I tried the new trend of kickboxing with a kombucha-drinking kangaroo. But I wouldn’t do those things, because they don’t make me happy.
So, where’s the line? Regardless of what “some studies show” according to Whatever Magazine, a messy house doesn’t necessarily indicate an unhappy person. While my instinct is to draw that conclusion, it’s a silly one. That’d be like assuming everyone who is fit loves their body, everyone who is religious is a zealot, and everyone who posts happy pictures of themselves with their S.O. is in a healthy relationship.
MHM #3 TAKEAWAY: My dudes. If you’re in a rut, look around. If there’s some stuff you’ve let pile up, is it possible that taking care of these things would improve your mood or overall productivity? If so, knock it out. If your friends and family seem to mean well, they probably do, but don’t let anyone make you feel unworthy because of your cleaning habits. If it’s bordering on filth, consider talking to a therapist, hiring a cleaner, or having a bunch of friends over to help you get stuff organized in exchange for food + booze.
Current Cleaning Jam: Vita and the Woolf’s album Tunnels
Favorite song: “Sun Drop”
Does a cluttered space equal a cluttered mind for you, or is it important to your self-care that you don’t stress the mess? How do you/would you handle this discussion with others?
“As good as life looks now to a young child, there is still a sense of always looking over your shoulder for something to hit you.”
Publishes September 15, 2018 by Mandel Vilar Press – 208 pages
I’ve consumed my fair share of WWII history. I’ll tumble down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia articles and try to ignite whatever fact nuggets are swirling around in my brain from high school. I’ve read the pivotal memoirs by Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. However, I haven’t picked up many of the popular works of Holocaust-related historical fiction, leaving a glaring hole in my consciousness where these stories and voices should be.
But thanks to the always-fabulous Traveling Sisters (hosted by Two Sisters Lost in a Coulee) and the publisher, who provided me with this ARC, I was able to meet Hanna Slivka and her family. My Real Name is Hanna by Tara Lynn Masih is historical fiction, but it’s strongly based on the Stermers, a Ukrainian Jewish family whose story of survival is nothing short of remarkable.
The book begins in 1941, when Hanna is just 13 years old. While Jews and Gentiles live in relative harmony in her family’s shtetele, or village, the German SS looms near. Stalin, though oppressive in his own ways, allows Jews to live here if for no other reason than to defy the Nazis. As the war draws nearer to their back door, the laws, as well as the rations, get tighter.
“We all stare down long and hard at the empty basket, as if we are in a dark fairy tale and something might magically appear.”
Inevitably, the Germans invade. What follows are descriptions of the horrors we all know occurred but are nevertheless gut-wrenching to read about: all Jews and those who help them are killed on sight. Women and children are not spared. Families are forced to flee into bunkers, forests, and caves. Even if the Nazis don’t kill them, nature and starvation probably will.
My Real Name is Hanna is structured as a story Hanna tells to her daughter, so we know she survives. Small reliefs such as this become critical to the narrative: a small bite of food, a ray of light, a meager doll to cherish. Hanna, her family, and a group of other Jews from her shtetele struggle to survive for several years, moving from one dangerous hideout to the next, growing weaker by the day.
“The harvest moon floats like an enormous drop of amber honey in the inky sky, and I wonder what it is thinking of those tiny little specs running and chasing each other around on the planet below. I suspect the moon, if it could, would step on us like we step on annoying anthills in the schoolyard…”
My only complaint about this novel is that it was a bit short. I wanted more context to the gap between when the war ended and when Hanna has her daughter. In the afterword, Masih mentions that this is mostly for a young adult audience, which I suppose explains its length. But Hanna is a hero, and I think anyone who reads this will fall so deeply in love with her that they’ll naturally want to know more.
I enjoyed this book for so many reasons, including the unflappable hope that the exiled group retains throughout their three death-defying years together. Summoning the stories of their ancestors and religious beliefs, they are able to push through month after month of darkness, starvation, and fear.
What this book lacks in length, it makes up for with colorfully layered and descriptive prose. While Masih doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the Holocaust, she does point out even the smallest bits of beauty, which is likely how those in hiding had to think.
“I visit the same places each day, and watch life change. New green on the ends of hemlocks that look like little gloved hands. Pinecones appearing like brown jewelry on branches. Hardwood leaves starting to lose their green, letting other colors trickle through their leaf veins till they are full of yellow, orange, red. Then they let go gradually, and fall to the forest floor. In my mind…I see images of men, women, and children falling into ravines.
In addition to the descriptions of nature, there’s also a major focus on food. For starters, the Jewish culture is rich with flavorful, hearty family meals. Secondly, Hanna and the families she hides with are unable to eat anything for long stretches of time, much less their traditional dishes. Three things in particular made my mouth water, especially after researching their preparation: cholent stew, challah bread, and plum compote. So I got to cookin’…
Cholent: A Learning Process
No, I’m not Jewish. I just wanted to attempt a few recipes that piqued my interest in the book, and I thought it’d be appropriate for the Rosh Hashanah holiday. Cholent is a stew that has subtle variations in each Jewish culture. I chose to make one containing beef, potatoes, mixed beans, broth, eggs, and seven spices. Since I also omitted the barley, I made a type of cholent called skhina, native to Spain and Morocco.
I’m not even going to begin to estimate the serving sizes or calories for any of the following recipes. It was my first time making them all, and needless to say, it wasn’t diet-friendly, and I made enough to feed a small army. These are experiments rather than tried and true recipes, but I’m sharing them because it was a total adventure. It’s the type of food that will leave your kitchen in shambles, but that’s okay. One of my favorite things about cooking is being destructive and productive at the same time!
2.5 lbs chuck roast, cut into chunks (don’t buy pre-cut beef or anything lean; it won’t stew well. You need something with fat in order to get fall-apart tender)
1.5 lbs red potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 whole white onions, chopped
32 oz low sodium chicken broth
1.5 cups mixed beans (I used chickpeas, red, pinto, and baby lima)
4 whole cloves garlic
1 tsp honey
1 tbsp Kosher salt
2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp cumin
I looked up like ten different recipes and adjusted flavors for my palate. I tried to decide whether to use the slow cooker function on my Instant Pot or throw everything in my cast iron pot and into the oven for a gazillion hours. I should have gone with the latter, but I went with the former.
After layering the ingredients (see above picture), I set the Instant Pot to Slow Cook on low heat for 16 hours. I slept for half of that, woke up ready to chow down, but was disappointed. The beans were uncooked, and the broth was still soup-y rather than stew-y. In order to fix everything, I stuck the meat and potatoes in the Dutch oven, then into a regular oven at 200º F. I left the broth, beans, and onions in the Instant Pot and set it to Pressure Cook on high for 30 minutes.
This fixed everything, though I wouldn’t do it the same way again. After the broth soaked into the beans, it became more of a stew-like texture, and when added to the meat and potatoes, it was exactly the cholent that I had been dreaming of creating. This is what I’ll do next time:
Preheat oven to 200º F.
Chop potatoes, onions, and beef. Layer in that order into 5-qt Dutch oven.
Whisk all spices into broth. Layer beans into Dutch oven. Pour broth/spice mixture on top. Make sure liquid completely covers all ingredients. If it doesn’t, add water until it does. Toss in garlic cloves.
Let that bad boy sit in the oven for like 12-16 hours.
I believe what went wrong was that the heat was too low on the Instant Pot, and it also doesn’t allow for as much evaporation, so there was excess liquid. Overall, I wouldn’t tweak the ingredients at all. The flavors that developed were absolutely stunning and unlike anything I’ve ever made. However, the eggs were entirely overcooked, so I would just hard-boil them the regular way and add at the end.
Challah Bread: A Loaf of Love
This was a bit less complex. While I overcooked it a bit, I did a decent job braiding, and it tasted delicious. I made this without any sort of mixer or bread-making device. This yields one long loaf.
5.5 grams yeast (3/4 package)
1/4 cup + 1/2 tbsp sugar, separated
3/4 + 1/8 cup water (7/8 cup, or 14 tbsp)
1/2 tbsp salt
4 cups flour + extra for surface
1/4 cup olive oil + extra for bowl
In large bowl, whisk yeast + 1/2 tbsp sugar into water. Let sit for 5 minutes until it foams.
Whisk oil into yeast. Beat two eggs into mixture one at a time. Separately, whisk third egg. Add half of this to dough mixture and set the other half aside for later.
Whisk in salt and remaining 1/4 cup sugar.
Add flour slowly. When dough comes together, knead on floured surface until smooth. Clean bowl and grease it. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise for about an hour, on the counter top, until about doubled in size.
Push dough down and let it rise again. You can either leave it in the fridge for several hours or the counter for another hour.
Separate dough into six sections, then make long strands out of these (TOP LEFT, ABOVE). Pinch top of strands together and tuck under. Follow this pattern until you reach the bottom of the loaf:
Move rightmost strand over 2 strands.
Move second strand from left to the far right.
Move leftmost strand over 2 strands.
Move second strand from right to the far left.
When you reach the bottom, pinch and tuck under as you did with the top. Let the loaf rise for about 30 more minutes. (TOP RIGHT, BOTTOM LEFT).
Preheat oven to 375º F. Brush top of loaf with remaining half egg. Cook for 25 minutes or until golden-brown. Cool on a rack.
Stone Fruit Compote: Sweet and Scrumptious
This was easy compared to the cholent and even the challah. I sort of winged it, and it turned out wonderfully. In My Real Name is Hanna, a plum compote is mentioned. I threw in a couple nectarines because they are also stone fruits, and the ones I had weren’t getting any less ripe.
2 cups of chopped plums (about 8 large plums)
2 cups of chopped nectarines (about 2 medium nectarines)
1 cup dry white wine (I used Chardonnay)
1/2 cinnamon stick
zest of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup sugar
Combine wine, sugar, cinnamon stick, and lemon zest in saucepan large enough to hold the fruit. Boil for about 5 minutes.
Add plums and nectarines. Bring back to boil then turn down the heat. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the fruit is soft and the liquid has started to form a syrup.
Chill slowly in the fridge or quickly in the freezer, depending on when you want to serve it.
Serve on top of yogurt with a slice of challah bread.
L’Chaim! Whether versions of this meal have been in your family for generations or you’re like me and just want to explore the flavors of other cultures, this is definitely a tradition born out of love.
I’d love to hear from people who regularly observe Jewish traditions. What are some other awesome meals you eat for Shabbos, Rosh Hoshanah, or other high holidays? Do you have any suggestions for how I could’ve made the cholent (or any of these) easier/better?