Brown Girl Dreaming

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Brown Girl Dreaming is an autobiographical book by Jacqueline Woodson written in verse. Woodson takes the reader into her past as she grows up between South Carolina and New York with her grandparents and mother. The book spans the 60’s and 70’s during the Civil Rights Era in America. Her dynamic writing style paints a picture of what it was like being an African American Jehovah’s Witness in the south and the north during this time period.

Woodson’s writing is exquisite. She is able to effectively convey what it was like to be a child during this turbulent time in America. As a child, she was of course aware of the larger issues of race and class during this time, but those concerns are nested between other things that dominate any child’s mind, like her experiences living with her grandparents, how she discovered her love of writing, and how she felt out of place when she was no longer the baby of the family, when she followed her overachieving big sister through school, and when her religion set her apart from her peers. Woodson’s writing puts the reader in her shoes by covering topics that are easy to relate to while also helping others understand the hardships and challenges she faced through her unique upbringing during this part of American history.

As I said, the book is written in verse, but it feels as engaging and as smooth as any novel I’ve ever read. Woodson is able to convey an astonishing amount of emotion and exposition in the shortest of lines. When I read I can “see” books play out like a movie in my head. I read this as an audiobook, which sometimes makes it difficult for me to picture scenes compared to physical books. However, I had no trouble with this audiobook. Woodson’s writing is just so clear and immersive.

The book hits hard with difficult topics like discrimination, grief, and the trials of growing up in general, let alone growing up as an African American girl during this time period, but the book also has a lot of heart, soul, and moments that made me smile. I would not let the fact that it is written in verse scare you away either. Woodson uses language that is easy to understand but is still beautiful. In fact, I often see this book shelved as middle grade or young adult. Based upon everything I have said and my reading experience, I could not help but give Brown Girl Dreaming five stars.

Solutions and Other Problems

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I’m not usually one to follow a book’s publication closely, but I read Allie Brosh’s blog Hyperbole and a Half during a rough time in my young life. Her blog made me feel understood, made me laugh, and contributed in a small way to me having my own blog later on. I still think of her post about the “Alot” whenever I see someone online misspell the word. I bought her first book right when it was released, and I eagerly awaited her second when I saw that it was coming. But, if you have also followed her, you probably know that the second book’s release date got pushed back again and again. Just when I thought that it might never be published, Solutions and Other Problems was finally released in September of 2020.

Both of Brosh’s books include comically illustrated stories about her personal life and struggles in a darkly humorous tone. Her first book was a little more lighthearted, but it still dealt with topics like anxiety and depression. Her second book is darker still, but it still made me laugh out loud a few times. In Solution and Other Problems she shares about her divorce, a medical scare, and the loss of her younger sister. It is easy to understand why her second book took so long to be published when she went through so much in the last few years. Her humor isn’t for everyone though, so I would encourage you to view her blog a little before reading either of her books.

Each chapter is about a different story in her life. Some are from her childhood, while others are from more recent years. No matter the topic, her artwork fits perfectly with the text. I think she has even improved in the way she tells her stories and illustrates them. Her art style may look simplistic, but the comedic timing and expressions on her characters’ faces always cracks me up. Even her more series stories’ illustrations excel at being emotive in just the right way. Though some of her drawings are more abstract and easily overlooked for their artistic value, some of the backgrounds and more realistic scenes show that she truly does have artistic talent.

As for the content of the stories, as I said several are on darker subjects. The ones about her sister were more heartfelt than funny, but the way she spoke about grief and regret was completely relatable. I found the story about her ex-husband fighting over a ski trip and a grocery store trip funny but also sad. It reminded me of the decline of my own past relationships, and I appreciated how she could find humor in such a sad moment. The melancholic feeling that that story gave me has stuck with me even weeks after reading it. Of course there are also some very funny stories, like how her family’s home had mysterious piles of poop appearing in it day after day and how she was overly curious about a neighbor as a child. Whatever the subject, Brosh is able to bring the reader into her memories through her conversational writing and bright illustrations.

If you liked her first book and her blog, you’ll like this one too. It definitely has a heavier tone, and at times I felt like she was trying too hard to make a sad moment funnier, but I really enjoyed both the funny and heartfelt stories. I am definitely a person who shares her sense of humor and her ability to find humor in the darkest moments of life. I appreciate how open and honest Brosh was with her feelings and her struggles. As always, she made me laugh, cry, and by the end I wanted to give her a big hug. This was a great book to start off 2021.

Educated

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I don’t read much nonfiction, let alone memoirs, but when a book keeps popping up on “best of” lists and it seems like everyone, including my own husband, is interested in one particular memoir, I can’t resist either. And to be fair, the premise sounds almost fictional anyway– a girl from Idaho with basically zero education and crazy doomsday-prepping, government-distrusting parents somehow pulls herself out of her father’s scrapyard and into places like Harvard and Oxford. And it’s a true story.

Tara Westover was born in Idaho to a father who deals in scrap metal and builds barns for a living and a mother who was a homemaker but later became a midwife and alternative healer. Tara recounts parts of her childhood as she works at her family’s businesses alongside her siblings. Tara watches her older siblings grow up and either leave the farm or stay in the tight-knit Mormon community. As Tara grows older, she sees more and more of the outside world. This new perspective affects her complacency at home. Despite having very little formal education, Tara scores high enough to go to BYU. Her hunger for knowledge only increases out in the real world, but she quickly feels out of place in “normal” society. Tara struggles with her identity and wrestles with the expectations her parents had for her, all while trying to become educated.

This can be a tough book to read if mental illness, physical/emotional abuse, manipulation by a loved one, parental expectations/guilt are things you also struggle with. I would say that I am past many of those hurdles because of therapy, but I acknowledge that I could not have read this book a few years earlier without it impacting my mental state in a negative way. So, I’d definitely consider this a trigger warning for all of the aforementioned things!

The book is very, very readable. So, even if nonfiction intimidates you a bit, I would still suggest reading this. At times it reads like a thriller and is hard to put down. While flipping the pages, I asked questions like, will Tara be OK? Will her family come around? Is that person going to hurt her? Tara Westover is a talented writer. She is very good at pulling the reader into her world and not letting them ago until she has finished her story. Whenever I read a memoir that recounts many past events, I definitely question how the author could remember so much in vivid detail to retell it on the page. I liked that Tara admitted when she couldn’t remember something or when her siblings remembered the same event differently. She also kept a journal for most of the events later in the novel. This helps her credibility, in my opinion, and I respect when a writer admits that they can’t remember something instead of making something up and embellishing it for effect.

I know a few people who have read this memoir and said that they simply didn’t believe it. Well, it sounds believable to me. I’m from the middle of nowhere in America too (though not to Tara’s extent), and I know people and families very much like Tara’s who are paranoid, prep for the end of days, or become a little too fixated on religious visions. It certainly happens, but that doesn’t mean everyone who cans their own food is struggling with reality, either. In fact, if you do not know much about extremes of rural America, read this book, but keep in mind the majority of us aren’t crazy.

The only thing about her book that I question is how she got adjusted to life outside her parents’ community and how exactly she got into all of these school and programs. She, of course, mentions a lot of it– scholarships, testing into schools, intense studying, awkward encounters with other students and teachers, etc.– but I still feel that she could have been a little more clear about those aspects of her life in order to fend off more “unbelievers” of her story. However, I am sure that I can find that detailed information elsewhere online, and I am also sure that reading in depth about college entrance practices and the paperwork that goes along with it isn’t very compelling.

With all that being said, this is a book that is well worth just about anyone’s time. You’ll learn more about rural America and some of the strangeness that can come along with being so isolated from society for one thing. But beyond all that, Tara shares a lot of the lessons she has learned, and they can be quite valuable. As I said, she struggles with being who she wants to be and who her parents thinks she should be. She also struggles with leaving home and cutting out toxic people. Her struggles are very relatable at their core, even if her circumstances are very different from yours or mine. I gave Educated four out of five stars.