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.

 

Intelligence in Nature

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After reading The Genius of Birds and loving it, I was on the hunt for another nonfiction book on animal intelligence, preferably something with a wider of array of animals to discuss. Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature sounded like it was exactly what I was looking for. Spoiler: it was not, but that doesn’t mean it was bad.

Intelligence in Nature is a bit of a travelogue with some research findings mixed in. There is a definite anthropological spin to the book, as Narby meets with and interviews several natives of the regions he travels to. He interviews healers, guides, and several shamans. He asks them about their views on intelligence in nature, and he collects a variety of beliefs and responses. Narby also includes recent research regarding intelligence in animals, plants, and microbes as well as meetings with experts in scientific fields. Narby presents a variety of views of intelligence in nature, but as a whole the book feels a little disjointed and slightly off topic.

While it was interesting to hear what the shamans and healers had to say about their world, I was hoping to read about more scientific, concrete discoveries. I liked when Narby introduced the shamans to some ideas of modern science, but ultimately, the content of the book did not quite match the title or synopsis, in my view. I was looking for some in depth explanation and analysis of intelligence in other organisms, but Narby glossed over some of the details in favor of an anthropological approach to the subject.

Intelligence in Nature was a slight disappointment because its content didn’t quite meet my expectations, but it was still an interesting and informative read. It would have benefited from a little more organization of the ideas presented in the text, but the journeys Narby took and the people he met along the way bring a unique perspective to the topic of intelligence in the natural world. I rated the book 2-2.5 out of 5 stars.

 

The Hidden Life of Trees

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A new post?! Yes! I am not dead, but I am still not really reading. As much as I love physical books, I cannot seem to find the time or energy to use my eyes to read anything except the infinitely depressing news in the U.S. right now. On the bright side, spring has sprung where I am, so I have been trying to go for walks/runs more often. In the spirit of spring and because I cannot seem to read a physical book, I have been listening to an audio book about trees on my walks. And it’s great! Now, hold on there, you might say. Trees? What is so interesting about trees? What hidden life could they possibly have? Well, my friend, let me tell you about a few tree-rific facts I have learned. Maybe I can get you as excited about trees as I am.

Author Peter Wohlleben is a forester with extensive experience with both commercial forestry and conservation. In this book Wohlleben details the life cycle of trees, their role in keeping forests (and the planet) healthy, how trees “care” for their young, and how trees communicate with each other. Yes, I said communicate. No, they do not speak as we do, of course, but they are actually able to communicate in a few different ways. Wohlleben describes how trees have a sense of smell, feeling, and taste. Again, it isn’t the same sort of senses that we have, but they are able to detect and react to scents, injuries, and, for example, pests’ saliva. It was also interesting to learn that the quiet forest you are walking around in is teeming with action below the surface. Trees are able to communicate via the “Wood Wide Web,” a network of connections between plant roots and fungi that can transfer warnings as well as nutrients to other connected members.

As I mentioned, I read this via an audio book. The narrator, Mike Grady, has a British accent that reminded me of the narration on something like a wildlife documentary: soothing, authoritative, and clear. The language of the book is not difficult. Most terms are defined, and easy to understand examples are given to explain more complex topics. So, do not be discouraged if you know nothing about trees!

I am completely biased, but I think the best way to enjoy this book is by being outside, taking a walk, or at least sitting by a sunny, tree-filled window. I loved being able to listen to the book while looking around at the trees outside. I consider myself an environmentally friendly person already, but I gained even more respect for trees, fungi, forests as a whole, and how they are all integral for a healthy and happy planet. I rated The Hidden Life of Trees four out of five stars.

Heart of Dankness

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Whether you like it or not, marijuana is becoming more and more mainstream for both medical and recreational use. According to many polls being thrown around in the news, most Americans have either smoked weed, support legalization, or both, so the odds are that a few of you reading this have smoked it and/or are cool with it. So, let’s be cool with it. Heart of Dankness provides an inside look at the current culture of cannabis.

Heart of Dankness follows author Mark Haskell Smith’s quest to define the term “dank.” You’ve probably heard of the word dank in some context, but it can have several meanings in the world of weed. Some think of “dank” as an essential part of quality cannabis, while others see dankness as a way of life or a simple descriptor. The author begins and ends his book at the Cannabis Cup, an annual marijuana contest held in Amsterdam. In between his experiences at the Cup, he interviews many different people who work in the cannabis industry from seed companies and underground growers to medical professionals and legalization activists. The book is informative and fun. It is partially about a stoner on the hunt for the best stuff to smoke, but there is more to it than just that. The culture around this plant is so varied. The book gives a glimpse into the serious and scientific part of the industry, and the people involved aren’t always the stereotypical stoner.

When reviewing nonfiction, I think it is important to mention what kind of knowledge level you need of the subject matter to understand and enjoy the book. So, how much weed knowledge do you need to enjoy this? Not a whole lot. I am no expert, but I know some very basic things and terms like indica, sativa, THC, CBD. The author is pretty good about quickly defining terms, but it isn’t difficult to look something up if you want more information. The book gets into some technical terminology for genetics and botany, but it is explained well for a general audience.

Not only does the title make give me the literary giggles but this is actually a very funny book. The author is such a conversational writer, and the way he portrays himself is perfect. As I read, I pictured the author as a slightly awkward guy who is genuinely eager to learn all about this plant. He unapologetically asks the dumb questions for us and gets good answers from his interviewees. I don’t know how he was able to get close to all of these Cannabis Cup winners, underground legends, or professionals in the industry, but he makes good use of his experiences and describes them well. I was particularly impressed by how he described the eccentric characters he met during his journey. It was very easy to get a clear picture of the people he met. Smith also has some very poetic lines when he describes some of his experiences with the plant. The dude can write!

I had a lot of fun with this one. It’s a fairly short read (~230 pages) that is packed with facts and humorous moments. If you’re interested in either the recreational or medical side, or both, you’ll probably learn a lot and enjoy this book. Even if you’re an expert on the plant, the author’s unique experiences were worth reading about. I gave Heart of Dankness four out of five stars.

From Here to Eternity

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Last year I reviewed Caitlin Doughty’s previous book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which was her memoir that discussed her experience in the death industry. From Here to Eternity is Doughty’s travel account of death rituals from around the world. She visits places in the U.S. where they have open air cremation, Japan where they combine technology and old practices, Indonesia where in some places they keep their dead at home for months to years, and Bolivia where an old skull can give you financial advice. These places (and more!) offer a different kind of send off for the body and the spirit of the deceased. Doughty interviews both those in the death industry and normal mourners to give an expansive look at death practices in different cultures.

Doughty gets a lot of flack from traditional funeral homes in the U.S. She has become a green burial boogeyman to them because she advocates for more eco-friendly and cheaper options for mourners instead of the pricey and unnecessary casket and embalming process that many funeral homes push hard. Some may call her a kind of “death hippie” because of these ideas, but I at least think that she makes a lot of good points. As I said in my review of her other book, I don’t think she comes off too preachy about her ideas because she is only advocating for more options, not saying we should all do things her way.

She also encourages Americans to take a look at how we avoid death in our culture. Many of the cultures she discusses in her book get up close and personal with death. They confront it by taking care of the deceased’s body, incorporating death into festivals and art, and making death a less somber and strained affair. I think the following quote sums up the book nicely:

“Many of the rituals in this book will be very different from your own, but I hope you will see the beauty in that difference. You may be someone who experiences real fear and anxiety around death, but you are here.”

Here you are. As I’ve mentioned before, I had actual panic attack when thinking in depth about death. Doughty’s wit, humor, and factual information has comforted my own death anxiety because I was finally able to confront my fear and mostly conquer it. From Here to Eternity does not have to be about death advocacy or avoidance; you can simply enjoy learning about the death rituals in other cultures, which is extremely interesting itself. But it would be a disservice to Doughty not to mention the underlying ideals she works so hard to bring to the forefront of American culture.

The Genius of Birds

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I find the study of psychology extremely interesting, especially animal psychology. In fact, it was my first major in college, and sometimes I imagine what it would have been like if I never made my switch to English. Since psychology and nature are two of my favorite non-fiction subjects, The Genius of Birds was a great fit. I would not say that I have ever been specifically interested in birds themselves, but the book bragged that some birds’ intelligence is on par or even surpasses other animals’– even primates– critical thinking skills. Thoroughly intrigued, I dove in head first.

Jennifer Ackerman definitely did her research. The book is packed with facts and interesting research results. Not everything is conclusive, but the information is presented in a way that makes you think without making too many bold claims. Since a lot of the research is recent, the book feels very up-to-date, but the author also compares what we thought we knew about birds to what we think we know now. Ackerman discusses various aspects of birds’ minds, including their critical thinking skills, their socialization practices, the importance of birdsong, how birds navigate their world, and how climate and human populations impact birds’ cognitive abilities. The information is fascinating and easy to read. As I said, I went in knowing only some bird basics. I knew that crows and parrots were considered intelligent, and I could name the commons birds native to my area. Beyond that, I was a blank slate in bird knowledge. The writing is almost conversational, with a welcoming and relaxed tone. Unlike some books of this nature, the author does not insert herself into the writing very often. She states the facts between some orienting information about her own experiences, but the actual facts fill the pages.

As a teaser, a few of the most interesting things I learned were that some birds make and use tools. Some keep their homemade tools and even modify them as time goes on. The book also makes a comparison between bird song and human language because birds learn their songs in a similar way to how humans learn languages. Some birds even pass down and modify their songs over generations. I found the book difficult to put down. Nonfiction usually takes me longer to read, but I flew (pun slightly intended) through this. Five out of five stars in my opinion, and I believe that this is the first time a nonfiction title has gotten this high of a rating from me!

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

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In addition to reading, I also enjoy creative writing. I’m nowhere near being able to publish anything I have written, but my favorite genre to write in would definitely be fantasy (surprised?). I have to admit that I am often skeptical of any sort of writing guide because many that I have read tend to not be very useful in practice or just plain dull. This book was written by Jeff VanderMeer, who is a pretty well-known author, so that made me pick it up and give it a shot. With any sort of book like this, I believe that it is important to review it with a range of experience levels in mind. So, without further ado, is this how-to-write-fantasy book any good?

To begin with, I would consider my own experience with creative writing to be moderate. I took a few creative writing courses during my undergraduate and graduate degrees, but creative writing was not my degree focus. I know some of the basic writing concepts, vocabulary, and have done a good bit of my own writing. If you have a similar amount of experience to me, or less than me, Wonderbook will definitely be useful to you.

Wonderbook introduces many basic writing concepts, so if you have very little writing experience, do not worry! In fact, if you know next to nothing about writing, I would still highly recommend this book. The chapter topics ease writers of any experience level into the writing process. The book begins with a chapter on inspiration and creative life, then there are chapters on stories as a whole, beginnings and endings, narrative design, characterization, worldbuilding, and revision. Throughout the book there are features with popular fantasy/sci-fi authors like Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Nnedi Okorafor to name a few. Scattered around the chapters are writing challenges, author essays, and inspiring artwork and illustrations. The back of the book includes some extra writing exercises as well as more interviews from authors. Jeff VanderMeer writes in a very personable and conversational way. He is much better at explaining concepts and being encouraging than many writing teachers I have had! There is also a website that accompanies the book. If you want to know more about the book, or get a feel for what is inside it, check out the website first.

I really enjoyed reading Wonderbook. Since I have some writing experience and am very familiar with the fantasy/sci-fi genre, I was not too surprised by anything in the book. However, I still think it is valuable to read because of the collection of interviews and essays by other authors. Hearing other great writers talk about their writing processes, sharing some of the things they’ve learned in their careers, and getting a “behind the scenes” look at some of my favorite books was enlightening as both a reader and writer. I loved that the focus of the book was fantasy/sci-fi writing. There was actually a lot of good information that was specific to writing in this genre. It is also helpful to have a bunch of writing tips all in one place that can be referred back to as needed. If nothing else, the book itself is gorgeously illustrated with a ton of fun and informative content. A book like this is hard to give a rating to, but because I learned a few things and had fun doing it, 5 out of 5 starts to Wonderbook!