The Midnight Library: A reminder that there’s light at the end of the tunnel

So I know it’s pretty early, but I’m thinking I’ve found my favorite book of this year. Last year I thought V.E. Schwab reached into my heart and mind and wrote my feelings for everyone to see in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Well, now I’m feeling like Matt Haig has done the same thing with The Midnight Library. And it’s a little overwhelming.

Nora Seed is a 30-something gal living in Bedford, full of regrets about all the things she could have been if she’d just pursued another life. A champion swimmer, lead singer in a band, passionate about nature and glaciers, Nora has ended up working in a music store, teaching piano to a neighborhood kid, and struggling to keep her depression under control. As everything seems to be falling apart, Nora decides to end her life. But somewhere between life and death is the Midnight Library, where Nora finds the chance to try on all the lives she could have had if she’d made just one different choice. And if she finds the life she was meant to live, the library and her past life will fade into memory. But what Nora discovers ends up being so much more than simply the life she was meant to live.

Haig tackles a subject that I think is still somewhat off-limits in our culture. Generations past are very familiar with mid-life crises, but it seems like those crises of purpose and existentialism are coming earlier and earlier, hitting my generation around the quarter-life point. Nora encounters a book of regrets in the library, a place to start when thinking about what different life she wants to live. As she experiments and discovers different isn’t the same as better.

Though the topic of the book is a little heavy, dealing with depression, suicide, and self-harm, Haig manages to make it somehow upbeat, a story of hope and potential. Woven into the fabric of the fiction is real-life lessons of letting go of what could have been and pursuing what is now. Haig also highlights the ways one small action or word can be of immense importance to someone else. Life isn’t all about doing grand things, sometimes life is grand because of the collection of little things.

The Iliad: Lots of stabbing, not much else

Reading through classic literature is really hit or miss. Many books that get the title of “classic” are interesting, revolutionary for their time, or simply capture the attention of the masses. But some stories lose their power over time and others definitely lose things in translation. For Homer’s The Iliad, I think it loses a lot when the words are inked onto a page.

The Iliad is the story of the siege of Troy. For nearly a decade the Argive army has wreaked havoc around Troy in retaliation for a Trojan prince spiriting away the beautiful Helen. Apparently they aren’t very good at waging war, if it’s taken 10 years to get around to confronting the walls of Troy, or maybe they got distracted by all the shiny treasure. Either way, as they are ready to attack, the king of the Argives insults his best warrior, Achilles, who refuses the enter into the fighting. As the gods of Olympus pour all their efforts into supporting Troy, only Achilles can turn the tide of the battle.

While I’m familiar with the story surrounding the stealing of Helen, the siege of Troy, Achilles and his grudges, I’d never actually read The Iliad. And something that I read recently prompted me to dig it out of the book boxes (and truthfully, I can’t remember what book made me think it was a good idea). And while reading it brought out some details that are missed or glossed over in movie renditions, it also cast me back to last year, slogging my way through Le Morte d’Arthur. If we cut out all the monotonous passages of who stabbed whom, we’d easily lose two-thirds of the book. And it would be better for it.

I suspect that, in its entirety, The Iliad is at its best when done as a dramatic reading, as Homer would have told it. And for those who would have probably still been able to trace lineage to the warriors involved, all the listing of stabbing would be much more interesting.

The other consideration is the translation. Reading it in a language not the original means there will literally be things lost in translation. Not to mention all the changes between the telling and the writing.

All in all, it’s not a book I’ll be revisiting time and again. While the story has its place in history and academia, once was enough for me. Plus, I thought it would encompass the Trojan horse and Achilles’s death. So, imagine my surprise when it ended with Hector’s funeral games. Apparently The Odyssey is the epic that had all the good action.

The Vanishing Half: A tale of one family split in two

Sometimes friends and book clubs lead you to books you’d never have picked up otherwise. I’m pretty sure Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is one of those books for me, not because it’s not my style or not what I enjoy, but simply because it wasn’t really on my radar before.

The Vanishing Half is the story of twin sisters and their daughters, spanning several decades as they build lives for themselves and wrestle with the consequences. Desiree and Stella come from a small town in Louisiana in the 1960s and even though everyone is black, the whole town is committed to being as light-skinned as possible. The twins run away to New Orleans when they are 16 and eventually are separated when Stella disappears.

Desiree returns to their small town when she takes her dark-skinned daughter and runs from her abusive husband. Throughout the years, she’s never forgotten Stella but all hope seems lost until Desiree’s daughter, Jude, moves to California to go to school. Jude is catering at a fancy white party when she catches a glimpse of a woman who looks exactly like her mother, only white. Knowing the mystery that has always been Stella, Jude can’t let it pass without uncovering the truth of who the woman is.

Bennett packs a lot into this book. Racial tension and violence, wrestling with self-image and the sacrifices made to build a life, the transgender experience of the late 1970s. And despite each character being put through the wringer, they are all confident and stand behind who they are and what they’ve chosen. Though victimized, they are not the victims of the story, which I really appreciated.

Bennett provides glimpses into the minds and experiences of people that I will never be, but she does so in a way that helps me start to understand what it could be like without judgment. Though Stella’s passing isn’t condoned, it’s also not thoroughly condemned by the author and characters, either. Stella remakes herself into someone completely different and the trouble arises primarily because of all the lies she’s told and maintained in an effort to erase her past completely. Desiree was always the adventurous twin, but she’s the one who ended up fleeing her husband and returning to the small town she always hated. But she’s not shamed for returning without conquering the world (though the darkness of her daughter’s skin is a completely different story with the townsfolk).

I liked how Bennett stretched the story across two generations, showing how the choices of one affects the lives of the next. While not always successful, I think they storytelling technique worked really well for this story and for Bennett’s characters. Each character had their own story and all the threads were woven together to show a picture of the family.

Be advised, though, this story isn’t a neat and tidy, happily-ever-after ending. I suspect that many readers would find the ending quite challenging, but I find the openness very realistic. Often when people have made so many choices, they aren’t going to give up the life to try to reclaim what they’ve already given up. It’s up to each person to choose to move forward with the life they’ve been given, regardless of how even family chooses to go.

Bridge of Souls: A fun way to get that paranormal fantasy fix

The third installment of V.E. Schwab’s Cassidy Blake series was recently released, and I wasted no time requesting a copy from my local library. Despite being children’s fiction, I have loved the series. Children’s books can be a great change of pace in reading, plus a lot of them are tremendously well written.

Bridge of Souls finds Cass and her family in New Orleans, once again filming for her parents’ paranormal show. When they left Paris, Cass saw a frightening figure and she hoped she left it behind. But they haven’t been in New Orleans long when she realizes that whatever it is, it’s still following her. Teaming up with steadfast Jacob and knowledgeable Lara, Cass finds out what it is that’s following her and comes up with a risky plan to defeat it. But the price of her safety could be losing one of her friends, and that thought is more than she can bear.

I read this book in one day. In Schwab’s style, she grabs the reader and launches us in headfirst. The action starts on page one and continues along at a fast pace until the very end. Each of Schwab’s three main characters are different in personality, and she does an excellent job of writing each one as an individual.

This is exactly the kind of book I would have recommended to kids looking for scary books. Sometimes creepy and dark, it’s probably something that would have freaked me out as a kid. But as an adult, I love it. It’s just the right amount of paranormal mixed in with plenty of fantasy. And the varied locations stir up an appreciation for history, as well as the desire to get out and see it for myself.

While the series as a whole might deter some readers (or parents) who don’t want to fill their kids’ heads with thoughts of ghosts and emissaries of death, I think Schwab did a great job of taking paranormal subject matter and toning it down for kids, creating an exciting series that’s sure to entertain them. She doesn’t touch much on rituals and she avoids the demonic side of the occult. The series is just fun, the experiences of a young girl who almost died and now can step into the in-between and see the ghosts that are lingering.

I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Breaking the cycles of shame and living in compassion

So far I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Brene Brown. Her research on and insights into shame and vulnerability are incredibly real and practical, helping readers to understand themselves and others better.

I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) recounts some of Brown’s research and interviews with women about their shame stories and how to build shame resilience. Shame is a human experience, brought on by feeling like we are not enough because we aren’t what others expect or want us to be. As individuals come to understand what specific scenarios (or even people) trigger shame responses, they can begin to build networks of supporters who can speak truth and help them break out of the cycle of shame that sucks them in.

Triggers are different for everyone, and supporters for one shame trigger may actually be the cause of other shame triggers. It doesn’t mean we cut them out entirely, but it means we have to be wise in choosing who to share pieces of our hearts with.

While much of Brown’s message is stuff that we know intuitively, having it laid out and backed up with interviews from real women helps drive the point home and helps readers start to apply it to their own lives. As I read, I couldn’t not be thinking on my own shame triggers and what I do to combat the feeling.

But the book doesn’t just give me insight into my own processes, it also challenges me to think about how I respond when someone trusts me enough to share their heart. Responding with the same kind of compassion and understanding that I would long for is key to being a good support for those that I care about.

I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) is a thought-provoking and enlightening book. As with all that I’ve read and heard from Brown, it’s left me really considering things and with practical ways to move forward to a better place. It’s not easy work, but Brown shows us real-life examples, including sharing some of her own stories, to remind readers that it is possible to overcome the debilitating feelings of shame and live a life that is full.

Tunnel of Bones: A playful paranormal story set in Paris

V.E. Schwab’s second book in the Cassidy Blake series explores a new city and a new supernatural challenge.

Still traveling with her parents as they film their TV show, Cassidy finds herself in Paris. And while the veil presses and pulls at her, so far she’s able to maintain control. But it doesn’t take long for Cass to start feeling chills and experiencing inexplicable accidents. Drawing on Lara’s knowledge–and ghostly mentor–Cass finds out she’s somehow woken a poltergeist. And if she isn’t able to help him remember who he was and send him on, he will progress from mischief to menace to mayhem, and all of Paris could pay the price.

In her classic style, Schwab writers her villains in a way that forces readers to relate and sympathize with them, at least a little. Though Cass has to engage in the fight to protect herself, it becomes compassion that motivates her to put the past to rest. Writing in first person allows Schwab to get inside Cass’s mind and let readers really get to know the character, which I like.

Since it’s written for kids, this series is a little more creepy than scary, which means it perfect for readers like me who aren’t really into full horror but still like to feel chilled every now and then. Overall, it’s a fun series for all ages.

Becoming Dr. Seuss: An exploration of the good and the bad from our favorite children’s author

If you’ve been on the Internet in recent months, you’ll be aware that people have been up in arms over the Seuss estate allowing a few older titles to go out of print. My growing irritation with people completely (and willfully, in some cases) misunderstanding what’s gone on led me to finally picking up a Dr. Seuss biography. Becoming Dr. Seuss Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination by Brian Jay Jones, one of the more recent Seuss biographies, seemed to be the logical choice, as it had the potential to touch on the topic of caricatures that has landed Seuss in hot water, now and in the past.

Geisel never set out to be a children’s book author and actually got his start in college humor magazines and advertising campaigns. He learned most of his storytelling skills from his work in the U.S. Army, working on propaganda during World War II. When he did decide to write for kids, he got off to a slow start, until The Cat in the Hat launched him into the spotlight, revolutionizing children’s primers. Seuss ultimately became the leader of several imprints within Random House Publishing, focused on writing books that teach kids both to love reading as well as how to do it.

And while many of us would love to make a hero out of this favorite author, the reality is that Geisel had several black marks against him. Throughout his years cartooning he never balked at using misogyny as the punchline of his jokes and during World War II actually used his cartoons to support and promote Japanese-American internment. Added to this was his embracing of the era’s common practice of racist caricaturing within cartoons and drawings. But, as he aged, Geisel himself came to acknowledge that, while acceptable for the time, not everything he’d drawn was tasteful and appropriate. And though he perhaps wasn’t as public about it as we’d expect of someone today, I believe his work shows the growth and change of mindset Geisel experienced.

Jones draws from a vast array of research and content to paint a comprehensive picture of Geisel’s life, and he doesn’t try to cover up some of Geisel’s shortcomings. It’s an engaging book that goes beyond just Dr. Seuss–or rather, explores various experiences that made him who he was. Touching on cartoon crusades, propaganda creation, author-publisher relationships, the revolution of children’s primers and the birth of several well-known imprints, readers get knowledge on a lot more than just the man who illustrated many of our childhoods.

I did feel like the book was lacking in visuals, though. A 400+ page book and it only contained eight pages of photos and illustrations. Whether it was too much of an expense to get the rights or they didn’t want to trim the book to make room for more, I felt like this was a lost opportunity, especially when considering many people are unaware of Geisel’s art outside of Seuss books.

While this already-published book can’t touch on the foolish drama of 2021, it’s interesting to see that Jones does touch on the topics in general–in fact, this isn’t the first time some of these titles have been in the hot seat because of problematic illustrations and words.

Knowing this, and knowing that some of the books have already been changed to be more politically correct, it definitely highlights the idea that these books, while containing problematic content, have been retired more because of lack of sales. If the books were still selling well, they’d most likely take them back to the drawing board, as they have done before.

I’ve kept my silence on this topic because I’m inclined to believe that most people aren’t actually interested in learning and dialoguing but just want something to be up in arms about (and I’m jealous of that energy. I’d like to channel some of it just to help me get through my daily to-do list.). But I’ll throw a couple thoughts out here.

First, these titles have not been censored or banned. They’ve been allowed to go out of print. And, surprise, this happens to books all the time. Ever try to go to a bookstore and buy the random books you read as a kid (not the classics everyone read, the random ones no one else was reading)? The reason you can’t find them is because they went out of print. The demand to publish wasn’t there. That’s all that’s happened here, except the Seuss estate used it as an opportunity to stand against caricatures and problematic content in the books (and if you don’t know, I worked for 5+ years in book sales, so I can attest to the fact that these retired titles were no where near bestsellers, they didn’t even compete with other Seuss titles).

Second, I’ve heard a lot of arguments about preserving history and keeping examples so that people know what’s not appropriate to do (and not just about Seuss). And I think it’s a really weak argument, especially for this situation. Seuss engaged in the kinds of jokes and drawings he did because they were the fare of the era. By keeping them around and sharing them with kids, it indicates there’s something of value to them. And while we can debate whether there is academic value in preserving them in a historical way to see how we’ve improved (and I believe there’s a compelling case there), we don’t need any more reasons for kids to draw lines of division among themselves. There will be plenty of hurtful childhood antics without contributing to it by continuing to provide them with stories that make differences seem funny, abnormal, or bad.

In the end, when someone tells us something is problematic or hurtful, we don’t get to tell them they are wrong. The response we should have is one of dialogue, hearing their concern and doing better. Too often the people fighting against the action are the ones who haven’t been hurt by it or anything similar. And just because we can’t understand the experience doesn’t mean we can write it off. Why wouldn’t we improve when given a concrete place to start?

Mexican Gothic: My introduction to the next layer of Gothic novels

The first thing that should be abundantly clear is that Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is not your classic Bronte or Du Maurier gothic novel. As far as I’ve read, this book is in a class all its own. That said, despite the bizarre nature of some of the plot, the mystery and intrigue were great.

Mexican Gothic is set in 1950s Mexico, where Noemi Taboada is sent to investigate a strange and frantic letter sent by her newly married cousin, Catalina. When Noemi arrives at High Place, its isolated and gloomy atmosphere hints at strange and dark secrets. Before long, Noemi finds herself affected by the house and its inhabitants and only one thought is keeping her going–escaping with Catalina.

Escape seems to be impossible and Noemi is stuck wrestling against the darker parts of her nature that beg to flourish at High Place. As she starts to unravel the threads of the history, the truth is something she never could have imagined.

This book was a little slow to start, and I had trouble really sinking into the story because it didn’t feel like it was set in the 1950s. Too often I felt myself jarred out of the story wondering if such a thing would happen or if they spoke that way in the ’50s. It wasn’t until pieces of the family history started to be revealed and connected (about halfway through the book) that I was able to set everything else aside and really focus on the storyline. Additionally, I didn’t feel like there was anything particularly “Mexican” about this gothic novel. Aside from being set in Mexico and some people having Mexican names, it could have taken place anywhere.

I’m pretty convinced nothing could have prepared me for the direction this story went. At first, I was unsure of how Moreno-Garcia was going to tie together all the various threads and motifs she had going. But she managed it nicely, albeit very unexpectedly. It veers almost into fantasy more than fiction, hence why it stands out as very different than other gothic novels that I’ve read.

Overall, I’ve got mixed feelings about the book. I’m glad I borrowed it instead of buying it, but it’ll make for great book club discussion.

A few content/trigger warnings may be helpful to some readers, though: the book includes some mildly descriptive gore and sicknesses, attempted rape, and a reference to cannibalism.

Vengeful

The second book in V.E. Schwab’s Villains series, Vengeful is an engaging read that weaves several threads together, providing the right amount of intrigue and suspense while dropping clues and answers along the way.

Vengeful finds Victor, Sydney, and Mitch on the run after the confrontation with Eli. A new ExtraOrdinary Observation and Neutralization force has been established, and even as Victor works to keep one step ahead of them, he runs toward other EOs, hoping to find the solution to the sickness wracking his body. Meanwhile, a new EO is rising in Merit, and she has no intention of hiding her power. Marcella Riggins has no qualms about creating chaos and taking what she wants. And she is the magnet drawing Eli and Victor to their final showdown.

In similar style to Vicious, Schwab jumps from scene to scene, in and out of her characters’ timelines to gather the necessary information for readers to follow the story. While this isn’t always my favorite style of writing, Schwab makes it work really well, not over complicating the signals of time and character jumps. She also makes sure to tie the jumps in to the surrounding chapters, letting readers know intuitively how it fits together.

Once again, Schwab makes her characters make impossible moral and ethical decisions, some motivated by survival, some by power and desire. This makes her characters real and layered, allowing readers to see bits of themselves even in the characters they are rooting against.

Schwab wraps it all up at the end with hints at another book, leaving some threads of the story loose. So, naturally, I’m desperate for another installment in this series. But that’s going to have to wait, as I’m not even sure she’s got it in the works right now. I’m willing to be patient, though. Good authors need time to produce satisfaction.

Beyond

If you know me or have followed my blog for a while, you know that I am a big space enthusiast and I love reading the latest biographies and histories surrounding it. So when I saw that I could get an early copy of Stephen Walker’s Beyond: The Astonishing Journey of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space (what a title) I naturally snagged it pretty quickly.

I’ve read a lot about the early years of the U.S. space program, from NACA to NASA, but never much about the USSR program, except for bits and pieces. So to have a whole book mainly dedicated to looking at the Russian side was thoroughly interesting.

Russia only publicized their “space spectaculars” after missions had been successful, which covered their program in a shroud of secrecy during the 1960s, and even beyond. But though no one knew what they were doing, they were as active as the U.S. in training their cosmonauts and preparing the way for manned space flight. Yuri Gagarin, who would eventually be the first man in space, was one of six top cosmonaut hopefuls (eventually whittled down to three in the running for the first flight) who went through a training regimen equally as brutal as the one the U.S. put its astronauts through.

Walker’s book touches on some biography details of Gagarin’s life, but mainly focuses on the progress of the Russian program, similar to other books that chronicle the U.S. program. Where possible, Walker spoke with eye witnesses and descendants of key figures. Other information, finally declassified by the Russian government, was drawn from documents and archives.

Though I would have expected more biography on Gagarin, given the subtitle of the book, I was still very interested to read about the development of the Russian program and learn the names behind some of the men who made it happen.

And even though I knew what would happen (it’s history, after all), Walker did an excellent job putting the reader in the thick of the suspense of Gagarin’s first flight, creating a page-turner as readers breathlessly wait to see if Gagarin’s flight went as smoothly as we were always led to believe.

For history buffs and space enthusiasts, Beyond is a different take on the space race and one that is very worth the time to read.