9

Lake Reads: Summer 2017

It is the point in this dumpster fire of a year, personally and globally, when I take a time out and go to my in-laws for some outdoor reading, wine drinking, ice cream tripping and lake dipping.

And as ever, in the service of creating more bookish lists, here’s what’s coming with me.

lake reads

I have been thinking about what’s coming with me for WEEKS. It is has been a hellfire of a couple of weeks, and focusing on what books I could bring is an exercise in joy.

I’m looking at two long car rides and FIVE days of glorious freedom spent with my (sunscreened) nose in a book.

Not too long ago, I went on a bookstore binge. Somehow I have managed to keep Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me, Taylor Jenkin Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network for lake reading. I can just feel that these books will be HEAVEN.

I also managed to keep my impatient hands off of Roxane Gay’s Hunger. Roxane is coming with me to the lake!

Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time. So I had written down this book’s July release date, ready to march to the bookstore and pick up a copy on the day. Turns out, that was the U.K release date and I’d have to wait until FEBRUARY to get mine. NOPE. I ordered it from book depository.com – it arrived last week and I’ve been counting the days until I can read it outside in the garden. This one is the story of a man who ages more slowly than the rest of us – as in, he was born in the 1500s and is still kicking. The one rule: don’t fall in love. You know I loved The Humans, and The Radleys and I’ve only heard the most wonderful things about How to Stop Time.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante. Well, guys. This will be it. The fourth and final book in the Neapolitan Novels series.  I’ve been undecided if I want to read this ASAP or wait to find out what happens to Lila and Elena. The draw of reading the finale in the sunshine proved to be too much. Plus, it was at the library when I went – a sign. I’m going to have to go back and buy all these books at some point. The thought of not owning these is kind of a heartbreaker.

Sleep Baby Sleep by David Hewson. Would a trip to the lake be complete without some kind of crime fiction? No, it would not. I’ve fallen in love with the Pieter Vos books, set in Amsterdam with the kind of hardboiled, crusty detective we’ve all come to expect in this type of book. Turns out Amsterdam is a perfect, sinister setting for some seriously f*cked up crime. A girl who works at the famous flower market disappears. When she turns up, she’s barely alive, tied to a stone angel inside a ring of fire. Her body contains traces of a drug that connects her to a series of murders called The Sleeping Beauty Murders. Vos is on the trail of a serial killer. Yesssssssssssssssssssssss.

And because I’ve been deep diving into the non-fiction this year…

First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies by Kate Anderson Brower. This book has been on my list for forever. This book, that looks at the most underestimated positions in the world, covers the women who held the position from 1960 to the present day. I’m looking forward to spending time with Jackie, Lady Bird, Pat, Rosalyn, Hillary and of course, Michelle. It also includes a cheeky afterword regarding the expectations of Melania in the role…

A Bold and Dangerous Family: The Remarkable Story of an Italian Mother, Her Sons, and their Fight Against Fascism by Caroline Moorehead. It’s taken me a LONG time to recover enough from A Train in Winter to even THINK about reading another of Moorehead’s books. I am confident that, dealing as it does with an Italian mother, this one will have more blatant ass-kicking and less heartbreak. It’s the true story of the Rosselli family, a part of the cultural elite in Florence, who were vocal anti-fascists. The price they paid for their activism is documented in this book, which also looks at the rise and fall of Mussolini and his black shirted thugs, and what it meant for Italy as a whole. You know, just some light summer reading.

So that’s probably enough, but just in case I will also bring War and Peace with me to fill in any reading lulls. Will I read all of the books? Definitely not. But I will always have something to suit my mood and that’s how I roll.

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2

An unexpected highlight: Sons and Soldiers

There is a lot of WWII fiction and non-fiction out there. If you’ve read a lot of it, it becomes more challenging to read something that stands out, a story that hasn’t already been picked apart over and over.

But then something like Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler finds its way to you and your interest is piqued.

sons

Bruce Henderson introduces readers to a handful of young Jewish men who were sent out of Germany in the late 1930s, often their family’s only hope of carrying on the family name. These young men were from villages and cities all over Germany and via Amsterdam, France, the U.K., and even a stay in a concentration camp, these young men found themselves in America. They were charged with setting up a new life and finding a way to bring their mothers, fathers, and siblings to America to join them.

When America declares war on Germany, these young men run to enlist. Although most are initially denied on the grounds that they aren’t American, eventually each is drafted into the Army. This is where their unique language skills and knowledge of German culture is recognized as the asset that it could be to an invading army.

The young men are trained to become interrogators, part of a super secret program which earns them the name ‘Ritchie Boys.’ They join major combat units in Europe, in small elite groups, and interrogate German POWs, gathering intelligence that helped swing the tide of war in the Allies’ favour.

I didn’t mean to get invested in this book as quickly as I did. I wanted to read a few pages, to get a sense of the style but thought it was probably too heavy a book for the summer. Henderson starts the book with the story of Martin Selling, who in 1938 is taken from his home and, along with other members of his family, sent to a concentration camp. It is an intense beginning and pulls the reader in quickly – before I knew it, I had read 50 pages.

Sons and Soldiers is being compared to Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat. I’ve read Unbroken – I couldn’t put that down either – and I have to agree with the assessment. Henderson has crafted the kind of non-fiction book that fiction lovers will find themselves invested in. You meet these boys and their families: Gunther Stern, living in idyllic Hildesheim until everything changed when he was 12, sent to American alone at age 16, leaving his parents, brother and sister; Stephan Lewy, whose mother died when he was six and whose father, unable to care for him, dropped him to live at an orphanage in Berlin, visiting him when possible, who found his way out of Germany into France, and eventually into America; Manfred Steinfeld, whose widowed mother sent her oldest son to America alone, sent her other son to Palestine, and kept trying to find a safe way out of Germany for her and her daughter, Irma.

I expected this book to be interesting but I don’t think I was expecting the emotional toll it would take on me. I frequently cried over the stories of families split up, teared up when these Ritchie Boys showed their strength, their loyalty and goodness in the face of unimaginable suffering, and cried again as they tried to find their families at war’s end.

Henderson manages to tell these stories without relying on a lot of the military detail that always make my eyes glaze over. It was like reading Band of Brothers (a series my husband and I re-watch every year) – the Ritchie Boys were involved in a lot of the same battles featured on the show.

This is another one of those non-fiction titles that I think would still hold up for those of you who think you don’t enjoy non-fiction. It was an unexpected reading highlight for me.

10

Unruly Women

I used to get really stressed out reading about characters that did all the bad things. I always considered myself a rule follower and experiencing second-hand rule breaking was HARD.

But the older I get, the more I realize that actually, I’m not a rule follower. F*ck the rules.

And because I’m a rule-breaker now, I love to read about other women who are miles ahead of me in this department.

too fat

Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman was so very much exactly the kind of book I’ve been waiting for. In it Petersen,a BuzzFeed staff writer, looks at ten women who she classifies are being “unruly” for some reason. Serena Williams is too strong, Lena Dunham too naked, Melissa McCarthy is too fat while Hillary Clinton is too shrill. Each chapter is an essay dedicated to these women and why they are considered unruly, eschewing the more traditional aspects of femininity.

Look, anytime a book looks at women who break the rules AND pop culture, I am here for it. But more than that, this book is source material for any woman who steps “out of line” from time to time. It’s a way to look at these women, all of them beautiful, brilliant, strong and capable and go “I’m in great company, f*ck the rules!”

One of my favourite essays in the collection looks at Kim Kardashian. And before you roll your eyes at that, take a few minutes and read the essay! It’s pretty great right? Who knew that Kim Kardashian was so radical?

I was especially pleased to see that Petersen didn’t shy away from intersectionality when she was choosing the women for her book. Her essays on Serena Williams and Nicki Minaj (Too Slutty) were among my favourites for her willingness to actually dig in to the issues around Black womanhood. Arguably less successful, but important nonetheless is the chapter on Caitlyn Jenner (Too Queer). The trouble with that chapter is less about Petersen and more about the problematic nature of holding up Jenner as the pinnacle of Trans personhood.

Still, I loved reading each and every one of these essays. It’s the kind of non-fiction that anyone can read, that’s so accessible you will recognize your own life in it. I found myself nodding along as I read, muttering “YES!” to myself each time Petersen vocalized something I’d already felt.

My gossip guru, Lainey Gossip, also loved this book (obviously). She wrote an incredible piece about it in her gossip intro the day it came out. She says everything I want to say so much better!

If you come across Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud I hope that you pick up a copy. This book needs to be read far and wide so that more of us become confidently unruly.

11

The Non-Fiction struggle

Reading non-fiction is not something that I have ever struggled to do. I love reading non-fiction! Lately, my inner struggle has become “am I reading too much non-fiction?”

Which is completely ridiculous. Read what you want, right?

Currently, a full third of my reading has been non-fiction. I’ve been deep diving into true crime (thanks to a full blown obsession with the My Favorite Murder podcast – shoutout to any lurking murderinos!), fueling my Bette and Joan addiction after Feud, and indulging in biographies whenever I get the chance.

I’ve been wondering about this draw to non-fiction – why am I suddenly reaching for these books back-to-back? I think reading about history or politics, women in the world, or the intensely personal endeavors of those who willingly share their stories, are my way of making sense of this crazy-ass world we find ourselves in. It lets me search out little glimmers of hope in human history, or shows me how we got here, which in a weird way is comforting?

The problems are twofold:

  1. People ask me for book recommendations a lot. And most people don’t read non-fiction on purpose.
  2. It feels weirdly wrong to read non-fiction back-to-back wherever possible. Especially in the summer?

In terms of the first “problem”, I’m kind of left scrambling to come up with titles that people might be interested in – some of the fiction I’ve read this year has been middling at best. I’ve resorted to telling people about books I haven’t read based on reviews I’ve read from those voices that I trust.

And when it comes to the second “issue”, well I’m my own worst enemy in this case but isn’t that always the way with those things that truly stump us?

I know that this is also completely ridiculous, but there’s something about summer that is supposed to scream fun (I actually hate summer so I don’t know why I feel like I need to play by summer’s rules)! I don’t think anyone has issues dragging out massive non-fiction titles when the weather is nasty and we’re all holing up at home under blankets. But there’s something very off about heaving those same titles to whatever is your summer destination of choice. Summer feels like the time to be somewhat frivolous about reading and this year, I guess I’m not feeling it.

I don’t really know why I’m writing a blog post about this! Partly, this inner battle I’ve engaged in is just a symptom of the larger issue of my on-hold life. Partly, I need blog content.

Just know that every time I need to choose the next book I am wracked with indecision and guilt about wanting to choose non-fiction, and feeling pressure to read fiction (which feels in scarce supply in my place right now). But also, I’ve read some really great non-fiction.

When did reading become so fraught?

hillary

4

Reading about sports

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I almost never watch baseball.

And yet, I was intrigued by Stacey May Fowles’ collection of essays about her love for the game. Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me isn’t a book “about” baseball; it’s a book about loving something that better helps to understand yourself.

baseball

Fowles has always loved baseball but in 2011, baseball came to mean something more to her. Having recently been diagnosed with PTSD, years after a sexual assault, she needed baseball in a way she hadn’t before. The baseball season became a way to organize her days, to help her do her therapy, to get back out into the world and find herself again.

Fowles later made the decision to leave the security (and stress) of her full-time magazine marketing job and write about the game she loves. These essays allow her to ruminate on certain aspects of the game and the relationship she has with it. She talks about bat-flipping, about the politics of booing, bandwagon fans, and injuries.

I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to relate to this collection that much – my knowledge and understanding of baseball can best be termed ‘basic’.

But then I read the essay titled “Watching Like a Girl”. And then I found myself nodding along. She talks about the stereotypes of female fans, the assumption that you are at a game because your partner likes the sport, the availability of pink, sparkly team gear, how you are quizzed on your sports knowledge to test if you are really a fan.

In talking about a piece that actively looked to spotlight the stereotypes of female fans, she writes:

…it reinforces the antagonistic attitude many male fans have about women being in “their” ballpark – as if a bunch of girls chatting about wedding plans instead of paying attention to the action is more off-putting than “real fans” yelling homophobic slurs and harassing people around them. It points to an ingrained belief that women don’t belong, which is exacerbated by an appalling gender imbalance in terms of who is “allowed” to talk publicly about “Dad’s game.”

Fowles is honest and open about some of the struggles she has been through and calls out her beloved sport for not being as inclusive as they should be. Baseball Life Advice is more about the emotional connection fans have to a game and I found the angle refreshing and so very interesting. It made me kind of wish that I had that kind of love for a game, that maybe I need to give baseball another chance.

9

Option B

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I remember when I heard that Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook and author of Lean In, had lost her husband suddenly. I had a visceral reaction to the news, giving voice to my biggest fear.

option B

Two weeks after he passed, she wrote an incredibly moving post on Facebook about him and her loss. If you read it, there’s no way you didn’t cry.

In Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sandberg builds on that post as she talks about her grief, how it affects her life, and how she and her children are trying to build a new one. And in what I have come to learn is typical Sheryl Sandberg fashion, she also attempts to understand what’s happening, how grief affects our brains and what we can do to feel some kind of joy again.

The title of the book came from a friend:

Just weeks after losing Dave, I was talking to Phil about a father-child activity. We came up with a plan for someone to fill in for Dave. I cried to Phil, “But I want Dave.” He put his arm around me and said “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.”

Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B. This book is to help us all kick the shit out of it.

As was the case with Lean In, I know that there are lots of people who scoff at the efforts she has made. Those who say that since she has loads of money and can afford to pay people to help her with the things that she can’t do, that she doesn’t understand what ‘real’ people go through when they grieve.

But once again, Sandberg is the first person to say that she isn’t the typical person. That she does have access to resources and supports that not everyone else has. It doesn’t mean that this book doesn’t have something for others going through the same, or similar experiences.

I personally found this book moving, honest, unflinching and ultimately helpful. She works with Adam Grant (author of Originals, psychologist and expert in how we find meaning in our lives) to research how we find strength in adversity. Together they tell the stories of different people they know who have gone through a range of experiences: rape survivors, refugees, parents who have lost children to disease, women who have experienced miscarriages or stillbirths.

And like Malcolm Gladwell, Sandberg and Grant use these personal stories to illustrate the research that they have done, to show readers how they can benefit from both. With chapters like “Kicking the Elephant Out of the Room”, “The Platinum Rule of Friendship” (treat others as they want to be treated), and “Taking Back Joy”, Sandberg and Grant have created a helpful manual for anyone who is dealing with more than their share of pain and sadness.

Sandberg shares so much of herself in this book – I can’t imagine how draining the process of writing was. Sections of her journal in the months after Dave died are in the book, as well as part of the eulogy she delivered and a letter she wrote to him to say goodbye when she decided to start looking forward instead of back. She shares about falling apart at work, sitting on the floor and screaming, the despair she felt going to recitals and parents’ nights solo, the realities of the year of firsts.

And still, going through all that, losing the love of her life, she wrote this book to help others experiencing the same or similar.

If you or someone you know is going through something, I wouldn’t hesitate in picking up this book.

All proceeds from the book go to OptionB.org, a non-profit initiative to help people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity.

3

Black Like Me

I think the first time I heard about John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me was on twitter. It kind of blows my mind that I reached the ripe old age of 31 before ever hearing of this book.

But now I’ve not only heard of it, I’ve read it.

A friend of mine commented on my Goodreads “review” (I only ever star on Goodreads) that this book sounds like a “racist mess.” I completely understand how she might look at it this way. At times, reading the book, I cringed. But I think Griffin’s intention was good and reading the Afterword, understanding how he put his money where his mouth was after the fact to agitate for Civil Rights, I’m willing to give him a pass.

black like me

If you’re not already familiar with Black Like Me, it’s the diary of a white man who, in 1959 decides to take medication that will darken his skin and cross into the Deep South to find out what life was like for a Black man. Before he undergoes the transformation, he writes about why he’s decided to do this:

How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? Though we lived side by side throughout the South, communication between the two races had simply ceased to exist. Neither really knew what went on with those of the other race. The Southern Negro will not tell a white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life miserable for him.

Once Griffin had made the decision, he leaves his life and family and crosses into the Deep South as a Black man. And it becomes evident very quickly how different life is on the other side. He very quickly realizes how he has to modify his behaviour, language and clothing in order to stay safe.

As Griffin works his way ever deeper, from Louisiana to Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, he meets Black men and women with whom he feels a connection, who smile at him and help him when he needs it, like when he’s stranded on a highway and a family lets him stay the night with them, even though there is only room for him on the floor. In talking to those he meets, he comes to see how difficult it is for Black men and women to get a fair shake in a country that is still intent on seeing only the colour of their skin.

It is an indictment of the times that it took a white man standing up to say “hey this is an issue” but if you stop and actually think about it, it’s not so very different today. I watched The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO the other day and there’s a scene where Oprah asks a white woman a question and the white woman looks at Oprah’s white companion to answer, as if Oprah isn’t standing right there. This is still an issue.

But for all the flaws in the experiment, Griffin’s book remains an interesting historical document. He wrote with respect and empathy about people that he wouldn’t otherwise have gotten to know because of the racist laws of the time. His experience, what he learned, served to change the direction of his life. And that’s worth something.