Monthly Book Review

Landline by Rainbow Rowell 

Landline gave me a hangover. I started it on a Sunday and finished it that evening. (Which isn't incredibly surprising, because—after receiving Landline in the mail—I told Rowell that "the pages smell delicious. They smell like delicious, glorious BOOK.") Rowell, who lives in Omaha, has written a few other novels, including Eleanor & Park (her most renowned), Fangirl (which I haven't read), and Attachments (my personal favorite). In Landline, Georgie McCool "knows her marriage is in trouble. That it's been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply—but that almost seems beside the point now." When Georgie chooses to stay in California and work over Christmas—instead of fly to Omaha with her husband and their two children--she wonders if she's finally "ruined everything." Desperate to speak to Neal, Georgie plugs in a yellow rotary phone and discovers, to her surprise, that she's able to converse with Neal in the past. The presence of the phone is a touch of fantasy in an otherwise contemporary novel about marriage. I found myself laughing at the bra-shopping scene, and—as always—admired Rowell for incorporating the small inconveniences people face every day in real life (like the under-wire of a bra coming loose and stabbing your under-boob). And, like Attachments, Landline made me love (and hate) Rowell. I loved that the story was intoxicating, and loved that the words were introspective, sassy, and realistic. (I hated Rowell for the exact same reasons because, damn it, I wish I were as magical as a storyteller.)



Bryson is known for his travel writing (and for his wit), and his books are a pleasant blend of humor, fact, and observation. (A Walk in the Woods is probably his most popular book, though I've yet to read it. I have, however, tackled Mother Tongue, Down Under, and Notes from a Big Country.) A Short History of Nearly Everything is the lengthiest Bryson book I've ever read and, at 544 pages, it took me about a month to read. The text isn't as light-hearted as some of Bryson's other books, but I still found myself fascinated. You don't have to be a scientist or an astronomer or a physicist to understand this book. In fact, Bryson intended for it to be read by "non-specialists." He finds ways to explain, easily, particle accelerators, gravity, plate tectonics, chemistry, evolution, cosmology, fossils, physics, and the science behind how we (humans) came to exist. And though it is a bit of a tome, the various chapters make it easy to read a few pages here and there. I found myself most interested in the first three-fourths of the book, but found the material about evolution less engaging--not because Bryson is less engaging, but because evolution is a topic by which I'm not generally intrigued. That said, I highly recommend reading A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson did extensive research (did you know the human body contains twenty million kilometers of coiled DNA?) and gave readers a book that educates and entertains. If you're interested in tackling just a few pages at a time, then I suggest putting this book in your library. And by "library," I mean bathroom.


Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7s is a book I plan to shelve next to Mockingbird, Wonder, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The story focuses on twelve-year-old Willow Chance, a gifted child whose adoptive parents are killed in an accident. In the aftermath, Willow—who has always been viewed as "strange"—finds companionship with other misfits. Said misfits are often given their own perspective, which allows the reader to see how each character perceives Willow—as a genius, as a weirdo, as an annoyance, as an angel. Willow certainly has her peculiarities—she's obsessed with disease, and she diagnoses the individuals she encounters with various maladies—but she's affable, curious, and heartbreakingly strong. Though I had expected to see the number "7" appear more throughout the book, I felt as if Willow's other fixations—medicine and the growing of plants—appeared more often. Regardless, I read the book in just a few hours—Counting by 7s is a middle grade book, after all—and was left with yet another book hangover. Counting by 7s gave me feelings, you guys. Feelings about how hard it is to be an outcast, and how wonderful it is when when a few "oddballs" form their own family. To borrow the words of John Corey Whaley, "Holly Goldberg Sloan writes about belonging in a way I've never quite seen in any other book. This is a gorgeous, funny, and heartwarming novel that I'll never forget."



“He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features: a neatly trimmed mustache, hair turning silver at the temples, and eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine—he could see out, but you couldn’t see in.” Thus begins Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a nonfiction book that spent four years on The New York Times bestseller list. (Impressively, it was Berendt’s first book.) The book is set in Savannah, and highlights the various characters of the city—elitists, “old money,” a foul-mouthed drag queen, promiscuous singers and piano players, a voodoo priestess, and—as the back of the book summarizes—“a redneck gigolo whose conquests describe him as a ‘walking streak of sex.’” I was entranced by each character, and was eager to learn more, more, more—more of their secrets. As you can imagine, several loads of proverbial dirty laundry were aired in the second part of the book, when the entire city of Savannah is focused on a murder trial. It was a damn fine read—part gossip column, part true-crime story—and, after finishing it, I found myself browsing the Internet, looking up the drag queen, the elitists, and the “redneck gigolo” Berendt had written about. In fact, reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil made me incredibly eager for my visit to Savannah later this year. I would highly recommend reading this book; its Southern Gothic tone is as intoxicating as a half-dozen mint juleps. And remember, it’s real.  


Like No Other by Una LaMarche

Since 2006, author Una LaMarche has managed the blog The Sassy Curmudgeon. I found her words back in 2009, when I used to browse the "Blogs of Note" list. I was fond of LaMarche's humor and approved of her attachment to '90s pop culture. (Plus, she advocates pantlessness and the eating of chocolate mini donuts.) After commenting on a blog post about Like No Other, LaMarche kindly offered to send me a signed copy. I was stunned, humbled, and excited—especially since she also included a copy of Five Summers, her first novel (which is reviewed below). Like No Other, however, was released just last week, and is a fine companion to books like Eleanor & Park. It's another YA tale about forbidden love and how the intensity of first love changes you. The book is set in Brooklyn, and focuses on Jaxon and Devorah. Jaxon is described as a "fun-loving, book-smart nerd who has never been comfortable around girls." Devorah, on the other hand, "has always known how her future will look; she'll marry young and have a family, like her grandmother, mother, and sister before her. She has never wondered about the world outside of her strict Hasidic community." When a hurricane strikes the Northeast, the two become trapped in an elevator. They become intrigued with each other even though their first meeting isn't entirely fireworks and unicorns (Devorah’s religion prohibits private interactions between a man and a woman who are not married to each other). Though it was a little difficult to believe that Jaxon and Devorah fell in love so quickly, I greatly enjoyed the read. Learning more about Hasidic Judaism was really interesting, and certain parts of the book read like a thriller; I just had to read the next chapter.



Five Summers by Una LaMarche

Fifteen years ago, the Disney Channel began airing a reality TV series called Bug Juice. The show featured a number of young teens at summer camp. It was a show that I, as a pre-teen, was enraptured by. At the time, the campers’ adventures in life and love were foreign to me. Looking back, however, I have fond memories of watching Bug Juice; it’s nostalgic. Reading LaMarche’s debut YA novel, Five Summers, was similar. Though I never attended an extended summer camp myself, the book might feel familiar to a former camper, as laughter, tears, broken hearts, sass, sex, skinny dipping, tipped canoes and capture-the-flag are all featured. Specifically, Five Summers focuses on four characters—Emma, Skylar, Maddie, and Jo—who met at the age of ten. At the end of that summer, their first summer together, the girls vowed to remain the best of friends. The book spotlights some of their adventures together, like the time Jo refused to play spin-the-bottle (age twelve), and the year Emma almost kissed her long-term crush, Adam (age fourteen). The main storyline, however, takes place when the girls are seventeen, when all four of them are back at camp for a reunion. Of course, as the summary states, “the weekend isn’t quite as sun-washed as they’d imagined.” Though the book itself may be a little predictable, it was a fun read. I particularly enjoyed Emma and Skylar’s final decision regarding boys. I also found myself looking at the characters and comparing them to those in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. (Over-achiever Emma was most like Carmen, while tomboyish Jo was a blend of Tibby and Bridget.) It’s a good book if you’re in the mood for a nostalgia-inducing read, or if you enjoyed the Summer Boys series or any Sarah Dessen novel. I have a feeling that, with each book she writes, LaMarche is going to strengthen and solidify her voice.

Parry Mansion in Indianapolis



Two years ago, the Parry mansion was overgrown and inhabited by raccoons. After years of neglect, it hardly resembled the grandeur home that original owner David Parry had constructed in 1904. The south side of the mansion was blanketed in ivy, and, inside, there was a fair amount of debris--including some raccoon carcasses and an ophthalmology exam chair. In 2012, however, the 4.5-acre property was purchased by Jerico Properties, who began the daunting renovation process.

On Sunday, I visited the Parry Mansion, as HI Indy was celebrating its fifth birthday. There were no raccoon carcasses to be seen, but there were new floors. And fresh paint. And a master bathroom that is roughly the same size as my entire apartment. (The shower alone can host party of eight.) As I wandered the house, voices from the kitchen bounced off the marble floors and up the staircase. "Apparently there was a party here and they just kept bringing busload after busload of people here, and they were all, WHERE ARE THEY GOING? But, really, look at this place! This house absorbs people."

True enough, the Gatsby-esque mansion has had its fair share of parties; in 1927, the property was purchased by William Atkins, who hosted many memorable events. According to HI Indy, "his guests included local movers and shakers, politicians, and celebrities." Clark Gable even visited the property in 1950. Renovators also say that they discovered a nook off the ballroom and, in the nook, found the remnants of what might have been "bathtub gin."













Today, the mansion is on the market for, I believe, $6 million. The price tag includes eight bedrooms, eight full bathrooms, 15,815 square feet (not including the basement), a six-car garage, an indoor fountain, an outdoor fountain, an elevator, and a lamp-dwelling genie who promises to grant you three wishes. And the absurd ceiling on the third floor. Yeah, you get that, too.

If you're curious about the history of the Parry Mansion, I recommend reading this HI Indy article from March 2013. The Indy Star also wrote about the mansion just a few weeks ago.

That time NPR made me think about ancestry


When I got off work last Monday, two things were on my mind: Racine and NPR's latest Fresh Air program. 

Terry Gross, the host of Fresh Air, had interviewed journalist Chris Tomlinson, author of Tomlinson Hill. Tomlinson had spent more than ten years reporting for the Associated Press, and had covered conflicts in Rwanda, Sudan, and Somalia. He's now a columnist for The Houston Chronicle. And he's also the great-great-grandson of Texas slaveholders. 

"It became kind of my specialty to understand why people hated each other and what the struggle was really about," Tomlinson said. "That's when it began to occur to me that, while we talk about race a lot in America, we don't talk about the history of race and why we feel the way we do and what actually happened fifty years ago. I thought writing about my family would be a personal journey to look into that." 

Tomlinson's research turned into Tomlinson Hill, which was released last week. The book examines the history of two families—one black, one white—who share the Tomlinson name. The introduction to the book was written by LaDainian Tomlinson, a former NFL running back and descendant of a Tomlinson Hill slave. Though LaDainian did not appear on Fresh Air, his brother, Lavar Tomlinson, did. 

“I think it’s very important for ... any person to know where they come from," Lavar said, "because that’s what makes you who you are.”

I agreed. In fact, I agreed so much that, when it came time to leave the office and bike home, I had already been dwelling on Lavar’s words for a few hours. My ride home was not easy that day. It was hot and the streets were crowded. I pushed against the wind, my tires spinning as quickly as my mind. Family history is what shapes you.

I thought of another quote, one I had seen in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything: “Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you.”

Okay, so my ancestors had had sex. That much I knew. But I had never given much thought to how my ancestors’ occupations or places of residence had affected their descendants (me). But it was true, not just for me, but for everyone. Tomlinson’s ancestors—slaveholders and plantation owners—had made him. Lavar’s ancestors—former slaves and sharecroppers—had made him. Which meant that my ancestors—who I’d never met, who I knew nothing about, and who forever rested in Racine—had made me.

It’s daunting, really, to know that any children I create will carry the genes of a few individuals long-buried in a Wisconsin cemetery. There are the genes of my great-great-great grandparents, the Van Dykes, who were born in Holland in the mid-1800s. And then there are my great-great grandparents, whose last name—Hoogerhuis—clearly displays the fact that they, too, were born in Holland. My great-grandfather, however, was born in Wisconsin. He lived there for most of his life, but he did spend his last few years in Iowa. We used to visit him in the nursing home, but my memories of that time are vague, as I was young, very young. In fact, when my great-grandfather died in 1991, I was just three. It wasn’t until I was ten that we were able to travel to Racine to bury his ashes, which had been sitting in a ice cream can atop my grandmother’s piano. 

But that, my friends, is a story for another day.

Racine, Part the Second: Historic Downtown














Racine, Part the First: The Quarry


 
I was young, seven years old or so, when I learned about Racine. It was where my mother was born and, during the Great Depression, where my grandmother was born. It was where they were “from,” but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was young and disinterested in family history, so Racine was just another distant city, like Cairo or Paris. I probably knew more about those cities than I did about Racine, honestly, because my knowledge was incredibly limited. I knew just two things—one, that Racine was built on a lake, and, two, it was where one could find kringle, the Danish pastry that was shaped like an oval and tasted like Christmas. Everything else was imagined, and “Racine” became a place that existed only in my mind, like “the Egypt and France of a child’s mind, filled with blurry visions of perfect pyramids, and warm sands, and Eiffel Towers, and something that people called ‘wine.’”[1] I didn't understand. I didn't understand that my family’s roots were in a state to the east, in a city built on the shores of Lake Michigan. And I didn't know. I didn't know that Racine was where my ancestors, where my great-great-greats, were buried. Back then, I was too naive to believe in ancestry, history, and the abstract comforts of "home." To me, Iowa was "home." In fact, years later, Iowa is still "home." It's where I was born, it's where I spent my formative years, and it's where my mother and grandmother have lived for the last fifty-some years. But. But if you mention Racine to my grandmother, her eyes ignite. She speaks of her childhood, of her dad, of kringle from O&H Bakery, and of summer afternoons at the quarry. She has her memories. And, fifteen years after I first learned about Racine, I have some now, too.

On the Fourth, after watching fireworks, Ty and I discussed what to do the following day: downtown Chicago or Racine? There were things to do and places to see in either city, so I was torn and indecisive, as always.

"We'll just go to Wisconsin," Ty said. "I know you want to, anyway." His words were firm, but true. Had he suggested taking the train into Chicago, I might have protested. I was in the mood for looking into my family's past, after all. I thought of the lake, and of the quarry, and of the drawbridges over Root River, and I found myself nodding.

"Okay," I said. "Let's go."

We left the suburbs of Chicago late Saturday morning and got off the Interstate around noon. We took Highway 38, which turns into Northwestern and runs past the quarry and the sign announcing the city's population. As soon as I saw it, I remembered. I remembered yellow shorts, hair wet from swimming, and cicadas' omnipresent humming. I remembered walking to the quarry with my mom, who asked me to pose beneath the sign, and I remembered asking, "Is this bigger than Council Bluffs?" as I stared at the numbers. 84,298.

That was sixteen years ago. It was 1998, and I was ten. The city was bigger then. Now, the population hovers around 78,000, and the numbers on the sign are different. But the road, Northwestern, was the same. It still led us right into the city, and right past the quarry. And I'll be damned if I wasn't going to see it again.

The last time I had been to the quarry was August 2, 1998. Mom had etched into the sand our names and the date, and had taken a photo. Until recently, the photo had been forgotten, tucked inside one of the many boxes I keep under my bed. When I retrieved the images, I flipped through them, leaving thumbprints on the glossy corners. I flipped through them again. The water was a smooth teal, and young children and adults alike frolicked in its coolness. There were sunbathers and a lifeguard beneath a crinoline of red and white. And the beach. The beach was made of a rocky sort of sand, almost amber in color. And, if you intended to build sand castles or dig holes, you quickly found that, beneath the surface, the sand turned ash black.

But that was sixteen years ago.

When Ty and I first got to the quarry, I kept my shock to myself.

The beach was gone. Gone, too, were the sunbathers and the waders, the young children and the rowdy teenagers. There was no lifeguard; there was only a red-lettered warning: SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK.

"This ... this is ... very different," I said.

"Well, it looks like the water has gotten a lot higher," volunteered Ty. "Look at those trees over there." He pointed to the northeast side of the quarry, where a number of trees and plants appeared to be growing out the water. "That's not normal," he said. "But they have been getting a lot of rain up here."

We walked around the outer edges of the quarry, on what had once been the "upper" level of the beach. I took off my shoes and dipped my toes into the water, half-hoping to see a fish lurking near the surface.

"I remember swimming with them last time I was here," I said. "They sort of tickled your legs and took you by surprise."

A shriek of raucous laughter echoed behind us. I turned to look at the one family that had gathered at the picnic tables.

In the past, the quarry had been a place to go swimming, cliff jumping, and fishing. Now, it was quiet. The sand was without footprints, and was as flat and undisturbed as an Indiana cornfield. In the past, the beach had gently led visitors to the water. The slope was so subtle that—had you been happily lost in conversation—you might have found yourself waist-deep, with fish tickling your toes, and with no recollection of how you got there. It was just too harsh, now; you were either on land or in water, minding the discarded bottle caps or minding or the sign. SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK.

I wondered if the quarry's decline in popularity was attributed to Racine's crime rates, or its location in town. I didn't know. I just had my hunches.

As we walked, we met a man strolling in the opposite direction. "Afternoon," he said, nodding.

We offered our hellos.

"I gotta figure out how to get that basketball back," he said, pointing toward the water. "And I can't even swim."

As we had no change of clothes, we offered our apologies.

The man shrugged. “No worries. It’s a beautiful day, though, isn’t it?” We agreed, and began walking toward the southwest side.

"That man had an ankle monitor," Ty said matter-of-factly.

"Huh," I muttered. And that was that.

We found our way to the banks of the Root River, where Ty suffered a muddy slide. We took a few pictures and gandered at the twisted roots of trees. And we threw sticks into the water, just to see them float. And with one last solemn look at the quarry, we were in the car and on our way. To the church where my mom was baptized, to the home where my mother was born, to the house my grandmother grew up in.


[1] Lawson, Jenny. Let's Pretend This Never Happened. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2012. Print. Page 116.
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