How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

How It Went DownHow It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson is shot and killed in his neighborhood while leaving a convenience store, in full view of several friends and acquaintances. His shocking death rattles his friends and family, and as his community tries to piece together what happened that day, different people have different opinions and notions about what they think they saw that day, and what kind of person Tariq really was. This novel is told from the perspective of several of his friends, a few acquaintances, his mother, his grandmother, and his sister, and it becomes clear as the book goes on that no one really has the full picture of how it went down that day.

This book is tough, guys. Kids being killed for no apparent reason – hell, anyone getting killed for ANY reason – is a really difficult subject. The subject itself is rough but add to the subject matter what’s going on now with KKK members and Nazis marching in Charlottesville, people being killed for opposing the obvious hatred and bigotry we saw there – it’s just heavy, guys. My heart is just so heavy these days.

But anyway, back to the book. How It Went Down is fantastic although so difficult to read. The way that Magoon is able to show these different perspectives of an incident that took seconds to occur, and how each person who was present saw things differently, people who weren’t there have Very Strong Opinions about what happened to Tariq, it’s just so true to life when these horrific things happen to real people.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, but with severe reservations. It’s done extremely well, the characters are vivid and true to life and nuanced and not one character is a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. Magoon created such realness within these pages, so much truth and genuine emotions. But it’s tough, because sometimes things like this happen in real life, and there are no answers as to why, and people have to live with the fact that their brother or son or best friend or sister or mother died and there’s no real explanation for it. How It Went Down is wonderfully done but oh so painful to read.

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The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

The Girl with the Lower Back TattooThe Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer
Published by Gallery Books

I knew very little about Amy Schumer before listening to this audiobook – I knew she is a comedian, she stars in her own HBO show, and she wrote, produced and starred in the movie Trainwreck. However, I’d never seen her show nor have I watched Trainwreck. I heard she was smart and funny, and I like listening to smart and funny people, so I listened to her memoir. And it was FABULOUS.

Schumer is hilarious, sarcastic, in-your-face and doesn’t shy away from joking about just about anything. She is open and honest about her own personal life, most remarkably some of her sexual experiences and relationships. She is certainly the type of person who doesn’t take herself too seriously. But what I was surprised by was just how serious parts of this book were. Her father has multiple sclerosis, and she discusses what that diagnosis has been like for her father and her family (in some parts, in graphic detail). Her parents divorced when she was young because her mother fell in love with Schumer’s best friend’s father, and she talks the reader through how that entire situation shaped her as a kid. She discusses at length her relationship with her mother, which has changed drastically over the course of her life. And the most serious part of the entire book is when she begins discussing gun violence and how she got interested in the issue itself (a mass shooting at a showing of her movie). She spent a lot of time researching and she shares a lot of what she learned with the reader, including being very specific about her own beliefs around the causes of gun violence and what can be done to prevent it to the degree that we see it here in the US.

I read a few reviews where the reader was less than thrilled with Schumer’s level of seriousness throughout this book, and I have to say that I majorly disagree with that being an issue. To me, the book is such a perfect balance of funny, smart, and serious, and really shows what an interesting person Schumer is. I highly recommend this book and definitely suggest you listen to the audio, if you are so inclined. Schumer reads it herself and does a fantastic job. I always say how much I love memoirs read by the author and this was a perfect example of why I find them to be so successful in that format.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for StoneCutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Published by Knopf

Twins Marion and Shiva Stone are born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the result of an affair between an Indian nun and a British surgeon. After their mother dies giving birth to them, their father flees the country, leaving them to be raised by two doctors at the hospital where they are born, Hema and Ghosh – a pair that are friends but later marry upon discovering their love for one another. Marion and Shiva grow up surrounded by doctors, surgeons and medical procedures of all kinds, so it’s inevitable that both end up in the medical field eventually – but their paths are completely different, and while there is a bond between them that is unyielding, the ways in which they disappoint and hurt one another over the years are many and incredibly painful to them both, but most of all to the more emotional, introspective and ambitious Marion.

This book is pretty huge, and to do its plot justice in a one-paragraph summary is kind of silly, because there is just so much that happens within these pages. To say that Cutting for Stone is a family saga would be true but also not true, because it is about so much more than these two brothers and the family that raised them. It is about their heritage, about the two people who created them, about performing medicine in a hospital with access to very few resources, about poverty, about the history of Ethiopia, it is about the bonds between the families we are born into and the bonds between the family we choose, about decisions that have reverberating consequences and about decisions that seem inherently wrong but end up having unexpectedly great results. I’m telling you, there is just so much happening in this novel that I can’t even begin to explain all of its many elements.

Cutting for Stone is absolutely a gorgeous novel that sweeps the reader in and doesn’t let go until the very last page. The writing is incredible, lush and descriptive, transporting the reader to Ethiopia and the hospital where the twins spent most of their lives. The characters are built slowly, intricately, in such a detailed manner that the reader truly gets to know each and every person within these pages, even the ones who are largely absent throughout the novel. The relationships between the characters are complicated, interesting, surprising, and so very, very true to life. The ways in which they disappoint one another, love each other, are there for each other, make sacrifices for each other, do terrible things to one another – all elements of being human and being in relationships with other humans are woven throughout this novel.

There are so many aspects to this book that I absolutely loved, so I just have to say – do not let its size intimidate you. If you are into family sagas, multicultural fiction, books about medicine, beautiful writing, or any combination of those, please look no further than Cutting for Stone. This novel was absolutely fantastic.

Fractured by Catherine McKenzie

FracturedFractured by Catherine McKenzie
Published by Lake Union

Julie, her husband, and their twin six-year-olds have recently moved across the country to Cincinnati from the Pacific Northwest to escape a woman who stalked Julie after she wrote a novel that gave her celebrity status. Feeling lonely and trying unsuccessfully to write her second novel, Julie befriends the neighbor across the street, John, who is home all day after recently losing his job. John’s wife, Hanna, is understandably wary of this friendship, as is Julie’s husband Daniel, but the two persist as running buddies anyway. Pretty soon Julie begins to understand that this neighborhood is more clique-y than she could have imagined, as the queen bee of the block, Cynthia, begins actively campaigning to turn the entire neighborhood against Julie and her family. In addition, creepy things start happening that give her reason to believe that her stalker might have tracked her down to Ohio and could be at it again.

Fractured was a fun read that was entertaining and enjoyable, if a little predictable at times. I have never lived in a neighborhood quite like the one Julie and her family moved into, but oh the drama! These people were dramatic to the point of being silly, but I have to admit that it was fun to read about. The way McKenzie described their block parties, the rules posted to their community online message board, and the interactions between those families who couldn’t get along was just hilarious. One thing I didn’t love was that most of the drama was instigated and perpetuated by the women on the block – mostly stay-at-home moms who “didn’t have anything better to do” – which was annoyingly stereotypical and got old after a while. The men on the street had almost zero personalities and their characters were barely discussed, much less fleshed out in any real way. But I get it – suburban drama, focused on the women, okay fine.

The way McKenzie tells the story is nonlinear, mostly telling it as flashbacks and going back and forth between the point of views of Julie and John, with little snapshots of what’s currently happening, slowly bringing the two time periods together until the conclusion, where everything along both timelines makes sense. This set up definitely increased the anxiety factor, as the reader can see that something BAD happened, but is completely in the dark as to what that could be. And is it Julie’s stalker who did the bad thing? Or another character entirely? Is Julie’s stalker even back or is someone else on the street stalking her? Or is she even being stalked at all, could she possibly be making it up? These questions and more swirl around the story, making it impossible to put the book down because you just have to keep reading to find out what’s really going on here.

I enjoyed Fractured for what it was – a fun novel that I would categorize as suburban thriller. Is that a category? That’s the best way to describe the book for sure. I can see myself reading more from this author because while I didn’t love every aspect of the book, she can definitely write a page-turning story that really kept me on the hook.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

Shrill: Notes from a Loud WomanShrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
Published by Hachette

I hadn’t even heard of Lindy West when her memoir came full-force into the book world, but many of the feminist authors and activists I’ve come to admire over the years were recommending it, so I read a few pieces she’d written online before downloading this audio. I liked the snippets of West’s that I read, so I settled in for what I anticipated to be a smart, funny listen that would hopefully make me think differently about some issues. And I got exactly what I was hoping for.

Lindy West is incredibly smart, darkly funny but also witty and can even be silly funny, and bares all for the reader in her book. She talks about the experience of having an abortion and how it affected her (and, more importantly, the ways in which it did NOT affect her). She talks about having a “debate” on national TV about why it is not okay for comedians to make fun of rape, or more specifically, of women who have been raped. She rails against a societal message that to be fat is to be less than, that we should make judgments about people based on what their bodies look like. There is a LOT packed within these pages and I could have had twice as much, that is how much I enjoyed it.

I listened to the audio of Shrill, which West narrates herself, and it was fantastic. There’s nothing like an intelligent, interesting human telling his/her own story in their own voice, right into your ears.

There’s a lot to discuss within the pages of Shrill, but I’ll leave it short and sweet here. This book is really great, full of anecdotes and opinions, yes, but so much food for thought about topics even I, a self-proclaimed feminist, hadn’t really considered before. Highly recommended.

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the FeastSkeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
Published by Crown

The Second World War is coming to a close when we meet the characters in this novel. Anna Emmerich is the daughter of Prussian aristocrats and she and her family, along with thousands of other German citizens, are on the run from the Russian army, hoping to make it to the safety of the British and American lines. Anna and her family are accompanied by her lover Callum, a Scottish prisoner of war, technically their prisoner in a way, who also doesn’t want to get caught by the Russians. Manfred, real name Uri, a Jew who jumped from one of the trains and has disguised himself as a Nazi soldier for the past few years, befriends them and accompanies the family on their journey. We are also introduced to Cecile and the other women in the concentration camp with her, as they endure a death march away from their camp with their jailers in tow. This cast of characters comes together in such a way that is heartbreaking and breathtaking all at once.

This might just be my favorite Bohjalian yet. It never fails that every single time I think to myself that I am “over” books about the Holocaust, I read another one that shocks me, breaks my heart, and draws out an intense emotional connection to the characters and the story. Skeletons at the Feast did all of those things and more. What I loved about this book is that we see the nuances in people who were on all sides of this war – Anna’s family believed in the “bad guys” and truly believed that what Hitler was doing was right. But Anna is a good person, she has a good heart, and her parents are not terrible people, either – they are just misguided, brainwashed, a little too comfortable with their prosperity and station in life. When Hitler promises them wealth, power, and happiness, they look at it as a way to maintain their status quo, and completely turn a blind eye to what he does to the Jews. There were so many parts in the book where they simply refused to believe what their government was doing, thought it was lies or nonsense or propaganda, and continued to support Hitler despite everything they knew in their hearts to be true.

Anna’s family is one example of how Bohjalian shows the reader the intricacies and details of real humans dealing with the most dire, desperate, inhuman of circumstances. He shows the reader how despite everything, these people still chose to love, still chose to help others, still chose to find the good in the absolute worst, most miserable, most devastating times life can possibly become for people. The sheer humanity found within these pages took my breath away and I couldn’t stop furiously reading, wanting more and more from these characters and this story, despite how utterly horrifying it was.

I cannot say enough how much I absolutely loved this book, although it broke me in so many ways, I thought it was such an incredible read. I will keep reading Bohjalian as long as I can find more of his novels to voraciously consume.

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh

Baker TowersBaker Towers by Jennifer Haigh
Published by Harper Perennial

This novel about the fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania gives the reader an intimate portrait of the Novak family. The book begins when the father dies in 1944, and follows the matriarch and her five children – the youngest just a newborn when her father dies – through three decades, up through the 1970’s.

I absolutely love a novel that is heavily character-driven, and this is definitely that kind of book. The way Haigh draws the reader in by revealing these characters’ personalities, idiosyncrasies, deepest hopes and fears, is truly exceptional. Each member of the Novak family is unique and special, and because she does such an excellent job crafting these characters, I couldn’t pick a favorite if I tried. Usually in a book like this, some characters get more “screen time” than others, but in Baker Towers everyone is pretty much treated equally – giving the reader a complete understanding of all six of them.

Although the book is very focused on the evolution of the characters, there is certainly not a lack of plot to go along with that. The town of Bakerton changes quite a bit throughout the time period in the novel, and there are a ton of things that go on within the town as well as outside of it – one character spends time in the military, another lived and worked in D.C. as a young single woman, another character gets sick with diabetes, there is much discussion about coal mining and the toll it takes on people mentally and physically, and more. The town itself almost becomes a character, the way that Haigh paints the picture of daily life for the people who live there, who grow up and fall in love and buy houses of their own all in the same small town of Bakerton, brought the town to life for me.

I have come to appreciate Jennifer Haigh as a consistently fantastic writer who can truly create memorable, complicated characters, and Baker Towers was no exception. I can’t pick a favorite of her novels, but this was one more in the list of great ones.