Maggie & Me : Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland by Damian Barr

Revisit the Thatcher years as seen from the eyes of a working class teenager from a smallMaggie & Me town near Glasgow.

In 1984, eight year old Damian views Margaret Thatcher’s televised iconic survival from a bombing on the first night he is living in a stranger’s apartment after his parents split up.

The stranger is his mother’s new boyfriend, who turns out to be highly abusive to Damian and his sister.  It doesn’t help that his mother soon has another child with her boyfriend, and shortly after is hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage.  When his mom comes back home, they eventually leave the abusive boyfriend, but the next living arrangement is far from ideal.

His father still has his children every other weekend, and Damian is remains close to his dad, even though the dad’s girlfriend is a piece of work and tends to dominate things when the kids visit.

Growing up with his peers is not easy.  Damien is always the tallest and geekiest in his class.  He also knows early on that he is gay, and gets a lot of flack from the other kids for it.  He also meets some lasting friends and understanding teachers, finds that he’s good at most academics (math excepted), and has a life amidst the squalor that makes up home.

Damien comes to terms with Margaret Thatcher in his own fashion, alternatively seeing her as enemy or motivator.  That’s one of the things I liked about the book.  He has his issues with Thatcher, being from a working class environment, but doesn’t completely vilify her.  As a slight nod to the Iron Lady, each chapter begins with a Thatcher quote to set the tone.

While Margaret Thatcher’s era is the framework for Maggie & Me, the story is all Damian’s, and he renders his teenage years vividly.

(William Hicks, Information Services)




Northland : A 4,000-Mile Journey along America’s Forgotten Border by Porter Fox

northlandOur border with Canada is lengthy, and largely not thought of.  As news items go, the border with our southern neighbor gets all the press.  So it’s a shame that our longest frontier is little known.

In Northland, the author mixes history lessons and a grand tour by a variety of methods to enlighten the reader on the amazing variety of peoples and geography of the north.  He begins his journey in Maine, which he dubs “The Dawnland,” where he largely explores the region by boat.  He starts at the farthest eastern point of Maine, and then canoes the interior lakes between the United States and Canada.

In the Sweet -Water Seas section, Fox abandons his beloved canoe to traverse the Great Lakes area by cargo freighter.  This was for me the most interesting part of the book.  During his time on the freighter, the author gets to know the salty types who make a living hauling cargo.  They have rough jobs, made harder from tedium and days on end of trekking the Great Lakes.

In Boundary Waters, Fox explores the vast network of lakes in northern Minnesota, usually by canoe and often guided by locals.  In this part, he marvels at the sheer remoteness of the region, but yet how quickly the modern world intrudes.  A cell phone signal, the sound of a car door, the ordering of a pizza after days of canoe travel and camping – all of these are welcome but jarring after the solitude of the north country.

In the Seven Fires section, history and current events take center stage, specifically the recent Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Fox meets some key figures of the protests there and provides an overview of the Native American tribes that have called the Great Plains home for hundreds of years.

In the final section “The Medicine Line,” Fox ends his journey in the Pacific Northwest.  Even though most of this stretch of boundary is straight along the forty-ninth parallel, mapping and maintaining this part has been difficult, considering the terrain, which is largely mountainous.

Northland is a far-reaching observation of a boundary countries that takes into account a fascinating history, environmental issues, and the immense task of maintaining a border that has been contentious in the past and still an ordeal to patrol today.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Blue Like Jazz : Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller

blue like jazzMany years ago, while I was a part of a Bible study group, the leader of the group gave all of us a copy of Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.  Apparently, he was so smitten with the book that he wanted all of us to read it.  I actually read it and fell in love with  Miller’s unconventional journey in his Christian faith.  I wanted an adventure like him too, and to be able to tell the tale in an authentic voice.

After more than ten years of reading the book, with notes scribbled all over the pages and margins, I am revisiting it for a review.  Why did I like Blue Like Jazz so much?  It was refreshing to me after reading many books on Christianity.  Some Christian books feel like books of advice to me, but this one has a narrative, a story to tell, from a different and other perspective.  It has moments that everyone could relate to, for instance:

Believing in God is as much like falling in love as it is making a decision.  Love is both something that happens to you and something you decide upon.

Now that is something I can relate to, much more than an interpretation on Scripture that another book might do instead.  I am not saying that those types of books are bad and irrelevant –  just that someone young and open like me will most likely appreciate Miller’s open and poignant faith journey more.

However, I do not think Blue Like Jazz is a perfect book, as a review from stated that “the great failing of this book is the author’s belief that Christianity is a feeling, and is not something that can be rationally explained or understood.”  I believe it may be best to take this book as one man’s experience with Christianity, not the gospel truth, and get the best out of the book with that in mind.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a memoir; it inspires me to attempt to write my own.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)

The Debatable Land by Graham Robb

For those with an interest in British history, the border country of Scotland and EnglandDebatable Land is always a fascinating area to study.

The Debatable Land comprises the southwesternmost section of the Borders.  When the two countries were independent of each other, this area developed a long reputation for inaccessibility and lawlessness.  The reiver culture, in which rival families on both sides raided and stole from each other, defined much of the border region.

The Debatable Land functioned almost as a country unto itself.  Officials from either side were often clueless about governing the area.  The reivers themselves varied.  Certain high-handed individuals plundered their neighbors ruthlessly; others allied with whomever was the flavor of the month in power.  To call oneself English or Scottish was a state of flux.

This book is a study of the geography and the unique environment that gave rise to the culture of the borders.  The main focus of the book is the five hundred year stretch of time prior to the unification of Scotland and England, when the culture of the reivers was most active.  The author also expounds on Arthurian legend, Celtic and Roman influences in the area, and how the Scottish referendum of 2014 affected the border region.

The Debatable Land is fascinating in detail, but can be a bit of a slog in places.  However, for those who love historical minutiae and maps, and don’t mind digesting it slowly, the book is a worthwhile read.

If you’re interested in other books about the Borders of Scotland and England, try The Marches : A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland and/or Battle Valleys : A Portrait of the Border.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I borrowed a copy of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls years ago from a classmate.  Iglass castle was picking through his small bookshelf, and he recommended the book to me.  We had very different thoughts about what’s important in life, and I desperately wanted to know what was important to him because I wanted to understand him.  Now to the book.

The Glass Castle is a memoir of a woman who lived through poverty.  What I liked about the book, actually, is that the author did not wallow in it.  I liked that she did not go on about the misery of being poor and living in uncertain circumstances.  Jeannette has a story to tell, and I believe it’s not all about overcoming her impoverished childhood.  I believe a lot of it has to do with her relationship with her father, of coming to terms with who they were, and most importantly who they were together.  At least that is what I found poignant to me.

A few years after I had read the book almost feverishly, the movie was released.  I had long said goodbye to my classmate, but I still wanted to see the film.  So I did, and although I cannot say that it was a perfect movie, I thought that the director (Destin Daniel Cretton) casted the movie well, especially with Woody Harrelson as the father.  They were as believable to me as the real life characters I imagined them to be while reading the book.  Even though my memories of the details of the book were a little fuzzy by then, I believe Cretton did a good job overall of making the book come to life.

There is a beautiful passage in the book about a tree I want to share.  I will quote it here:

One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree.  I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house.  I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.  Mom frowned at me.  “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said.  “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”

Those words struck a chord in me as I have been through struggles in my own life as I am sure many have, albeit of a different kind.  What Jeanette’s mom calls beauty, I would like to call strength and character.  And they can be beautiful indeed.

I highly recommend discussing this book with your friends.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo

I must first confess that I was a little skeptical when I started reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Upthe popularlife changing organization book by Marie Kondo.  Let me also confess that I am fascinated with everything Japanese, but don’t believe that there is a magical way to clean your belongings, or that it can change your life.

I ended up abandoning the book a few pages in. What was most useful to me in the pages that I did read were how to fold clothes. I know it can be silly to know there are proper ways to fold articles of clothing, but I am now convinced, as I have adopted her methods of how to fold T-shirts and socks in my laundry routine. Kondo’s follow up book Spark Joy has further instructions with illustrations.

Even though I gave up on the book, I was relentless and checked out the audio CD upon realizing that there was such a copy. I am proud to report that I listened to the entire set.

I don’t think this book is just about the art of organizing. Please don’t let the title of a book fool you, because beneath its fancy cover usually hides the true message of the book. So what is the message behind The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, you ask? That is up to the reader’s interpretation, and I encourage you to read the book wholeheartedly and find out yourself.

Personally, even with the book’s inspirational methods, I am still trying to declutter a lifetime of belongings in my bedroom and it is painfully hard to let many things go. The book recommends that you purge your belongings as much as you can in one go, in a particular order by the type of items. The task is as much as a mountain to climb for me as it was when I first started. For me, the hardest part of the decluttering process is realizing that I don’t need so many things in my life for the sentimental value they hold.

Read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up if you need an extra nudge to clean. There are actually no magical quick and easy fixes, but the book will give you that extra nudge.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)


Kayak Morning : Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats by Roger Rosenblatt

Tkayakhe author muses on existence while navigating a kayak through the inlet waters of Long Island.

Loss and grief are the main themes here.  Rosenblatt’s grown-up daughter died a few years ago; his aquatic meanderings are his way of coping with feelings that refuse to disappear.

The setting for his adventures is Penniman Creek in Quogue, Long Island.  On his travels, Rosenblatt meditates on water and what it symbolizes.  He also observes the kayak itself, and how the construction of it makes it unique for navigation.

Rosenblatt’s companions during his solitude are blue herons and egrets, fish of all types, the occasional crab.  A reminder of death is a picked-over fish skeleton.

Kayak Morning is a book that is quickly read, but best savored slowly, a mashup of meditation, literature references, and open water.  It’s pretty much a book-length essay, but one that is broken up into easily digestible portions.  There’s a dreamlike poetic feel to much of it.

For outdoor enthusiasts and the bereaved, and anyone else who enjoys floating through good prose.

(William Hicks, Information Services)