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White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (audio)

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Audible, 6+ hrs.
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White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo, narrated by Amy Landon, takes a sociologists’ approach to race (which does involve generalizations). White Americans must remember that we are products of our socialization and culture, and no aspect of society lies outside the forces of racism, even if you come from a mixed-race family, had ancestors who were once discriminated against (Irish, Italian, etc.), or experienced poverty, etc. The trick is not to see our unique experiences as making us exempt from racism but to see how those experiences shaped who we are within a racist society and to see the larger picture of how racism impacts others. Secondly, she says we need to redefine the term “racist” — we’ve been taught that racists are immoral and mean and that they consciously hate/oppress others based upon their race. However, this assumption is a societal definition propagated by a racist society. White people need to first examine what it means to be white and what that has brought them in society and cost others — this examination will be a struggle for many.

Superficial differences between races and genders are a result of geographical location and evolution, but biologically we are all the same. The race construct is just that – made up. White supremacy has taken that construct and divided resources based on a false hierarchy, hence the accessibility gaps for non-white groups and non-male groups. Many of these discussions are ones I’ve had before in college with courses and other groups — open dialogue is essential about things that are not “fact” even though they were credited as such. She does touch on exploitation is the catalyst for racism (I would read Stamped From the Beginning for more on this).

Imagine going to court to proclaim you are white because you were misclassified as another race! This actually occurred and scientific experts were called in these cases. DiAngelo indicates that those European immigrants are the only one who were successful in becoming “white” after assimilation, etc. Assimilation — think about that — casting aside their customs, speaking English only, and eating only American foods, etc. Those assimilated people now benefit from their whiteness. DiAngelo also points out that if poor and working class Americans across all “races” worked together – they could become a powerful force against the upper “white” classes. However, many perceived as “white” also tend to look down on other poor and working class peoples because of their “whiteness” and the system that oppresses them both. The irony!

“Scholar Marilyn Frye uses the metaphor of a birdcage to describe the interlocking forces of oppression.16 If you stand close to a birdcage and press your face against the wires, your perception of the bars will disappear and you will have an almost unobstructed view of the bird. If you turn your head to examine one wire of the cage closely, you will not be able to see the other wires. If your understanding of the cage is based on this myopic view, you may not understand why the bird doesn’t just go around the single wire and fly away. You might even assume that the bird liked or chose its place in the cage.

But if you stepped back and took a wider view, you would begin to see that the wires come together in an interlocking pattern—a pattern that works to hold the bird firmly in place. It now becomes clear that a network of systematically related barriers surrounds the bird.

Taken individually, none of these barriers would be that difficult for the bird to get around, but because they interlock with each other, they thoroughly restrict the bird. While some birds may escape from the cage, most will not. And certainly those that do escape will have to navigate many barriers that birds outside the cage do not.”

We all have prejudices (it is the way our brain operates) or a sense of discomfort around certain people or groups — acting on those prejudices is discrimination. Racism is a structure (white supremacy) and we need to remember that we have a role to play in that structure. We need to learn to recognize our prejudices and work toward not acting on them and dismantling the structures that employ discrimination against groups different from white males. This is a tall order because many of these ideologies are reinforced in daily lives.

One notion that came to mind, however, is the “kafkatrap” by which an accused is guilty by merely being silent. Many of us are silent, many of us fail to stand up and point out discrimination (even subtle discrimination), and does this mean we’re all complicit in racism? While this may be true, I prefer less circular arguments and prefer that we work as a human race to improve our systems for all of us. THIS will require us to have discomforting conversations and require actions that run counter to our normal daily actions. It will require us to reform and dismantle white supremacy. We’ll need to widen our view of history, particularly in schools, to acknowledge both the good and bad, highlighting those who have exploited and committed racism to obtain the upper economic hand, among other things.

My only complaint is that DiAngelo was very repetitive toward the end. She would bring up examples she already used and talk about them again in the same manner she did in the previous chapter. I wouldn’t have noticed it as much if it wasn’t back-to-back repetition. Perhaps she believes repetition will stick with readers more and help them to see the situations she discusses in a new light. I’m unsure.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo, narrated by Amy Landon, asks us to recognize our faults, work to fix them, and to question ideologies that are considered the norm. There is much work to do. Challenging racism starts with recognizing your own prejudices and being conscious of how to modify/change your reactions and behaviors going forward. This is a very academic look at racism, which some may find too high-brow for them. Racism is real and present today (across the globe) — it is not a thing of the past, and we need to tackle it head on and in a multitude of ways. While some of her arguments are circular, she provides a good overview of racism in today’s society and the reactions that white people have when confronted with its subtleties.

RATING: Quatrain

The Other America – A Speech from The Radical King by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (audio)

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Audible, 25 min.
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The Other America – A Speech from The Radical King by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., read by Wanda Sykes, is as relevant today as it has ever been. It is one of 23 speeches and essays from The Radical King, curated by Dr. Cornel West, including words never recorded in public. This is a speech was given at the “Salute to Freedom” organized by the Local 1199 in New York City and outlines his Poor People’s Campaign.

I am on the fence about Sykes’ rendition of this speech. At points I felt like she was passionate about it, but at others I felt like she were merely reading by rote.

“You see, no labor is really menial unless you’re not getting adequate wages. People are always talking about menial labor. But if you’re getting a good (wage) as I know that through some unions they’ve brought it up…that isn’t menial labor. What makes it menial is the income, the wages.”

While not from a Black family, I can tell you that as a women from a working class family, this is no less true. My father toiled for pitiful wages most of my childhood, even if he worked 40+ hours a week. The plague for the Blacks in this country is also compounded by their involuntary work as slaves — forced labor. When you can barely afford food to feed your family after bills are paid even if the labor is honest and hard work, it is clear there is something wrong with the way those jobs are compensated. People in the working class and elsewhere are as equally frustrated as they are now.

Take that 25 minutes to listen to The Other America – A Speech from The Radical King by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., read by Wanda Sykes. All men are created equal, but not in a society where wealth gaps continue to grow and justice is not served. We need to DEMAND justice.

RATING: Quatrain

Keep Moving by Maggie Smith

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Audible, 2+ hrs.
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Keep Moving by Maggie Smith, read by the author, is read in that dreaded “poet voice” that’s been in a number of articles, and it drove me crazy. I had to look past that cadence to hear Smith’s words clearly. So if that cadence bothers you, you’ll want to read the book, as opposed to listen to it.

Beyond that, this book offers notes on loss and grief of a recently divorced woman who is continuing her life journey in a way she never expected – without a life partner. It is clear that “keep moving” was a mantra she used to get through the loss of her marriage and the deaths of others. She speaks about living in the present each day and not dwelling in the past that can pull you deep into sadness and make you immobile. Her notes and stories can help those facing similar losses move forward, but in many ways it is like Smith is speaking to herself. We’re getting a sneak peak into her diary.

I love that she focuses on post-traumatic growth in one section of this memoir. This helps us to see beyond the darkness to see the positives in our trials and losses. I liked this the most about the book. Focus on that beginning, push past our fears and explore new avenues for growth. You can even think about professional growth as a way to fill the emptiness left behind.

There is, however, very little about being creative during this time. This is more of an emotional journey and there are snippets of some creative pursuits and nods to the literary community, but no advice on that front, which is what I wanted when I decided to check this out.

Keep Moving by Maggie Smith is about moving forward after irrevocable change, and we need to learn to move beyond our expectations and sadness to see the good, the moments for growth, and how small steps can lead to great, gratifying changes. She also speaks about how you can snowball that movement into helping others. Moving toward living, not just coping.

RATING: Tercet

Frankie Sparks and the Big Sled Challenge by Megan Frazer Blakemore

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Paperback, 128 pgs.
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Frankie Sparks and the Big Sled Challenge by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, is the third book in the third-grade inventor series that combines science, engineering, and social quandaries in one fun story. Frankie wants to enter the Big Sled Challenge after descending Extreme Maximus, the largest hill in their town on her saucer sled. The experience was a bit jarring, especially when her classmate Lila Jones points out that Frankie did hesitate to go down the big hill not once but twice. Frankie now feels like she has to prove something to herself and Lila. She wants to prove that she’s the best third-grade inventor.

Frankie and Maya need a third teammate, but Frankie soon finds out that her practical choice because of her size and smarts is already on another team. She must cope with disappointment. Ravi is enthusiastic to join the team and he brings with him a lot of ideas, but Frankie is very dismissive and seems to think because she’s an inventor that she’s in charge, but that’s not the meaning of teamwork. In this book, Frankie must expand her horizons, learn patience, and understand what it means to be part of a team.

These books can be read out of order, but you’ll have a greater understanding of Frankie and her struggles in social situations if you do read them in order. Frankie Sparks and the Big Sled Challenge by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, as always tells a story using science in a kid-friendly way, offers tips for kids at the back of the book on how they can do their own inventing, and provides life lessons about working in teams, socializing with others, learning how to compromise and develop patience.

RATING: Cinquain

Political AF: A Rage Collection by Tara Campbell

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Paperback, 74 pgs.
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Political AF: A Rage Collection by Tara Campbell is a slim collection with a powerful anthem and story arc that begins with “The meadow.” This prose poem sets the reader up for the themes to come — self-indulgence, dark desire and hate, outrage, and pain. That meadow is the nation that certain people have built, hiding it behind the ideals of liberty, while at the same time bleeding its people and waiting for the blood to spill.

The anthem of this collection, “Shut up and dribble,” is a chant that calls us to action. We [and I mean everyone, not just the oppressed] should not be silent like they tell us, we should rise up for the ideals and equality denied. This is personified in “Four-cent Father,” a poem in which the death of a Black man in his own garage is settled with four cents. How can a man’s life be worth so little, and how can a man who plays music in his garage be killed by bullets? He was minding his own business, he was spending time at his home — his home was not his castle, he was not safe.

There is a deep, simmering rage in this collection. A raging against injustice, a raging against the expectations of a society that’s created a false sense of justice, and a rage that builds against the circumstances created by these illusions. “Would my grandmother’s/German immigrant bones/have ached for the man/she would never have known/but for the slavers’ greed?’ (“After the Pedestal,” pg. 21) The “American Beast” rears its ugly head, slithering under the covers and slipping into rooms where “rumbling in the voices of grownups/speaking softly after dinner/about the problems of the world.//” (pg. 25) and becomes commonplace.

The poems in Political AF: A Rage Collection by Tara Campbell will get under your skin, making you uncomfortable not just in the dark but in the light of day. These poems call on us to break the silence, acknowledge the horrors of the past, see the bleak present, and get off our butts and do something about it.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Tara Campbell is a Kimbilio Fellow, a fiction editor at Barrelhouse, and an MFA candidate at American University. Publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Jellyfish Review, Booth, Strange Horizons, and Luna Station Quarterly.

She is the recipient of the following awards from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities: the 2016 Larry Neal Writers’ Award in Adult Fiction, the 2016 Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist, and Arts and Humanities Fellowships for 2018 and 2019. She is also a recipient of the 2018 Robert Gover Story Prize.

Her novel TreeVolution was published in 2016, followed in 2018 by her hybrid fiction/poetry collection Circe’s Bicycle. Her third book, a short story collection called Midnight at the Organporium, will be released by Aqueduct Press in 2019.

Out of No Way by Rojé Augustin

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Paperback, 156 pgs.
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Out of No Way by Rojé Augustin, which toured with Poetic Book Tours, is a poetic drama that explores not only the complex woman of Madam C.J. Walker, but also her relationship with her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, who continues the Walker legacy. Sarah Breedlove, who became Madam C.J. Walker, was the first free born child to former Louisiana slaves. Her life was far from easy, orphaned at age seven and married at age 14, but she never let that stop her. She was determined to give her family a better life even as the obstacles like Jim Crow mounted and hatred were everywhere and out in the open. After years of back-breaking labor, earning very little, Madam C.J. Walker invented a hair care formula for Black women and she built an empire, training a number of women as sale agents.

“Out of No Way (which takes its title from an old saying in the African American community to ‘make a way out of no way,’ or to thrive against impossible odds)” (pg. xi)

This title is ever present throughout the poetic drama. It explores the mother-daughter relationship through not only narratives and lyrics, but also sonnets and haiku, elegies, and so many other forms. How can a daughter live up to her mother’s legacy — a mother who struggled to provide the best for her family and did little mothering? From “Le Wa. Ro,” “I became beautiful but bored, and now I find that my things do nothing to my shadows, they are merely sharpened and darkened and cast in high relief…” (pg. 12) Could she live in the shadow of the empire or would she break out on her own?

Augustin chronicles not only the mother’s building of her family and the business, but also the struggles of a daughter who feels abandoned by her traveling mother. “The Lost Letters, 1905-1908” are a testament to these struggles — “Forgive me if I sound hopeless,/It’s just so lonely in St. Louis.” (pg. 27)

Augustin’s poems go beyond the relationship of these two women, touching on the empowerment these women found in their own careers, building their own inner strength. Like in “Why Our Hair is not Straight,” Black women’s hair is not straight because they “curve while dancing” or because “we swirl with high hopes” or because “we bend in prayer.” These women needed to be flexible, to meet the obstacles and find a way around them. Although not always the best or ideal option, some choices left scars.

Augustin’s blackout poem, “Sculptures of Envy,” takes on advertisements for Walker’s hair care system to explore the envy felt by women everywhere when they see another with the appearance or the job they want and how appearance, and hair especially, is a must if women want the job. Black women are particularly held to a different standard. Each of the blackout poems in this section are very exploratory about appearance, envy, desire, and how Black women can take back their power through hair care.

Like the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Out of No Way by Rojé Augustin explores how oppression harms not only the oppressed by the oppressor. Her words in “Resilience: Making a Way Out of No Way” (a fictitious speech by Madam C.J. Walker), “For the oppressed, the damage is self-evident. For the oppressor, it gives rise to a violent and divided society where the unbridled pressures of injustice rise to a level of self-destruction. White supremacy is the moral ignorance that will destroy America if left unchecked.” (pg. 90)

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Rojé Augustin is a native New Yorker who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her first novel, The Unraveling of Bebe Jones, won the 2013 National Indie Excellence Award in African American fiction. She wrote the novel while living in London and Sydney as a stay-at-home-mom. She established Breaknight Films shortly after her move to Sydney in 2009 to develop and produce television projects across a range of formats, including television, web, and audio. Her first Sydney based project was a podcast and visual web series called The Right Space, which explores the relationship between creatives and their workspace. Rojé continues to work as a television producer while also writing in her spare time. She is an Australian citizen who currently lives in Sydney with her Aussie husband and two daughters.

Raising King by Joseph Ross

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Paperback, 144 pgs.
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As in stated in the introduction to Raising King by Joseph Ross, Dr. King “knew racism disfigured the white people who used it. Thus, he focused his life in such a way, built on compassion, that his work might free both those who suffer from racism and those who inflict the suffering.” Throughout this collection, Dr. King’s compassion infuses each line, even though “the boat [the slaves were on] is dust./The whip//survives.” (“Martin Luther King, Jr. — Prologue,” pg. 9)

The backbone of these poems are Dr. King’s own words in Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where Do We Go From Here. Through Dr. King’s words and teachings, Ross has recreated a compassionate look at a man frustrated with a system of oppression, but determined to save his oppressors and the oppressed. “a lunch counter/become[s] an altar,” but only after significant training in nonviolence. (“Be Broken,” pg. 32-3) This compassion stems from the realization that many whites who oppress have inherited their hate (it’s what they know, all they know, how they were taught). In “Inheritance,” Dr. King’s voice rings true: “I will not/destroy him just because/someone taught him//to destroy me.//” (pg. 37-8)

Compassion is often seen as a weakness, but in reality it is the strongest weapon we have against barbarity.

Bomb (pg.40)

War is like this: two women,
a baby, a man gone, a man lost.

I was lost like this: a baby
in the back bedroom.

a wife shaking, unable to be
still. A friend, calm but about

to break.

A crowd gathered. I ran home
to see what was left of me.

The crowd was angry.
I wanted their anger 

to love my own. But my wife's
shaking stopped, keeping me

from breaking.

Keeping me from becoming
the bomb I feared.

It is compassion and empathy that strengthen our character and our ability to rise above the baseness of our human nature.”We have not been victorious//over anyone. We want to ride/beside everyone.” (“We Prepared,” pg. 49) The collection also includes commandments as Dr. King’s movement becomes more urgent, almost as though he knows that the opportunity for real change is fleeting.

Ross’s poems are still relevant to the struggles we continue to face, with “Sheet, Cross, and Flame” calling to mind some recent reactions by parties who have lost and continue to rage against those losses. But Dr. King reminds us in Ross’s poems “Manners and decency/reach down and pat us//on the head. This is/about me grabbing//your hand demanding/you ask my permission//before you touch me.//” (“Decency,” pg. 108) With Ross’s words and poems, Dr. King rises again and leads by teaching.

I’m so glad that my last book of 2020 was Raising King by Joseph Ross. It was a comfort to read these words and remember why I treat others with compassion when I can, especially when it is hard to do so. While we must “choose//never to throw them [stones]//at one another” (“Chaos or Community,” pg. 136-7), we also need to “Let the/bones//rest.” (“The Bones,” pg. 119)

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Joseph Ross is the author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020), Ache (2017), Gospel of Dust (2013), and Meeting Bone Man (2012). His poetry has appeared in a wide variety of publications including The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The Southern Quarterly, Xavier Review, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Sojourners. His work appears in many anthologies including What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump, edited by Martin Espada. His poems also appear in Collective Brightness, Poetic Voices without Borders 1 and 2, Full Moon on K Street, and Come Together; Imagine Peace. He served as the 23rd Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, just outside Washington, D.C. He is a seven-time Pushcart Prize nominee, most recently for “The Mountain Top,” from Raising King. His poem “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” won the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. As a teacher and writer, Ross was awarded the University of Notre Dame’s Reinhold Niebuhr Award in 1997 and the William A. Toohey, C.S.C. Award in 1993. In 2006, he was awarded Teacher of the Year by the senior class at Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. In 2020, he delivered the Robert L. Giron Global Humanities Lecture for Montgomery College, Takoma Park, Maryland. The lecture was titled: “Literature Consoles and Confronts: When Poetry Is a Tool for Justice.”

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (audio)

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Audiobook, 1+ hours
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The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, narrated by Vanessa Redgrave, is an adaptation of Joan Didion’s memoir of the same name. It has been transformed into a one-act play. The devastation felt by Didion is immense but the undulating way in which this story is told is as disjointed as her emotions must have been during this time in her life, losing a husband and daughter. This shattering loss propelled the author into a world of magical thinking.

There’s an examination of marriage and its push and pull and the motherly promise that you’ll never leave your child. There is that magical thinking that your own motherly focus can keep things moving forward into the future as you’d like them to be.

Redgrave is the perfect narrator for this play. Her voice lulls you into the story and breaks your heart when Didion’s is broken. But Didion’s narrative is also very factual and linear in some parts. I honestly think this is probably best viewed as a play, rather than on audio because my mind would wander away from the story when it was a bit too clinical. I might read the memoir at a later date.

RATING: Tercet

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey (audio)

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Audible, 6+ hours

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Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey, narrated by himself, is a look at his 50 years of life and his outlaw code and how he’s lived his life and what he’s learned by living it. If you’re looking for gossip, this is not the book for you. I did like his approach to Hollywood and rebranding himself as an actor — that was definitely a risk and it panned out for him.

His career is one of luck, perseverance, hard work, and self-examination. Unlike many people, he pauses to think about where he is in life and analyze why he feels stagnant or unsatisfied when he seemingly has everything he could ever want. Like those of us who strive to learn and grow, he pauses to examine his life and make changes he thinks will lead him where he wants to go. As he says, sometimes there are red lights in life and sometimes there are yellow and green lights — he notes that a red light at one point in your life might turn green eventually later on. You have to be aware enough to know why the lights are red, move forward and return to those lights to see them turn green when it is the right time.

His early years with his family and his stay in Australia were very eye opening and I can say I applaud him and his upbringing for tolerating that Australian family like he did. I think I would have lost it. He does include some “prescriptions,” bumper stickers, and poems. These are what he considers some insightful advice, which it could be for those who haven’t experienced these teachable moments or who need something to articulate what they’re feeling in a succinct way. It seemed like he was shouting these sections at you in the audio, which got more obnoxious as I listened (but it might be less annoying if you don’t listen to it too long in one sitting). My one main issue here is people will probably take this as life lessons for them, and these will not work in every day people’s lives because they have obligations that are bigger than these seemingly easy fixes he talks about.

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey is a series of stories that are likely a bit inflated (at least one had to be hyperbole). It was entertaining, but not life affirming or life changing. And while the stories are fun and sometimes outrageous, they are by no means that deep and tell us little beyond what we know about McConaughey and his “outlaw” look at life. I use the “outlaw” term very loosely here. Judging on his performance alone (which was stellar) would be a disservice to the content. I do admire his self-awareness, and that’s something others should take note of and try to incorporate into their lives.

RATING: Tercet

The Haunted Library: The Ghost at the Fire Station by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Aurore Damant

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Paperback, 128 pgs.

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The Haunted Library: The Ghost at the Fire Station by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Aurore Damant, is the sixth book in this series that pairs a young elementary school girl, Claire, with a ghost boy, Kaz, and sets them off on haunted mysteries to solve. Kaz has a case of his own, tracking down his lost family, and throughout the series he’s had a little bit of luck, but there are more missing members of his family to find.

C&K Ghost Detectives, however, are called to work on another ghost mystery — this time at the local fire station. Some of the firefighters have heard moaning and their blankets have been stolen in the night. Sparky, the fire station dog, also seems to sense where the ghost is in the station, refusing to enter the TV room and sometimes the main garage where the fire trucks are. Is the dog a ghost detector or is his strange behavior due to something else? That’s what Kaz and Claire are there to find out.

My daughter loves the humor and fun in this book, as well as the antics of Little John, Kaz’s brother. This is a series that is fun and full of adventure. The illustrations are great and there are some new characters introduced who we’d like to see in future books. The Haunted Library: The Ghost at the Fire Station by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Aurore Damant, is a delight with fresh mysteries and stories to carry the books into the next. We definitely recommend reading these in order.

RATING: Quatrain

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (audio)

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Audible, 11+ hours

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Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, narrated by Stephen Lang, is a ghost story from the beginning to the end, but Judas Coyne (formerly Justin Cowzynski) is an unlikable character with a penchant for collecting macabre items. This penchant is what gets him into a big mess — all of his sins come to roost as he battles the unseen man tied to a suit he buys online in a heart-shaped box. He has effectively retired from public life after his bandmates have either killed themselves or died, but little else has changed with his life — still moving from woman to woman and collecting oddities on the underground web.

Lang is a decent narrator no matter the character and he has the timbre to create a creepy atmosphere.

Jude and his latest woman (like all his women are called by their former state of residence) find that they are locked together in a battle against a ghostly man who is out for revenge. It’s clear this ghost hasn’t had a lot of practice with revenge from beyond the grave, but Jude gets some help from his former girlfriend who has been dead for some time. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, narrated by Stephen Lang, is a dark tale of beyond-the-grave revenge.

RATING: Quatrain

The Great Upending by Beth Kephart

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Hardcover, 272 pgs.

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The Great Upending by Beth Kephart is a story with mystery, family, and lives turned upside down in unexpected ways that will create long-lasting bonds. Sara and Hawk Scholl are siblings living on a rural farm in Pennsylvania, a farm that has seen its share of troubles and there’s no end in sight to them. Twelve-year-old Sara has Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue, and she needs a rather expensive operation that her financially strapped parents cannot afford.

The farm in this story is alive with animals running, prize birds escaping, and a Mister renting out the family’s converted silo. The kids have chores and the parents are praying for rain to end one of the worst droughts they’ve ever experienced. The Mister is a mystery, and even though they are told to keep their distance, they can’t help by spy on him from the roof or a nearby tree. Kephart’s prose is as poetic as always, even as she describes a disease that can mean an early death for many who have it.

“It all comes down to glue. I’m a body built out of stretch.” (pg. 29)

“The only rain that’s anywhere is the rain that rains eyes to chin, over the long stretching stretch of my thinking, and now, downstairs, I hear Mom and Dad talking. I hear the number we need: twenty grand for Sara’s surgery.” (pg. 78)

“I take a picture, which is like a seed, the way it keeps its beauty folded in.” (pg. 205)

From the love of reading to the vivid, wild pull of imagination, Sara and Hawk are drawn into their own mystery and start making plans to help the stranger who is helping them, even if the money from his rent is not enough to cover the bills or the dream of surgery her parents carry for Sara. These siblings are tied by the bond of family, but they’re also conspirators in a tale of salvation and preserving the thrill of imagination. The Great Upending by Beth Kephart is gorgeously rendered and brings to life the beauty and hardship of farm life and the struggles a young girl with Marfan syndrome can face, but how those hardships are only part of the story.

RATING: Quatrain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of twenty-two books, publishing memoir, young adult literature, a corporate fairytale, an autobiography of a river, and an essay/photography collection.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham), based in part on Kephart’s teaching at Penn (where she won the 2015 Beltran Teaching Award), won the 2013 Books for a Better Life Award (Motivational Category), was featured as a top writing book by O Magazine, and was named a Best Writing Book by Poets and Writers. Small Damages (Philomel) was named a 2013 Carolyn W. Field Honor Book and a best book of the year by many publications. Going Over (Chronicle) was the 2014 Parents’ Choice, Gold Medal Winner/Historical Fiction and a Booklist Editor’s Choice. One Thing Stolen (Chronicle) was a 2015 Parents’ Choice Gold Medal winner. Kephart’s 2014 Shebooks e-memoir is Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss One Wing at a Time. Her 2013 middle grade historical novel, Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent (Temple University Press), was named a top book of the year by Kirkus.

Kephart is a National Book Award nominee and a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize. She writes a monthly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune, has given keynote addresses on the state of literature and teaching, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards, the National Endowment for the Arts, and PEN. 

Kephart was one of 50 Philadelphia writers chosen for the year-long Philadelphia’s Literary Legacy, exhibited at the Philadelphia International Airport. Excerpts from her Love: A Philadelphia Affair were the subject of a six-month Airport exhibit. She is a Radnor High Hall of Fame.

Kephart is the co-founder of Juncture Workshops, offering memoir workshops and resources to writers across the country.