Triggering books: When do you set them aside? When do you keep reading?

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image source: picjumbo.com

This question occurred to me because right now I’m reading Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid, a book that delves intensely into eating disorders and the deeply unhealthy thought patterns that are associated with them, and I’ve been struggling to decide whether or not to set the book aside. When I wrote about this book for Friday Bookbag, I mentioned that I was excited to see how the author handled the issue…and unfortunately, I’m not enjoying Reid’s take.

The cover copy led me to believe that Pretend We Are Lovely would have more of a dark humor component, when instead it’s just dark: we dip in and out of the thoughts of the four members of the Sobel family, all of whom have lots and lots of baggage around food. I also don’t think this book is very good, complicating things further, because I’m dealing with all of this unpleasantness without the payoff of beautiful language, plotting, characterization, and all the other things I expect from good fiction.

I’ve never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I do have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can create unhealthy eating patterns for me when it flares up. Pretend We Are Lovely has left me feeling jittery, anxious, and unhappy with all its reminders of the difficulty I’ve had managing my mental health at times, especially since so far, none of the Sobels are getting the help they need.

I do think I’ll finish it, but this has happened to me before, and I’m curious how other readers cope with this. This isn’t so much a matter of trigger warnings as what happens when a reader finds a book triggering for any reason, whether PTSD-related or due to another trauma or sensitivity. I knew this book would contain discussion of eating disorders, so I was warned, but I’m still finding it a much more difficult read than I had anticipated.

So, I thought I’d throw this problem out to the internet.

Have you ever read a book that triggers unpleasant or harmful thoughts and memories? Did you finish reading? Did you set it aside? Do you try and screen books for these triggers beforehand? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Review: LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Monday Reviews

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Penguin Press (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: September 12, 2017

9780735224292Some books, like this one, are magic. They succeed on every level, they hit every emotional sweet spot, they do things with words that remind me why writing is such a unique and incredible art form…and I just can’t explain why. This book struck me dumb with awe and gratitude. I finished it over a week ago, now, and I’m still struggling to articulate how much I loved it, because the truth is that I loved it too much for words.

Bear with me, folks.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story about a lot of things, but it’s especially the story of a place and two families that live there: Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a planned community struggling to cope with the rapidly encroaching mess unpredictability of the outside world; the Richardsons are a big, messy, mostly-happy upper-middle-class white family with deep roots; and mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren are newcomers no one can quite figure out. When Mia instigates an ugly custody battle between a young Chinese American woman, Bebe Chow, and the wealthy white neighbors who attempt to adopt her baby, May Ling, the community is blown open and family secrets laid bare.

The story isn’t told in order, and opens as the Richardsons’ house burns to the ground around them. From that first page, I was hooked. The closest book I can think to compare it to–though they’re not really similar at all–is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But where I found Eugenides’ book to be an arch, unpleasant, and chilly allegory for the folly of suburbia, Ng is deeply, warmly concerned with a real suburban community and characters so lifelike they might as well be real people.

I think “realistic” is a quality that can be overrated in fiction, because it’s fiction–why not take the opportunity to create something intricately, beautifully unreal? As long as an author does it well, I’m onboard. But Little Fires Everywhere did remind me of the magic and power of authors who write about the real world and understand real people: what we think like, what we act like, and what we care about. Ng not only understands people, but values them. She treats her characters–most of whom are painfully clueless, some borderline malicious–as if they are all worthy of love and respect. It’s revelatory, especially because Little Fires Everywhere is literary fiction, which is a genre that I think values coldness overmuch and compassion too little.

Every scene, no matter how slight, benefits from this loving characterization. Characters with only few paragraphs devoted to them are still given actions and dialogue that hints at the rich motivation within; central characters we thought we understood are given shake-ups that reveal new and satisfying depths. I particularly loved the (very) minor character of Mr. Yang, a tenant of the Richardsons and downstairs neighbor of the Warrens, and the more central characters of Trip and Moody, teenage Richardson sons who are tender and emotional and defy every dull and tired stereotype of teenage boys.

But of all these characters to fall in love with, my favorite was Mia Warren, whom we discover is a gifted photographer as well as mother and enigmatic drifter. A powerful theme of the book is the process of creation, punishing and healing by turns, whether it’s art-making or motherhood. I cried several times at this book, and each time it was because of that push and pull: the things mothers give up and the things their children give back; the things the children lose that their mothers want to stop them from losing but can’t; the bravery and vulnerability it takes to put art into the world.

I think most of us have at least some idea of what makes a good mother, but novels about visual artists can be especially hit or miss because we can’t see for ourselves whether a canvas or photograph is good or bad or mediocre–the author has to tell us. Thankfully, Ng has a light touch when describing Mia’s talents, trusting the mind’s eye of the reader to fill in the rest.

In fact, it’s been a long time since my mind’s eye felt so engaged in a novel. I was born in ’95 and thus have no memories of the late ’90s, I know nothing about Ohio, and I certainly knew nothing about Shaker Heights, but every scene is so carefully detailed, as lovingly costume-designed and set-dressed as a Wes Anderson movie (though less twee by half), that I felt there.

This absorbing, transporting quality is especially wonderful because Little Fires Everywhere is told in the omniscient 3rd-person, often hopping from mind-to-mind mid-scene, a technique I associate most with epic, impersonal fantasy novels and not with intimate family dramas. It turns out that–at least in Ng’s skilled hands–that mind-hopping can actually make a book more personal and more intimate. We don’t see one side of an argument, we see all of them: a good quality in a book filled with complicated and unwinnable arguments.

I could write a book-length love letter to this book. (Can you tell?) I could especially go on for hours about its razor-sharp critique of the kind of feel-good, orderly white liberalism that crumbles in the face of honest and difficult questions.

But I won’t go on any longer. I’ll just trust that you’ll read Little Fires Everywhere, and tell all your friends, and tell them to tell all of their friends, too. This book is miraculous. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.

My copy of Little Fires Everywhere came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

4 oldie-but-goodie books about food and farming to read this Thanksgiving

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image source: picjumbo.com

I love cooking, good food, and that peculiar quiet that happens when most stores and offices are closed (don’t get me started on Black Friday creep), so Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s also a holiday based on over-simplified feel-good fibs, and can also stir up unpleasantness about everything from eating disorder recovery to acrid family politics.

In other words, it’s complicated, kind of like our national relationship with food on the whole. To celebrate–or at least commemorate–the upcoming food frenzy, I’m sharing four of my favorite food and farming books that would be perfect for savoring over the long weekend.


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (with Camille Kingsolver and Steven L. Hopp

9780060852566Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Troubled by the ecological toll of modern agriculture, particularly the fossil fuel expenditures involved in transporting food from farm to grocery store to table, Barbara Kingsolver and family moved to Appalachia and embark on a year of local eating. The result is this book, which is adventurous, funny, alarming, warm, and also a love letter to Appalachia.

If you’re a fan of Kingsolver’s fiction, you know that she is deeply concerned with themes of family and sustainability, making this memoir–peppered with nonfiction reporting on food issues and environmentalism–even more charming. The window into Kingsolver and her family’s life is as precious as the window she opens onto our alienating modern food system.

Hit By a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn by Catherine Friend

9781569242988Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Certified city girl Catherine Friend fell in love with a woman who dreamed of farming, so the two picked up and moved to southeastern Minnesota to raise sheep and wine grapes. In Hit By a Farm, Friend explores the steep learning curves of both farming and long-term relationships, and it’s as much a book about her partnership with her now-wife Melissa as it is a book about farming.

Still, there’s plenty of farming and food commentary to be had, accompanied by a glimpse of the swath of writing life that exists between unpublished nobody and runaway bestseller–Friend is a moderately successful technical writer and romance author as well as farmer. This book is laugh-out-loud, bust-a-gut funny, and Friend’s no-nonsense approach to her relationship with Melissa makes this one of the great lesbian memoirs–if such a sub-genre exists–too.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

9781416551614Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Dirty Life is another fish-out-of-water memoir, recounting formerly-of-NYC writer Kristin Kimball’s whirlwind romance with a sustainability-minded farmer, and their move to a plot of land in Vermont that they slowly transform into a thriving CSA (a weekly share-based community-supported agriculture business). Kimball’s book is honest and gritty, featuring more of farming’s bitter disappointments than most books in the sustainable agriculture sub-genre, making it more credible and complex than the typical feel-good, permaculture-will-save-the-world story.

I spent my teens living on my mom’s failed hobby farm, and The Dirty Life came closest to capturing what that’s like (even though Kimball’s farm eventually does succeed). If you’re looking for an emotional rollercoaster and sensory feast of a farm memoir, this is it. (There’s also a memorable scene where she recounts eating a heart–if memory serves, a venison heart–stuffed with breadcrumbs. It’s a lot to take if you’re squeamish, but it’s certainly evocative.)

Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel

9780385420174Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

It’s a classic “food book” to the point of cliché, but for a reason–Like Water for Chocolate is one of the most sensual and lovely books about the power of food that there is. Esquivel’s novel follows the life of Tita, the youngest daughter in a wealthy Mexican family who is prohibited from marrying in order to devote her full attention to her aging mother. Tita’s heart breaks early when she has a forbidden fling with a man named Pedro, who eventually marries her sister. The story of Tita’s fight for independence is told through her cooking, which imparts whatever emotions Tita is experiencing upon whomever eats it.

Is it over-the-top? Absolutely. Is it gorgeous and memorable? Absolutely, again. I especially love the glimpse into family life during the Mexican Revolution and into a food tradition that’s very different from my German-Scandinavian-American family’s food traditions. The book is relatively short if memory serves, but if you’re in the mood for a three-hour drama fest, the film has its own sort of joy and magic. It’s in Spanish, but English subtitles are available, and the ridiculous image of Tita’s sister, Gertrudis, riding naked on horseback through the wilderness with a rebel soldier, is well worth it.


What are your favorite books about food? I’m always looking for good food journalism, food and farm memoirs, food-centric fiction, cookbooks, and more, so please leave your recommendations in the comments, especially if it’s a more obscure title than these four.

Because of the holiday, I’m skipping Friday Bookbag this week. I’ll be back on Monday with a review of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng!

Review: GINNY MOON by Benjamin Ludwig

Monday Reviews

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Park Row Books (imprint of Harlequin)

publication date: May 2, 2017

9780778330165Ginny Moon is a quirky book that doesn’t know it’s a quirky book. (This is a good thing.) The eponymous Ginny Moon is an autistic 14-year-old who survived an abusive mother only to find that those survival skills have left her ill-equipped for a safe home and a family that loves her, so she decides to run away from her adoptive family in order to reunite with her drug-addicted mother and her Baby Doll…who, we eventually discover, isn’t a doll after all.

It’s a lot for the reader to piece together, especially since the novel is told entirely from Ginny’s first-person, idiosyncratic, and utterly unselfconscious perspective. Ginny’s many obsessions–including Michael Jackson, Maine Coon cats, having 9 grapes for breakfast, gallons of milk, and her Baby Doll–are inexplicable to those around her, including her well-meaning but struggling adoptive family, her special education peers at school, and her therapist; surprisingly, Ludwig has captured Ginny’s voice in such a way that these obsessions make perfect sense to the reader, and that’s where this book’s magic lies.

Because Ginny Moon is so concerned with Ginny Moon herself and not just the people around her, it’s personal rather than alienating, often funny, sometimes sad, always compassionate, and overall the sort of story that I wish there were more of in the world. It’s also fast-paced and readable–I devoured it in two or three sittings–and I think it could have tremendous YA crossover appeal.

I’m still surprised at how much I liked this book because I almost returned it to the library unread, worried it was going to be a try-hard, “inspirational” disability story. I’m disabled myself, and I absolutely hate the garbage fire that is disability “inspiration porn” (which activist Stella Young so wonderfully condemns in this video). On the inside flap of Ginny Moon, Benjamin Ludwig’s author bio shares that “[s]hortly after he and his wife married, they became foster parents and adopted a teenager with autism.” It felt like a red flag that this book would fall into the “inspirational” trap, but but thankfully, that wasn’t the case at all: Ginny is Ginny, a well-rounded protagonist who is neither inspirational nor uninspired.

In fact, it’s actually Ludwig’s honest and nuanced writing that’s inspirational here. Ginny’s foster parents love her, but occasionally they fumble and are even borderline cruel at times. Ginny’s birth mother is a horrible parent, but it’s understandable how badly she wants to make things right. Ginny’s teachers and classmates want the best for her, but they also find Ginny’s single-minded desires obnoxious. And Ludwig captures all of this from Ginny’s point of view, conveying things to the reader that Ginny herself doesn’t understand, but without any distasteful winks to a neurotypical audience.

There are a few rough patches in the narrative, but they mainly stem from Ginny being so utterly sympathetic, not from some terrible flaw in the writing. I found myself craving a happy ending for Ginny so much that I felt almost fatigued with worry by the end of the book. Ginny’s autistic perspective is an interesting twist on the “how could [character] make such an obviously terrible decision?!?!?” problem that I sometimes have as a reader, since, for Ginny, it’s not a terrible or inexplicable decision at all. (And she’s not portrayed as pathetic or stupid for making those decisions, either–as much fault rests on the neurotypical people around her as does on Ginny.)

Ginny Moon resonates as a portrait of a misfit learning to live in the world–a theme that’s not unique to autistic kids and their foster parents. By placing Ginny’s voice front and center and trusting the reader to read between the lines, Ludwig has authored something truly affecting and gratifying, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from him. 4/5 stars.

My copy of Ginny Moon came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 11.17.17

friday bookbag

Today I’m trying something new: sharing a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise received this week. I’m calling it Friday Bookbag and I plan to make it a weekly feature. I love spreading the book love around and it’s a nice way to give attention to some books I might not get the chance to review.

And so, without further ado, here are this week’s new books!


Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid

9781941040669It’s the summer of 1982 in Blacksburg, Virginia–seven years after the suspicious death of a son and sibling–and the Sobel family is hungry.

Francie dresses in tennis skirts and ankle socks and weighs her grams of allotted carrots and iceberg lettuce. Her semi-estranged husband Tate prefers a packed fridge and hidden donuts. Daughters Enid, ten, and Vivvy, almost thirteen, are subtler versions of their parents, measuring their summer vacation by meals had or meals skipped. But at summer’s end, secrets both old and new emerge and Francie disappears, leaving the family teetering on the brink.

Told from alternating points of view by the four living Sobels, Pretend We Are Lovely is a sharp and darkly funny story of forgiveness, family secrets, and the losses we inherit. At its core is the ever-complicated and deeply-devoted bond of sisterhood as the girls, left mostly to their own devices, must navigate their way through school, find comfort in each other, and learn the difference between food and nourishment.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I love stories about family secrets and I especially love compassionate and funny stories about mental illness. I hope this book fits the bill for both.

There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon

9780307907943From the award-winning novelist Mary Gordon, here is a book whose twentieth-century wisdom can help us understand the difficulties we face in the twenty-first: There Your Heart Lies is a deeply moving novel about an American woman’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War, the lessons she learned, and how her story will shape her granddaughter’s path.

Marian cut herself off from her wealthy, conservative Irish Catholic family when she volunteered during the Spanish Civil War–an experience she has always kept to herself. Now in her nineties, she shares her Rhode Island cottage with her granddaughter, Amelia, a young woman of good heart but with only a vague notion of life’s purpose. Their daily existence is intertwined with Marian’s secret past: the blow to her youthful idealism when she witnessed the brutalities on both sides of Franco’s war and the romance that left her trapped in Spain in perilous circumstances for nearly a decade. When Marian is diagnosed with cancer, she finally speaks about what happened to her during those years–personal and ethical challenges nearly unthinkable to Amelia’s millennial generation, as well as the unexpected gifts of true love and true friendship.

Marian’s story compels Amelia to make her own journey to Spain, to reconcile her grandmother’s past with her own uncertain future. With their exquisite female bond at its core, this novel, which explores how character is forged in a particular moment in history and passed down through the generations, is especially relevant in our own time. It is a call to arms–a call to speak honestly about evil when it is before us, and to speak equally about goodness.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I’ll admit that I saw the mention of the Spanish Civil War and got tunnel vision–I’m really interested in that period in history and I’m curious as to how the novel will handle it. I find the blurb wordy and heavy-handed (especially with the weird reference to the “millennial generation”) but I’m willing to take a chance on this one since sometimes blurbs are misleading. I have a good feeling!

The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

9781476761466What happens to the girl left behind?

When a masked gunman enters a local sandwich shop in broad daylight, Meredith Oliver suddenly finds herself on the filthy floor, cowering face-to-face with her nemesis, Lisa Bellow–the most popular girl in her eighth-grade class. Lying there, Meredith is utterly convinced she is going to die. Then the gunman orders Lisa Bellow to stand and come with him, leaving Meredith behind.

As the community stages vigils and searches, Meredith’s mother, Claire, toggles between jubilation that her daughter is alive and the grievous knowledge that she is irreparably changed. Her daughter is here, but not–and Claire grows desperate to reach Meredith. But Meredith is in a place where Claire can’t go, following Lisa Bellow where no one else can.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow is gripping and original, a hair-raising exploration of the ripple effects of an unthinkable crime and a dark, beautifully rendered illustration of how one family, broken by tragedy, searches for healing.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I like literary fiction that has a thriller tinge (as well as full-on literary thrillers in the vein of Gillian Flynn), and this book seems to have that suspenseful edge to it. I’m not sure how big a role gun violence will play in this book (other than the reference to the masked gunman), but that element also seems timely.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? Let me know in the comments and feel free to link to your own book reviews and  blog posts!

Review: HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

Monday Reviews

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: June 7, 2016

9781101947135Some books are so flawless they skate through my memory, leaving a pleasant aura in their wake but not much else. Homegoing is not one of those books: it’s flawed, frightening, ambitious, and hopeful, and best of all, it sticks with you.

Since I first picked up Homegoing two weeks ago, I have not gone a day without thinking about it, struggling with it, and marveling at it. Yaa Gyasi has achieved something remarkable here, and this book is everything I want literary fiction to be.

The story spans over 300 years, exploring the lives and bloodlines of two half-sisters–each unaware of the other’s existence–born near the Gold Coast. One sister achieves a life of relative privilege as the “wife” (read: glorified mistress) of a British slave trader, while the other is sold into slavery in the fledgling United States. Evil and suffering taint both branches of the family, including those left in Ghana, who must slowly reckon with their complacency and cooperation in the transatlantic slave trade.

The novel sags in the middle, especially because of its unusual structure: each chapter is told from the perspective of one member of one generation (alternating between branches of the family), and just as you expect to settle into one story, you are jolted to the next. Some of these stories are more riveting than others: standout chapters belong to Quey Collins, a half-British, half-Fante boy forced to choose between British colonial expectations and happiness; Kojo Freeman, a free black man in the 1850s whose life is upended by the Fugitive Slave Act; Willie Black, a gifted singer who trades the Jim Crow South for the subtler segregation of New York City in the early 1900s; and Marjorie Agyekum, who struggles with her Ghanaian-American identity, unable to assimilate into whiteness but equally barred from assimilating into American blackness.

Between these standout chapters, I occasionally found myself bored, and I was also sometimes irritated by the borderline deus ex machina resolutions of certain character arcs. But these are minor quibbles compared with the enormous payoff of Gyasi’s risk-taking: a novel that reckons with the cost of slavery to both sides of the Atlantic.

Gyasi pulls off this historical epic because she grounds it intimately in present-day discussions of race. Homegoing clarifies the connection between the enslavement, torture, and rape of black people 300 years ago and today’s racism, mass incarceration, and police brutality; it also illuminates the less-considered legacy of those who cooperated with the British and were both rewarded and condemned as a result.

All that, and it’s still a damn good story–Homegoing is not Metamucil for guilty (white) readers, but rather a literary banquet as complex as the African diaspora itself.

Through fiction, Gyasi achieves something history textbooks rarely do: she finds the lives in our facts and the questions in our answers. She finds nuance in the blunt horrors of American racism and absolution in the lives of modern-day Ghanaians. Homegoing is a debut of the highest order, and Gyasi is a writer to watch. 4/5 stars.

My copy of Homegoing came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Analyzing Minneapolis-St. Paul’s progressive bike policy at Mother Earth News

You might recall that I wrote a post for Mother Earth News’s Green Transportation blog a few months ago, and I’m delighted to say that my work will be continuing to appear there once or twice a month! I’ll be covering transportation policy from bike lanes to electric cars to equitable public transit with a special focus on the Minneapolis-St. Paul (Twin Cities) area.

This week I wrote about Minneapolis-St. Paul’s progressive bike policy, exciting increases in ridership, and the public health implications. You can read it at this link.