The Low Desert by Tod Goldberg

The characters in The Low Desert are gangsters, murders, criminals, and those caught up in the underbelly of the brutal world of crime and broken lives. The stories maybe cringe-worthy, frightening, and sad, but Tod Goldberg finds the heart and depth of his characters, their insights and longings—though their insights and longings may be fabrications, justifications and just plain wrong, leading them to more bad choices, more death.  Still we come to care about what happens to them, even as we want to step away from the pain they cause others, and themselves.  Goldberg’s writing is so solid, and brave, that the stories in this book compel the reader to keep turning the page, to see how things will turn out, and to find out what these characters are driven by, and what they are driven to do, and what choices they make—because we the reader wonder, and decide, what choices we would make, how we would never find our way into these lives.  And yet, none of us are perfect.  All of us are at fault somehow.  The Low Desert speaks to humanity, even as it shows us the immoral and unfortunate lives of these haunting, cruel and damaged characters.

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American Daughter By Stephanie Thorton Plymale

American Daughter by Stephanie Thornton Plymale is one of the most astonishing memoirs I’ve ever read. Our assumptions at the beginning of this story are upended by the discoveries Stephanie makes about her mother just before her mother dies, just in time for understanding and forgiveness. At the age of six, Stephanie, her siblings and her mother are living in a car in the Mendocino Headlands State Park, eating seaweed for nourishment. Things get worse as her mother goes in and out of mental institutions and jails, and as Stephanie and her brothers and sister are separated, moved back and forth between foster homes, and back to her mother. One sibling just disappears. Stephanie’s mother lies and tells crazy stories and is, in most ways, a terrible parent. This memoir takes the reader to devastating moments of sexual, physical and mental abuse, and to an astonishing conclusion, where we begin to understand, as Stephanie puts it in her book, “that he most difficult people are often suffering in ways we can’t fathom.” This book is both a difficult read emotionally and a page turner, as well as being the story of finding one’s path through a haunting past.

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Reading Goals

It’s January, which means it is time to set our yearly reading goals. Last year, I arbitrarily set one goal: read 100 books. I read 139. I celebrated achieving this goal briefly but because my goal was arbitrary it was not as satisfying. I had not given much thought to why I choose the number 100, which is very antithetical to how I typically operate. When I sat down to plan my 2021 reading goals I thought about why I was reading. This guided the goals I set- spoiler alert, there is not a number in sight.

Why do we read. I read for a number of reasons: to learn and grow as a person, to understand different perspectives, as well as to relax and have fun! It is fun to see the numbers go up- don’t get me wrong- but for me the number tracking added an extra layer of pressure. I felt that is I did not read X-number of books, I was not a good enough reader- taking the fun out of reading. To my first goal, numbers alone cannot tell me how much I have grown or what I have gotten from a book. To my second goal, I can read 200 books but if they are all from my perspective , I have not gained any insight to another point of view. And to my third goal, stress reading a ton of books just to check a box is not fun.

With all of this in mind, I set four reading goals:

  • Continue to read diversely and from different perspectives
  • Read more nonfiction
  • Try Sci-fi, Horror, and Urban Fantasy
  • Read translated works

Because these goals are not number based, I am still figuring out how to measure and track them. I invite you to follow on my reading journey this year. Honestly, I am not sure where we will end up, but I figure that is half the fun. If you have any recommendations for me, I would love them. Happy Reading!

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Book Reviews – New & Upcoming Teen Titles

I hope everybody has had a happy and healthy holiday season. I have read a few teen books recently that I found particularly engaging and I would like to share them with you here!

The Life I’m In by Sharon Flake

In this companion novel to Flake’s popular book The Skin I’m In, the focus is on the bully character Char. With the events of The Skin I’m In behind her, Char is living with her older sister, but her sister, feeling unable to care for Char, sends her to stay with their grandparents in Alabama. On the bus ride down south, Char meets a woman on a baby who entrances her, and in Florida she decides to get off on the same bus stop as her and make a new life for herself there – along with the now-abandoned baby. Stuck in a financial tight spot, she becomes prey to a human trafficker and must fight for her freedom. Will she make it out of the life? Read and find out in this masterfully written book.

Girl on the Line by Faith Gardner

This moving book starts with Faith’s suicide attempts and follows her life as she attempts to deal with losing her friends and her family’s trust, her bipolar diagnosis, and a possible budding romance. Meanwhile, she volunteers at a suicide hotline and learns about herself as she helps others. I loved this book because of it’s unflinching honesty towards these topics, as well as an very engaging plot.

Remedy by Eireann Corrigan

This psychological thriller features Cara, a 9th grader who has been sick nearly her entire life – but the many doctors who have seen her can’t figure out what is going on. Her mom keeps on fighting for her, starting a webcast for parents of those with chronic diseases and eventually starting a Caring for Cara fundraiser so that she can see a new specialist. But something about her situation doesn’t sit right with Cara after she talks about it with a new friend, and the more she investigates, the more confused she becomes. Will she solve the mystery? This book is a real page-turner, and I didn’t want to put it down until the very end! (Out April 6, 2021)

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This One Wild and Precious Life (Book Review)

I’ve been on a mission of self-improvement the past couple of months, and the book This One Wild and Precious Life, by Sarah Wilson, has been congruent with my quest. Part ecology book, part natural history book, part self-help book, this book does not easily fit into one category but delivers a wallop in many aspects. Wilson writes beautiful accounts of her various hikes around the world, which are interspersed between exhortations to get over our anxiety, grow up, and make a difference in the world – in an inspiring way, not a preachy way. I won’t go to quite the extremes that she has gone (I’m not cleaning my underwear while in the shower, I’ll stick with the washing machine), but this book has made me think about how I can make small changes that can help ameliorate our current situation – if others also follow that path out of over-consumption hell. (Comes out December 29, 2020)

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New Diverse Kids and Teens Lit!

Hello all, I hope you have had a good summer. I have enjoyed catching up with some diverse literature for middle grade kids and teens towards the end of the summer, and I will now share my top five list:

  1. My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, by Ibi Zoboi – This delightful account of twelve year old Ebony-Grace’s adventures in 1984 Harlem is sure to entertain. Ebony-Grace is not your average kid – unlike her peers, she’s into things like Star Trek and building a rocket ship. She is forced by her mother to travel from her familiar stomping grounds of Huntsville, AL to Harlem for a few weeks to stay with her father, who she has not lived with in years. She finds the “street urchins” on her father’s block initially don’t agree with her sensibilities, but towards the end of the book, she realizes that she can help her new friends, in her own way. For ages 10-13.

2. Loretta Little Looks Back, by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney – Loretta Little’s family story as related in this book goes back three generations, starting with Loretta Little, who works in the cotton fields with her sharecropper father, and continuing the story with Roly, her “Night – Deep” brother whom primarily she raises, and finally the story of Aggie, Roly’s daughter, in the 1960’s is told. This moving account of life under Jim Crow in the south is educational, but manages to also include many lighthearted and entertaining moments. For ages 8-12.

3. Apple: Skin to the Core, by Eric Gansworth – This book for teens follows the life story of Eric Gansworth, a Native American who grew up on a reservation, aka “the Rez.” It is written in verse, and the poems are very moving, as he not only tells his personal story, but the stories of his family and of the people around him. Gritty and nuanced, I found this book fascinating and learned a lot. For ages 12+.

4. Flamer, by Mike Curato – Flamer is an account of a young teenager who is just discovering that he may be a homosexual, in the context of a Boy Scout camp in the mid-1990’s, when “gay” was still regularly used as an insult and gay Scout leaders were banned from the Scouts (as depicted in the book). This is a graphic novel, and the art as well as the story are fabulous. For ages 14+.

5. Displacement, by Kiku Hughes – In this graphic novel, Kiku visits San Francisco with her mother when she suddenly finds herself transported back in time to World War II, when her grandmother’s family was sent to an internment camp. Kiku learns things that she was never told by her family, nor learned in history class, and develops a deep appreciation for what her grandmother and other Japanese-Americans had gone through. For ages 12+.

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A Literary Desegregationist Selects 11 Works Published by Black Women Writers in 2020

To witness is to humanize. Reading is an act of both witnessing and humanization. The passive activity of reading – sitting silent in a room and devoting one’s full attention to a printed page – is a powerful action. A step toward becoming anti-bias.

A cisgender, white female friend of mine quipped that she found a certain transgendered woman’s poetry unexceptional because the transgendered woman still felt post-transition rage.  My friend said, “I know other trans women, and frankly, their transition is the least interesting thing about them. I know one, for example, who is extremely well-read. In fact, she is better read than you.”

Zingers zap amok.  My friend rendered invisible the transgendered woman and me in a few sentences. She edited us out.

With humility, I am a well-read Black girl.  My professors at Columbia University — James Shapiro, Maryse Conde, and Eric Foner — are better read than I.  To everyone else: I challenge you to post a picture of your bookshelves on Instagram and let’s start counting.

Nonetheless, if you were to study my shelves, you would see that I read a disproportionate number of Black women writers.

My friend perceived deficiency in my reading because she and I are not reading the same books. She devalues my reading selection to the point of invisibility. She is a literary segregationist. Whites only.

I have another white female friend who lives in Shaker Heights. She travels along Buckeye Road to work at a law firm in downtown Cleveland. Her friends and colleagues urge her to stop taking such a dangerous route. She says, “It’s the quickest way to get to work, and these people are just poor.”

My Shaker friend is an accidental tourist. She views the abandoned houses, bag ladies, and lottery-tobacco-liquor stores. She does not stop for gas, but she witnesses the other. To witness is to humanize.

Therein lies one answer to a literary “whites only” policy. Drive across literary racial boundaries because it’s the quickest route. The quickest route to a different story. The quickest route to witnessing the other. Ideally, the quickest route to anti-bias humanization.

If you too are an accidental tourist willing to cross the color line and become a freedom rider of letters, here is a list of my favorite books written by Black women in 2020.

Nonfiction

Wow, no thank you by Samantha Irby (Memoir): Discovering Samantha Irby is like being transported to humor heaven. Filled with zingy one-liners about all facets of life, Irby is in rare form. The essays in the book cover an enormous number of topics, from Crone’s disease, to marrying a woman with children, to house repair, to introversion, to urination and poop. Nothing is taboo to Irby, and everything in life can be a source of humor.

Memoir shout out – Memoir Drive by Natasha Threthewey

Just Us: An American Conversation, Claudia Rankine (Essay): All hail Claudia Rankine.

Overground Railroad, Candacy Taylor (History): Overground Railroad is an impressive tour through U.S. history when it was unsafe for Black people to travel the roadways since they were often turned away from restaurants, hotels, and gas stations. The book is a great companion to the movie Green Book and the television series Lovecraft Country.

Fiction

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (Short Stories): I have been holding my breath for Danielle Evan’s next book of short stories since Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. This collection was worth the wait. She delivers the same great story telling, insight, and sharp cultural commentary. Her touch on themes usually associated with older people, such as redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, moved me.

The Year of the Witching, Alexis Henderson (Fantasy): If you’re fan of gothic literature, tales of cult-like religion, examinations of race and misogyny, and powerful witches, then I can guarantee that you’ll love Alexis Henderson’s debut novel. Henderson has crafted a terrifying, heart-pounding, and surprisingly romantic feminist fantasy that you’ll tear through in a day.

Fantasy shout out – The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin and The We and the They by Kyra Ann Dawkins

LaGuardia, Nnedi Okorafor (Graphic Novel): Not every author can transition from novel writing to comic writing smoothly. LaGuardia did not disappoint. This is an allegory about ‘America First’ immigration policies, racism, and fear. She builds fearful anti-alien characters with compassion while tracing an arc that reveals the absurdity of their prejudices. She creates a large cast of characters from across the world and the universe illustrating the complexities of immigration, war, and hatred.

Graphic novel shout out: Parable of the Sower by Damian Duffy and John Jennings, adapted from Octavia Butler

The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett (Literary Fiction): Scroll down to read Margy Adams’ blog post “Black Looks: Race, Beauty, and Memory in Brit Bennett’s new Must-Read, The Vanishing Half.

Party of Two, Jasmine Gillory (Romance): Of all the offerings in Jasmine Guillory’s Wedding Date series, I loved this one the most. Not only do the characters feel authentic in their feelings and actions, the tension between our two main characters is wonderfully delicious. Funny, warm and romantic. I recommend it to anyone who loves – or even just likes – contemporary romance novels.

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Garden Photo Contest Winners!

Hello everyone, I’m pleased to announce our winners for the Loganberry Garden Photo Contest!

First, in the children’s category, we have Sarah Holbrook with “Coneflowers and a Bee”

And in our adult category, our winner is Laura D’Alessandro with “Cleveland Sky”

Congratulations!

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Afrofuturism: The Diaspora Strikes Back

Black writers throughout the world grapple with the same question as Black American writers: How do we make money in a world which had once used our bodies as money? How do we thrive in a place – whether it be Guadeloupe, Canada, or Cuba – that had been our ancestors’ hell.

The global movement for racial justice intertwines with Loganberry Books’ celebration of Black Future Month. Afrofuturism, a multi-national movement, imagines a world in which the people of the African diaspora, a global underclass, continue to live and thrive. This American Life describes Afrofuturism as a way of looking at Black culture that’s fantastic, creative, and oddly hopeful.

Director of the Stanford Center for Racial Justice and University School alumni, Professor Richard Ralph Banks gave a lecture to his alma mater in July. Posed with the question whether U.S. citizens can look to another country as an exemplar of racial justice, he answered, “Not really. The United States is attempting something that has never been done.”

If racial equality ever exists, it will exist in the future.

We know the history of the 17th Atlantic slave triangle: land, labor, capital. Capital and finished goods flowed from Europe to west Africa where African people where captured as payment and investment. Enslaved Africans were shipped to American lands as conscripted labor to farm raw materials, such as sugar, cotton, and tobacco. Raw materials were transported to Europe for production and capital investment payments. The official end was 1853.

Modern novelists from the African diaspora query how today’s obstructions to the triangle – walls, detention centers, and anti-blackness – stint the flow of labor and capital.  In an irony, new walls against immigration imperil the people who were the slave triangle’s abductees and source of capital. Black people are confined in places capital abandoned.

Here are three novels which explore Afrofuturism from a global vantage.

The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, Maryse Conde (2020, translated from the French by Richard Philcox)

Fraternal twins Ivan and Ivana migrate from the French department Guadeloupe to Mali and finally to France, tracing backwards the slave trade. Ivana embraces French culture which Conde calls the “the effluvium of civilization” as she prospers in changing environments. Ivan, a strapping black youth, falls victim to French culture and becomes an increasingly violent adherent to radical Islamic terrorism. Think of the Paris bombings.

The novel is both an intellectual exercise and a page-turning thriller. Like most celebrated French authors, Conde is a literary snob. She references Victor Hugo, Flaubert, and Aime Cesaire and expects the reader to keep pace. The novel will appeal to people who enjoyed the Senegalese movie “Atlantics” (2019) which contemplates the fate of African men who migrate to Europe for work and the women left behind.

The Black Cathedral, Marcial Gaia (2020, translated from Spanish by Anna Kushner)

Black Cathedral is interesting. The setting is mostly the Cuban town of Cienfuegos which has its fractured divisions of middle class and poor, black, white and mulatto, the good side of the tracks and the bad, the creative class and the workers, foreign and native born. The characters are static; the book seems to be about what happens to those who stay in Cienfuegos, those who immigrate to other countries but carry their hectic homes in their hearts, and those who immigrate to forget the place.

Two things make Black Cathedral highly readable and suspenseful. First, the book is refreshing in its taut sense of real violence, not staged violence because the blood is real; every character is in imminent danger of physical harm. You turn the pages because you fear for them. Secondly, it overturns the idealized notion of Cuba as egalitarian society. Racial, gender, and class conflicts are complex and shifting, disappearing for a moment only to emerge relevant again. As a bookseller, I would recommend it to a reader drawn to the masculine perspective of Gabriel Garcia Marques, the religious iconoclasm of Salman Rushdie, and the national myth-busting of Naguib Mahfouz.

Brown Girl in a Ring, Nalo Hopkinson (1998, published originally in Canada)

People debate whether “Brown Girl in a Ring” is magical realism or fantasy. Let me say this: If you are a fan of the fantasy genre and a lover of the classic quest story, “Brown Girl in a Ring” is everything. This novel is for fans of Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” and Olivia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.”

The wealthy abandon Toronto, taking with them all investment in electricity, water, and roads and moving to the suburbs where they dwell behind armed barricades. A bad man, named Rudy, lords over post-riot Toronto from the CN Tower, enriching himself off its people’s desperation and harvesting organs. The hero, Ti-Jeanne, a young Jamaican immigrant mother, must harness the power of Papa Legba, the god of the crossroads, to take Rudy down. She has three days to break his calabash pot which is the voodoo equivalent of the Ring of Power.  Go, girl.

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Children With a Different Point of View

I have read three excellent Teen/Middle Grade novels this summer, that all feature children with an unusual way of looking at the world.

Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart, out now.

Lily and Dunkin is a charming upper Middle Grade story featuring Lily, a transgender girl who is forced to hide her true nature from both her father and her peers, and Dunkin, a new guy at school who happens to have bipolar disorder, and who hides a dark secret about his past. The two meet by chance just before the start of school, and, while they follow different crowds in the middle-school environment, happen to orbit each other from afar until a crisis drives them together.


Tornado Brain by Cat Patrick, out now.

Tornado Brain is an upper middle grade mystery with a twist – the main character, Frankie, has Asperger’s and ADHD. She and her twin sister must solve the mystery of their classmate’s and best friend’s disappearance – before it’s too late! This book does an excellent depiction of how a neurodivergent person thinks, and no detail of her wandering mind is spared as we, along with her, try to sort through the fogginess of her mind and work with her spurned twin sister to save the day. Will they be able to step in where the police have failed? Read and find out!

The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary by NoNieqa Ramos, out now.

A novel, not for the faint of heart, about a teenage girl who navigates her dangerous and disturbed world. Whether at school, home, or with her peers, one thing is guaranteed – this girl has an attitude! The format of the book is interesting unto itself, as it is written in the form of (mostly) alphabetical “Dictionary” entries. But what really makes this a great book are the fascinating characters and the gritty storyline. But beware, this book does indeed get quite disturbing at times.

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