Thanks a Thousand by A.J. Jacobs

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: The author’s efforts to improve his mental health by practicing gratitude, which he does by attempting to personally thank everyone who had a role in providing his daily cup of coffee. All 1000+ of them.

What made me pick it up: Jacobs is one of my favorite authors. As an intermittent gratitude diarist, I was doubly curious.

My favorite parts: I’m a fan of experiential writing, especially if written with humor which Jacobs’ books always are. As much as I enjoyed his gratitude practice and the awkward and heartwarming moments of thanking it generated, the story of how coffee gets to you and all the humans involved in it was even more interesting. Jacobs tackles everything from the farmers who raise and harvest the crop to the barista who serves the cup. It really makes you pause and refocus on the great miracle any modern thing truly is. It may also make you want to take a trip to Colombia, but that’s completely understandable.

Who it’s great for: Everyone.

Erica’s rating: four shells

Dopesick by Beth Macy

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: The opioid crisis in America, how it started, and why it is only going to get worse.

What made me pick it up: I was having yet another bitch session with a friend about not-even-Appalachia-adjacent author J.D. Vance and how his only solution for the opioid crisis is an offhand “it’s the addict’s own fault” and they should “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”. Then my friend said if I want to read an actual good book about actual Appalachia, I should pick up Dopesick.

My favorite parts: This book is nothing but heartbreaking from start to finish. I cried a LOT. After everything that has been done to Appalachia by Big Coal to then have them taken advantage of by Big Pharma was too much. The reporting here is excellent. The unlayering of the onion is well done by the author and I couldn’t put it down. But what she’s describing is horrific and worsening and its epicenter is just a couple hours from where I live in my beloved adopted state. As someone who was employed in a public library for years as this epidemic built, and saw the adoption of library staff-administered Narcan treatment, I know something needs to change. I have humanities degrees. I should not be the front line against this drug problem. And addicts should not need me to be. What confounded me most was the stubborn adherence to abstinence-only addiction treatment that science says fails with this type of addiction. Other countries know it fails is why there are methadone clinics everywhere else but rarely here. The author doesn’t have a lot of suggestions for battling the drug’s presence, but does have recommendations to be made about treatment. And we should listen. If we do, maybe we can lose fewer lives. This book will leave you feeling grateful for all the recovering addicts you still have in your life and heartbroken for all those lives missing due to heroin. Because we all know at least one.

Who it’s great for: Everyone.

Erica’s rating: five shells

 

Swing by Kwame Alexander

Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: A teen guy who loves his best female friend but can’t bring himself to tell her, so he makes her anonymous art collage love letters. And their other best friend, Swing.

What made me pick it up: I adore Kwame Alexander and read everything he puts out.

My favorite parts: My favorite thing is the thing I can’t tell you. It’s the thing that made me cry in the LAST TEN PAGES and which I never saw coming. But I guess, generally, I can say it was the friendship. This book is about an angsty, mixed up teen who needs the guidance of his bestie to help him get the girl. And his friend shows up every time for him. Giving him advice. Lending him money. Introducing him to older, wiser individuals and the all important jazz music that permeates the book. This book is sweet and then it’s unexpected and sad and hard. Alexander wrapped all his strings up so well at the end and right under my nose as a reader. In hind sight I should’ve added everything up and known what was coming, but I guess even readers get hopeful that maybe the world isn’t the way it ends up being. Or at least maybe books won’t reflect that sad world back to us.

Who it’s great for: Everyone middle grade and up.

Erica’s rating: five shells

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: The author’s refugee experience escaping the Rwandan genocide and the years she spent traveling from one camp to another before immigrating to the US.

What made me pick it up: It was really well reviewed.

My favorite parts: Wamariya escapes at such a young age she almost doesn’t understand death and war and why they are walking and not stopping. She yearns her whole life to go back to her family, as it was, even as she reconnects with them. It is heartbreaking, both reading of the little girl who does not comprehend and as the adult who cannot stop grieving all that is lost. I so admire her indomitable spirit and the unbreakable will of her older sister who helped her survive through multiple countries and camps. Wamariya examines the many ways to move past trauma, especially that caused by civil war and genocide, with no easy answers only her personal truth and what she sees others attempting as well. If you are American you will feel shame for the atrocities we ignored in 1994 and the ongoing ones we continue to ignore worldwide. You will also be immensely grateful for all you have lucked into based on the geography of your birth. Mostly, you will want to help refugees any way you can.

Who it’s great for: Readers who want to learn more about the unending trauma of war.

Erica’s rating: four and a half shells

There There by Tommy Orange

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Originally published in: 2018

What’s it about:  An exploration of identity, community, and meaning-making in contemporary Native life. Told through multiple perspectives, there is a focus on what it means to be, as Orange describes, an Urban Indian when the rest of the world believes the American Indian story exists only on reservations and in history books.

What made me pick it up: I read a few promising blurbs. It also has a page count under 300 and my attention span is short right now.

My favorite things: I tend to love stories told from multiple perspectives, and Orange does an incredible job of tying all of his varied characters’ lives together. He also brings in his own identity as an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma to inform his characters’ experiences.

Who it’s great for:  People interested in contemporary Native American voices and experiences and readers of stories that complicate our understanding of identity and the world.

Abby’s rating: four shells


Find this in your local library or on Amazon (affiliate link).


 

Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: Memoirist Corrigan uses anecdotes to impart lessons about hard things she’s learning to say.

What made me pick it up: I had listened to her on Jen Hatmaker’s For The Love podcast, and she was irreverent and funny and I wanted to learn/hear more (since she reads the audio).

My favorite parts: This reminded me strongly of The Bright Hour, if it was instead written by a grieving friend. She tells stories about the most ordinary parts of her life – fights with her spouse, disappointing her parents, reckless youthful activities – and you feel like you are having coffee with your bestie. But that’s the gem that is her writing, these tiny parts of each day and each life make up the beautiful whole. It was a great reminder that we’re all trying and if we aren’t perfectly good that doesn’t make us bad and losing people is hard, full stop. Bonus points: It’s also short and has a great cover.

Who it’s great for: Anyone who likes stories with humor and heart.

Erica’s rating: four and a half shells

Drawn Together by Minh Lê

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: A young boy is forced to spend time with his grandfather, who only speaks Vietnamese, so they cannot communicate and how they find a way around that to build a bond.

What made me pick it up: It was well reviewed.

My favorite parts: It has fantastic illustrations that blend a young child’s imaginative drawings with the work of more classically trained artist. They really show how even if you speak a different drawing “language” you can work together to make interesting worlds. I loved the message that you can always find common ground with someone who seems wildly different from you.

Who it’s great for: Littles who might have a disconnect from their older relatives for one reason or another.

Erica’s rating: four and a half shells

Give People Money by Annie Lowrey

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: A look at the theoretical and literal outcomes of providing citizens with a universal basic income.

What made me pick it up: You’ve probably heard this come up repeatedly recently. If you’re curious about what it is or how it could work, like me, then pick up this book.

My favorite parts: Lowrey doesn’t shy away from the difficulties we would face implementing this or what caused us to get so  mired in intractable social safety net programs we currently have. She does provide plenty of examples of more functional social programs abroad and how and why we might implement ones like them. Mainly, there’s no way you don’t walk away from this book without seriously reconsidering how your life and the lives of many people would be totally different if no one had to toil for their livelihood. Maybe you have to work some, but you wouldn’t worry that not working would cost you your home, health, or life. It certainly seems worth trying.

Who it’s great for: The curious. The undecided. The staunchly against.

Erica’s rating: four shells

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: The struggle to accept yourself and your life when you don’t quite fit in as a kid.

What made me pick it up: I love everything Woodson writes and was excited to see this book announced.

My favorite parts: The illustrations are lovely and really add another layer of emotional depth to the story. I was not expecting the emotional gut punch this book has about not fitting in and all the self doubt that can bring up as a young person. If your lunch, clothes, or abilities are different, or your adventures are smaller, or you have no “good” stories school can be a really uncomfortable place to be. Learning to be confident with who you are and find kindred spirits who reflect that back to you is such a gift and this book is an excellent reminder that it is possible, even if it’s hard.

Who it’s great for: Unique young ones who may doubt themselves. Anyone who remembers wondering if they were enough as a child, and hopefully found out they were.

Erica’s rating: four and a half shells

Okay Fine Whatever by Courtenay Hameister

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: How an awkward late bloomer overcomes her anxiety. Or at least tries to.

What made me pick it up: If there is one thing I love it’s other people’s late bloomer stories. As someone who feels like they got a late start on this blooming process I like to meet the other members of the club and see the ways in which they blossom.

My favorite parts: Her voice. She’s honest and funny at the same time, which is necessary given she’s talking about some big topics of mental and personal health. Also if you find yourself employing “defensive pessimism” to manage your anxiety you’ll find a kindred spirit in her tiny triumphs, big attempts, and catastrophic outcomes. Life is scary and hard. Let’s employ all our tools so our brains don’t hijack it and make it MUCHWORSE. To see a good example: pick up this book.

Who it’s great for: Anyone who wants to step outside their comfort zone, even vicariously. Anxious ones. Readers who feel like they aren’t yet at peak bloom when the world expects them to be.

Erica’s rating: four shells