August Book Reviews

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker (audiobook) 
This is the fascinating yet heartbreaking story of the Galvin family,  plagued with schizophrenia. Out of the twelve children (ten boys and two girls), six of them (all boys) had varying degrees of the horrific mental illness, debilitating them in serious ways and casting a shadow on the rest of the family. The children started exhibiting symptoms around the 1960s and by the 1970s, all six of them had the diagnosis and were on strong medications to combat their symptoms, many of which made them dangerous to themselves and others. During a time when research on schizophrenia was trying to find the cause (and mostly blaming it on the mother), the big question was whether this horrifying mental illness was caused by nature vs nurture --- or a combination of both.  Meticulously researched, this non-fiction book explores the undeniably tragic effects of schizophrenia on one family in particular. Never had there been such a large number of siblings with schizophrenia, so their experience (and blood samples) were of great importance to researchers who were trying to find answers. This was a very hard book to read. Aside from six of the siblings suffering from a mental illness that prevented them from living normal lives (with multiple stays at ill-equipped mental hospitals, lost jobs, medications with serious side effects, and broken marriages), there was also the effect on the healthy children who were constantly living in fear. Would they get sick too? wondered the two sisters, who were the youngest of the bunch. The book also focuses on them and the ways they were hurt through this, including abuse from an older brother, the shame of having an oldest brother who was extremely sick and would parade around town screaming religious sayings and dressed like a monk that would embarrass and confuse the youngest sister, and their feelings of abandonment by their mother. Speaking of: the Galvin parents were also a focus of the book, particularly Mimi, the mom. Her perfectionistic attitude and desire to cover up the horror happening in their home was a protective mechanism for her, yet cost the family dearly, especially for the daughters, who harbored resentment towards her as they grew. This is a disturbing and sobering look at the effects of schizophrenia and was pretty depressing since there still is not a definite cure for it. It was terrifying at times to read because of how serious and tragic the symptoms of this disease can be. I cannot imagine the nightmare this family went through. 

Rating: PG-13 (language, scenes of abuse)
Reminded me of: Educated by Tara Westover and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (two other dysfunctional families with heartbreaking experiences affecting the children). 

Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris by Ann Mah ★ (audiobook)
When a lifelong Francophile wife moves to Paris with her diplomat husband for his three-year work assignment, she is on cloud nine. Finally, they can experience the Parisian lifestyle as locals rather than tourists. She has well-drawn out plans to experience it all with her husband, especially the food. But within six months, he is reassigned to Iraq for one year and cannot bring her with him. So she stays in Paris, counting down the days until he returns for the last two years of his Paris assignment. During this year of separation, he encourages her to step out of her comfort zone and explore the city and the food that she enjoys so much. She also stretches herself by befriending expats and locals to combat the loneliness. A foodie and journalist, she soon embarks on an adventure, traveling all over France to find the secrets and stories behind the most beloved of French dishes such as andouillette sausage, boeuf Bourguignonsoupe au pistou, and buckwheat crepes (and includes recipes at the end of each chapter for each of these).  Mah drew inspiration from another American wife who also followed her diplomat husband to Paris and discovered her love for French food decades before Mah: none other than the French Chef, Julia Child. The title of this memoir points to Child's famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.     Mah's descriptions of the charming as well as frustrating aspects of living as an American in Paris, her love and devotion to her husband while he was so far away, and her appreciation of French cuisine and mouth-watering recipes all appealed to my own Francophile heart. I absolutely adored this foodie  memoir. I have a thing for French foodie memoirs and this is my new favorite. I especially appreciated that it was a very clean book, whereas some of my other beloved American-in-France memoirs have language and sensual scenes that slightly dampened my reading experiences. If you want to travel to France from the comfort (or confines?) of your home during this pandemic, this memoir will transport you to the flavors of France toute suite. 

Rating: G
Reminds me of: My other favorite French foodie memoirs, Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard and The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottleib 
When the author experienced a shocking breakup, her life quickly unravelled. A therapist herself, she peruses a therapist to validate her hurt emotions, but in the process, learns a lot more about herself and what was really at the root of the emotions she was experiencing after the breakup. Through her personal journey as well as the journeys of several of her patients, she explores themes like grief, forgiving yourself, having courage to start a new story when the old has changed or failed, letting go of unrealistic expectations, saying yes to working on hard but healing work, and the power of friendship to battle our loneliness. Lori is incredibly vulnerable in this book; she was downright obsessive about her ex-boyfriend right after the breakup, stalking him on Facebook. Her emotions were messy and raw; she did not hide that from her readers. At first, I wanted to think: "But you are a therapist! Can't you see what you're telling yourself is not helpful? You should know better." Yikes, that was pretty judgmental and an unfair assumption that therapists can't have their own struggles and need someone to look in and speak truth when their own emotions get clouded by pain, fear, and shame. She was relatable and honest, which gave her a lot of credibility to me as I kept reading.  It was very interesting to see the power of therapy in the lives of her patients, some of which were dealing with some very heavy struggles that did not magically disappear after a few sessions, such as a late-stage cancer diagnosis. Therapy can be such a great resource and I am glad this book exists to help demystify some of the techniques and verbiage a therapist uses in their practice as well as a reminder that we all have issues that would benefit from us talking them through with a trained professional who can help us dig deeper and excavate the hurt, fears, shame, and other hardened soil underneath the more obvious emotions we show the world.  

Rating: PG-13 (sexual references, language) 

White Bird by R.J. Palacio 
When I heard the author of the middle-grade novel, Wonder, published a new book last year, I put a hold on it at the library before even reading the synopsis; that is how much I loved Wonder! And it did not disappoint! White Bird focuses on the harrowing experience of the grandmother of Julian (the boy who bullied Auggie) when she was a young girl. After a roundup of Jews in her idyllic French village, she escapes and is hidden in a barn. She and the family who are protecting her exhibit courage, friendship, and loyalty. This is a middle-grade novel, so there are no gruesome details of concentration camps and other atrocities of WWII and yet it does not shy away from those realities either. The illustrations of the graphic novel perfectly captured the heart of the story. I absolutely loved it! Palacio has such a unique way of writing and expressing the struggles of children and teens. Her characters are believable, relatable, and admirable in this novel. It reminded me a bit of Anne Frank since she also lived in hiding for years during WWII. 

Rating: PG (some violence)

Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach 
I love travel memoirs, especially when they are set in France, so I had a feeling I would enjoy this one. In 1993, Steinbach was a single woman in her fifties, living a comfortable and successful life as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun. She raised two sons who were now living on their own. She was at a point in her life when she wanted to step away from a busy lifestyle and exchange it for a long period of slow travel, staying in several European cities for months at a time. She soon decided on Paris, London (with several weeks in Oxford for a summer course), and Italy (Venice, Tuscany region, Rome, Amalfi Coast). In her memoir, she shares the highlights of her trip as well as reflections on what it means to be an independent woman, not defined by what other people expected of her. She traveled however she wanted to and made friends along the way. This was a fascinating and fun memoir. I have traveled to all of the regions she visited except for Venice, so there was a lot of nostalgia on my part as I read her beautiful descriptions and experiences, from Giverny to visit Monet's house and gardens (one of my favorite days in my life), to sleeping in a dorm room in the Old Quad at  Brasenose College at Oxford, to meandering alongside Paris' Seine River, the vibrant blue sea and fragrant lemon trees of Amalfi Coast, and the rolling hills and castles of Tuscany. Even though we are in different stages of life and her version of traveling is a lot more expensive than my own, there were still so much I could identify with as she shared her thoughts on different aspects of being a woman, traveling, being a mom, and trying new experiences. She definitely seemed like an extrovert as she was always finding English-speaking people to befriend, which was fun to read about, though my introverted self would likely not be quite as outgoing. Each chapter had a beautiful, colorful postcard highlighting the city that would be mentioned in that chapter. This was a delight and fun way to travel from the comfort (or confines?) or my armchair in this season of staying at home. 

Rating: G

The Water Keeper by Charles Martin (audiobook) 
Recently published in May, I put a hold on it at the library as soon as I found out about it because I love Martin's writing. It was more fast-paced and action-packed than his other novels while still retaining the thoughtful prose that I enjoy so much from Martin. Murphy Shepherd is a middle-aged man who lives in Florida and works to save women from sex-trafficking along Florida's Intercoastal Waterway where girls are tricked into leisure boats for fun weekends and end up being sold to the highest bidder once they have been drugged up and convinced that they cannot leave. He is racing (literally, in his boat) against time to save a girl named Angel when he meets her mom, who is trying to find her. The dark, dangerous, evil world of sex-trafficking is a heavy theme in the book that places a somber tone on it, but just like Martin's other books, all which have some theme of suffering, grieving, or struggle, there is hope and redemption mingled in. Martin weaves in Biblical themes, such as the parable of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to find the one lost sheep, in a thought-provoking and encouraging style without sounding preachy or trite. There are a lot more twists and turns than I was ready for, but it was an incredible ride. He reminded me of a more compassionate version of Batman/Bruce Wayne in a lot of the book, with his mysterious persona, availability to a myriad of resources to search for and fight the bad guys, and just seemed like the kind of superhero you wanted around when you’re in trouble. But he was also grieving and learning to move on to a new life, which made him relatable and vulnerable. 

Rating: PG (violence, mentions drug use and sex-trafficking)

The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton (audiobook) 
This recently released (June 2020) novel is the third by Cleeton that includes characters from Florida and Cuba, though it is not necessarily a sequel to the previous two, Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba (maybe more of a prequel). It's Labor Day weekend in the Florida Keys in 1935. If that date doesn't ring a bell, you're not alone; I had not heard of this tragic event either. There was a powerful hurricane that caused hundreds of casualties, including WWI veterans who were working in miserable conditions on the legendary Overseas Railroad designed as a way to travel from the mainland to the sunny playground of the wealthy in Key West. Smack dab in the middle of the Depression, financial security has shattered for one young woman traveling from NYC to Key West in search of a man she believes can help her from a dire situation. Another woman is finally pregnant after many miscarriages, but is stuck in a loveless marriage with an abusive, alcoholic husband. Lastly, a Cuban newlywed, fresh off the boat from her homeland, is learning her footing in a new country and a husband who is rumored to be involved in the mob. Three women whose lives intersect as the trauma and tragedies of the hurricane loom near. This is a great historical novel about an event of which I was oblivious. The characters were well-fleshed out and different enough from one another that they were distinct and believable. 

Rating: PG (reference to sex without many details)

Misreading Scripture From Western Eyes by Randolph Richards and Brandon O'Brien 
According to the authors, modern Westerners (Americans, Canadians, British, Australian, etc) often approach the Bible with their own presuppositions, biases, assumptions, and experiences, which can lead to misinterpretations and misreadings of the Biblical text. This is normal and expected, but the authors encourage readers to become more aware of the cultural blinders that stand in our way of understanding the context of Biblical passages. They dive into mores (behaviors accepted without question that are fundamental moral views of that culture), race and ethnicity (our subtle prejudices and assumptions can get in the way), language (originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, a lot can be missed or confused in translation), the Western idealism of individualism vs the Eastern value of collectivism, the West's value of right/wrong vs East's honor/shame values, the concept of time (quantitative time is chronos vs qualitative time is kairos), Westerner's emphasis on rules vs the East's on relationships, virtues and vices that are different in cultures, and the Western's Me theology (finding yourself at the center of every Bible passage, making it all about application and claiming every promise of the Bible for yourself vs. studying the context and whether it was directed towards the collective Church vs. an individual). The authors did a good job of revealing possible blinders in a way that didn't ridicule Westerners. Rather, they challenged readers to approach the Bible considering the cultural baggage we bring with us and humbly embrace the complexity of the many factors that can cause us to misinterpret the Bible. They encourage a teachable attitude and taking the extra step to study the culture and context of Biblical passages, which we are fortunate in our generation to have a plethora of resources at our disposal (online and in print). I read this book alongside my husband and discussed each chapter, which brought up thought-provoking dialogue.

Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full by Gloria Furman 
A gospel-centered collection of essays on the "brilliance and God-given dignity to a mother's work." Every chapter focuses on the liberating good news of the gospel and how it can transform our motherhood. Furman teaches that "even as a mother's hands can be filled with troubles, back-breaking work, and frightening unknowns, she is being guarded by God's power through faith", which gives us reason to rejoice even when motherhood is hard. This is not necessarily a feel-good book in the sense that it doesn't coddle mothers with encouraging mottos like "You're a supermom!" , "Follow Your Mother Instinct!" "Mother Knows Best!" Instead, it digs deeper and provides longer-lasting encouragement because it focuses on the truth that we don't know best and that we are often not super. The reason this is good news is because as Christian mamas, we can draw our strength, wisdom, patience, love, and everything else we need to be the moms our children need from God's endless supply. Because of Him, we can be good moms, not because of our own endless (and sometimes seemingly fruitless) efforts. Being gospel-focused mamas, empowered by the Holy Spirit, gives freedom and rest from our insecurities and the rat-race of keeping up with Instagram-perfect moms who seem to have it all together. It frees us from feeling like we should have all the answers or a limitless supply of energy. Furman divided the chapters into two parts: the first part focuses on how God made motherhood for Himself and the second on how we can worship God through motherhood. This is not a book to run to for practical advice on potty-training or breastfeeding advice. There are wonderful books for that. Instead, its a book to keep nearby for  those "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days" of motherhood when we need a reminder of who we are in Christ and who we can call on for help when we are falling apart. It’s a reminder than even though we don’t have it all under control, He does. Even though we don’t always have answers, He does. And even though we may fail at times, His grace leads us toward Himself, sustaining us and empowering us everyday.

Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk (audiobook) 

Ellie is a twelve-year old girl who has recently moved from town to an isolated cabin on Echo Mountain in Maine due to financial struggles during the Depression. Her father is in a coma due to a serious injury and she is trying everything she can, using various things from nature to try to help him wake up. Meanwhile, she also befriends a mysterious woman known as The Hag who lives alone in an even more isolated cabin and is in grave condition due to a deep skin infection. Again, she uses natural remedies with the help of this woman to help her heal. This middle-grade historical fiction novel was a good story, but I was often annoyed by her disobedient attitude towards her mother, who was doing all she could to help her husband the conventional way (letting him rest, reading to him, feeding him broth, etc) while Ellie was secretly bringing in bees to sting him so he'd wake up (ouch) and putting a (non-poisonous) in his room so that her older sister (who blames Ellie for their dad's condition) would shriek so loud that he would have to wake up from his coma. Her pretty unconventional treatments  and crazy potions and ideas get her into trouble (obviously), but she cannot stop because she feels like nature is teaching her what to do. It was a bit woo-woo at times and the writing often steered towards an over-the-top lyrical style. The audiobook narrator has some annoying voices for a few of the characters, so that was distracting. I much preferred the author's earlier book, Wolf Hollow.

French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon  (audiobook)  ★
 I heard about this book when I read Bringing Up Bebe, which compares French and American parenting. Karen, a Canadian, moved to a small French village with her French husband and two young daughters to immerse them in the culture and spend time with their French relatives. Well, it was quickly apparent that her daughters’ picky eating, frequent snacking, and emotional eating (bribing, rewarding with food) was very countercultural to French food philosophies, especially when her five-year old was enrolled in school. French children are taught from infancy about food and the school systems spend a lot of time and effort in teaching nutrition as well, hiring highly skilled chefs to prepare elaborate meals for even preschoolers.  Karen was intrigued by not only the variety of foods French kids ate, but also the way they’d sit contentedly for long meals and not snack on junk food in between meals. She ventured to try to create a new food culture in her home to assimilate to their French surroundings and soon enough, saw incredible improvements in the foods her daughters were eating. She soon put together ten food rules, which she shares in this book: 1) Parents are in charge of their food education. 2) Avoid emotional eating (no food rewards or bribes). 3) Parents schedule meals and kids eat what parents eat (no short-order cooking). 4) Eat family meals together (no distractions) 5) Eat variety of veggies in a variety of preparations (raw, steamed, grilled, etc) 6) When met with opposition, say “You don’t have to like it, but you do have to try it” (don’t force if they decline after a few tastes; try again in a few days or weeks). 7) Limit snacking to once a day  (it’s ok to feel hungry between meals). 8) Slow food is happy food (chew slowly; be ok with longer meals) 9) Eat mostly real (and when possible, local) food (limit sweets to special occasions) 10) Remember, eating is joyful (and social); relax and enjoy the meal and company. I really enjoyed the research as well as Karen’s own family experiment with these rules. Although I don’t agree with all French parenting philosophies, I definitely see a lot of wisdom in these rules. French parents are definitely more authoritarian than the often child-led parenting styles in America, so they limit lots of choices and can seem restrictive and bossy, but Karen showed how a parent can balance their own comfort level and parenting style to incorporate some of these French eating rules to help children eat more variety and appreciate nutritive whole food rather than primarily craving starchy processed foods. We have already been giving Elliot a variety of veggies since he is very restricted due to his food sensitivities, but there are plenty things I will be trying out after reading this book!

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (audiobook) 
Check HERE for full review on this novel I read for my Classics Club challenge. 

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (audiobook) 
Check HERE for full review on this novel I read for my Classics Club challenge

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter ☆ (audiobook)
Check HERE for a full review on this novel I read for my Classics Club challenge

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum ☆ (audiobook)
Check HERE for a full review on this novel I read for my Classics Club challenge

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Click HERE for a full review on this novel I read for my Classics Club challenge

Reading Stats for August:
Total Books Read: 16
Fiction: 9 
Nonfiction: 7

Audiobook: 11
Ebook: 1
Physical Book: 4

Books off my bookshelf (Goal= 2/mo): 1 in August; 16 total for 2020
Total books read in 2020 so far: 105 (Goal: 120)
Classics Club: 7 of 75 books read so far