The Ten Thousand Doors of January: Book Review

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

“I hope you will find the cracks in the world and wedge them wider, so the light of other suns shines through; I hope you will keep the world unruly, messy, full of strange magics; I hope you will run through every open Door and tell stories when you return.”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January has been on my TBR list since it’s release, another example of a beautiful cover captivating my attention. When I saw that the author lived in Kentucky I was even more intrigued.

This novel is fantasy, historical fiction, it follows the upbringing of January Scholar, the semi-adopted foundling by a rich, archeological hobbyist who loves to collect unique items. Her birth father travels the world for his daughter’s benefactor seeking out those unique items.

January struggles to conform to her caretaker’s standards, partially because she is brown-skinned in a white dominated Jim Crow society. She envisions a world of borders and order and boredom until one day she writes open a door and her world is forever changed.

Aside from some painfully obvious naming conventions, I really enjoyed this story. It is truly an escapist’s dream world, and a love letter to the power of words.

The main character is flawed but likable. She simultaneously faces the reality of her privilege while struggling with injustice.

Spoiler below, but only a little bit:

There is a dog and he does NOT die. Too many good books are ruined by killing off the only spark of good in them. The days of killing Ol’ Yeller are over. The dogs can live and the story still have emotional resonance.

Spoiler over.

The writing is poetic, sometimes meta, and rich in descriptive power.

I highly recommend this book to lovers of escapist novels and fantasy settings (not high fantasy).

4/5 Stars

The World That We Knew: Book Review

worldthatweknew_hoffman
The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

“If you do not believe in evil, you are doomed to live in a world you will never understand.”

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman is another World War II historical novel, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hoffman’s novel follows an ensemble of characters, Lea and her golem keeper, Ava, the tragic Ettie, Julien, and Marianne through their escape from the Nazi regime.

I knew that France played a large role in World War II but I was ignorant of the French government’s role in helping deport Jews to concentration camps. The book discusses in part the role of rural French towns and people who helped Jewish children escape to Switzerland. 

Anyway, the book is filled with lyrical language and mysticism. Hoffman’s writing blurs the line between reality and the magical, reminiscent of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. She uses Jewish mythology to craft the story and the mythology really enriches the narrative.

The story of this WWII era group of children turned adults too soon is important. Especially in this day and age, where the lessons we learned from the Jewish genocide seem to be rapidly slipping away.

The World That We Knew is not preachy or moralizing, but it is insightful. The characters are interesting and three-dimensional, Ava being the most dynamic for multiple reasons I won’t delve in to here to prevent spoilers.

I recommend this book for those interested in historical fiction, even if you might be a little over WWII fiction novels. This one has a different spin and is well worth your time. I also recommend this book for readers who love poetic writing and mysticism/mythology.

4/5 Stars

The Dutch House: Book Review

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a tale of growing up, nostalgia, and truth. It is a story ultimately about redemption.

The story is framed around a house, an old mansion built in the Dutch architectural style previously owned by a rich couple who made their wealth in tobacco but whose family ultimately fizzled our with no surviving heirs. Mr. Conroy, Danny and Maeve’s father bought the house after their demise, filled with their possessions as a surprise for his wife, an ex-nun accustomed to their simple life on a Navy base.

She is unsettled by the acquisition of the large home and never quite makes peace with her wealth and the general misery of the world’s poor. She leaves the dutch house, and her family, to go to India after reading about Mother Theresa’s charitable work.

Her departure nearly kills Maeve, who is diagnosed with juvenile diabetes after losing her mother. The story picks up with their father’s remarriage to a young woman named Andrea.

The book is about family, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Ultimately it’s the fact that we never can quite remember things as they truly are. And that our capacity for forgiveness supersedes everything else.

The book is beautifully written, with tight prose and vivid imagery. I was nearly disappointed in the ending, believing it would fall back in the old evil stepmother trope. Lucky for us all, it does not do that and the twist at the end makes this book worth reading.

4/5 Stars

The Witches Are Coming: Book Review

The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

This collection of essays by New York Times columnist and Shrill author (also a Hulu original starring SNL star Aidy Bryant), Lindy West discusses several topics ranging from abortion to Adam Sandler (is he funny?).

At its heart, The Witches Are Coming is a heartfelt plea and reassurance that the world is not going to Hell, there is good in it and we have more power than we know.

The title plays off the political rhetoric of the 45th U.S. President’s Witch hunt tirades, which seemingly invoke the persecution of women by religious tyrants through history but specifically during the Salem Witch Trials. West leans into this paranoia and assures Trump, if you want a witch hunt, by God, you’ve got one.

West reclaims witch as a term of female empowerment and wields it as deftly as Dumbledore, or Hermoine perhaps. She calls out our societal hypocrisy, systemic racism and sexism, the cultural shift holding household names accountable to a new generation, one who hopefully doesn’t have to politely ignore sexual harassment because “it’s just the way things are.”

West does all this with wit and humor unrivaled in political commentary I have yet experienced.

I am not going to recommend this book to everybody, because it’s not for everybody, though the message has National, even global, implications. With all political commentary I am sure this book will piss off at least half the people who pick it up. But West is genuine in her beliefs, honest in her own biases, and graceful in understanding, yes, generations understand the world differently but we still must have progress even if it makes certain groups uncomfortable.

Filled with laugh out loud moments, The Witches Are Coming is the perfect way to end the cataclysm that was 2019 on a slightly more hopeful note.

4/5 Stars

The Vine Witch: Book Review

The Vine Witch (Vine Witch #1) by Luanne G. Smith

The Vine Witch is best served with a large glass of wine (your choice of vintage). The perfect Guilty pleasure for those cozy October nights.

The Vine Witch

Written by Luanne G. Smith

Published 2019 by 47North

Downloaded on Kindle through Amazon’s FirstReads Program

Fantasy/Paranormal Fiction

Elena is a vine witch, more than a connoisseur of good wine, she has the ability to cultivate, in every magical sense of the word, the grapes of a vineyard to grow, harvest, and ferment the best wines the Chanceaux Valley has ever seen. Unfortunately, the wine business in 19th century (albeit an alternate universe) France has many rivals and Elena finds herself the victim of a curse, living as a frog for seven years before finally reversing the curse and returning home to find her beloved vineyard on the brink of ruin AND bought out by a lawyer of all people named Jean-Paul Martel, a man who values science over magic.

Smith does an excellent job inviting us into her new world of vine witches. I got serious Neil Gaiman vibes a la Stardust. The magical world is woven into the Industrial Revolution of Europe during the 19th century during the rise of modern science and technology’s popularity.

Besides creating a dynamic new world, Smith gives us a rollicking adventure, a delightful bit of mystery with a very satisfying twist, and a bit of romance to warm these chilly fall evenings.

I am very interested to see what subsequent books in this world will be like as it appears to be the first in a series. Fans of Stardust, Harry Potter, and alternate universe historical fiction like steampunk will enjoy this debut.

My Rating

4/5 Stars

The Library Book: Book Review

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured, collected here, and in all libraries — and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up–not just stopped but saved.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

A love letter to libraries, to books, to the audacity of our human need to preserve and pass on stories, The Library Book is filled to the brim with delightful observations on all of these things and more.

Susan Orlean weaves two stories together, a parallel account of the Los Angeles Central Public Library fire in the 1980s and the greater history of libraries throughout time, but more specifically focusing on US public libraries.

In 1986, a fire broke out in the LA Central Public Library, causing catastrophic damage to the building, the collection, and the psyche of a community on the brink of such historic events as the AIDS epidemic and the LA Riots. A man named Harry Peak is considered suspect due to a mercurial ebb of alibis and a questionable mental composition. As Orlean relates the details of the fire she takes us back through time exploring our nation’s history with libraries and their changing mission.

I should preface my review with the fact that I am a professional librarian and this book offers many flattering views towards my career and greatest passion, reading. As such it is impossible to remain impartial.

Of course I loved this book and the compliments paid to myself and my colleagues as a whole. Orlean’s often nostalgic observations on the nature of public libraries, the public’s expectation of them, resonates deeply with my own understanding and experience working in a library and using them recreationally. The story structure is interesting and allows the reader to seamlessly travel with the author as she moves from the LA Library fire to historic milestones in library history.

The Library Book is perfect for fans of books about books, stories that celebrate the bibliophile and the places they inhabit. Though non-fiction, it reads with the ease of a light-hearted novel.

My Rating

4/5 Stars

The Tiger’s Wife: Book Review

The Tiger's Wife. A novel by Téa Obreht.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Haunted Family Histories and a Tiger’s Wife

Téa Obreht blurs the line between reality and mythology in The Tiger’s Wife, spanning the majority of a man’s life. That man? The narrator’s grandfather whose influence on her life is profound. Set against the back drop of multiple wars which leave indelible marks on this novel’s diverse cast of characters (including several doctors, a tiger, a taxidermist, a mute girl, a deathless man who judges when others will die, among many others).

The main story line introduces us to Natalia, a young doctor trying to find her way in the dust of the latest war. She has been guided her entire life by her grandfather, a stolid aging doctor with somewhat eccentric routines, including taking his granddaughter to visit the zoo to see the tigers and carrying an old copy of The Jungle Book everywhere he goes.

Natalia learns of her grandfather’s death while traveling to deliver vaccines to children in a rural area of the country and grapples with her guilt of keeping his secret from her grandmother and mother as well as not being with him. Alongside the narrator’s struggle, the twining tales of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife reveal themselves weaving a melancholy story of regret, guilt, hope, and loyalty.

Modern Myth Telling

Tiger’s Wife

I have rarely read such an original attempt at crafting modern myth, fable, fairytale or whatever you want to call the three storylines that this novel contains. Obreht masterfully spins what feels like a timeless tale, as timeless as any story written by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault. The titular tale, The Tiger’s Wife is a novel that could stand on its own. In fact, my one complaint about the book is really that the conclusion made me feel like the grandfather could have been more minor character than main character to the tiger’s wife’s impact on the story overall.

The Tiger’s Wife, so called by superstitious villagers driven to desperation by the threat of war at their border, is an enigma from beginning to end. She is the child bride of the village’s butcher, sold to him when his bride to be elopes under his nose and her desperate father tricks the butcher into marrying his youngest, mute child instead.

The butcher, feeling betrayed and trapped and grappling with his sexuality, becomes violent with the girl. Far away from family and surrounded by the suspicious villagers, she must endure alone. Until she meets the young man, Natalia’s grandfather as a child, who befriends the girl after catching her feeding a tiger who had struck terror into the village lately. The tiger, of course, being the tiger in the Tiger’s Wife, is an escaped zoo animal accustomed to a life of ease and scared from his home by its bombing and starved by his inability to fend for himself in the wild. His attachment to the wife of the butcher is not unusual, except her lack of fear towards the beast.

The grandfather and Tiger’s Wife bond over the tiger, the equivalent of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book (the tome he carries near to his dying days in his jacket) to the child. The fate of the Tiger’s Wife is integral to the grandfather’s story, his guilt for his betrayal, despite his ignorance, scars him for life. This is evident in his continued fascination with the tigers, the book he carries. He has periodic meetings with who he calls the deathless man, a mysterious man who appears to never age and who cannot be killed no matter how earnest the attempt.

The Deathless Man

The deathless man is the second myth/fable/fairytale woven throughout the story. He is the nephew of Death, cursed by a betrayal to his job of reading the cups of people to tell them whether they are dying. The grandfather’s adult life is tracked by these meetings with the deathless man, the meetings always set in a dreamy kind of disbelief.

The deathless man offers insight to the grandfather on death throughout these meetings, revealing he cannot die, and that this is the aforementioned curse. Being a doctor, the grandfather is not unfamiliar with death as a concept, even without his history with the Tiger’s Wife. The connection is truly made by the identity of the deathless man’s wife to the grandfather and deathless man’s choices on those around him. His disobedience touched on the lives of the taxidermist and butcher, the grandfather and Natalia. So many threads in the tapestry of the deathless man’s life.

Flawless Prose

The Tiger’s Wife is an impressive creation. The writing is simply stunning, the descriptions, word choice, originality…truly one of the better books I have read in a while. Being a collector of literary prizes this is not wholly surprising after the fact. I did not expect to enjoy the story as much as I did. I picked up this book after reading about its receipt of the Orange Prize for Fiction in an issue of Writer’s Digest. I have read a couple of other winning novels and really enjoyed them so thought I would give this one a try.

The author exhibits such control over her language and storytelling overall. A difficult thing to do with three tales that must come together by the end. Again the modern myth making was one of my favorite things about this novel. If you love language above all else, this is a book for you.

My Rating

4/5 Stars

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What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia: Book Review and Hillbilly Elegy Comparison

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

Publisher’s Summary

In 2016, headlines declared Appalachia ground zero for America’s “forgotten tribe” of white working class voters. Journalists flocked to the region to extract sympathetic profiles of families devastated by poverty, abandoned by establishment politics, and eager to consume cheap campaign promises. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is a frank assessment of America’s recent fascination with the people and problems of the region. The book analyzes trends in contemporary writing on Appalachia, presents a brief history of Appalachia with an eye toward unpacking Appalachian stereotypes, and provides examples of writing, art, and policy created by Appalachians as opposed to for Appalachians. The book offers a must-needed insider’s perspective on the region.

The Review

The Appalachians Can Save Themselves

Elizabeth Catte is an East Tennessee native, with a Ph.D. in public history, which she received from Middle Tennessee State University, and co-owns a historical consulting company. Not only is she professionally suited to write about the state of the Appalachian region today in relation to the history that fed our current issues, but she is a native and is intimate with the struggles of the residents in the poor, coal region of the Appalachians.

This book was short, a quick read, and that is really my only criticism and the reason this book is 4 stars instead of 5. I would have loved a longer book so she could go into greater detail on some of the topics she discusses. However, I understand the need to publish her book quickly on the tail of Hillbilly Elegy so that she could capitalize on its success and the conversation it ignited. It is incredibly difficult to get the mainstream media and average American to care about subjects such as this or be receptive to correcting inaccurate and painful stereotypes that Vance invoked in his disturbingly bestselling memoir.

An Intelligent Woman’s Worth is Far Above Rubies

As a historian and history consultant, Catte knows her history of the region and is a credible source for relaying that information to her readers. She takes the responsibility, where Vance negligently fell short, of setting the stage of Appalachia as it was developed through the years. Catte talks about the industries that took from the region, the evolution of local workers’ rights and struggles through this time, and most importantly, the assertion that Appalachia (as an immense region) is not wholly Scots-Irish or white.

She accurately describes the diversity of the region. Catte aligns Appalachian needs with modern issues. She shuts down the notion of Other that so many paint Appalachians, that they genetically differ from the rest of the nation. We don’t. To paint us that way, Catte explains, is to promote eugenics (“the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).”-From Dictionary.com). The idea of preventing the breeding of Appalachians through sterilization was promoted by prominent spokespeople from the area and beyond during the 1960s-70s. Eugenics was a favored idea of Nazis, FYI.

4/5 Stars

Hillbilly Elegy Versus What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

Catte’s book is obviously a direct and scathing rebuttal to J. D. Vance’s Hillybilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. That is critical in understanding her position while writing this book. I felt similarly enraged and misrepresented after reading Vance’s “memoir.” When reading his memoir, I felt somebody local to the region needed to step up and refute his claims. A better person could not have stepped up to the plate. I will thank God every day for women like Elizabeth Catte and her little (enormously important) book.

Vance’s Shallow Take Versus Catte’s Research

The historical perspective she frames in this book is so important. She discusses Appalachia, coal mining, employment in the areas coal mining has left economically destroyed and/or stagnant. She references the greater discussion of white insecurity in America at the moment. So often you hear the cliched phrase, “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Nowhere is that phrase more chilling and pertinent than this book. Catte exposes the similarities in moments in our local history that do seem to repeat themselves and will continue to do so while these images and beliefs about Appalachians exist.

Appalachia: An Exploited Region & People

Catte explores the role of activism in Appalachia. She studies the tactics corporations and politicians used to undermine those activists and their message. Catte is honest about race in the region. She discusses the history of racism white Appalachians played a part in. Vance tried to absolve us of any blame which is grossly historically inaccurate. She relates several documented instances which inform her position on this. But Catte does absolve the region of its accused blinding whiteness. People of color do occupy Appalachia. POC share the history of the region. They struggled alongside white Appalachians in the coal mines, on the railroad, farming. Diversity exists here where outsiders insist it does not. They subsequently try to erase the ownership of the region of people of color, the lives they’ve built, and the inroads of progress they’ve made.

Vance excludes people of color from his memoir when discussing his beloved “hillbillies.” He repeatedly refers to the Scots-Irish ancestry of the region. He falsely claims Appalachians have retained that genetic heritage more than any other community in the nation. Catte astutely accuses him of racist generalizations by erasing people of color from the region and culture. She also references the settlement of French, German, English, Swedish, Scandinavian, Dutch, etc. in the area. She shreds his tendency to favor the eugenics theory. He implies that the shortcomings of Appalachians are a result of shared, flawed genetics.

His book, when viewed through this lens, should scare the shit out of us. We are not genetically different from the rest of the nation though the notion is so widely shared by outsiders. Eugenicists from the outside considered forced sterilization to limit our population in the past. Because corporate interest is such a powerful force with our government at all levels.

Vance’s Unscientific Claims About Appalachians

Catte goes further in her accusations against Vance’s theories. She calls out his preference for sources favored by white supremacist and nationalist individuals. Vance references eugenics theory and practice, “brain drain.” He praises the proud Scots-Irish genealogy. These should all be viewed as red flags for his priorities. Especially as there is no doubt he will run for a political office in the next five years.

K.O.!

Overall, her authority shines through and makes Vance’s novel and theories pale in comparison. Vance lacks viable research. Vance lacks insight into the sociopolitical structure of the Eastern Kentucky area he references repeatedly. His insistence on their (consequently his) genetic purity really expose him for what he is. Vance is a politically ambitious, pseudo-intellectual with white supremacist tendencies.

Even more stark after reading Catte’s response is the insincerity of Vance’s assertions. Vance claims writing his memoir did not mean he intended to be a spokesperson for the poor, white working class. Yet he continues to tour and speak on the topic. He published a book on the subject knowing very, very little of the truth behind the struggles in the region. Vance intended to capitalize on national insecurities using Appalachians to justify white insecurity and nationalist trends. This attempt is glaringly obvious when read in conjunction with Catte’s rebuttal.

In short, read What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, not Hillbilly Elegy.