Review of “When You Read This: A Novel” by Mary Adkins

This surprisingly uplifting novel is centered around a “d-log” [as in drawing blog] started by Iris Massey, 33, after she was diagnosed with oat cell lung cancer, a very aggressive and highly malignant form of lung cancer. When she was got her diagnosis, she was given six months at most to live. She started the d-log to help her figure out what her life meant. She wrote:

“This whole time I thought my real life hadn’t started yet. Turns out that was my life. I have six months or so to make that okay, somehow.”

Iris signed up with the graphic storytelling site “” and began writing. Excerpts from Iris’s d-log are interspersed throughout the rest of the book, which consists of emails and text messages as well as blog posts.

After Iris died, her boss (and also her good friend) at a brand management firm, Smith Simonyi, hires someone new as an assistant, a Stanford student named Carl Van Snyder Jr. When Carl was clearing out Iris’s desk, he found a printout of Iris’s blog titled “My Life’s First Draft: A Blog Turned into a Book by Iris Massey.” There was also a note asking Smith to get it published.

Smith contacts Jade, Iris’s 37-year-old sister, to give her some of Iris’s things and to talk to her about publishing the d-log. Jade is opposed to it and disgusted by the idea, calling it “cancer porn.” She is dealing with issues of her own that make her less than congenial. (Some of the emails throughout the book from Jade are directed to the TherapistAwayNetwork, or TAN. The TAN site suggests a prompt, like “What Have You Lost?” and the client takes it from there.)

Jade is also dealing with her grief over Iris, and in fact the author begins the book with a poem, putatively by Jade, that I thought was excellent:

Googling Grief
By Jade Massey

All the poems about grief
Are wrong.
My grief is the
Of a couplet.
It is not pretty.
It does not make room
For rhymes.
Here is my poem
About grief:
So this is pain.
This is what it was
All along.

Simon too is processing grief and anger, not only about Iris but about the lives and fates of his parents.

The question is, how will all of them work through this trying time? The interactions between Jade and Smith, affected by not only Iris’s blog but the humorous interjection of Carl into their lives, makes for a lovely ending, in spite of everything, and one which holds some surprises.

Discussion: Iris’s blog is by turns funny, poignant, insightful, clever, and sad. One of the posts I liked best was one in which she lists some thoughts, like “Wearing red boots today,” “Overheard a toddler say ‘when I was a child’” and “My bagel’s warm cream cheese” and over the top of it she writes in large letters: “NONE OF IT MATTERS AND I NEVER WANT IT TO END.”

Evaluation: This truly lovely story about making the best out of tragic situations is well worth reading.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2019

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Review of “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Catherine Danielle Clark, known as Kya to her family, and as “The Marsh Girl” to the people of Barkley Cove, North Carolina, is abandoned by her family as a very young girl. She is able to survive with very little assistance from the adult world because of her remarkable resourcefulness. She ”finances” her relatively primitive life style primarily by collecting and selling mussels and smoked fish to the local version of a convenience store. Yet, she remains extremely shy, avoiding contact with other humans as much as possible, not even attending school despite the (half-hearted) efforts of local truant officer.

Just before reaching puberty, she meets Tate, a young man who has seen her fishing and collecting mussels. Tate teaches Kya how to read, and she turns into a voracious seeker of knowledge. Kya’s and Tate’s relationship turns romantic, though not sexual, but Tate abandons her to attend the University of North Carolina.

The early chapters of the book alternate between Kya’s youth in the 1950s and early 60s and the investigation of the mysterious death of Chase Andrews, a local former high school football star, in 1970. We later learn that Kya met Chase and became his lover on the rebound after Tate abandoned her.

The local sheriff develops a rather far-fetched theory of how Kya might have killed Chase, and the final chapters deal with the presumption of guilt about Kya. This presumption is buttressed by the town’s prejudice against the “Marsh Girl.” I can’t tell you how that ends, but the denouement is exciting and satisfying.

The book has received rave reviews, and I can see why. Delia Owens has created a collection of well-wrought characters. Kya in particular is very sympathetic, if a little implausible. The author is very effective in describing a believable fictional universe in coastal North Carolina in the area around Barkley Cove. The novel itself is an interesting melding of a coming of age novella with a murder mystery and a legal procedural tale. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018

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Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “Hammering for Freedom” by Rita Lorraine Hubbard

This book tells the true story of William “Bill” Lewis, born into slavery around 1810. His biological father was Colonel James Lewis, a slaveholder who owned a plantation in Winchester, Tennessee.

Colonel Lewis decided Bill should train to be a blacksmith, and Bill got so good at it that local people began to pay for his services. Colonel Lewis let Bill keep a little of the money for himself:

“Each coin he saved brought him closer to purchasing his freedom. Once he was free, he could spend his money on whatever he wanted. And what he wanted was to free his family.”

Bill saved for years. Eventually he married a woman named Jane, and they began to have children. Thus he needed even more money, and he asked Colonel Lewis to let him rent himself out. The Colonel agreed on the condition that Bill pay him $350 a year as “rent” for his freedom, and then he could keep the rest. Bill, then age 27, agreed.

Bill must have been very good indeed. He earned enough money to open his own blacksmith shop in Chattanooga. There, in 1837, he made history as the first African American blacksmith in the city. He worked day and night so he could buy Jane’s freedom. As the author explains, “Once Jane was free, any future children she and Bill had would also be free.” He paid $1,000 for her freedom. [Note: $1,000 in 1837 is equivalent in purchasing power to $25,533.33 in 2017.]

He continued to work hard, buying his own freedom for $1,000 next. He still had his son Eldridge’s freedom to purchase, and finally was able to do so for $400. In 1851, he paid the colonel $300, the total asking price for his elderly mother and aunt. Yet, his siblings still remained in bondage. So he worked even harder. Finally he was able to return to Winchester with the $2,000 for his two brothers.

At age 50, Bill was able to buy a big house with $2,000 cash for his ten children and extended family. The author concludes:

“Twenty-six years after Bill’s arrival in Chattanooga, his plan was complete. He had worked, sweated, and prayed. Now he finally had his loving family around him, just like when he was a boy. Only now they were all free.”

In an Afterword, the author also tells about Bill’s brave exploits during the Civil War. Nevertheless, Union soldiers seized Bill’s blacksmith shop during the war, and most of his fortune disappeared. He and Jane were forced to file for a government pension.

Bill died on September 2, 1896, at around the age of 86. The author reports that his obituary said he left behind “a host of friends, both white and colored, and always bore an excellent record for thrift, honesty and sobriety.”

Today, there is a historical marker in Chattanooga that was erected in his honor.

Illustrator John Holyfield uses full-color acrylic illustrations that richly capture the emotions of the characters in the story with an overall emphasis on positive and uplifting depictions of African-American lives, even in slavery.

Evaluation: It’s hard not to be awe-struck and inspired by the story of Bill Lewis. My only criticism would be that the author did not stress how unusual Bill’s situation was, because of being allowed to develop his outstanding talent; being allowed to profit from it; and being allowed to purchase the freedom of himself and his family. The author also doesn’t explain the reason why Bill needed to buy Jane’s freedom before his own. (The status of children, whether slave or free, was determined by the status of the mother, not the father.)

Nevertheless, this uplifting story is both instructive and inspirational. It has a strong emotional core that will pull in readers and help them learn important history at the same time, offering a strong counter-narrative to the common canard that slaves were “lazy.” It will no doubt also start questions and conversations about social and cultural justice.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Lee and Low Books, 2018

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Review of “Calculating the Cosmos: How Mathematics Unveils the Universe” by Ian Stewart

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Ian Stewart is an English mathematician who writes entertaining books on the importance of mathematics in just about every aspect of life. He demonstrates, with hardly an equation in sight, how math forms the basis for discoveries ranging from technological advances on earth to the ability to visit the moon; from predicting the nature of atoms to learning about the workings of galaxies.

The core theme of the book is that:

“…there are mathematical patterns in the motions and structure of both celestial and terrestrial bodies, from the smallest dust particle to the universe as a whole. Understanding those patterns allows us not just to explain the cosmos, but also to explore it, exploit it, and protect ourselves against it.

Arguably the greatest breakthrough is to realise that there are patterns. After that, you know what to look for, and while it may be difficult to pin the answers down, the problems become a matter of technique.”

Thus he describes, for example, (1) how Newton’s invention of calculus enabled him to “prove” or at least gain insight into why planetary orbits were (as Kepler had shown) elliptical rather than circular; (2) how mathematical perturbations in the orbit of Uranus led to the discovery of Neptune; (3) how Einstein’s general relativity field equations implied the existence of black holes; and (4) how math has been instrumental in many other somewhat less famous astronomical theories and phenomena. [And, although the author doesn’t mention this particular application, it is math that can decide the important question of whether two smaller pizzas is better than ordering one big pizza.]

Interestingly, Stewart also argues that the mathematical basis for the existence of “dark matter” may not be on the rock solid ground that some commentators have implied. Of course, the problem with dark matter is that it is not composed of atoms or the familiar elementary particles that interact with light, so it cannot be detected except by measuring its theorized influence on what we can see. But Stewart argues that explanations other than the existence of dark matter could also account for perturbations in expected calculations. [This book was published in 2016; some advances in understanding dark matter have been made since that date.]

Stewart writes, “The main thrust of Calculating the Cosmos is the need for, and the astonishing success of, mathematical reasoning in astronomy and cosmology.” But he also shows where accepted scientific reasoning has led to false conclusions in the past, such as when astronomers sought a planet between Mercury and the sun because of the precession of the perihelion of Mercury’s orbit: there is no such planet. He says that making mistakes is part of the scientific process, and that our scientific (as opposed to mathematical) knowledge is always tentative. He concludes:

“Maybe dark matter is a mistake. Maybe alien life can be radically different from anything we’ve ever encountered, possibly even than we can imagine.


Maybe not.

The fun will be finding out.”

Evaluation: Those who avoid math are missing out on the vast worlds that open up through its application. It is a bit like having a whole new set of powerful lenses through which to see the world, or a whole new set of utensils, pots, and pans in your kitchen. What miraculous revelations can be made with such an elegant toolbox! Stewart helps you see just what ideas have been developed from the intersection of math and science. For me, there is little more exciting than learning about the unraveling of the secrets of the universe.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, 2018

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Review of “The Witch Elm” by Tana French

This book, a standalone and not part of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, begins with an epigraph from Hamlet: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” In a broad sense, that is the underlying theme of this atmospheric mystery. On the one hand, there is your own definition of who you think you are. On the other, there is the perception others have of you. These images – sometimes complementary but sometimes at odds – come to obsess the characters.

The narrator is Toby Hennessy, 28 when most of the story takes place. He has always been, as he describes himself, lucky: attractive, from a well-off family, popular in school, fortunate in jobs in his field of public relations and marketing, and able to talk himself out of anything when others would be punished. Now all has changed utterly (to borrow from Yeats, since the book is, after all, set in Dublin).

As the story opens we see Toby joking with his two friends, Sean and Dec, in a bar. The joking is borderline nasty, but the insensitive Toby assures us it was fun. Afterwards, he is too drunk to go to the apartment of his girlfriend of three years, Melissa, so he heads to his own place. Later that night, two burglars enter, and attack Toby seriously enough to give him a traumatic head injury. It appears his luck has run out. Toby is now someone characterized by nebulous fears, fury over the damage done to him, self-loathing over his new deficits, and a powerful sense of loss.

He goes to recover at Ivy House, the home of his Uncle Hugo and the place he had spent so many happy summers with his cousins Susanna and Leon. Or they were happy for him, at least. Toby has become an unreliable narrator, simply because so much of his memory is gone after the injury. Or, perhaps, he might have been unreliable all along. As his cousin Susanna told him, “Anything you feel bad about falls straight out of your head.” But in addition, his Uncle Hugo said: “The thing is, I suppose, that one gets into the habit of being oneself. It takes some great upheaval to crack that shell and force us to discover what else might be underneath.”

When one of Susanna’s kids digs up a skull in the backyard of Ivy House, it looks like a murder may have been committed some ten years earlier, and evidence points to Toby or someone in his family as the main suspects.

It seems that a particularly persistent detective, Mike Rafferty, believes Toby committed the murder. Rafferty strikes terror into Toby’s heart:

“He was like a raptor, not cruel, not good or evil, only and utterly what he was. The purity of it, unbreakable, was beyond anything I could imagine.”

But Toby himself wants to know the truth about what happened because it may give back to him the truth about himself. He wonders who was he? What was he? What about his cousins and his uncle? And why was he attacked? Is it somehow related to this murder?

Discussion: Toby, self-absorbed, manipulative, and mostly out for just himself, is an unlikable character, and in fact, as the family’s secrets unfold, there aren’t too many likable characters in the bunch. Yet, in the capable hands of Tana French, one doesn’t want to abandon the book because of that. Toby keeps desperately asserting they are only “human” and unfortunately, that may be true. Who, after all, is anyone, really? What might events cause you to do, or what might be just under the surface, waiting to be brought out of you by events? Holocaust historian Peter Peter Matthiessen, thinking about genocide, mused about the human capacity for evil:

“We are all capable if you press the right series of buttons. Your grandmother can turn into a genocidaire. Most of us, we’re lucky enough to never hit that combination of circumstances.”

Tana French explores these questions with her usual deftness and nuance.

Evaluation: The author lost me a bit at the end, because while the unraveling was full of revelations and twists, there were some loose ends I would have rather seen resolved. But Tana French is so outstanding with dialogue and character studies, it’s hard to deny her appeal. And I should note that Jim, who read the book also, didn’t agree with me in finding the ending unsatisfactory.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018

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