Booked: Frozen February Reads

The frigid temperatures have trapped me inside with a big pile stack of good books. Here are some highlights to tide you over until the snow finally stops falling. As always, more recommendations are available on my blog: Sometimes I Read.


The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” by Christopher Scotton (Grand Central Publishing)

Last fall, I stumbled upon the Hachette Book Club brunch, a wonderful event hosted by the publisher that brings authors and readers together for a morning of literary discussion. This year, attendees were mailed advance copies of Christopher Scotton’s debut novel, “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth,” prior to the event so we could discuss it with the author and our fellow attendees at the brunch. The novel was just released last month, so I can finally share how much I enjoyed it.

In 1985, Kevin is a 14-year-old boy who moves to Medgar, Kentucky with his mother following a tragic accident. His grandfather, Pops, and a local boy his age, Buzzy Fink, introduce him to the small Appalachian town and its unique way of life, ripe with gossip, decades-old family rivalries, and the destructive effects of coal mining. Over the summer, Kevin grapples with his personal tragedy while becoming enmeshed in the small town’s many ongoing struggles.

At once a coming-of-age tale, a redemption story, and a testament to humanity’s eternal ties to nature, “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” is a beautifully-told story that lives up to the inevitable comparisons to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The similarities are striking – small town dealings told through the eyes of a child shepherded by a wise father-figure—yet, Scotton’s novel stands on its own, deftly interweaving its dual messages of acceptance of fellow man and appreciation for nature. Though a small part of the ending feels a bit contrived, the novel on the whole is well worth your read.

Verdict: Affirmed – whether you’re an environmentalist or not, this book will have you considering how we interact with the world we inhabit and those who share it with us. A great debut; I look forward to seeing what Chrisopher Scotton does next.


Yes Please” by Amy Poehler (Dey Street Books)

This library book sat on my coffee table, patiently waiting until I finished exams so I could tear through it. It got great reviews, was favorably compared to Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” and Tina Fey’s “Bossypants,” and was written by another hilarious woman who I greatly respect. What better way to treat myself after my last exam?

Amy Poehler’s “Yes Please” is a comedic collection of essays, like the two previously mentioned books. Poehler shares stories from her childhood, from her time as a young improv artist in Chicago, and her subsequent career as an enormously successful actor, writer, director, and producer. The book is sharp and witty, with some sentimentality thrown in for good measure. If you liked the first two books, you’ll like this one too.

Her writing sounds like she’s just chatting with you—complete with sidetracks, puns, and one-liners. For me, it felt like it could have benefitted from better editing. When multiple essays are structured to start in one place, wander back and forth in time, only to end up back where you started in the last paragraph, it gets to be a bit draining by the third.

Verdict: Jury’s Out. Unfortunately, “Yes Please” does not transcend the celebrity memoir genre in the same way “Bossypants” did. There’s something for everyone in “Bossypants,” whether or not you had heard of Tina Fey before you read the book. “Yes Please” just has something for all Amy Poehler fans. If you like Poehler, you should definitely pick this up.


Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau)

As law students, we sometimes, but too rarely, are given the chance to glimpse the inadequacies of the legal system we are training to join. The public anguish following the Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions was one such occasion, calling the nation’s attention to an instance where the criminal justice system failed, is failing, and will continue to fail without action. Their stories are two among many that demonstrate how such failures pervade the system at all levels – from street-level law enforcement through the legal process to the prisons at which we house those we convict. Following those decisions, I wanted to delve deeper into on this national conversation and educate myself on the history and legacy of racism in our criminal justice system.

Enter Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” the most recent in a string of titles that illuminate these failures within our justice system and call on our country to do better. It is a book arriving at the perfect moment to educate, anger, and inspire us to do more about the injustices plaguing our justice system.

Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that started out defending those on death row in Alabama, and has since expanded to provide legal defense services to those most in need across the country. Stevenson shares his personal journey and commitment to his work, interwoven with the story of one of his clients. Walter McMillian was an innocent African American man who received a death sentence for a crime he did not commit, who Stevenson works to exonerate. Stevenson intersperses his and McMillan’s narrative with the stories of others trapped by a misguided, misappropriated criminal justice system.

Stevenson argues passionately that no man is only the worst thing he’s ever done; that the heart of our criminal justice system is in the wrong place, blaming people who are victims of circumstance rather than giving them support to overcome their given situation; and that as a society we must overcome our inclination toward revenge and seek to show mercy toward those who need it most.

Verdict: Affirmed. A must-read for anyone entering the legal profession, or who wants to continue the national conversation on racial justice. This book boldly continues the conversation from titles like “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and “Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment” by CLS’s own Robert Ferguson, both of which make excellent follow-ups or lead-ins to “Just Mercy”.


Almost Famous Women: Stories” by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner)

You guys, I was so excited when Scribner decided to let me in on an advance copy of “Almost Famous Women.” I am equally excited to report that it lived up to the promise of its premise.

In this collection of short fiction, Megan Mayhew Bergman tells the stories of women that history has nearly forgotten – from Oscar Wilde’s niece to Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, a pair of conjoined twins to a daredevil motorcycle stunt artist. Though rooted in history, her stories get at the humanity of each of these women, imagining their most intimate fears, passions, triumphs, and losses. Told from the eyes of their closest confidants, their enemies, or the women themselves, Bergman presents these women in all of their brave, unique, determined, tempestuous, flawed glory.

Personal favorites include the story’s opener, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children,” about the above-mentioned conjoined twins; “The Siege at Whale Cay,” about speedboat racer Joe Carstairs, told from the perspective of her lover; “The Autobiography of Allegra Byron,” about Lord Byron’s daughter’s time at a convent and the woman who cared for her when her own father wouldn’t; and “Saving Butterfly McQueen,” about the actress that played Prissy in the film “Gone with the Wind” and stood staunchly in her atheism and spoke out against the ethnic stereotypes her roles reinforced. Each of the stories in this collection packs an emotional punch and opens the door to further reading on its protagonist and the world she inhabited.

Verdict: Affirmed, for readers looking for strong female characters, a new short story collection, or a book that’s sure to add a few additional titles to your to-be-read list by the time you’re through reading it.


Not My Father’s Son” by Alan Cumming (It Books)

I picked up this audiobook at the library, based solely on recognizing the author from his role as my favorite character on “The Good Wife.” Little did I know that Alan Cumming has written and narrated one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.

Interwoven throughout the book are Cumming’s experiences of coming to terms with three interrelated aspects of his personal and family history – his childhood memories at the hands of his abusive father, his father’s revelation that Cumming is not actually his biological son, and discovery of what happened to his maternal grandfather after he went to war and never returned home. Cumming grappled with the latter two simultaneously over the course of only a few weeks —he filmed a television special on his maternal grandfather while simultaneously getting to the bottom of his father’s paternity claims. In between telling the story of that tumultuous few weeks in his life, he flashes back to memories from his childhood, speaking lovingly of his mother and brother and hauntingly of his father.

Above all, Cumming is unflinchingly honest. He shares his fears of and frustrations with his father, how deeply shaken and moved he is by his grandfather’s past, and his love and respect for his mother and brother. This honesty gives readers an unabashed look into his emotions throughout his turbulent journey through family history and self-discovery.

Verdict: Affirmed for fans of memoirs generally, particularly those who enjoyed “The Glass Castle” and “Wild.” Bonus, Cumming’s Scottish accent is positively lovely on the audio narration.


Lost & Found” by Brooke Davis (Dutton)

Seven-year-old Millie is obsessed with dead things, keeping a record of all she encounters. Following the death of her father, she is abandoned by her mother in a department store. Here, she meets Karl, a nursing home escapee, and Agatha Pantha, a reclusive shut-in, each grappling with losses of their own.

Karl is a typist by profession, still reeling from his wife’s death and his son’s decision to place him in a nursing home. Agatha was so shaken by the sudden death of her husband that she hasn’t left her house in years. Millie is trying to understand why her mother left her, and the three embark on a journey to find Millie’s mother before she leaves Australia for America. Hijinks ensure.

This quirky little book from debut Australian novelist Brooke Davis tried so hard to win me over. Millie is endearing, and Karl and Agatha have their winsome moments. But, ultimately, the characters were each a bit too out-there; the book lacks a grounded center to counter the crazy. This particularly shows through in the logistical gaps in the ending, which left me more frustrated than satisfied or pleasantly curious. Throw in some less-than-pleasing descriptions of body parts without any good reason and quotations written in italics, and things got a bit grating in parts. The author’s expertise in coping with grief and loss shines through at places, but is too often overshadowed by the quirk and crazy,

Verdict: Jury’s Out. It’s all a bit much for me, but the novel might appeal to some more explicitly interested in themes of loss and found families.


Disclosure: I received an e-copy of “Almost Famous Women” from the publisher through NetGalley, and was mailed an advanced reader’s copy of “Lost & Found” by the publisher in exchange for my honest reviews.

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