Author Spotlight | James Baldwin

Image via Gale Biography in Context

Who: James Arthur Baldwin

What: American novelist and essayist

When: Born August 2, 1924; died December 1, 1987

Where: Born in Harlem; died in France, where he spent the last 15 years of his life

Work I’ve read:
Go Tell It on the Mountain
The Fire Next Time
If Beale Street Could Talk

Favorite words:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
“I often wonder what I'd do if there weren't any books in the world.”
“We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”

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Are you a Baldwin fan? If so, what’s your favorite of his books?

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8 of My Favorite Long Books

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Last week I was listening to episode 173 of What Should I Read Next, my favorite bookish podcast. The guest in this episode was talking about how she enjoys long books and wants to read more of them. While listening to this episode, I realized that I don’t read long books nearly as often as I do short books. (I define long as being over 450 pages.) As much as I love reading, sometimes I’m intimidated by long books, though I’m not sure why. To remind myself that I shouldn’t pass over long books, I’m sharing eight of my favorite lengthy reads today.

1Q84 book cover

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami; translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
925 pages

1Q84 might be the longest book I’ve ever read, but it never feels long. (It was published as three different volumes in Japan, but I read all three in one hardcover edition.) This novel is weird, suspenseful, a little creepy, and wholly original, but never dull. It’s about a woman named Aomame who happens to be an assassin and a man named Tengo who teaches math and is working as a ghostwriter. Aomame realizes she’s living in a parallel reality which she doesn’t understand. Tengo is becoming so involved in his ghostwriting project that his dull life starts to seem anything but ordinary. Murakami converges these two narratives in a way that makes total sense for the world he has constructed. This novel is hard to explain, but know it’s a phenomenal accomplishment by one of my favorite writers.

Anna Karenina book cover

Anna Karanina by Leo Tolstoy; translated by Richard Pevear
and Larissa Volokhonsky

838 pages

Do you ever pick up a book and expect to put it back down shortly after that? That’s the way I approached Anna Karenina. I was intrigued enough to begin the novel, but finishing it seemed like a huge challenge. I’m happy to report that I was wrong. Reading this translation of Tolstoy’s classic was a delight, not a problem. Anna is a complex character who chases her passion, even though it leads to her downfall. Who among us can’t relate to that? If you’re intimidated by this novel like I was, try this particular translation, and I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The Goldfinch book cover

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
771 pages

The good news about Donna Tartt is that she’s a gifted, Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The bad news is that she’s only published a book every ten years, so there’s a lot of waiting and expectation associated with her work. Thankfully, The Goldfinch was worth the wait and surpassed all of my expectations. It’s about a boy named Theo who loses his mom in a tragic accident. He clings to her memory by holding on to a small painting of a goldfinch. This painting and his connection to the art world ends up shaping the course of his life in extraordinary ways.

A Little Life book cover

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
720 pages

A Little Life has haunted me from the moment I finished it. It’s a story about four male friends in New York City, though the focus is mostly on Jude, a wounded man both emotionally and physically. Yanagihara follows these four men throughout several decades. We see them advance in their careers, fall in love, get hurt, and come face to face with their secrets. A Little Life is a heartbreaking book, and Jude’s story is especially brutal. This book isn’t for sensitive readers or those who are triggered by references to abuse, but if you like beautifully told stories that will stay with you long after you read the last page, pick up this novel ASAP.

The Habit of Being book cover

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor
edited by Sally Fitzgerald
640 pages

Flannery O’Connor is one of my most beloved writers. She’s funny, thoughtful, challenging, and smart. Her fiction has a voice that’s undeniably hers, and her nonfiction is full of intelligent thoughts about God, the writing life, and how to do creative work. This collection of her letters combines all of the things I love about her work. I know an extended selection of correspondence might not sound too exciting, but I read each page of this book and loved every minute. Die-hard O’Connor fans will appreciate The Habit of Being for being such an enjoyable and charming book that reveals what life was like behind the scenes of O’Connor’s success and battle with lupus.

The Nix book cover

The Nix by Nathan Hill
640 pages

Samuel Anderson is coasting through life. He wants to be a great writer, but instead, he’s a mediocre college professor who spends his evenings playing video games. One day he sees the mother who abandoned him as a child show up on the news for throwing rocks at a political candidate. Samuel owes his publisher a book, so he decides to track down his mom and write her life story in an attempt to show her true colors. As Samuel gets to work, readers are taken through the latter half of the twentieth century as his mother tells her story. There is so much happening in this novel, yet Nathan Hill never lets it get away from him. It’s an epic book, and it still astounds me that The Nix is Hill’s debut. I want everyone to read this book and love it as much as I do. (The audiobook narration is outstanding, by the way.)

Night Film book cover

Night Film by Marisha Pessl
592 pages

Journalist Scott McGrath hears about the suicide of Ashley Cordova, the twenty-something daughter of Stanislaus Cordova, the iconic and reclusive horror filmmaker, and feels something’s not quite right. He immediately suspects that Ashley’s death wasn’t a suicide. McGrath has been interested in Cordova for a long time, but his attempts to chase the truth about the mysterious man and his life have never ended well. Still, Scott’s curiosity gets the best of him and he, along with two unequipped strangers, start looking for the truth. Throughout the novel are photos, newspaper articles, website screenshots, and other visual elements that make this story even creepier than it already was. If you’re a mystery and thriller fan, this is a must-read. It’s one of my favorite books of all time.

Middlesex book cover

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
529 pages

Like several of the books on this list, Middlesex tells an epic story. At the center is Cal who was born as Calliope Stephanides, a girl growing up in Michigan during the 1960s and ’70s. Readers learn a secret about Cal and trace generations of her family to better understand her story and history. This novel is utterly unforgettable and deserves its Pulitzer Prize.

What are you favorite long reads? What books would you recommend I pick up next? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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3 Reasons Why Weeding Matters

Today I have a blog post up over at Teen Services Underground.

If you went into your local library looking for a book about space, would you want to check out a copy that was published before the moon landing? If you wanted a travel guide, would you choose the one written twenty years ago? Of course not, yet I know from experience that books like these occupy the shelves of many school libraries. I’m going on eight years as a public school library clerk, and during that time I’ve worked in six different schools. Several of them had books on the shelves like the ones I described above. The tape on the book jackets had become yellow and brittle, the information inside was obsolete, and the books hadn’t circulated in years, but they remained on the shelves because no one had bothered to weed the collection. Today I want to share three reasons why weeding matters to me and the difference I’ve seen it make in the libraries where I work.

Read the rest of the post here.

10 Books for Women’s History Month

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As you might know, March is Women’s History Month which is all about “commemorating and encouraging the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history.” The majority of the books I read are by and about women. That hasn’t been a conscious choice; I’m just naturally drawn to stories about female empowerment and experiences. With that in mind, today I want to share ten books I’d recommend if you want more women in your reading life.

American Jezebel book cover

American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlante

I first heard about Anne Hutchinson in one of my college history courses. My professor talked about her with great respect, so when I saw this biography on the library shelf, I knew I had to read it. Hutchinson was a woman who stood up to men who wanted her silenced. She vocalized her religious and political opinions in a time when women’s voices were not welcome in the public sphere. Hutchinson’s story would be an inspiring one if it happened today, but her life is made even more amazing considering the time in which she lived.

Homegoing book cover

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

In the 1700s, half-sisters Effia and Esi are born in Ghana. Their lives take different paths, and Homegoing is the story of them and their descendants until the modern day. This novel reaffirms the horror of slavery, explores the pain of mothers who have lost their children, and shows how racism still runs rampant even in modern America. Despite the dense subject matter, Homegoing contains sweet, tender, and joyous moments, too. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s stunning.

Me, My Hair, and I book cover

Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession edited by Elizabeth Benedict

This book is a collection of essays about hair. That might sound weird or boring, but I assure you it’s neither. Most of the women I know (myself included) genuinely care about their hair. It’s easy to assume that’s because of vanity, but a lot of times there are broader issues at play, including cultural expectations, hair loss due to illness, attachment to hair that feels like a shield, or messy feelings about self-worth. There’s no denying that women are expected to look a certain way, and this book does a good job exploring that pressure.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

This novel focuses on two women, Elena and Mia. Elena Richardson is a longtime resident of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy, nearly perfect town where she and her husband raise their four children. Elena rents out an apartment to mysterious Mia and her daughter Pearl. Mia is an artist who never tends to stay in the same place for long. She’s raising Mia on her own and trying to make ends meet. As the novel progresses, Elena and Mia end up in the middle of a custody battle. Elena’s friend (who’s white, of course) is trying to adopt a Chinese-American baby, but Mia questions to whom the child truly belongs. A lot is happening in this book, yet Ng’s pacing and storytelling never falter. Little Fires Everywhere is an outstanding novel that digs deep into what it means to be a mother, sister, and friend.

Educated book cover

Educated by Tara Westover

I can’t stop talking about this book. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Educated is Tara Westover’s story of being raised off the grid by a fundamentalist Mormon family. Her survivalist father didn’t believe in doctors and certainly didn’t believe in public education. She grew up isolated from the world and was forced to educate herself, eventually ending up at Harvard and Cambridge. Westover beautifully depicts resilience and how far education can take a person in their quest for a different life.

All Grown Up book cover

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Andrea Bern is living an ordinary life. She’s in her late 30s, unmarried, childless, and is working a dead-end job for which she has no passion. Andrea’s not yearning for a husband or baby, though. She treats herself to quality things. Life is progressing normally until her world is shaken up when her niece becomes ill. Andrea sees the cracks in her brother and sister-in-law’s marriage for the first time and watches her mother grow fully obsessed with the baby’s needs. Like all of us, Andrea is complicated. I love this novel because it dares to have a complex woman at its center who is both occasionally unlikable (gasp!) and entirely relatable. All Grown Up is an utter delight.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This brief book is an essay adapted from Adichie’s TED talk. This is an excellent primer for anyone interested in feminism who might be wondering what it means and what it looks like in the modern world.

What Happened book cover

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Whether you love her or hate her, there’s no denying that Hillary Clinton is one of the most important political figures in modern American history. In What Happened, she talks about the 2016 election and addresses what it was like running against Trump, how her campaign stumbled, and what life is like after a massive defeat. If you feel as if you’ve never honestly gotten to know Clinton, this book is worth your time.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood book cover

A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” by Rachel Held Evans

Like the title suggests, Rachel Held Evans decided to spend one year following the Bible’s words about women as literally as she could. This premise could have easily turned into a joke, but Evans’ work is based on her deep love and respect for Scripture. There’s certainly a lot of humor in this book, but Evans is extremely intelligent and she uses her knowledge of the Bible to discuss some of its most difficult passages. Whether you’re a believer or not, I think you’ll find this book eye-opening and entertaining.

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman
by Nora Ephron

Most of the books on this list are addressing serious topics, so here’s a book that’s hilarious and fun. I adore Nora Ephron and think her wit shines in this essay collection about aging and navigating womanhood in life’s later years.

I thought long and hard about this list. There are so many other titles that could have appeared here, but these are the ten I feel most strongly about right at this moment. Have you read any of these? What books would make your list?

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Reading Recap | February 2019

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

February was another good reading month for me. I read five books and liked all of them. I own three of the books I read, so I’m thrilled my owned books outranked my library books this time around. Yay for reading goal progress!

Spoken from the heart book cover

Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush
Rating: 4/5


Spoken from the Heart is a memoir by the former first lady about her childhood in Texas, her early career as a teacher and librarian, her husband’s early political aspirations, and the eight years she spent in the White House.


Last month I read and loved Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and what I liked so much about that book is here, too. All of the political stuff is wonderfully interesting, but I also enjoyed learning about Bush’s life growing up. I certainly relate to her passion for literature and libraries and admire her journey from someone who was promised she’d never have to give a speech to someone speaking out on the world stage on behalf of women and girls around the world.


People who are interested in politics will be the best audience for this book.

The Dreamers book cover

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
Rating: 4/5


A freshman girl falls asleep in her bed and doesn’t wake up. And then it happens to another girl in her dorm. And then it happens to another one. Soon there’s an epidemic and doctors can’t figure it out. The patients aren’t dead; they’re breathing and dreaming, but nothing can wake them up. Chaos and panic soon run amok in the small, idyllic Southern California town where sleep is to be feared.


The Dreamers is a page-turner. The plot is fascinating, the characters are well-developed, and I never knew what was going to happen next. In addition to all that, the writing is quite lovely.


I’d recommend this to literary fiction fans who appreciate unique tales.

The Fire This Time book cover

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race
edited by Jesmyn Ward
Rating: 4/5


The Fire This Time is a nod to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a classic examination of race. Using that as inspiration, Ward has put together a collection of essays and poems about what life is like for people of color in modern America.


Ward recruited some wonderful writers for this collection, such as Claudia Rankine, Natasha Tretheway, and Kiese Laymon. As with most essay collections, some pieces are better than others. That’s true with this book, but the good essays easily outnumber ones I thought were mediocre.


People interested in race and social justice will be inspired by this book.

The Lost Man book cover

The Lost Man by Jane Harper
Rating: 4/5


Nathan is the oldest of three brothers. Right before Christmas, his middle brother Cameron is found dead. Like Nathan, Cam had spent his entire life in the Australian outback, so he knew the risks and how to survive the oppressive heat. The family questions the circumstances of his death and eventually face a disturbing rumor about Cam’s past. Meanwhile, Nathan is forced to confront his grieving mother, the widowed sister-in-law he always avoids, and the terrible memory of his abusive father.


Jane Harper might be the queen of settings. When I read her work, I feel like I’m actually in the outback, thirsty and covered in dust. Her descriptions of the landscape pull you even further into her expertly crafted mystery and family drama.


Fans of Harper’s first two books (The Dry and Force of Nature) will love The Lost Man. Mystery and suspense fans will undoubtedly be satisfied with Harper’s first standalone novel.

The Hunting Party book cover

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
Rating: 4/5


A group of friends from Oxford always spend New Year’s Eve together, and 2018 is no exception. This year, Emma, the newest member of the group, has planned a getaway to a remote lodge and cabins nestled into the snowy woods. Thanks to a snowstorm, there’s no way in and no way out, so when a member of the group is found murdered, everyone knows the killer is in their midst.


The Hunting Party has a delightfully creepy atmosphere and setting. The pacing is fantastic, and the twists are a fun surprise. This book is a highly enjoyable murder mystery.


Mystery fans who want a perfect winter read will enjoy this one.

What did you read in February? Leave a comment below and share!

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Brief Thoughts on Marginalia, God, and Mary Oliver

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A few years ago, I bought a used book from my favorite local bookstore. The book sat on my shelf for quite a while before I got around to opening it. (The story of my life.) When I finally did, I saw a note scrawled inside the faded blue front cover. One of my favorite things about buying used books isn’t only their prices, but their histories. I love to see what previous owners have underlined or what words they’ve written in the margins. It makes me feel connected to people I’ve never met and probably never will. Inside this particular book, a woman named Lois wrote a note to her nephew Mark. The book was a gift for him. She told him, “Enter in, struggle, and know you are loved.”

Those eight words captivated me. I read them over and over again. Even though this note was written to someone else quite a few years ago, it was as if the words were meant for me. Whoever Aunt Lois is, her advice here is excellent and important.

As a person who loves control, I hate that I can only control a small portion of what goes on around me. There’s a line in Anne Lamott’s novel Bird by Bird in which the narrator is talking to God:  “I’ll be responsible for everything on this side of my palm. You be in charge of the outcome of everything else.” I’m learning, though, that God isn’t just interested in the outcome of the everything else, whatever that might be; He wants my palm and the fist it turns into, grasping the hopes and fears and plans I am holding onto for dear life. Sometimes all life is for me is control, comfort, and safety. But even in my weakest moments, I know those three things feel incredibly good, but are not ingredients to a life lived with hope, risk, and courage.

When this truth frustrates me or makes me feel even wearier than I already am, I remember Mark’s Aunt Lois and the words she wrote: “Enter in, struggle, and know you are loved.” It’s one thing to exist, but another to truly live. And to truly live, I believe we must enter in. We must enter in, not as adults who have it all together, but as children who are full of wonder and not the least bit daunted by mystery. Lois knew that entering in would lead to struggle, and I know this too. It isn’t always easy to try, to see meaning in uncertainty or challenges. But what helps is the final part of her advice: know you are loved. Entering in and struggling are so much easier when I am certain of this last bit. Knowing I am loved helps me be a little braver, a little more vulnerable, a little more alive. And for me, that’s the goal: being a little more alive. I don’t want to merely exist; I want to live. As Mary Oliver famously wrote:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

I write this as a reminder to the Type A, control-freak part of myself who loves sticky notes, planners, and calendars a little more than she probably should. I write this a challenge to myself to take the advice of a random woman named Lois, the advice I received in a book on sale for $2.99. Sometimes we find the truth we so desperately need to hear in places we weren’t even looking. That truth is one of the most beautiful truths I know and it leads to the best part of uncertainty: pleasant surprises along the way that change us for the better.

Have you ever found a great note written inside an old book?

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A Presidential Reading List

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Today is Presidents’ Day in the U.S. I like this holiday primarily because I get a day off from work, but also because it’s about presidents. I’m fascinated by the presidency and the people who have occupied the White House. I love reading presidential biographies, and I thought today was the perfect time to share some of my favorites. I’m going to focus on the past six presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. No matter your political views, there’s certainly a book on this list that you’ll enjoy.

Reagan: the Life book cover

Reagan: The Life by H. W. Brands

Ronald Wilson Reagan: February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004
Served from 1981-1989
Party: Republican

When I picked up this book, I went into it with low expectations. I’d read other books by H. W. Brands and knew I liked his writing, but I had never found Ronald Reagan that interesting. I want to read a biography about every one of the forty-five U. S. presidents, so I thought I might as well give this one a shot. I’m glad I did.

Despite my apathy toward Reagan, Brands brought him to life for me in ways I didn’t expect. I enjoyed learning about his time in Hollywood, his deep devotion to his second wife Nancy, and how that devotion to her put up a wall between him and his children. Brands is a wonderful writer and historian, and I appreciate how his skill helped me come to know a figure I often overlooked.

Destiny and Power book cover

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham

George Herbert Walker Bush: June 12, 1924 – November 30, 2018
Served from 1989-1993
Party: Republican

Of all the presidential biographies I’ve read so far, this one might be my favorite. Jon Meacham is Bush’s officially biographer and was granted intimate access to Bush’s life and family which, paired with his beautiful writing, led to this fantastic exploration of a man who lived an extraordinary life. Bush served as a congressman, ambassador to China, director of the CIA, and vice president before being elected himself in 1988. Meacham tells all those stories with vivid detail, but my favorite parts of this biography are Meacham’s discussions of Bush’s time serving in World War II. Bush’s plane was shot down, and though he was ultimately rescued, he lost two men. That haunted him the rest of his life, and Meacham tells that story with compassion and care.

Meacham, who was unusually close with his subject, was asked to give a eulogy at Bush’s funeral. You can watch it here.

A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him by Michael Takiff

William Jefferson Clinton: August 19, 1946 –
Served from 1993-2001
Party: Democrat

A Complicated Man is a perfect title for a book about Bill Clinton. Good biographies are ones that show the complexity of their subject, revealing strengths and weaknesses in a delicate balance. Michael Takiff does that in this book, which is indeed an excellent biography of a man who defines complicated. Bill Clinton is a fascinating figure for a lot of reasons, and Takiff does a good job addressing those reasons by structuring this book as an oral biography by those who know Clinton well. This book doesn’t provide a final answer on Clinton’s legacy, but it does raise a lot of interesting questions and delivers some surprising anecdotes. Whether you hate him or love him, this book is a must-read for those wanting to know more about our 42nd president.

Days of Fire book cover

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

George Walker Bush: July 6, 1946 –
Served from 2001 – 2009
Party: Republican

I’ll admit that books about presidents and politics aren’t always the most unputdownable reading material. Some can be a bit dry in certain sections, but that’s not the case with Days of Fire. This book reads like a great suspense novel from beginning to end. It’s different from the other books on this list because Peter Baker doesn’t just examine George W. Bush, but explores his relationship with his vice president, Dick Cheney. Based on an enormous amount of research, Baker delivers a fascinating piece of political reporting that stands out as one of the best presidential books I’ve ever read.

Obama: An Intimate Portrait by Pete Souza

Barack Hussein Obama: August 4, 1961 –
Served from 2009-2017
Party: Democrat

This book is a collection of photographs by Obama’s primary White House photographer, Pete Souza. (Souza also served as a photographer in Reagan’s administration.) I read an interview with Souza in which he explained that before he accepted the position, he made it clear to Obama that he needed unlimited access to his administration. Obama granted it, so for eight years Souza documented the 44th president up close and personal. This book contains some of Souza’s most remarkable photographs. Obama: An Intimate Portrait is a beautiful visual guide through a historic presidency. This book is one you’ll read over and over again.

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward

Donald John Trump: June 14, 1946 –
Assumed office in 2017
Party: Republican

No matter what you think about Donald Trump, you have to admit that we’ve never had a president precisely like him before. New stories are breaking all the time about things Trump has said and done. In Fear, legendary reporter Bob Woodward examines the beginning of Trump’s presidency and explores how Trump thinks and governs. If you pay close attention to the news, I doubt much of this book will be too surprising, yet I think it’s a must-read if you’re looking for a deeper understanding of what’s happening in our current administration.

Are you interested in presidents and politics? Do you know of other presidential books I need to add to my TBR? I’d love to hear about them.

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