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Book Review | Tastes Like War by Grace M. Cho

From the publisher: Grace M. Cho grew up as the daughter of a white American merchant marine and the Korean bar hostess he met abroad. They were one of few immigrants in a xenophobic small town during the Cold War, where identity was politicized by everyday details—language, cultural references, memories, and food. When Grace was fifteen, her dynamic mother experienced the onset of schizophrenia, a condition that would continue and evolve for the rest of her life.

Cho’s memoir is a beautiful and heart wrenching blend of food, reflections on racism in America (especially rural America), and the multifaceted struggles of mental illness (especially in “older” women of color). Her reflections are very deeply thought out and articulate, and she takes great care in exploring each issue minutely. Cho is a very intelligent person– she has a doctorate in Sociology and Women’s Studies– and it shows in her writing without being overbearing or condescending. In addition to her firsthand experiences, it is obvious that she has dedicated a lot of research to back up her writing.

It’s easy to feel close to Grace because she’s so honest about her thoughts and feelings. She isn’t afraid to question her own perceptions and actions, and the way she describes events with such detail and emotion makes it easy for the reader to empathize with her. Though she writes in a flowing, easy-to-digest style, Cho’s non-linear time skips made the timeline a bit hard to follow at times. Perhaps this would have been easier to follow in print– I listened to the audiobook version, which is available on Libby. It is 10 hours long and narrated by Cindy Kay, who does a good job of distinguishing speakers.

Though I was already familiar with schizophrenia and the effects it can have on families, I liked how in-depth Cho questioned what triggered her mother’s psychosis. Cho explores the nuances of her mother’s difficult upbringing influenced by Imperial Japan, the Korean War, and the United States military presence in addition to broader influences such as migrant experiences in the United States and the patriarchy. Throughout the story, Cho weaves the idea that these factors likely had an impact on her mother’s mental health. Overall, this is a fascinating read that covers a lot of ground.

Book Review | Better Living Through Birding by Christian Cooper

From the publisher: Central Park birder Christian Cooper takes us beyond the viral video that shocked a nation and into a world of avian adventures, global excursions, and the unexpected lessons you can learn from a life spent looking up.

This is a compelling memoir of an ordinary person thrust into the limelight after an encounter in New York City’s Central Park with an unleashed dog and its owner.

Christian Cooper is a regular guy who found fame when he asked Amy Cooper to leash her dog in an area of Central Park known as the Ramble during bird migration. She reacted by calling the police on him, and his video of her behavior went viral. I don’t know whether Christian Cooper was asked to write a memoir or it was his idea, but he’s a good writer and I enjoyed it a lot. He’s funny, and thoughtful about his word choices.

I suspect some readers who pick up this memoir will be disappointed because there’s too much about birds. I suspect some birders who pick up this memoir will be disappointed because there isn’t enough about birds. Cooper takes us through his years before and after the video, documenting his life as a Black, male, gay, birdwatching nerd and sprinkling in birding tips as he goes.

I might not seem to have a lot in common with Cooper – I’m a white straight woman – but I am a birdwatcher and a nerd who loves Star Trek, and I’m about the same age as Cooper. Our shared pop culture experiences resonate! Reading Better Living Through Birding was like sitting down with a friend for coffee. Christian Cooper is a confident guy who stands up for what he believes in. His birding by ear skills sound legendary. He’d be fun to bird with.

I liked that the memoir covered a lot of ground and a lot of normal issues. Awkwardness with dad. Frustration with mom. Pushing the boundaries at work. Spending free time obsessed with a hobby. Modeling behavior after a character from pop culture. Dealing with coming out as gay. Encountering casual racism. This may or may not be the memoir for you, but if it intrigues you at all I recommend giving it a chance.

I read an advance reader copy of Better Living Through Birding from Netgalley.

It is scheduled to be published on June 13, and it will be available at the Galesburg Public Library.

Book Review | Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough

From the publisher: As an adult, Lauren Hough has had many identities: an airman in the U.S. Air Force, a cable guy, a bouncer at a gay club. As a child, however, she had none. Growing up as a member of the infamous cult The Children of God, Hough had her own self robbed from her. The cult took her all over the globe — to Germany, Japan, Texas, Ecuador — but it wasn’t until her mother finally walked away that Lauren understood she could have a life beyond “The Family.”

Along the way, she’s loaded up her car and started over, trading one life for the next. She’s taken pilgrimages to the sights of her youth, been kept in solitary confinement, dated a lot of women, dabbled in drugs, and eventually found herself as what she always wanted to be: a writer. Here, as she sweeps through the underbelly of America–relying…

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Book Review | In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

From the publisher: In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado’s engrossing and wildly innovative account of a relationship gone bad, and a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse. Tracing the full arc of a harrowing relationship with a charismatic but volatile woman, Machado struggles to make sense of how what happened to her shaped the person she was becoming.

And it’s that struggle that gives the book its original structure: each chapter is driven by its own narrative trope―the haunted house, erotica, the bildungsroman―through which Machado holds the events up to the light and examines them from different angles. She looks back at her religious adolescence, unpacks the stereotype of lesbian…

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Book Review | Believing by Anita Hill

From the publisher: From the woman who gave the landmark testimony against Clarence Thomas as a sexual menace, a new manifesto about the origins and course of gender violence in our society; a combination of memoir, personal accounts, law, and social analysis, and a powerful call to arms from one of our most prominent and poised survivors.

I recently attended a library conference, and Anita Hill was announced as one of the speakers. The Clarence Thomas hearings seem so long ago, and I thought she must be elderly by now, but nope – she is only a few years older than me. She was 35 when she testified about the sexual harassment she dealt with from Thomas…

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Book Review | Rainbow in the Dark by Ronnie James Dio

From the publisher: The long-awaited autobiography by one of heavy metal’s most revered icons, treasured vocalists, and front man for three legendary bands —Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and Dio.

Rainbow in the Dark is the autobiography of the late, great metal singer Ronnie James Dio, and covers his early life from his childhood through his long journey to rock & roll success, reaching the top of the music business mountain first with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, again with Black Sabbath, and finally with his own band Dio.

It might seem strange that Dio’s autobiography came out in 2021 when he died of stomach cancer way back in 2010. In the book’s preface, his widow Wendy Dio explains that Ronnie…

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Book Review | Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey

From the Publisher: At age nineteen, Natasha Trethewey had her world turned upside down when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother. Grieving and still new to adulthood, she confronted the twin pulls of life and death in the aftermath of unimaginable trauma and now explores the way this experience lastingly shaped the artist she became.

The story of Greek priestess Cassandra isn’t the most well-known of ancient tales. In an effort to woo Cassandra, the god Apollo gave her the gift of clairvoyance, but when Cassandra turned down Apollo’s advances, he turned that gift into a curse: she could see the future, but no one would believe her prophecies. When Natasha Trethewey was a…

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