Family Life

Joyful Reads from July

Hello! I’m Joy, and I love to read. I consider it my greatest talent and favorite hobby. Another one of my preferred pastimes is recommending reads to anyone who is the least bit curious. Seriously. I am always volunteering book recs to people near me, whether they ask or not. I thought it would be fun to bring this passion to Baton Rouge Parents Magazine. I will share with you every book I read month by month and what I think about them. You can also follow me on Instagram at @joyfulreadswithjoy

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende 
The Japanese Lover was a meandering journey that often felt bewildering, but the arrival was worth it. The Japanese Lover was a slow burn, and to be honest, I was questioning throughout the first half. It was like Isabel Allende was my tour guide through a beautiful garden and forest, but she kept deviating from the path. I wondered as I wandered, but I learned my lesson, always trust Isabel. This novel contains A LOT of exposition, and I still feel like it needs a little tighter editing, but about halfway in, I could not put it down.

Allende tells the histories and mysteries of a Polish immigrant woman who was raised in a wealthy San Francisco family and her illicit love for the son of the Japanese gardener. But it’s so much more. There’s also Irina, the cherubic employee of the retirement home and her heartbreaking truth. Allende covers Japanese internment, WWII, sex trafficking, love affairs, closeted love, the trauma of sexual abuse, euthanasia, friendship, healing, dignity of aging, and art all in these pages. There’s so much here, and it is worth feeling lost at times. I will never forget Alma, Ichimei, Irina, Nathaniel, and the other characters that grace these pages. This novel is heavy on character and takes some time to develop connection, but then it’s an intense dramatic page turner. 

The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr
Whew. This incredible work of historical research has impacted me in a huge way. The Making of Biblical Womanhood is a nonfiction choice that examines the role of women in Protestant Christianity. Beth Allison Barr has encouraged me with her impeccable investigative research and storytelling ability to unpack the layered making of Biblical womanhood. Barr deftly writes about the Medieval history of women in the Church, the changes during the Reformation, changes during the Industrial Revolution, the cult of domesticity, and the modern inerrancy fight. She articulates how so much of what we are taught about Biblical womanhood has been shaped by these movements and changes in social-economic structures. 

I am so moved by the discovery of women in ministry for hundreds of years as well as the truth of Jesus and early apostles. I cannot praise this book enough. I have a renewed desire to read and study scripture. Oh, and I also want to go back to Baylor and take all of Dr. Barr’s classes! I am so very proud to be a Baylor alum and geeked out when one of my professors was mentioned in the introduction. This is a must read!

The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free by Paulina Bren
Nonfiction surprise! I knew virtually nothing about The Barbizon other than briefly running across it in Joan Didion’s writing. Now I know so much about this prestigious women’s hotel from 1928 to the ending of its hay day in the 1970s. This was a luxury establishment that offered young women a “room of one’s own” to try out independence or to start careers. The guest list of this hotel is pretty incredible: Unsinkable Molly Brown, Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Grace Kelly, Ali McGraw, Phylicia Rashad, etc. 

Bren’s sketch of this hotel is really a vessel for women’s history and New York history in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. As a history buff, a New York lover, and a woman, I found this foray into these decades so fascinating and enjoyable. This was so interesting!

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon 
Instructions for Dancing is a super cute and thoughtful Young Adult (YA) read with some magical realism and DANCING! First of all, Nicola Yoon (Everything Everything & The Sun Is Also a Star) is such a champion for young women and their uniqueness. She tells charming stories with heart that capture her readers and encapsulate universal experience.

Instructions for Dancing centers on Evie, a high school senior who has given up all ideas of love after her parents’ divorce. A mundane encounter with a stranger leads to magical visions of romantic fate every time she witnesses a kiss. This new talent/curse comes along right as she meets her handsome new dance partner, a tall aspiring rocker with dreads. Nicola Yoon explores what it means to love in this life with a beautiful collection of characters set in L.A.

Pick this one up for some sweet and meaningful moments. Excited to pass on to my students this year!

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray 
I have so many feelings about The Personal Librarian, but I am going to try to put them into concise words.

Belle da Costa Greene, the protagonist, was the curator, mastermind, and genius behind the Pierpont Morgan Library. This magnificent woman was J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian who single handedly amassed many of the treasured manuscripts and art held in the Morgan today. And she was a Black woman passing for white. She was the daughter of the first Black graduate of Harvard.  Belle walked and worked among the titans and socialites of the Gilded Age in New York and Europe. She astounded collectors and critics with her acumen, knowledge, and boldness in her journeys to achieve unparalleled greatness for J. P. Morgan, but her life is full of tension and controversy. 

That’s the background, but Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray weave Greene’s incredible life into a captivating novel that I could NOT put down. This is what I loved: Belle’s engaging and vulnerable narration, the double consciousness she had to live by, the chase for art and prized manuscripts, the longing for love, the relationships of Belle and her family, Belle’s tenacity among men, the confronting of the racial violence in the 1910s and 1920s, the mention of great historical figures, and the historical perspective. Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray worked seamlessly to create a story of one of America’s most remarkable women.

We Are the Brennans by Tracey Lange 
Goodness! What a story! First of all, let me say that I am a sucker for Irish stories. I don’t know why, but I blame Good Will Hunting and Irish accents. We Are the Brennans is a tale of a messy family that loves each other through thick and thin, even when dark secrets pierce the surface.

Tracey Lange develops six characters so well that a part of me genuinely believes they are alive and well in Westchester, New York. The Brennan family is composed of four siblings: Denny, Sunday, Jackie, and Shane. Sunday fled from her home to L.A. where a bright new future eluded her, but she is back home in New York after an alcohol-induced car accident. Her brothers are dealing with an awful lot, as is her ex-fiancé, who is basically another member of her family. It seems like everyone is hiding something from someone else, and when the secrets come rushing out, it’s a torrential force that will change everything, but just maybe save them all.

Here’s the thing. I could not put this one down. I careened through it and then I felt lost when it was over. The Brennans are a captivating bunch who grow sharper and clearer with every page. The narration is multi-character, each picking up where the other left off, giving the reader a keen understanding of each perspective. Finally, this would be an incredible adaptation for the big screen or the stream. Impeccable job, Tracey Lange! One of my favorites of the year! 

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
World of Wonders is correct! This lovely collection of essays in the style of memoir and natural curiosities was such a delight.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil weaves stories of her life with the thread fascinations in nature in this unique collection. I immensely enjoyed her charming storytelling as well as the interesting facts about animals and plants. Each chapter contains gorgeous illustrations, tales of living in different places, and contemplations on curious creatures. From octopus to monkeys to trees to eels, I found bright life in her pages.

I read this on my Kindle while I read other books, and it was such a nice break from the fiction I have been consuming. I dipped in and dipped out when I could, and her format fits well with that reading pattern. Pick this up or download for learning about nature while reveling in comforting storytelling. Aimee Nezhukumatathil is a wonder herself! 

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles 
Paris. Library. How could I pass on this? On the eve of World War II, The American Library in Paris serves its subscribers with information, fantasy, and escape. Odile, a young Parisian with a love for books, finds her community in the stacks. When the Nazis occupy the streets and minds of the city of lights, everything changes. Odile and her friends risk their safety by delivering books to Jewish patrons. Forty years later, Odile is an isolated war bride widow in Montana. She forms a close friendship with teenage Lily, and the unlikely pair support one another in tender ways.

What I Loved: Paris and the historical setting, Odile and her fascination with the Dewey Decimal System, the library’s cast of characters, Lily and her maturity, the French, the books, and the honest look at how desperation during war warps the mind and perspectives of those under military occupation.

Janet Skeslien Charles uses her experiences in The American Library, in Paris and in Montana to craft this addictive story with historical roots. I found her characters and plot development to be engaging and memorable. I truly couldn’t put this down. I love books about libraries. I love books about Paris. And I love books about World War II, so maybe this was a safe bet, but Charles delivered even beyond my favorable bias. Pick this up to escape and journey back in time.

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