All posts by Sue McHugh

The Santa Conundrum: How Long Will the Magic Last?

This article was originally printed in November 2014.

I’m someone who always reads the last page of a book first, and the spoilers before I watch the next episode of The Walking Dead. For me, the ending is interesting, but how we get to that ending is the real payoff. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that when I was 10 or 11, I begged my older brother to tell me the truth about Santa. When he did, I wasn’t crushed; I didn’t feel fooled or lied to. I felt that a new world had opened, one of getting to play Santa while my younger sister still believed, staying up late on Christmas Eve to wrap presents with my mom and older siblings, being trusted with secrets. I had become, if just for a few hours one night a year, one of the grownups.

My daughter, Amelia, is 10½ and she still believes. A recreation of the royal gown she saw on TV? Santa can make that. A life-sized stuffed rhino that sells for $900. Santa can make that. She’s pretty good at understanding the value of money in everyday situations, that we can’t always afford to buy everything we want at the very moment we want it. But where Santa is concerned, all bets are off. He’s Santa, after all. He can make reindeer fly! He can do anything!

derek
Derek, the Elf on the Shelf, with his friend Barbie (or it could be Bella from Twilight, not sure).

A week before Thanksgiving, she’s already written a letter to Santa for her Elf on the Shelf to deliver. Nicknamed Derek, the elf lives year round with her Barbie dolls but in the weeks before Christmas, he’s supposed to travel nightly to see Santa. (I know this goes against the Elf on the Shelf tradition, but that’s what she decided and who am I to fight it?) It’s not enough for Derek to deliver the notes that Amelia writes, he has to bring one back from Santa too. Imagine how hard it is for me to disguise my handwriting so my pre-teen doesn’t suspect it’s me writing the notes, or forging the hoof-print signature of Rudolph. And beware the wrath when I forget to “deliver” Derek’s letter. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, groggily scribble a note from Santa, and then tiptoe into Amelia’s room to leave it with the elf. It makes for a very nerve-wracking holiday season.

Amelia's note to Santa in 2010: Dear Santa, my elf on the shelf is not moving. Does he come to the north pole much?
Amelia’s note to Santa in 2010: Dear Santa, my elf on the shelf is not moving. Does he come to the north pole much?

I don’t want to ruin the magic and mystery for her, so I try to tweak it a little. I tell her, “Santa brings what he thinks you need. He’s got to spread his toy-making time and elf labor force’s efforts among all the children in the world.” Or “maybe Derek was too tired to travel to the North Pole last night; he didn’t want to leave his girlfriend Barbie.” But there are already plot holes in the story. Last year, I tried to convince her that Santa leaves gift receipts when she got a pile of clothes (from Grandma Santa) that were too small. And she almost lost faith in him when he brought her the wrong action figure from The Hunger Games (She’s team Peeta, not Gale, jeez, EVERYONE knows that).

If Santa disappoints her again this year, this may be the end of the whole deal. On one hand, I know it’s an inevitable part of growing up, but on the other hand, it signals the end of a chapter in her life, when Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny were real and holidays were magical times. Will she be okay with the truth, like I was, or will she be upset that the magic isn’t real? My hope is that she will understand the reason behind the story of Santa, the idea of giving to others without expecting anything in return, that the magic that made reindeer fly can exist in real life when we do good things for other people.

That may be a lofty idea for a 10½ year old to grasp, so just in case, I’ll spend the next few weeks scouring the malls for an affordable recreation of a royal gown and the biggest stuffed animal that I can fit in my car.

 

Film Exposes Secret Research Study on Twins Separated at Birth

The documentary Three Identical Strangers starts off as a happy reunion of three young men who find out they’re long-lost brothers. But it doesn’t take long for the viewer to realize the whole thing is not going to end well. When the brothers find out they were separated at birth for a secret research experiment, their joy turns to devastation. And as I watched, so did mine.

Available via streaming services including Comcast’s On Demand, the movie chronicles the lives of Eddy Galland, Robert Shafran and David Kellman. When 19-year-old Robert arrives at a small community college in 1980 and is greeted by strangers as a an old friend, he is mystified. He soon meets a classmate who introduces him to Eddy, who shares his looks, birthday and adoption story. The brothers become a media sensation, profiled in newspapers and on talk shows nationwide. The publicity leads David to realize he’s actually the third of the separated siblings.  The boys go viral before going viral was even a thing, embracing  their fame with a bachelor pad and club hopping, an appearance in a Madonna movie, and even a Manhattan restaurant named Triplets. Everyone marvels about their shared interests and mannerisms, even though they were raised in very different families. It’s a very 1980s phenomenon, and I couldn’t help but get swept up in the fun they were having.

The first sign I had that something was not right was when I realized that the documentary, filmed some 30 years after the reunion, only has interviews with two of the brothers. Where was the third?

In the film, joy soon leads to confusion and anger. The families confront the New York City adoption agency that placed the boys, demanding to know why they were never told the siblings existed. The adoption agency claimed it would have been too hard to place all three children in one home. But soon an author writing a book about twins learns there was a much darker reason. The boys, and other sets of twins from this same adoption agency, were separated so researchers could study how different parenting styles would impact children who were genetically similar. You may have heard of the debate over nature versus nurture: is it our DNA or our surroundings that has a greater influence? The study, led by the late psychologist Peter Neubauer, followed the boys into their teens with questionnaires and observation. Its existence was a closely guarded secret – the parents were told it was a study about adoption – and its results were never published.

Discovery of the study devastated the brothers. They felt robbed of their childhood and manipulated as lab rats. While they dealt with this revelation, they also struggled with the realization that the similarities so obvious upon their first meeting masked some very significant differences. As the brothers grew older, started families,  and went into business together, they saw that their upbringings had instilled different work ethics, values and beliefs. Disagreements developed, and they were no longer the carefree trio. They also saw signs of mental illness, which they later suspected might be another reason their family was targeted for the study.

The movie entertained, but also made me think —  not a bad combination for a lazy Friday after Thanksgiving. It inspired some serious discussion about nature versus nurture, the ethics of research and the effects of overnight celebrity. We never get answers about whether the study learned anything worthwhile. To me, it was just a glaring example of the scientists’ arrogance at playing God. I felt terrible for the two adult brothers still living today. When we finally learned what happened to the third, it was heartbreaking. Growing up with four siblings, there have, of course, been times when I wished they didn’t exist. But I also can’t imagine never knowing them. While the brothers reunited at 19, the years they spent apart – and the knowledge of why they were split up – haunted their entire lives.

 

 

Senior Issue: Big Plans, High Hopes After Graduation

One hundred and eighty-eight students. Athletes. Scholars. Writers, musicians and artists. The Hanover High School Class of 2018 is a group of accomplished individuals eager to leave their mark on the world. Whether through college, work or service to their community and country, seniors have set their sights on securing their future and creating a legacy of which we all can be proud.

Post-graduation plans are taking some students clear across the country.

Lily Hibbard chose Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., in part, she said, because “I hate the cold.” She is thinking about majoring in Environmental Analysis, which is the law and politics of environmental science, or Anthropology. Inspired by a documentary she watched in Mrs. Watts’ Envi Sci course last year, Lily hopes to work for a nonprofit someday that focuses on how access to education in developing countries impacts the environment.

Unlike Lily, Lauren Gelly is ready to embrace the cold when she studies Education and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin. “My parents brought me there to see a Big 10 school and I fell in love with it,” she said. “We New Englanders can handle the weather.”

John Donovan will study Applied Mathematics and Economics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “This was the top public school in the country for it,” he said. He’s not worried about going to school so far from home. “My dad went to school in Oregon, my sister went to California, and my mom went to Hawaii.”

Bridget Hardiman is heading to Ole Miss to study Political Science, drawn by the chance to win a spot in the competitive Trent Lott Leadership Institute. The program focuses on public policy and international relations, which would be solid preparation for Bridget’s future as, say, Secretary of State. “When I joined the debate team sophomore year, I realized I really liked politics,” she said. “My parents always talk about politics, I pretty much grew up with it.” Her only concern about traveling so far from home? “I’m scared they’re going to make fun of my accent.”

Aaron Boise will join the Wolverines of Michigan State, where he plans to major in Criminology. “I’ve loved the college since I was a little kid,” he said. “It’s been my dream to go there.” Internships and classes he had while at HHS helped steer him toward his major.

Victor Costa, who moved to Hanover from Brazil for high school, will start his studies at Massasoit Community College before trying to win a spot in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. He has trained intensively and competed in Taekwondo for years. He is unsure yet which country he would represent.

Many Hanover grads plan to stay closer to home.

Nick O’Hara earned a coveted spot at Harvard University, a school, he said, he “always aspired to and worked hard toward.” He plans to explore a Government or Biology major.

Kristen Nguyen is pursuing Graphic Design at Mass College of Art and Design in Boston. “With art, I  like that I can do whatever I want, whatever comes to my head, and the possibilities are endless.”

Josh Letizia will study Engineering at UMass Dartmouth. “It’s far enough that I’m away from my family but no so far that I can’t still go home and visit,” he said. He will be joined there by Arin Whedbee, who will major in Finance in hopes of owning a real estate company one day. “There are a lot of ways that you can make money in real estate, and it seems like fun to own buildings and land.”

Elizabeth DeMita will attend Bryant College with a major in International Business. “It’s everything I want,” she said, crediting HHS Spanish teacher Mrs. Curtis for introducing her to the field. “You travel the world, learn new languages, and meet new cultures.”

Jake McInerney, will study Marine Transport at Mass Maritime Academy. “I’m not thinking about the college experience, I’m thinking about my future,” he said. “This seemed to be the best investment.”  Will Collett will be among his classmates, majoring in Marine Engineering. “I like the role you play there,” he said. “It’s like a team there.”

Maddy Carroll, who will be attending Ithaca College School of Music, will be studying Jazz Voice with the hopes of appearing on stage professionally. “Music is something that brings people together,” she said.

Wanting to help others was a common theme among Hanover grads.

Jenna Palmer will attend Massasoit to pursue a degree in the medical field, inspired by internships and jobs at South Shore Hospital. “I like to help people, and I’ve talked to a lot of nurses who told me this is a better plan financially.”

Brittany Champagne is heading to the University of Rhode Island to study special education, inspired by the time she’s spent caring for her cousin born with Cerebral Palsy.  “I’ve always knew this was the right path for me.” Jessie Blazo struck a similar chord with her plans to attend Salve Regina, motivated by two cousins with special needs and internships at Cedar School.

Amanda Sullivan will study at Penn State to become one of our most relied upon — and complained about — public figures, a meteorologist. “I like public speaking, I like science and math better than other classes, and I like the weather, so I put two and two together,” she said.

Adri Howell has enrolled at Bridgewater State University to study Marine Biology, specializing in sharks and stingrays. “They’re very misunderstood, and the ocean is such an important part of our world and people don’t understand or care,” she said.

UMass Amherst is, once again, a popular draw for Hanover students.

Mike Stevenson chose the school to study Biochemistry with an eye on becoming a surgeon. “I like taking care of people, doing stuff with my hands, and this seems like a chance to fix the issue instead of just telling people what’s wrong with them,” he said.

He will be joined by John Zarella, whose major in Public Health Science, was inspired by all of his own injuries, and Nick Jones, who will pursue Linguistics and Math. Jones has studied Spanish, American Sign Language, French, Mandarin and Russian and hopes to be an interpreter or translator. “Languages connect people,” he said. “You can’t tell someone how you feel or what you think without language.”

Ritchie Hutchins may bump into all of them on campus as he studies Engineering, citing the school’s reputation as the best campus dining hall in the nation. “Thankfully, it comes with a free gym membership.”

Campus visits were an important factor in deciding on a college for many students.

Jacki Campbell will attend Regis College in Weston to study Nursing, the profession she dreamed of since she was a child. She chose Regis for its size and diversity. “When I visited and saw people walking around campus, there was not one person walking alone,” she said. “You knew that if you went there, you’d make tons of friends.”

Pierce Ghostlaw, who will be attending Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, is deciding between a major in Education or Environmental Science. He’s also interested in a program that prepares students for the Peace Corps. “I fell in love with Vermont when my sister went to college there,” he said. “When I visited, everyone was super friendly and nice.”

Rachel McGurrin is heading to Western New England University in Springfield to study Forensic Chemistry. “I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes of criminal investigations,” she said. “When I stepped onto the campus, I could just see myself going to these classes and being friends with all these people.”

Sierra Little-Gill will attend Trinity College in Hartford to major in Neuroscience and Spanish. “The school has a really nice, unified feel,” she said. She has been accepted into the interdisciplinary science program where she will conduct research and publish papers with professors.

Several students have chosen to enter the military.

Marty Stapleton will be joining the Marines, kicking off his four-year commitment with three months of boot camp and additional training at Camp Lejeune. “I knew college wasn’t my thing — the whole school thing. I couldn’t see doing four more years of it,” he said. After enlisting, recruits take an aptitude test to determine which track they will follow, and Marty hopes to focus on Utilities (trades such as electrician), Infantry or Ordinance. “I chose the Marines because of what it means to be a Marine: leadership, discipline, teamwork.”

Chris Smith hopes time in the military will prepare him – and help pay for – college in a few years. “I’ve gotten construction and landscape job offers from people I’ve worked with, but this felt like the better route for me,” he said. He’s considering joining the Marines, Navy or Coast Guard after he takes a few months off to work and volunteer.

For some students, high school graduation is a chance to take some time to save money and decide on the next steps.

Lauren Cerone plans to work full-time for a year before attending cosmetology school. “I’ve done 13 years of school and I feel like it’s been a lot, so I’m taking a “peace year,” a mental health break,” she said. “I’ve always loved makeup, it made me feel better when I was having a hard time and, eventually even without out makeup, it helped me feel comfortable with myself.”

Owen Gosule will spend a post-grad year Bridgton Academy in Maine. “I don’t feel like I’ve had enough information before college,” he said, “so I want to look into myself and decide what I want to do and not waste my parents’ money.”

While their plans and interests are diverse, Hanover High grads leave with one thing in common: high hopes for the future. We wish them all the best of luck!

 

A Book Like No Other Explores Lincoln’s Personal Tragedy

It’s not often that I’m surprised by a book, but Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Part historical fiction, part supernatural fantasy, Bardo breaks free from the traditional format of a novel to tell the story of how Lincoln is haunted – and changed – by the death of his young son during the Civil War.

The author takes two very different tacts in alternating chapters. About half of the novel takes place in the cemetery where Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, is buried. The cemetery is populated by the spirits of dozens of colorful characters who have not yet passed on to Heaven or Hell. While these spirits tell their stories, they’re encouraging Willie to move on, but Willie lingers, confused, hoping his father will return to bring him home. This part of the novel is pure imagination, whimsical in the quirks that each character is given and the rules  followed by the society within the cemetery gates. These chapters reminded me of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, about an orphan raised by ghosts when his parents are killed.

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The rest of the novel is historical fiction, but instead of researching and imagining the people and events, the author uses only excerpts from primary sources. The author quotes the letters of White House maids and politicians as well as news accounts and books of the time. These excerpts, each followed by a short citation, tell the story in the real words of the people who lived. Writing like this is harder than just doing research and summarizing; this requires poring through countless documents, picking out just the right pieces and putting them together in a way that makes sense. I was awed by the task the author undertook as well as the story that was told. For the first chapter or two, I was a little confused by who was speaking. But soon I was drawn into the story and comfortable with the unique structure.

If you like history, especially Lincoln and the Civil War, this novel will fascinate you as it shows how a personal tragedy became a turning point for Lincoln’s policies. If you like fantasy that explores what happens after death, this book offers a lot for you as well.

Featured Photo: Robert Wuensche Illustration / Houston Chronicle

TV: Discoveries, Disappointments and Promising Debuts

As a librarian, I spend most of my free time reading. But I’m no saint – or snob; I devote my fair share of hours to the TV as well. I can’t say that 2017 was a particularly great year for the small screen, but I will argue that the rise of original shows from nontraditional channels (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon) has led to more diverse, edgy and interesting choices than we’ve had in the past.  Below is a compilation of the best shows I discovered in 2017, the ones I’ve finally given up on, and ones I can’t wait to see in 2018.

Discoveries

Black Mirror: This British anthology series has been called the Twilight Zone for the new millennium.  Released in the UK in 2011, this quirky, sometimes disturbing show about the potential pitfalls of technology debuted on Netflix in 2016. I finally began watching it recently and find each episode surprising and often a bit terrifying. Sometimes the crazy ways they imagine technology being used don’t seem so far from the current reality —  counting “likes” to determine if you qualify for a job such as in Nosedive, or creating a clone of a loved one from a social media profile as in Be Right Back. Because it’s an anthology, you can watch the episodes in any order, one at a time or hours in a row.  If you haven’t watched this yet, check it out.

Dark: Another great Netflix release, this German science fiction series has been compared to Stranger Things, but is closer to Lost in my opinion.  Set in the forested town of Winden, the action centers on the mysterious disappearances of children every 33 years.  There is a creepy series of caves, an ominous nuclear power plant and some very dysfunctional families. Throw in some time travel and the show becomes a complicated puzzle you’re desperate to figure out. The first few episodes may be confusing as you try to keep track of all the characters, but it’s worth sticking with it. I ended up binge-watching the last four and now can’t wait for season 2. You can watch the show in German with English subtitles or dubbed in English.

Black-ish: Some family sitcoms get old fast, but this one on ABC has stayed original, in part because it hasn’t been afraid to mix humor with brutal honesty. Some episodes are used to highlight issues of race, such as season 4’s musical Juneteenth, when father Dre protests a school play about Columbus that whitewashes history (The one-minute video about slavery modeled on Schoolhouse Rock should be shown in every high school classroom). Others are about family issues everyone can relate to, such as the season 3 premiere VIP, when the family heads to Disney World.

Alias Grace: Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, which fictionalizes a 19th century true crime, this Netflix original focuses on a poor immigrant girl charged with a ghastly murder. The six-episode series explores whether mild-mannered Grace Marks was insane when the crime happened, or knew what she was doing and was driven by the injustices showered upon her gender and class. Most of the show plays like a typical crime drama, but the final episode turned everything I thought on its head.

The Vietnam War: Ken Burns’  PBS documentary takes 17 hours to watch, but I think it should be required viewing for every American. I learned so much: the tragic French occupation of Vietnam whose mistakes our own forces repeated, the U.S. government’s lies and missteps that brought us into war, the physical and psychological toll the conflict inflicted on both sides, the violent and divisive protests at home. I recognized so many connections between then and now, as our deeply divided nation struggles over its identity and priorities.

Disappointments

American Horror Story: I’ve watched most seasons of this F/X horror show, enjoying (while cringing at) Murder House, Asylum, Freak Show and Roanoke. But this year’s Cult turned me off. It wasn’t the gore, although there was a lot of it. It wasn’t the actors, who continue to bring to life their new characters each season. It was the focus on politics, and a leader who sows fear and benefits from a panicked, irrational populace. It struck too close to home, given what’s happening in our country, and I couldn’t finish the season.

Walking Dead: I’ve watched from the beginning, forgiving the show’s many missteps (Glenn’s miraculous survival by dumpster, Carol losing her nerve), but couldn’t continue after the season premiere. Negan was a great villain, but the conflict with him has dragged on too long. When Maggie and company wasted time talking to Negan and his cronies in the first episodes – when they had clear shots at them – I gave up. I’ve since heard there’s been a controversial death this season that has riled up fans, but I’m not curious enough to spend the time catching up.

Debuts

Alienist: This historical crime drama, which premiered on TNT in January, looks intriguing. A journalist, a prickly psychiatrist and a team of investigators work together to solve a series of murders in 1896 New  York City. This unusual team pioneers true-life innovations in fingerprinting, forensic science and criminal profiling over a 10-episode series.

Castle Rock: Stephen King created this fictional town as the setting for many of his stories, and this anthology will bring together some of his most terrifying characters. You’ll find Pennywise from It, the mad dog from Cujo and more in this series created by J.J. Abrams. Since it runs on Hulu, I’ll have to borrow someone’s password to see it.

Roseanne reboot: Of all the sitcoms I watched growing up in the ’80s, I could best relate to the working class Conner family struggling to pay the bills and get along with each other. And while I’m getting tired of endless remakes and reboots and find many of them pointless, I will give this one a shot. I’m curious to see what the characters will be up to this far into the future and how they’ll be impacted by current events. This premieres on ABC in March.

Chi: If I had Showtime, I’d watch this ensemble set in the gritty, sometimes violent South Side of Chicago. The premiere in early January focused on a young boy who discovers a body, and the ripple effect it has on his community. I’m drawn toward stories of young people who battle poverty, violence and other disadvantages as they try to forge their path.

Author is No One-Hit Wonder

You’ve probably heard the term “one-hit wonder” in talking about musicians, the ones who strike it rich with one song but never repeat that success and fade into obscurity. The term can be applied to writers as well. Sara Gruen with Water for Elephants. Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind. Perhaps the most famous is Harper Lee, who became a cultural icon with To Kill a Mockingbird, but failed to publish another book (I refuse to count Go Set a Watchman, a draft of Mockingbird that Lee released shortly before her death which many, erroneously, consider a sequel — but that’s an issue for another day). Sure, you’ve got your Stephen King, James Patterson, Jodi Picoult, writers who produce at least one hit a year for decades. But, they’re the exception. More often than not,  it’s one and done.

That’s why I was overjoyed to discover Fredrik Backman, a Swedish author whose novel A Man Called Ove spent more than 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Turns out, his other works are not only just as good, but maybe even better. (and not to worry, they’re all in English. Even I’m not that highbrow)

Ove is the story of a grumpy old man (think the lead character in the movie “Up”) whose attempts at suicide after his wife’s death are thwarted by his quirky neighbors. Sounds heavy, but it’s told with such humor, and the cast of characters is so engaging, that it ends up being an uplifting story. I had heard rave reviews about it from all my reader friends, so when I finally stopped waiting for it from the public library and ordered it online, I had high expectations. I was not disappointed. I’m a fast reader, in general, but this book I devoured. I laughed, I cried, and then I worried: should I try his other books and risk that they won’t be as good?

Backman’s second novel My Grandmother Told Me To Tell You She’s Sorry had the benefit of an intriguing title, so I gave it a try. It’s similar to Ove in that it centers on a community of people – quirky, flawed, likable and not – that grab your attention. Also like Ove, the truth is revealed in bits and pieces that kept me eagerly turning pages. The main character of this book is 7-year-old Elsa, a misfit who loses her best friend when her unorthodox grandmother passes away.  The grandmother leaves Elsa a sort of of treasure hunt that reveals her greatest joys and deepest regrets. Drawn as I am to precocious child characters, I may even have liked this better than Ove.

Another novel, Britt Marie was Here, takes a somewhat unlikable character from Grandmother and tells her story. Having scored twice with this author, I gave it a shot and was not disappointed. It was a different story, not quite as good, but with enough of Backman’s interesting characters and charm to keep it enjoyable. Much of the plot revolves around a down-and-out soccer team, so if  you like the sport, that may draw you in.

The short novel Every Morning, the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is about the effects of dementia. I only skimmed it, not being in the right frame of mind to read it at  this time. I’ve heard it’s beautiful but difficult if you’ve lost someone to the disease.

Finally, Backman’s Beartown may be the book that young adult readers would find most riveting. It’s a story of a remote, and shrinking, town that pins its hopes for success on its local hockey team. But when the star player is accused of a brutal crime, those in the community take sides and the town’s future is jeopardized. While Backman’s other books are written in episodes that all tie together, this one is more of a straight narrative. In an age when sports is valued and athletes are revered, this was a thought-provoking read.

A Feast of Books in Bite-Sized Reviews

Since school let out in June, I’ve been reading a veritable feast of books. Fiction as varied as a box of chocolates, biographies as savory as a rack of spices, and nonfiction as filling as a four-course meal. My figurative pants were feeling snug from all of the great books I’d devoured, but I was eager for yet another helping. September forced me to go on a bit of a diet as demands on my time changed, but now that my family and I have settled into the school routine, I’ve been able to pull up once again to the buffet that is the world of books.

Like any foodie who posts pics of favorite meals to social media, I wanted to share some of the books that I’ve been sampling. Below are bite-sized reviews of a few titles that I think you’ll find satisfying and — at the risk of pushing the food puns too far — downright delicious. All of these can be borrowed from the HHS library.

FICTION

Image result for out of darkness perezOut of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez:  Inspired by a true event, the 1937 explosion of an East Texas school that killed 300 people, this novel follows the experiences of a Mexican-American girl and an African-American boy whose growing love crosses racial barriers and risks another kind of eruption. Extremely well-written, riveting and heartbreaking.

The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie: Best known as the lead actor on TV’s House,  Laurie’s novel about gun runners, secret agents and billionaires is funny and full of action. It actually reminded me of a lighter version of The Night Manager, the recent AMC series about international arms dealers starring Laurie and Tom Hiddleston.

Image result for between shades of grayBetween Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys: No, this is not a sequel, prequel or related in any way to the Fifty Shades of Grey series. This novel is about the killings, imprisonments and deportations of thousands committed during Josef Stalin’s “reign of terror.” When Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded the Baltic nation of Lithuania in 1939, he ordered attacks on doctors, lawyers, professors, political activists and pretty much anyone he thought could pose a threat to his rule. Lina’s family was among them, enduring hard labor, starvation and unimaginable abuse in Siberian prison camps.

NONFICTION

Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith: I picked up this nonfiction account, recommended by Mrs. McCusker, soon after Ali died in June. It sheds light on the evolution of both men,  the preacher into a radical leader and the athlete into a racial and religious symbol. It humanized men I’d known more as icons than as people.

Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey and In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall: Both books focus on passionate women who devoted their lives to studying, and saving, endangered primates in Africa. Fossey spent years living with mountain gorillas; Goodall’s focus was on chimpanzees. Both furthered the world’s knowledge of the animals at a time when women often weren’t taken seriously in science, and their conservation work has had a lasting impact. Part memoir and part zoology lesson, the women and animals made this pair of books hard to put down.

Image result for the spirit catches you and you fall down bookThe Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman: Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never heard of the Hmong. I’d mistakenly grouped them with the Vietnamese refugees who came here after the fall of Saigon. They’re a different culture, from an entirely different Southeast Asian country. But the lessons learned from this book — that doctors must be culturally sensitive, that medicine is not always stronger than spiritual beliefs — could apply to any interaction between different ethnic groups. The book follows a young girl with epilepsy and how stereotypes and misunderstandings nearly cost her life.

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel: In 2007-2008, the author followed an Army unit serving on the front lines of Iraq. Deployed as part of President George W. Bush’s “surge,” which he believed would end the war, these soldiers began their tour with vigor and ended it physically and emotionally ripped apart. The author’s heart-wrenching descriptions of battles, soldiers wounded or killed, and the families left behind will stick with you for a long time.

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff: Even I will admit that this was a long book that took a while to get through. But if you’re interested in history or journalism, it’s fascinating. The book explores the role of the media in the Civil Rights Movement, and how the stories and images conveyed on racial issues impacted the nation. The book really highlighted the power of the media for and against change. We’ve read about and seen the famous pictures from the Freedom Marches and Little Rock Nine, but this book takes you behind the scenes with the journalists who often risked their lives to tell the story.

Image result for professor and the madmanThe Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester: When I was in graduate school to become a librarian, I had my first experience with the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s immense, it’s amazing, it’s intimidating. The years and effort it took to create a record of every word in the English language, including its origin and earliest printed use, must have been astounding. But that alone wouldn’t make it interesting to read about. The madman makes it interesting. An American locked for decades in a British hospital for the criminally insane — who also happened to be an incredible genius — played an unforgettable role in the project. Much of what we know about the English language today, we owe to him.

Featured image is from The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers