Mothers, Dogs, Trees, Dystopias, Beach Cottages | What We’re Reading & Watching

A random tweet from Reviews Director Kiera Parrott about crying on mass transit prompted me to ask the “What We’re Reading & Watching” team about books that made them sob on the subway (or bawl on the bus, which was the case for at least one of Kiera’s reads). While I often want to shed bitter tears of frustration at the placidly presented horribleness that is New York City mass transit (pity me, for I must ride the M and J trains every day), I haven’t done that so often. I laugh out loud a lot more, and that’s usually at the absurdity of the political news. I have to turn to the crossword for less emotion-inducing fare. So below we have some weepy and not-weepy blurbs from current and former LJ staffers. Mothers and dogs crop up; fear and prejudice, too. Oh, and a talking tree. What can I say, some things just get to you. Try not to laugh at us, we cry easily!

Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
The last time I cried (but not on the subway) was while reading the touching finale of Nicole J. Georges’s graphic memoir, Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home (Houghton Harcourt), which I reviewed for LJ. What a well-drawn, well-written book, full of insights and love for a bad dog. I can relate: I had a bad dog that I loved unreservedly, despite some really rotten behavior. She’s gone now, so I don’t have to worry about her biting the neighbors, but I still miss her.

Big surprise, too: I wept at the end of Eva Woods’s whimsical Something Like Happy (Graydon House, Sept.) about how a terminal patient named Polly turns everything upside down in the life of Annie, who’s been kicked in the teeth by life a lot. One burden on Annie is her mother, who has early-onset dementia—that’s how she and Polly meet, Annie is visiting her mother, who doesn’t recognize her, and Polly is charming everybody in the hospital, where she practically lives in the MRI scanner (brain tumor). They develop a friendship and do a lot of those “hundred happy days” projects and everything is going along all ducky, but then, you know…terminal.

Speaking of mothers, I must confess: up until last weekend, I had never seen the Maysles Brothers’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, except for tiny clips. Well now I’m no longer a Big Edie/Little Edie virgin and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. This was one dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamic, but at least they had each other. I was very glad that it wasn’t presented in smell-o-vision. The cat and raccoon urine would do me in.

Tyler Hixson, WWR/WWW emeritus
I am in the middle of Paolo Bacigalupi’s Printz Award winner, Ship Breaker (Little, Brown), as I just finished reviewing the newest installment in the series, Tool of War (Oct.) and wanted to acquaint myself with the series. It takes place in a postapocalyptic Earth; the United States descended into another civil war, the world was literally torn apart by superhurricanes (“city killers”), and now everything is owned by dozens of huge corporations while once-bustling metropolises have drowned in the ocean. Ship Breaker is about Nailer, a ship breaker whose job it is to explore shipwrecks that have washed up on the beach and scavenge them for parts. Nailer lives in a hut with his drug-addicted father, who beats him on a regular basis, and constantly dreams of leaving the beach to be a clipper-ship captain. His fortunes shift when he discovers a wrecked clipper and inside is a “swank”; a rich girl who has rings on her fingers and diamonds in her face. The girl explains that her father is the head of the Patel Global Corporation, a powerful company, and that she’s on the run from her uncle, who is trying to stage a coup against her father. She promises to get him away from his life as a ship breaker if he’ll help her escape from her uncle. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. It’s an enthralling read, and I can’t wait to plow through the rest of it, along with the second book in the series. Apocalyptic and dystopian fiction is always interesting to read; some authors have incredible visions about how the world could be destroyed or altered, and Bacigalupi is a master of worldbuilding.

I also just watched Army of Darkness, the third and final Evil Dead movie. IT WAS SO BAD. Not even good bad, like B-movie, corny bad, but BAD bad.The first film is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I was excited to finish the trilogy.

Kiera Parrott, Reviews Director, LJS
I have a bad habit of choosing poignant, tear-inducing books for my commute. This week I teared up twice—for two different books. The first was Dashka Slater’s The 57 Bus (Farrar, Oct.). It’s a YA crossover nonfiction about the intersection of two teen lives sparked by a horrific crime. In November 2013, Sasha, a high school senior from Oakland fell asleep while riding the 57 bus home from school. Sasha, who identifies as agender, was wearing a flowing skirt. Richard, another Oakland teen, boarded the bus with his two friends, and the trio began to make comments and jokes about the sleeping teen. A lighter was produced and Richard touched the flame to Sasha’s skirt. When they awoke, Sasha’s entire skirt was engulfed in fire. Sasha suffered severe third-degree burns on their legs and required skin grafts, intensive therapy, and several weeks stay in a burn unit. Sixteen-year-old Richard was soon arrested and charged as an adult with two felonies classified as hate crimes. Slater, who originally reported the crime for the New York Times Magazine, here breaks down the series of events into short and effective chapters that explain and explore issues of gender identity, the race and class divisions that separate two different Oakland neighborhoods, the faults and limits of the justice system, the concept of restorative justice, and the breadth of human cruelty, guilt, and forgiveness. There is no way to read this book and not come away with a deep sense of empathy for both teens, their families, and their communities.

The other book that brought a tear to my eye was Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree (Feiwel & Friends), a middle grade novel coming out in September. Applegate is the Newbery Medal–winning author of The One and Only Ivan. When Ivan first came out, I didn’t think I’d like it. (I’m not typically a fan of books featuring talking animals.) But, of course, I was drawn in from the first page and fell in love. It was a similar situation with Wishtree. The story is told from the perspective of…wait for it…a talking tree. I was skeptical, to say the least. But there’s much to love about this wise, old red oak who narrates a tale about a new girl in town who’s wishing for a friend. It could be sappy or saccharine, but Applegate’s light touch keeps it grounded. I’m a sucker for tough, no-nonsense characters who reveal their softer sides. There’s a scene like that in the book that really got me. Hence, the tears on the subway!

Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
The last book that made me weep copiously on public transportation was Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise (Scribner). While the stories in this collection aren’t linked, there are themes that repeat just enough to make them echo one another. And while my response to it was, obviously, deeply personal, I also imagine I’m not the only one who feels shot right through the heart by their subjects: Being a mother. Having a mother. Slowly losing a parent to dementia. Loving animals a bit unreasonably. The tug of wanting to rescue all the hurt ones. And the awful guilt of feeling like you’ve failed a good dog. (Nearly 12 years after losing a really good dog of my own, to this day unsure whether I could have saved him if I’d done something differently, I still cry a little every time I think of him.) And the big one: That love can be, and is, often irrational. And we all have to live with that. These are wonderful, well-written, heartfelt stories; Bergman has put together a beautifully coherent and sweet book. I myself had to double check the dedication page to make sure it wasn’t written just for me. But nope—they’re for all the world’s stray creatures who need a little love and rescuing. Very highly recommended, but bring a pair of dark glasses with you.

Henrietta Verma, WWR emerita
Sticking with my Nancy Thayer beach-read theme from a few weeks back, I just read Mary Alice Monroe’s Beach House for Rent (Gallery: S. & S.). It was more serious than Thayer’s book, featuring an agoraphobic artist who rents a beach house for the summer so she can paint shorebirds, and the woman whose house she rents, who experiences a tragedy during the drama, romance, and friendship-filled season. Nothing too demanding but enjoyable. On the nonfiction side, I read Eric C. Lindstrom’s The Skeptical Vegan: My Journey from Notorious Meat Eater to Tofu-Munching Vegan—A Survival Guide. The author’s attempts at humor are sometimes a little too punny, but his experiences and advice are valuable and prompted me to start a plant-based diet, something I’ve been contemplating for a while. (Being a full vegan also means wearing no leather, wool, or silk, and eating no honey…I just can’t.)







Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email:, Twitter: @lizefrench

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