Review: A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates

Nothing about this book was easy or simple. For starters, it added what seemed like 5 pounds to my already full carry-on on the way back from Norway. But I picked it up in the airport because I needed something to keep me going through 3 flights totaling 12 hours.

And I finished it before I got on the 3rd flight. This was captivating in a way that few books are at 200 pages much less 750 pages. Oh, it was horrible and devastating and a condemnation of a number of things – a broken social insurance system, predatory churches, and lack of ethics in journalism to start. But it held me fast and true until the ending trailed off into a sort of bizarre “everyone lives miserably ever after” ending.

A Book of American Martyrs is a realistic fiction book set across a period of about 50 years following the patriarchs and a middle daughter of two families that end up intertwined by, of all things, the murder of one by the other over ideals.

A roofer described as a predatory rapist bully as a child is consumed with the idea that the Lord is working through him to kill an abortion provider. 

An abortion provider is consumed with the need to further his work and mission, leaving his kids and wife behind to fear for their lives due to the threats. 

And that act consumes both families going forward. The mothers collapse, the oldest brothers leave, the youngest vanish into the mist leaving the middle daughters fighting for their future.

If you like reading about character studies, uncomfortable ideals, and broken families this book is for you. If you’re uncomfortable with reading visceral details of abuse and ideology, this book is not for you.

I wasn’t as surprised at the rationale presented by both families surrounding abortion. The part I found most relevant and skin-crawling was the support and encouragement given to the murderer through the church and definitively related hate organizations. It’s so familiar to the politics today where everything is dog whistles and coded, not-so-coded language and support up until you’re in trouble at which point we support you but we weren’t involved. The doublespeak that’s become so encoded regarding racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and literally everything at this point where we’re definitely not saying you should hurt people, we would never say something like that. We will just say that someone needs to do it and this is how. *Wink*


That’s the part I can’t get over. That’s the part that leaves me skin crawling – somehow it wasn’t the adultery, the violent bullying, the rape. It was the insidious hate and creeping violence being preached from a pulpit and revered as the word of God.

This isn’t a coherent review. The book was well-done. I agree with other reviewers that the end falls apart but so did the families.

Everything fell apart.

Hate tore apart two families – two idealistic men, both of whom thought they were saving the world.



Review: Off the Sidelines by Kirsten Gillibrand

I have always tended towards books written by or about women. You can see it in my childhood and young adult collections and it continues to this day. I’m now making a conscious effort to ensure diversity of background and nationality as well. I think this is important because a huge proportion of books recommended are very male and very white. And while I have read plenty of them (and continue to read them) I don’t feel bad about angling towards books that are different.

A few years ago I started a project trying to remember all of the books we were mandated to read in school and categorizing them by demographics. I would love to see how it varies by region and generation. If you remember what books you had to read during school add them to the comments along with your geographical area and time frame of education! [Datapoints!]

But anyways, in the past, oh, 18 months, I’ve become more interested in politics than I ever have before (I wonder why?). I’m an avid user of Google Rewards and so when Kirsten Gillibrand’s book popped up at a discount I was excited to buy it. I had seen her name around the internet, especially as she pushed back against the 2017 White House Agenda. I have to mention that the subtitle also got me: Speak Up, Be Fearless, and Change Your World. I’m easily captivated by the idea of making change.

“We’re all shaped by the challenges we work through. Those fights for justice and basic fairness taught me the single most important lesson in politics: To be an effective voice for the voiceless, you have to speak and fight from your heart.”

But anyways, Gillibrand’s book details her path into politics and how she negotiated her life while doing so. It is complemented with research on women in politics and in general. Her tone was honest, frustrated, and encouraging as she has tirelessly pushed for more opportunity and representation while being one of the few women in Congress, especially with small children.

I’m particularly glad that she spoke about the “sticky floor” concept rather than the glass ceiling. It’s so important that we look at the women who are stuck at the very bottom and work to improve their lives, for there is a vast number for whom any kind of advancement is a pipe dream. Our infrastructure just doesn’t allow it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t break glass ceilings; we can in fact do both simultaneously and the measures to clean up the floor would help with the ceiling. However, focusing just on the ceiling only seems to put more dirt on the floor, so to speak.

I was also pleased to find that she gave real ideas for how to get into politics, make a difference in your community, and advocate for people. I’m not going to list them out here, you should really read the book. However, this is a pretty good taste.

“What do you do when an issue finds you? First of all, don’t feel like you have to attack it on your own. Regardless of what you’re fighting for—speed bumps on your block, more-nutritious lunches in schools—know that you will find allies. These allies may not be obvious from the start. Often you won’t see who they are until you’re out on the field. The same is true for seeing the best course of action. You can’t always visualize the path to victory from the sidelines, but once you’re in the game, it becomes clearer and clearer with every twist and turn. And, second, remember that the most worthwhile achievements in life never come easy. With every setback, you gain strength, resolve, a tougher skin, and new insights.”

Five stars to Kirsten Gillibrand for her excellent service to the American people and this inspiring book!