The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
1890 Atlanta. Jo Kuan and her guardian, Old Gin, secretly live in an old Underground Railroad hideaway beneath a house owned by the Bells, the family who runs the Focus newspaper. Subscriptions at the Focus are lagging, and things aren’t looking good. Much of Jo’s education has been unknowingly supplemented by the Bells, both in overheard conversations and through their paper. She decides to try to help bolster the paper by submitting an anonymous column penned by “Miss Sweetie,” which becomes enormously popular. Jo, whose day job is as a lady’s maid, must hide her identity as her everyday life feeds the topics she writes about. Eventually, her two worlds collide, and Jo must decide what will stay hidden and what will be revealed — including secrets of her own family history.
I adored this entirely new-to-me glimpse into the Gay Nineties and New South and the tender relationship between Jo and Old Gin. Check out Stacey’s interview on the blog a few years back with her debut novel, Under a Painted Sky.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
This was my first Kurt Vonnegut book, which I read for my Dead Authors’ Society book club. I had a vague sense it was about World War II, that was all. Wow, was it bizarre and fascinating! Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden (which I knew nothing about [or perhaps learned about in school and remembered nothing?]). The first chapter serves as a long prologue. In it the narrator (Vonnegut?) talks about wanting to write about Dresden for years and settling on this approach — telling the story through a character named Billy Pilgrim who happens to become “unstuck from time” (the story is non-linear) and is also abducted by aliens (!!). Is the book science fiction? Is it a story of PTSD and Vonnegut’s attempt to cope with the fallout of war? (Surely yes to the second part.) Does Billy believe he was abducted by aliens because he cracks his skull in an airplane crash after the war? It’s irreverent and strange and disturbing and funny and very, very memorable. As the Tralfamadorian aliens say about death, “so it goes.” My favorite book club discussion so far.
Mazie by Melanie Crowder
Melanie is a talent with a wide range. She writes middle grade and YA, verse and prose, duologies and standalones. I adored Mazie, her newest young adult novel. Mazie Butterfield has big dreams. She wants to leave her small Nebraska town and make it on Broadway. It means leaving behind her family, the home she loves, and Jesse, the boy she’s dated for years, all to see if she has what it takes doing the thing that makes her feel most alive.
I have no acting aspirations, but Mazie’s longing resonated with how I feel about the writing life. I learned so much about the theater world in 1959, including industrial musicals. Have you ever heard of them? I loved watching Mazie come into her own and grapple with who she was and what she wasn’t willing to compromise in pursuit of her career. The storyline with Jesse is lovely, too.
This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks into Our Darkness by Sarah Clarkson
“Beauty and brokenness told me two different stories about the world. I believe that Beauty told true.”
There’s a song I keep on the bulletin board over my desk, one I heard years ago while visiting Christ Church Santa Fe that absolutely speaks to my soul: “Why Do We Hunger For Beauty?” The song doesn’t answer directly, but the answer is plainly there: Beauty is God’s doing. It’s reflected in nature, in art, in any good we encounter. Beauty is God, His calling to humanity. This book is that song in written form.
This Beautiful Truth is Sarah Clarkson’s candid journey with mental illness. The book “is a plea to present God as the healer and never the inflictor of our pain.” It’s gorgeously written and heartfelt. “God breaks into our pain in a tangible way,” Sarah says, “teaching us to trust His love and to hope for His healing. Beauty is a voice singing into our suffering, beckoning us toward restoration.” This Beautiful Truth released last week.