Book review: ‘My Beloved World’ by Sonia Sotomayor

My Beloved WorldThings I knew about Sonia Sotomayor before beginning My Beloved World, a memoir of her youth in the Bronx and formative years as she tirelessly pursued knowledge and opportunity:

1. She’s an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
2. She’s the first Hispanic woman appointed to the Supreme Court.
3. She seems nice and no-nonsense.

And . . . well, that was about it. So what prompted me to pick this one up? Meg’s review, for one, but something else — something intangible — called to me from the library shelf. I listened to this work on audio and, though Sotomayor does not narrate it herself (she is rather busy, after all), I became so engrossed in her tale. Riveted, in fact.

I’ve come to the decision that approaching a biography or memoir blind is actually a really great idea. The best idea. No preconceived notions or prejudices, you know? And nothing is dull, boring, uninteresting. Everything is fresh and new. If you know little about the person in question, nothing blocks you from really getting to know them. You just jump in.

So it was with My Beloved World, which chronicles Sotomayor’s childhood, teen and early adult years as she grows up in the Bronx, attends college and ultimately begins her law career. The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Sonia’s only escape in childhood is at the home of her abuelita — but not even her grandmother can save she and Junior, her younger brother, from the effects of their father’s alcoholism. Their beautiful mother, though loving and hardworking, remains emotionally distant . . . both before and after the death of her husband. When Papi eventually dies, the family must surge forward to build something new.

Woven throughout the narrative is the story of Sonia’s own illness, too — and her attempts to understand and live fruitfully in the face of it. Diagnosed at age 7 with type 1 diabetes, Sotomayor learns to give herself the crucial shots needed daily as a young child. One of the most moving passages in My Beloved World comes early on: when Sonia recounts how she learned to inject herself with insulin as a form of autonomy. Her mother is despondent at Sonia’s diagnosis; in the 1950s, when so little was understood about the disease, they took it to be a death sentence.

It wasn’t.

From a young age, Sotomayor feels called to the law — something rare in her working-class neighborhood. She grows up in the projects with aspirations of more . . . but no clear idea of how to get there. Through books and education, however, Sotomayor continues to widen her circles and is never afraid to reach out for guidance. Even after she is selected to attend Princeton University on full scholarship and, later, to Yale Law School, she remains down-to-earth, gracious and determined.

I think she’s awesome, basically.

It would be impossible to emerge from My Beloved World without wanting to grab a drink with this woman. She is powerful, assertive and incredibly wise, but also completely able to give credit where credit is due and comes across as genuinely humble. Though some readers may feel disappointed the book ends just as Sotomayor’s career as a judge is getting started, I saw this memoir as a way to pay homage to the many people who reached out their hands, hearts and minds to guide her on an incredibly impressive path — and really loved it for that.

Sotomayor’s deep, abiding love for her family is the lynchpin holding this book together. I loved the stories of going to her grandmother’s house for big dinners and dancing the night away with the adults in the living room, basking in the warmth and love of having so much family close together. As her father’s health deteriorates when she is still a young child, that pain was palpable to me, too. Though Sonia loves her mother deeply, of course, I respected the honest way in which she recounted some of the difficulties of her youth . . . and how they’ve carried over into adulthood.

Fans of memoirs and biographies will find much to enjoy in My Beloved World. It speaks to the experience of first-generation Americans as well as the ubiquitous American Dream, and I found it incredibly well-written, quick-paced and inspirational. Women, especially, will appreciate Sotomayor’s rise in a male-dominated world — and she makes the best of everything.

After reading her story, Sonia is no longer a face I see and simply pass over on the evening news; she feels like a friend. A very powerful, kick-rump friend.


4.5 out of 5!

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonOfficial Biography
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


About the audio: Academy Award-winning actress Rita Moreno does a fantastic job capturing the nuances of Sotomayor’s serious, sometimes-gritty but ultimately beautiful prose. Her Spanish and accent are impeccable, and if I didn’t know better? Well, I would assume she was Sotomayor herself. Loved her pacing, her cadence, everything.


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Book review: ‘My Korean Deli’ by Ben Ryder Howe

My Korean DeliWhen Ben Ryder Howe’s Korean-American wife suggests purchasing a deli as an investment — and means of employment — for her hardworking immigrant parents, he’s not as horrified at the idea of plopping his savings into the Brooklyn establishment as you might think.

An editor at The Paris Review by day and exhausted store clerk by night, Howe sets about making his wife and in-laws happy — which translates to long hours with oddball characters at their family business. The store flounders from the very beginning, creating tension as Gab and Ben move into her parents’ basement, but they must come together to find a way through.

My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store was just the sort of random story I love discovering at the library. What I found was this memoir that was, by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking and maybe a little condescending — sometimes many things at once. But what it definitely was? Fun. And insightful.

Depending on the type of reader you are (and the humor you enjoy), I could see how Ben’s attitude and general demeanor could come across as holier-than-thou and annoying. As a well-to-do white man who marries a first-generation Korean-American, there are stark differences between his culture and that of his extended family. Much of the humor stems from misunderstandings between Ben and his mother-in-law, a woman who barely sits still, and just the idea of a condescending editor slicing deli meat after work is pretty hilarious.

In fact, most of the humor came from picturing uptight, sophisticated Ben doing the tasks associated with running a convenience store: getting yelled at by drunk customers; unloading heavy shipments of merchandise; trying to figure out the fearful lottery machine. He just comes across as such a well-meaning snob — but a snob all the same — that you can’t help but laugh at his antics . . . and that’s what I liked about My Korean Deli: I don’t think Ben takes himself that seriously.

I mean, he likes his job at the Review – most of the time. And he prides himself on his literary bent and knowledge. But does he think he’s “too good” to work at the store? Too important to mop floors or befriend his coworkers, especially the always-hilarious Dwayne? Absolutely not. And that’s what made this such a fun read.

Nothing major happens in My Korean Deli . . . the Pak family buys the store, they pour themselves into its upkeep, they ultimately face great struggles. But it’s as entertaining as a tale of running a family business as it is a glimpse into the life of a literary magazine, too: Paris Review editor George Plimpton plays a major role in the narrative as Ben’s boss and friend, and those behind-the-scenes looks were interesting to a book nerd like me.

Overall, it was just a story I really enjoyed . . . for no reason other than it was enjoyable. You know what I mean? It didn’t change my life, but it was memorable and rather touching, actually. If you’re a fan of memoirs, non-fiction or tales of the American Dream, My Korean Deli is a good time.


3.5 out of 5!

Pub: March 1, 2011 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Bio
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


The books I hadn’t read

Book I have not readOne of the best parts of blogging — and blogging books, especially — has been expanding my reading horizons to include all sorts of stories I wouldn’t “normally” read. Once subsisting on a diet of only chick lit and young adult, friends’ reviews of all sorts of books have really pushed me to grow as a reader . . . and a person.

As Kim enjoys a well-deserved vacation, I’m guest-posting today over at Sophisticated Dorkiness on female-driven memoirs that make really great stories. Once upon a time, wrinkled-nose Meg was afraid to branch into non-fiction because so much of what I’d been exposed to could be easily classified as mind-numbingly boring. Giving memoirs a chance as an adult has changed all that.

Pop over and check out the post — and happy Monday!


Book review: ‘The International Bank of Bob’ by Bob Harris

Bank of BobBob Harris knows exactly where he had his epiphany. On a writing assignment in Dubai, a location known for both its extreme wealth and rampant poverty, he was sipping a shockingly expensive cup of coffee while trying to forget a group of migrant workers sleeping in the streets before work the next day.

As a freelance journalist and travel writer, Harris traversed the globe covering luxurious accommodations — and though he wasn’t paid handsomely (nowhere near enough to stay in those digs on his own dime), he was able to build his savings while writing and enjoying the sights. Considering himself fortunate, Harris notices how workers watch him in the street: his American clothes, his fancy transportation. The people constructing the resorts he’s frequenting are often thousands of miles from home — and their families. They work for years at a time in a form of indentured servitude so Harris can sip a cup of coffee expensive enough to completely buy them out of poverty back home.

He has to do something.

Joining Kiva, an international lending site linking funds to borrowers around the world, Harris pours his savings into loans distributed to impoverished world citizens who simply need a helping hand. Kiva’s platform links partner institutions to individuals with funds who want to help. You’re not donating money; you’re lending it. And, the great majority of the time, you get it back . . . and can flip it again.

In The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time, Harris takes his lending one step further: after providing the funds for men and women in Africa, Morocco or Cambodia to buy supplies for shops, purchase cows, help with schooling and more, Harris takes a trip of his own: to meet borrowers face-to-face. Via translators and helpers, Kiva employees and locals, Harris finds himself in all manner of locales to meet the people who benefit every day from the faith of strangers. And if he’s helped change their lives in any small way, well . . . they’re changing his, too.

What struck me immediately in this thorough, honest and fascinating travel and humanitarian memoir is Harris’ steadfast belief that one person really can make a difference. Never does he judge or condescend; he is thoughtful, kindhearted. Bob is humble. His painstakingly cautious approach to telling others’ stories is further proof of his sincerity, and I couldn’t help but admire him — as a person and a writer — for the lengths to which he strove to make the story about others, not himself.

No small feat for a personal memoir.

The armchair travel opportunities are plentiful here, absolutely, and Harris paints many a beautiful picture as he travels seeking to better understand microcredit. But Kiva and microlending — and those they benefit — are the stars of this story. Microfinance was made famous by Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who penned Banker to the Poor. For someone who walked into Harris’ story without any knowledge of microfinance, I emerged with a much clearer understanding of the process.

I really appreciated the incredibly balanced perspective Harris offers in . . . well, every aspect of the book. While microlending has been life-changing for some and most local partner agencies are working toward the common good, Harris doesn’t paint over the messier parts: like the organizations shut down for veritable loan sharking. He talks of the good and the bad, the joys and the trade-offs. And though he is a champion for Kiva, he doesn’t work for Kiva; he’s free to discuss what he wants. His story never reads like a rampant endorsement for the site, though he never puts it down.

This is a story of money . . . of who has it, and who doesn’t. Harris often discusses “the birth lottery” — how the circumstances of our lives are so often dictated by forces out of our control. God, destiny, science, karma . . . however you view it, somehow we got here. What are the odds I would be born a white American woman in a middle-class family, for example? (Pretty low.) Who’s to say I am more “worthy” of a warm dinner and clean bed than a little boy in India, or a young mother in Vietnam? (No one.)

But Harris doesn’t dwell on the sad or the unpleasant. He mixes his own personal history — and his father’s hardscrabble Appalachian roots — with the stories of those he encounters, which lends a sweetness and authenticity to his adventures. He isn’t a poverty voyeur, zipping around the world to gawk at others’ troubles and flip them into a fat book advance. Bob is in the story, invested in the story — and he’s still written a moving book that never screams Look at me! It never feels boastful, which is pretty amazing if you consider he and members of his Kiva group have made more than 121,000 loans totaling upwards of $3.4 million through Kiva.

If ever there was something to brag about, well — that would be it.

But Bob doesn’t. Bob is funny. Bob is awesome. I finished this book feeling buoyant and hopeful and happy. It gave me a warm, humanity-doesn’t-completely-suck feeling often missing from my everyday life. With the evening news so often full of pain and chaos, The International Bank of Bob reminded me that through laptops in random laps across the globe, so many people are working toward a greater tomorrow by making a small and generous move today.

We can work toward a greater tomorrow. Together. In small ways, in big ones
. . . together.

What a beautiful thing.


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0802777511 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review


Book review: ‘Yes, Chef’ by Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, ChefEthiopian-born, Swedish-raised American chef Marcus Samuelsson had anything but a conventional upbringing.

After his African mother dies of tuberculosis following the 75-mile walk to a hospital that saved the life of he and his sister, 3-year-old Marcus is adopted by a loving white couple from Sweden. Raised with a grandmother who instills a passion for food and fascinated by the tastes and flavors of his dual heritage, Marcus turns his sights on cooking. His ambitions propel him from kitchens in Göteborg to fine restaurants in Switzerland and France, eventually landing him in New York City.

Now a successful chef and a “Top Chef Masters” winner, Samuelsson documents it all in Yes, Chef: his honest account of what it took to land him where he is today . . . and a loving ode to his varied roots — and phenomenal food.

This memoir landed in my hands on a rainy day at the library. I was wandering the audio shelves in search of something different — and I’ve been on a serious foodie fiction and food-related memoirs kick lately. Though I’d never heard of Marcus, something about his story jumped out at me. I devoured his memoir — pun intended — and am already fantasizing about how to get up to Red Rooster to taste his dishes in person.

Where to even begin with this story? Marcus’ rise to the top was filled with potholes and setbacks, disappointments and grief — but he persisted. While it’s hard not to judge some of his steely-eyed decisions harshly, thinking him cold-hearted, I believe Marcus was just a young man with ambitions that couldn’t be dampened. His laser-sharp focus on pursuing cooking came above everything else — and I couldn’t help but admire that.

Despite some of his more surprising decisions, Marcus comes across as raw and humble in his retellings of the moments that shaped his life. His descriptions of family — specifically, what “makes” a family — were touching and heartbreaking, and I cried my way through one of the early chapters. I was fascinated by his African and Swedish roots, and revelled in his descriptions of life in Göteborg (or “G-berg,” as the kids affectionately call it). The narrative detoured a bit as Marcus arrived in New York, but I loved feeling his sense of camaraderie with the wide-ranging people that inhabit the city.

Whether or not you’re familiar with Samuelsson, he has a fascinating story to tell — and I loved that Yes, Chef also pays homage to the many people who helped him continue climbing a ladder that might have otherwise become sawed-off. Also touching on issues of class, race and culture, this memoir was a thought-provoking read that held me captive from beginning to end.


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0452298059 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


About the audio: Samuelsson narrates his own story — and honestly, despite having to get used to his accent, I can’t imagine it any other way. His unique vocal patterns and careful word choices would have been lost on another narrator. As it stands, listening to Yes, Chef was an interesting and moving experience.


Book review: ‘Bloom’ by Kelle Hampton

Bloom by Kelle HamptonAs Kelle Hampton and her husband prepare to welcome their second little girl, they have no idea that lovely Nella, new little sister to their beloved Lainey, will present more new challenges — and opportunities — than they could ever have imagined.

Born with Down syndrome, Nella’s condition was a complete shock to the Hamptons . . . especially Kelle, who was suddenly forced to reconcile the dreams she had for the “sister” relationship her daughters would share and left to grapple with how a special-needs child would impact her family. In her honest, raw accounts of the early days of Nella’s life and where her family is now, Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected is a captivating, soul-soaring story of a mama whose love for her children knows no bounds.

Hampton is a blogger, writer, photographer — all talents immediately evident at her blog, Enjoying the Small Things. Nella’s story begins as a post in January 2010, and the Hamptons’ lives are forever altered by her arrival. What becomes immediately obvious in Kelle’s retelling is this mother’s pure, raw and unfiltered ability to draw you into her family’s story . . . and hold nothing back.

I’m going to be honest with you, just as Kelle is honest with us: her reaction to Nella’s Down syndrome was tough to read. She painfully describes the days and nights following her daughter’s birth, in which she writhed and sobbed and questioned her faith. I felt physically uncomfortable hearing Kelle’s reaction, but the story is obviously a retrospective. We understand that Kelle doesn’t feel this way now and, in fact, she frequently mentions her own embarrassment about her behavior. We know how much she adores Nella now — but she doesn’t prune the past. She chooses not to remove the ugly bits, even knowing how ugly they really are.

And that is the power of Bloom: Kelle invites us in, knowing we could judge her. Frown at her. Gossip about her. She invites us in because this story — her story — is an important one to tell, and she wants us to understand that Nella truly is a blessing. Their blessing. And if she couldn’t yet understand it that January night, she gets it now.

I read this story in two days, picking it up immediately after a copy arrived in the mail. I read it during my lunch break, hunched over a dry sandwich; I read it while waiting for my fiance to come home and ask about dinner; I read it while making dinner, which proved to be tricky; and I read it until 1 a.m. the following evening, wrapping up the Hamptons’ saga with half-shut, drowsy eyes. And then I found Kelle’s website because I needed updates.

Bloom is real, honest, gut-wrenching. It’s thought-provoking — what would I do in this situation? — and it’s painful. It’s also beautiful and realistic and something I couldn’t stop reading, because I have so much respect and admiration for Kelle — and so much jealousy regarding her giant, awesome net of friends (and how they get her through). The women in her life are amazing, and she makes no bones about the importance of their faith, inspiration and guidance in the weeks, months and years after Nella’s birth.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how truly gorgeous this paperback is. As Kelle is a talented photographer, the pictures in Bloom are her own — and each big moment is illustrated with a stunning shot or two. The book is the perfect blend of photographs and narrative, but make no mistake: the words themselves? Super important. This ain’t some picture book with a few captions pasted in, friends; Kelle is a fantastic, engaging writer, and I closed the final page with so much love for her family. The photos tell their own stories, and the book wouldn’t be as powerful without them.

If you appreciate memoirs, stories of family, books that detail adversity and rising above . . . well, I’ve got a book for you. Readers don’t need children of their own to appreciate Bloom and its universal truths about love, life and relationships, though I imagine the story will resonate even more powerfully for parents. This was the type of book I finished and wished I’d read a little more slowly. It’s the sort of tale I will return to again for courage and inspiration — and bless little Nella, who is too precious for words.


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062045040 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


Book review: ‘Paris, My Sweet’ by Amy Thomas

Writer and foodie Amy Thomas has a longstanding love affair with Paris. The macarons, the handsome men, the atmosphere . . . si belle. After she embarks on a week of sweets for fun, an opportunity to return — full-time — sets her on a new path. As an advertising writer for Louis Vuitton, Thomas trades her busy life in New York City for a walk-up in the City of Light. And that’s only the beginning.

Amy Thomas’ Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate) is a sweet-as-candy, fun and hunger-inducing look at one woman’s journey through France’s capital city. Thomas is my kind of friend: someone with a talent for words and an insatiable hunger. I mean, her sweet tooth is epic — and after cautioning not to read some books on an empty stomach, this would absolutely fall into that category.

Thomas’ memoir is, in many ways, an exploration of what makes a place “home.” Coming from New York, where Amy is a successful singleton who doesn’t have much time or inclination to date, journeying to Paris means bidding adieu to her many friends and family — and discovering what it means to truly be on your own. Especially without a common language to bond them, Amy’s work environment is challenging — and interacting with the French can be difficult and confusing. She becomes more self-assured with time, eventually branching out to make new friends and puzzle out French behavior, but it takes a while. As all good things to do.

Though I adored the many mentions of Paris’ insanely awesome desserts (and New York’s, too), I ultimately finished this story wanting a little more. Amy is very likeable and kind, but the story lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. I suppose I was naively waiting for her to fall in love, get a big promotion, stumble into ownership of a bakery. Something. I read too much fiction, I guess. Because I’ll say this for Paris, My Sweet: Amy feels very authentic, and her tale is realistic. For most, a handsome foreigner doesn’t lock eyes with us across a vanilla cupcake and bed us within the hour. A snooty widow doesn’t take a shine to us, leaving her beloved bistro to the adorable American upon her death. If we stumble, no one is there to catch us. We just figure it out.

Yes — for most of us? We’re just taking chances. Putting one foot in front of another. Looking for opportunities with the knowledge they may not come. And as Amy cavorts through Paris — sometimes muddling through as an expat; sometimes having the croissant-eating time of her life — I was right there with her. Paris comes alive through Thomas’ tales, and I loved visiting as she pedals the winding streets, slogs up to her apartment and plunks down to watch the city come alive from her window.

It all felt very intoxicating. And though I wish the plot itself was a little more exciting, I state that knowing life is often that way: sometimes a sweet frosted thing, perfect and knowable — but more often a gamble, a few stolen chances. Thomas does a great job of drawing you into her tale . . . and getting you hungry for those lovely macarons. Francophiles, foodies and armchair travelers will find Amy a willing and lovely narrator, and her memoir a sweet adventure.


3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402264119 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers in exchange for my honest review