Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

For the month of December, my Shakespeare read for The #ShakeTheStacks Challenge was, Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first attempt at a tragedy.

Titus Andronicus is a revenge play centered around Titus Andronicus, a Roman General, who is locked in a cycle of personal revenges with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. The play is bloody and brutal, to the point that the first scene includes a handful of murders, one of which is Titus killing his own son. Shakespeare was not going for subtle with this play.

By far the most interesting part of Titus Andronicus centers on the character of Lavinia, Titus’ daughter. I don’t want to give too much away, but the scenes involving Lavinia, are some of the most fantastic scenes. She does not speak, instead the men around her speak at her and for her, and are given a voice when she is not. They must interpret her thoughts and her pain, and it is excruciating to read.While I’m not sure what Shakespeare was sayingabout women in his own time, Lavinia struck a chord with me now, at the end of 2018. I kept thinking of an essay, by Lacy M. Johnson, called “Speak Truth to Power” (which can be found in her amazing book of essays, The Reckonings).

Aaron, the Moor, is another fascinating character to read in modern times. He is Black and is a complete and total villain. He is given little in the way of redemption, and reaffirms his own villainy until the end of the play. I think so much about how this role would have been seen throughout history, this angry, violent, remorseless Black man as the epitome of evil. What kind of actor plays Aaron? Is he a brute? Is he cerebral? Is he ever played by a charming man? Or a light skinned Black man? Or is he always a stereotype of the angry dark Black man? How does this role evolve over time? I could reflect on Aaron (and Lavinia) and how the character functions in this play for a long time.

Titus Andronicus is shockingly easy to understand. While the character’s names are hard to remember, the text itself is accessible (for Shakespeare) in a way previous plays have not been. Its simple really, a play predicated on revenge. The ending of the play is too short, the fallout is too quick. I think thats partially because this is Shakespeare’s first tragedy. I know he gets better at elongating the pain and suffering at the end of his plays.

I really enjoyed Titus Andronicus more than I thought I would. It touches on mercy and justice in a way that I was not expecting, and gave me a lot to think about when it comes to Blackness and the representation of women on stage.


In case you’re reading along with me for The #ShakeTheStacks Challenge, I wanted to give you a heads up to what I’ll be reading in 2019. You don’t have to read along in the same order as me, and you can feel free to join me for one or all. However you decide to do it, my plan is below.


  • Paperback: 107 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Australia; Pelican Shakespeare edition (January 1, 2000)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Titus Andronicus on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister

I was thrilled to pick up Good and Mad after hearing Rebecca Traister on the Hysteria podcast. A book about the power of women’s anger and not the same tropes about shrill women felt particularly exciting. Especially during a year that brought us the Kavanaugh hearings, children being torn from their families at the border, #TimesUp and a whole lot more. Controversies and violations that women everywhere had every right to be pissed about.

Here is more on Good and Mad

In the year 2018, it seems as if women’s anger has suddenly erupted into the public conversation. But long before Pantsuit Nation, before the Women’s March, and before the #MeToo movement, women’s anger was not only politically catalytic—but politically problematic. The story of female fury and its cultural significance demonstrates the long history of bitter resentment that has enshrouded women’s slow rise to political power in America, as well as the ways that anger is received when it comes from women as opposed to when it comes from men.

With eloquence and fervor, Rebecca tracks the history of female anger as political fuel—from suffragettes marching on the White House to office workers vacating their buildings after Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Here Traister explores women’s anger at both men and other women; anger between ideological allies and foes; the varied ways anger is perceived based on its owner; as well as the history of caricaturing and delegitimizing female anger; and the way women’s collective fury has become transformative political fuel—as is most certainly occurring today. She deconstructs society’s (and the media’s) condemnation of female emotion (notably, rage) and the impact of their resulting repercussions.

In a time where most people seems to be somewhere between generally irritated and in a state of full out rage, this book felt particularly helpful in contextualizing the world. As a woman who has often been asked to calm down, or slow down, or think things out, Good and Mad gave me the encouragement I needed to continue in my rage, it gave me permission.

Rebecca Traister is the kind of person you want with you in a debate. She is smart, articulate, and can give you specific examples to prove any point. In Good and Mad Traister’s research feels comprehensive. She connects the dots between the suffrage movement, of both women and Black folks in America, to the current anti-Trump moment. She takes her time making points and documenting the many times where angry women have gotten the job done. There is so much in this book, from media bias against women to the history of rage at work to political campaigns to social movements, and Traister skillfully ties these ideas together. She underlines the history which allows for something like a #MeToo movement to flourish. She is a serious journalist committed to her beat and it pays off in this book.

One of the most complicated and frustrating parts of the women’s movement or feminism (or whatever you want to call it) is the role of White women. White women have for years used their proximity to White men to wreak havoc on people of color, while simultaneously calling for action and change in the ways that benefit them (abortion rights, for example), forgetting their success is predicated on that of all women. And though sometimes it may seem like all women benefit from the success of White initiatives, often time it is women of color who are harmed (see: Margaret Sanger). Traister doesn’t shy away from explaining these types of double standards. It is one of the most refreshing parts of this book. Traister trusts her audiences ability to think deeply about complicated matters and draw their own conclusions. She invites the contradictions as proof of the strength of a coalition like “The Woman’s Movement”

From politicians to pop singers to labor activism, this book has it all. It is a great crash course on women’s rights and rage The same rage that has propelled women spark movements. There are moments the book goes on a too long and sometimes the writing can feel dry, but it it often balanced by Traister own personal grapplings with feminism, which are fantastic. It is a powerful thing to read Good and Mad in the years following the 2016 election, and the months following the 2018 election. It is a reminder that women;s anger has been, and will continue to be an important and useful force for change.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • PublisherSimon & Schuster (October 2, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on Good and Mad Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Real Jungle Tales by Jesse Byrd and Illustrated by Andressa Meissner

This week on The Short Stacks, we talked to children’s book author Jesse Byrd about his newest book, Real Jungle Tales. You can listen to that conversation here. 

Real Jungle Tales tells the story of a little Native American girl named Zee who gets punished on Halloween and can’t go trick-or-treating, and comes up with a plan to get candy from her friends. The book is for ages 4-8 and is in rhyming verse. 

Real Jungle Tales is beautiful, the illustrations (by Andressa Meissner)  are playful and vivid, and in sync with the energy and personality of our protagonist, Zee. She is painting vibrant pictures with her words, and the images match. There is a sense of whimsy as she schemes, which is shown threw the rhythms of the rhyming verse and the bright images. Byrd and Meissner are a perfect fit for Zee’s and her story.

Where this book really shines is the unapologetic and deliberate centering of Zee, a clever, creative, and playful Native American girl. We don’t often to get see that in children’s books, young girls of color leading the narrative, but Byrd has committed his work to this kind of representation, you get to meet a Martine a creole girl in his previous book, Sunny Days

According to Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s multicultural statistics for 2017 you are more likely to find a children’s book that centers a dinosaur than a Native American child, and when books have female leads, they are “highly likely” to be in pink or a bow (even when they are animals). Byrd doesn’t engage in any of that, instead he presents us with Zee. Smart, clad in a safari hat, and confident beyond measure. You can tell that he really respects children and wants to present them as they are, diverse, powerful, exciting.

It should also be said, that this book doesn’t focus on Zee’s ethnicity, instead it focuses on her desire to get some candy. Zee is not struggling with identity, or troubled, this book is not about overcoming societal obstacles, which many children’s books that have characters of color seem to be. No, this book is about a confident little girl problem solving and being herself. 

I did give a copy of this book to my 7 year old niece, and she loved it, sat there reading it at a restaurant, she is a little Black girl, and she saw herself in Zee. It was very powerful, not only for her, but also for me. 

I recommend this book to any of the young children in your life, especially if they are children of color and/or are great story tellers, or maybe just to kids who really like animals. I would challenge you to give this book to white children as well as children of color, and to little boys as well as girls. Why not?

You can get your copy of this book through Jesse’s publishing company Jesse B. Creative Inc. or through Amazon

Don’t forget to listen to Jesse Byrd on The Short Stacks discussing Real Jungle Tales and more. 

  • Hardcover: 24 pages
  • Publisher: Jesse B. Creative Inc. (January 16, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on Real Jungle Tales. Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

When They Call You a Terrorist was much more than I expected. It isn’t only about the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is also a deeply personal memoir of family, survival, incarceration, mental health, feminism, community and more. It is a beautifully told story, that is as inspiring as it is disheartening. 

For more on When They Call You a Terrorist

Raised by a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, Patrisse Khan-Cullors experienced firsthand the prejudice and persecution Black Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement. For Patrisse, the most vulnerable people in the country are Black people. Deliberately and ruthlessly targeted by a criminal justice system serving a white privilege agenda, Black people are subjected to unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality. In 2013, when Trayvon Martin’s killer went free, Patrisse’s outrage led her to co-found Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.

Condemned as terrorists and as a threat to America, these loving women founded a hashtag that birthed the movement to demand accountability from the authorities who continually turn a blind eye to the injustices inflicted upon people of Black and Brown skin.


The central message and biggest take away from this book, is the power of community. Not only to activate, but also to heal, to inspire, to respond, and to nourish. Khan-Cullor’s community, one that she actively cultivates through out the book, shows us the power of marginalized people to stare down oppression and systematic abuses. To enact change, to create safety when there is none. When They Call You a Terrorist has no happy ending. Which is true for America’s Black folks. But the ending isn’t important in this book, it is about the journey of one woman, fortifying her life with like minded people and fighting like hell for her their voices to be heard, and listened to.

Championing human rights in the face of violent racism, Khan-Cullors is a survivor. She transformed her personal pain into political power, giving voice to people suffering inequality and a movement fueled by her strength and love to tell the country―and the world―that Black Lives Matter

Kahn-Cullors (along with bandele) lets us into her life. She uses her own unique experiences to contextualize a more general Black American narrative. Her own father’s incarceration is an avatar for the hundreds of thousands of Black men who were imprisoned along side him. The abuses her brother suffers as mentally ill man in prison, become a glimpse into the many men who are abused when proper medical help would have sufficed. She combines deeply personal experiences into something relatable. In the doing, she puts a face on mental illness,  mass incarceration, drug abuse, racism, and police brutality. She humanizes Blackness. 

Something that is often overlooked in society is the role of Black and Brown women, especially queer women, in the progress of society. This book calls out this erasure, and correctly credits them with much of the social progress we have all benefited from. Khan-Cullors, demands we acknowledge the contributions, both in her own life (her mother, her friends, her lovers) and in the bigger picture (the activists she works with, and the victims of police brutality #sayhername). Bravo, for calling out women who very much are and very much have been the center of the movements toward justice and equality.

The one part of When They Call You a Terrorist that I wanted more from, was the discussion of life inside the Black Lives Matter movement. Yes, of course we hear about BLM and its formation, from Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland, but it comes late in the book. There are moments in Ferguson, MO, as she helps organize around BLM, but there is not much about what life as a leader of such a powerful movement is like. I would have enjoyed more on that. 

I listened to this book, and Khan-Cullors reads it. She does a great job. Her voice is calming and direct. She tells her own story beautifully. It made me want to meet her. It made me want to fight alongside her. 

There is no doubt this memoir is moving. It is one woman’s story, and a slice of history. The book speaks to a bigger picture and moment, and I think we will look back on this book as one of the important texts of the decade. 

  • Audiobook: 6 hours and 29 minutes
  • Publisher: Macmillan Audio
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press; Reprint edition (January 16, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on When They Call You a Terrorist Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim

109E7C7A-C34F-4CBA-AD1C-86315A297A24If You Leave Me was The Stacks Book Club pick this week on the podcast. We discussed the book in detail with author of The Ensemble, Aja Gabel. If you want to hear that full episode, click here, but be warned there are plenty of spoilers throughout our conversation. If you’ve not read the book, but want to hear more about it, check out our first ever episode of The Short Stacks (mini episodes focused on authors and their writing processes) featuring the author of If You Leave Me, Crystal Hana Kim. Listen here, and no spoilers.

Here is more about If You Leave Me

An emotionally riveting novel about war, family, and forbidden love—the unforgettable saga of two ill-fated lovers in Korea and the heartbreaking choices they’re forced to make in the years surrounding the civil war.

When the communist-backed army from the north invades her home, sixteen-year-old Haemi Lee, along with her widowed mother and ailing brother, is forced to flee to a refugee camp along the coast. For a few hours each night, she escapes her family’s makeshift home and tragic circumstances with her childhood friend, Kyunghwan.

Focused on finishing school, Kyunghwan doesn’t realize his older and wealthier cousin, Jisoo, has his sights set on the beautiful and spirited Haemi—and is determined to marry her before joining the fight. But as Haemi becomes a wife, then a mother, her decision to forsake the boy she always loved for the security of her family sets off a dramatic saga that will have profound effects for generations to come.


What I appreciated most about If You Leave Me is how patient Crystal Hana Kim is with her reader. She allows us the space and time to luxuriate and unpack her novel. The book layers issues, one on top of the other. Kim gives us realistic struggles that are intertwined and complex, subtle and subdued, instead of hammering us over the head with “themes” and “imagery”. In reading this book, you feel the respect Kim gives her characters, and you the reader. She  is entrusting us with her stories. The book is bleak, almost relentlessly so. It doesn’t feel so sad in the reading, but after, you’re hit with the heaviness of what you’ve just read, and what it all means.

If You Leave Me is a story of war and so much more than war, and If You Leave Me illustrates the depth of human struggle and triumph that surrounds war. These little moments that are both monumental and common. Mental illness and distress is a major thread in this book, and Kim isn’t heavy handed. She methodically illustrates grief and depression, allowing the pain to unfold. Kim is barely there. You understand, but she never says it, he characters do not have the words. The same goes for feminism, survivors guilt, and so much more. Kim shows us, but never tells.

The book is told through the eyes of five narrators, and this too is expertly done. Our guides through this narrow landscape age and grow. They change before our eyes, the events her hear about shape them. People I once rooted for were , become reprehensible. You are shown glimpses of these people. This format works to give us a more complete picture of the world without explanation.

While I quiet enjoyed If You Leave Me, it did slow down at points for me. There were moments of  extreme pain, or pleasure, or revelation, and then moments where I felt the momentum stalled out. They never lasted long, but I could sense the absence of movement. The words remained beautiful, but the story dimmed.

This is a book you read in a few days; in front of a fire, on a vacation, uninterrupted. The premise is unlike anything I’ve read, but the story itself feels familiar and accessible. I loved the writing and the simplicity, but also the depth of topics that were woven throughout this book. If you love a rich story with developed characters and plenty of emotion, this is your book. This is the first novel by Crystal Hana Kim, and I look forward to whatever is next from her.

Don’t forget to listen to the The Stacks with Aja Gabel discussing If You Leave Me

Hear The Short Stacks conversation with author, Crystal Hana Kim

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • PublisherWilliam Morrow (August 7, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on If You Leave Me Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

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Reading The Bluest Eye for The Stacks Book Club was my first time ever reading the work of Toni Morrison. I knew it would be great, simply because so many people told me so, but getting a chance to read her words for myself, I now understand. You can listen to my conversation with Renée Hicks (founder of Book Girl Magic) about The Bluest Eye right here on The Stacks.

Here is more about The Bluest Eye

Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for the dark skin, curly hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for normalcy, for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit in.Yet as her dream grows more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife. A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison’s virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterized her writing.


Morrison does an expert job of writing about the darkest parts of our humanity. The book is haunting. Her characters are real and simple and purely themselves, for better or worse. She uses her words to make sure we never look away, that we examine the humanity of these characters. She finds our own vulnerabilities and uses them, forcing the reader to confront pain and trauma in a three dimensional way. To extend our sympathy to the abusers and the abused. Even when it feels impossible.

As we follow the life of our protagonist, a young dark-skinned Black girl named Pecola Breedlove, we see the world she sees, and we flashback to how her 1940s Ohio world was created. Morrison is brilliant in setting the scene as we think it should be, and then showing how it really is, how we got here, and why it is more complicated than we could have imagined.

The Bluest Eye takes on much that ails our society. The book confronts racism, colorism, beauty, sexism, sexuality, sexual abuse, trauma, rage, toxic masculinity, and more. Instead of looking at each idea as an isolated problem, she folds everything together and dares us to unpack the mess. To see that none of these isms or societal failures works on its own, but rather that they are entangled. While the story itself is painful and bleak, Morrison’s writing makes it palatable, something her readers are willing to stick with and sift through.

I could have read more of this book, but Morrison says what she needs to say in about 200 pages. She is specific and direct. There is no extra fluff. She doesn’t give us time to wallow. That directness enhances the book. She shows us the evils of humanity, the tender moments of kindness and never allows one to take on more weight than the other. Never allows us to pick sides. We just have to keep moving forward.

This is Morrison’s first novel, she wrote it at age 39, which is hard to believe, but then again seems right. This book is a force of a debut and while I did sometimes find myself confused, especially during the ending, I was engrossed with her language and her characters. You can feel that there is room for growth in The Bluest Eye, which says more about Morrison’s potential to be one of the greats than anything else. For many authors, this would be their top, this would be the best they could do. I look forward to reading more Toni Morrison, and I am so glad I finally got started reading her at all.

Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Renée Hicks discussing The Bluest Eye

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (May 8, 2007)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on The Bluest Eye Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

 

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

7796075C-DD3E-4D0A-8259-4C8E5A469D83I’ve been lying to the world. I’ve been proudly boasting that I love Malcolm Gladwell and that I’ve read all his books, and that he’s just the best. Turns out, thats a lie. I thought I had read all his books, but I had never actually read his first book, The Tipping Point. It has been a point of shame for me, I felt a little depressed that I wasn’t as much of a super fan of his work as I thought. But now, I can go back to my unabashed bragging about my love for Mr. Gladwell, because I have finally read The Tipping Point.

If you’re not familiar, here is more about The Tipping Point

The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate. This widely acclaimed bestseller, in which Malcolm Gladwell explores and brilliantly illuminates the tipping point phenomenon, is already changing the way people throughout the world think about selling products and disseminating ideas.


Malcolm Gladwell is a thinker. Sure we all think, but we’re not all professional thinkers. His brand is his thought process; critical, obscure, individual. He has become known for taking an idea we think we understand, and flipping it on it’s head. Showing us the complexities of life, and often time the simplicity of it as well. The Tipping Point is his first book, and is perfectly in line with Gladwell’s brand and subsequent books, and podcast, Revisionist History.

I really enjoyed this book. Gladwell takes his time explaining his points, without laboring any one idea to death. The book is the right length, long enough to make sure you understand what a tipping point is, and how it works, but not so long that you’re skipping ahead because you’ve got it already. This is hard to do. Many books make a point early on, and work through it so many times it becomes redundant and stale. Gladwell uses a variety of examples, from crime in NYC to Hushpuppy shoes, to Divine Secrets of the Ya-ya Sisterhood, to illustrate his points, and this variety keeps the reader interested and engaged.

The later edition of The Tipping Point has an afterword that shows how ahead of conventional thinking Gladwell is. In the afterward written in 2002, a few years after the original book (2000) Gladwell makes a few predictions about the future as he sees it. One thing he discusses is school shootings as an emerging epidemic afflicting American teens, all before many of the most notorious school shootings of the last 20 years. He also forecasts a growing apathy toward email, and how we will become immune to the power of email, which of course in 2018 is expressly clear. Gladwell’s thinking is ahead of his time.

There were moments where Gladwell lost me in his train of thought. I wasn’t sure what point he was making, or the difference between certain categorizations he had laid out (i.e. maven vs sales person), or the connection between two seemingly unrelated topics. This happened a few times throughout the book and I had to go back and draw the connections in a second (or sometimes third) pass.

I listened to the audiobook of The Tipping Point with Gladwell narrating, which is well done. While he isn’t as animated as as he is on his podcast, you can hear his passion for the work he has done. He is convincing and clear. I also happen to enjoy the smooth sound of his voice. But again, I am huge Gladwell fangirl.

I recommend this book. I recommend just about everything Malcolm Gladwell does. Have I mentioned how much I love and admire his work? I don’t always agree with him, but I appreciate his thinking and his ability to shift the way I think and perceive the world around me. He is a provocateur in the best way.

  • Audiobook: 8 hours and 33 minutes
  • Publisher: Hachette Audio (December 31, 2006)
  • Paperback: 301 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books (January 7, 2002)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on The Tipping Point Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

To the Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder by Nancy Rommelmann

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

A friend who recommends you books that you love is a rare and valuable friend. I am lucky to have such friends, who tell me what to read, and rarely lead me astray. I came to To The Bridge by Nancy Rommelmann through one of these friends, my book recommending savant Heather John Fogarty. Heather told me about the book months before it came out, even before I had created The Stacks. She knew it was my kind of book. So once I decided to start the podcast, it seemed obvious Heather would be a guest and we would discuss it for The Stacks Book Club. That episode is out now, and you can listen to it here.

Here is more about To The Bridge

On May 23, 2009, Amanda Stott-Smith drove to the middle of the Sellwood Bridge in Portland, Oregon, and dropped her two children into the Willamette River. Forty minutes later, rescuers found the body of four-year-old Eldon. Miraculously, his seven-year-old sister, Trinity, was saved. As the public cried out for blood, Amanda was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison.

Embarking on a seven-year quest for the truth, Rommelmann traced the roots of Amanda’s fury and desperation through thousands of pages of records, withheld documents, meetings with lawyers and convicts, and interviews with friends and family who felt shocked, confused, and emotionally swindled by a woman whose entire life was now defined by an unspeakable crime. At the heart of that crime: a tempestuous marriage, a family on the fast track to self-destruction, and a myriad of secrets and lies as dark and turbulent as the Willamette River.


Nancy Rommelmann has crafted a layered and nuanced book with To The Bridge. She never falls into the trap of trying to make the book easy or clear. She presents her investigation and trusts that we, the readers, are smart enough to draw our own conclusions. For me, the conclusions were less obvious than I would have hoped, they were complex and often times contradictory, they came out of the work Rommelmann had done.

Where this book soars is in Rommelmann’s ability to sift through all the information she’d gathered. She is our guide into the world of this toxic relationship, between Amanda Stott-Smith and her estranged husband Jason Smith, and while she is somewhat objective, she also becomes a subject of her own writing. She is a character in this book.  At first Rommelmann’s pressence in the book threw me off, I was not excited about author and subject in a non-memoir type of true crime book. However in the end it didn’t bother me at all. I maybe even liked it a little, it helped me to understand this rocky landscape more clearly.

This is one of those books that you think you know how it is going to go, and if I’m being honest nothing really surprised me. Sure, there were details I didn’t guess, but mostly the story of sociopaths follows a pattern and this book just highlights those patterns. We all know that something is wrong if a mother is killing her children. However in To The Bridge we are not forced to read a sensational account of the events that led Stott-Smith to the bridge. Instead Rommelmann affords her subjects dignity and autonomy, and ultimately asks us to hold them accountable.

There are certainly things I wished would have been presented more expressly in the book. I would have appreciated if Rommelmann gave me the answers. I would have loved to know exactly what Amanda was thinking when she dropped her kids off the Sellwood bridge that night. But, To The Bridge can not definitively answer that question for me. I don’t even know is Amanda herself could answer for certain. What I respect about this book is that Rommelmann investigates to try to find out why, and then she shows us her work. She doesn’t shy away from the messy realities of the toxicity of Amanda and Jason’s marriage and she doesn’t let those around them off the hook for their complacency. I would love final answers, but that is not how life works. Things can get complicated, and this book leans into that complexity, it doesn’t attempt to smooth ir out.

If you like investigative journalism, if you like uncovering the story beneath the story, then this is a book for you. It moves fast, and is an easy read even though the subject matter is anything but. If you are a sensitive reader or are triggered by domestic abuse and child abuse then I would suggest you prepare yourself for this book, or set it aside for another time.

Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Heather John Fogarty discussing To The Bridge.

  • Hardcover: 303 pages
  • Publisher: Little A (July 1, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on To The Bridge Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

I was lucky enough to be invited to the Library of Virginia Literary Awards this year. It is a wonderful night that celebrates authors from Virginia, and books that are set in the state. This year, their honored guest was Susan Orlean, and so I read her newest book The Library Book in anticipation of meeting Ms. Orlean. I can say both the book and the woman were a delight.

Here is more about The Library Book:

On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.


If I’m being honest, I’ll admit I had no idea there was a massive fire in the Los Angeles Public Library’s central branch in 1986. Just hearing about it made me nervous and intrigued. I still remember my childhood library and how cozy it was and hearing about this fire sent chills up my spine. The thought of hundreds of thousands of books burning, and the destruction and closing of a city resource made my stomach feel uneasy. Before I read the book, I’m not sure I understood intellectually what my body reacted to when hearing about this fire. Susan Orlean helps to explain that and so much more with The Library Book.

If you love books you’ll appreciate this one, it is a total treat. It reminds the reader what it is they love about books and libraries, and then it does a whole lot more. The Library Book is part true crime investigation, part how libraries work, part deep dive into Los Angeles history, and part conversation about the changing role of books and libraries in our lives. Again, if you’re a book lover, you’ll love this book.

Susan Orlean does a fantastic job of moving the book along and around, never dwelling for too long in any one moment or on any one person. This book is about the greater institution and concept of libraries, and she probes the idea of libraries from many different angles. I loved hearing about the little details of the library, like how long a book stays in circulation and the kinds of inquiries the library info desk fields. I also, predictably, loved the investigation of the 1986 fire in Los Angeles, you know, the true crime part.

There were certainly parts of this book that drifted into areas I was less interested in, however in these cases that says more about me than the book or Ms. Orlean’s writing. For the most part I was captivated by the story Orlean was expertly weaving. I didn’t know you could make a book about libraries and librarians seem exciting and fresh, but she does.

If you’re reading this blog, you most likely like books, so I would think you would appreciate if not swoon over this one. The Library Book feels like being in a hug of bookish nostalgia. If nothing else, it will remind you how important libraries are to the fabric of society, and maybe it will make you want to flaunt your library card.

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • PublisherSimon & Schuster; 1st Edition edition (October 16, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy The Library Book on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

B2D1793F-316A-4CBD-BCD7-10949229785BAs we approach the midterm elections in the United States, I have been increasingly anxious about the state of the nation and what our future holds. Reading How Democracies Die for The Stacks Book Club was a helpful way for me to process what my anxiety is rooted in. I talk about the book on the podcast with Harris Cohn, and you can hear the full conversation here. No need to worry, there are no spoilers on the episode.

Here is a little more about How Democracies Die

Donald Trump’s presidency has raised a question that many of us never thought we’d be asking: Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe the answer is yes. Democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one. 

Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die—and how ours can be saved.

I really enjoyed this book. I felt like I was learning so much as I read it. It breaks down differences between autocracies and democracies, it explains how democracies sustain themselves, and what institutions and norms preserve our democracy. The book is crash course in what makes our country run smoothly, and how those things can be eroded. I honestly couldn’t believe how little I know and how little I understand about the equilibrium of governments, both here in the US and abroad.

As the book dives deeper into the issues we’re facing in The United States Levitsky and Ziblatt do not shy away from institutional racism that has allowed America to stay a democracy. They call out the Southern Democrats disenfranchisement and remind us that Northerns were willing to look away while these suppression tactics were enacted. Better to preserve White rule, they thought, than to disturb the comfort Southern Democrats had due to the laws built to exclude Black Americans from participating in the democracy. Often times in books like this, the author won’t call out racism, instead they dance around the issue and find other euphemisms to explain what is going on. Not here. Ziblatt and Levitsky are upfront with the role that racism played and is still playing in our democracy.

This book doesn’t place blame completely on Donald Trump or any one person, but rather shows how certain actions (think the heist of Merrick Garland’s seat on The Supreme Court) have lead us in the direction where our country’s foundation is at risk. There is fair blame placed on both parties, but the authors seem to think the Republicans have been particularly cavalier and destructive with their power.

How Democracies Die ends by presenting a few options that The United States has to prevent a slip into an autocracy. They suggest solutions for both the Republicans and Democrats. They also caution that most countries that have fallen to a dictator had to hit rock bottom, before they could move toward democracy. It remains unclear if America, and her politicians, have the humility to compromise and move forward for the better of the country. I certainly hope so. Either way, I think you should check out this book. It is smart and if nothing else you will learn something. I would even say you will learn many things. It is worth your time.

Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Harris Cohn discussing How Democracies Die.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (January 16, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on How Democracies Die Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.