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Heartbreaking Books are the Best

I still remember the day I was reading Where the Red Fern Grows and near the end one of the dogs dies. I sobbed and then later at the end of that book, I cried again.

One of my favorite picture books is called The Summer My Father was Ten. It is the story of neighbors in an apartment building that created a garden together and cooked tomato sauce for spaghetti. One of the neighbors, Mr. Bellavista, was a lonely elderly man, and when the families got together he was his happiest. Later, Mr. Bellavista had to go to a nursing home and the young boy in the story visited him often. They talked about Mr. Bellavista coming home for a spaghetti dinner, except “Mr. Bellavista never came home.”

My favorite books create this emotion, tears, memories. The ones I have chosen for this review have that quality. You will laugh and you will cry, but you will love these books.

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

The narrator of this story is Little Dog, son of a single mother who immigrated with her mother from Vietnam. The story is a letter to his mother even though she cannot read. Little Dog is a boy that learned at a very early age that he was already ‘Vietnamese’-  the words his mother would say to him each morning as she sent him to school.

“Don’t get noticed. You are already Vietnamese.”

Despite this warning, he was bullied in school, had his belongings taken from him, and then suffered abuse from his mother at home. His grandmother, Lan, oversaw the home and gave him the attention and love he sorely needed. His mother loved him, too, but was burdened with a job in a nail salon. Little Dog often went to the salon with her and the passages about the salon’s work conditions will make you cry.

This entire book will be an emotional roller coaster for you. From anger to tears to alarm to holding your breath as events unfold. There is drug abuse, poverty, and still a family trying to make their living in a foreign place and struggling to hold onto their own culture. At some point, Little Dog awakens to the fact that he is gay and his relationship with Trevor is told through the latter half of the book. The two teenagers share drugs and work and their sexual encounters are graphic and raw. Just a warning- the author writes freely about this.

The writing style is different from anything I have ever read. It is poetic, stream of consciousness, and occasionally a little disjointed. But, it is compelling. I found myself rereading sentences over and over because of the beauty of the writing.

I give this one 5 stars. It was emotional, sad, but I think about this family and wonder how they are doing now.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

This is a must-read. I listened to this one (with Audible) and it was narrated by the author. It was moving, emotional, frustrating, and beautiful. The love of Chanel’s family, her advocate, her counselor, her lawyer, and her boyfriend were all part of this story.

If you do not know the background, here it is. Chanel was in her early twenties when she attended a fraternity party with her sister, Tiffany. She drank and danced and acted ‘silly’- all to embarrass her little sister (not in a mean way). Late in the evening, Chanel went outside to get some air and find a bush to pee under and the next thing she remembers is waking up in the hospital.

Nurses told her she had possibly been sexually assaulted and put her through the process of determining her injuries and finding evidence of the assault. She was questioned by the police but had no memory of what took place. Days later she read reports of the incident and found that a college student named Brock had removed her clothing, and was assaulting her when two young men riding by on bicycles stopped him and captured him. Yes, he was sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

She pressed charges and then went through endless court dates and delayed court dates and interviews with lawyers, policemen, and her advocate. Eventually, Brock was found guilty and sentenced to—- are you ready for this? Six months. It was the end of the court sessions that Chanel read her Victim Impact statement- a document that takes about an hour to read. If you have not read it or heard it, start there. You can find it on YouTube and Chanel herself reads it. In it she says,

“You made me a victim. In the newspapers my name was “unconscious intoxicated woman,” ten syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity. To relearn that this is not all I am. That I am not just a drunk victim at a frat party found behind a dumpster, while you are the All-American swimmer at a top university, innocent until proven guilty, with so much at stake. I am a human being who has been irreversibly hurt, my life was put on hold for over a year, waiting to figure out if I was worth something.”

Read this book. Better, listen to it. When you hear Chanel read her story, with her voice occasionally breaking, you will be moved to tears. 5+stars

Nothing More Dangerous by Allen Eskens 

Some truth…This was an audiobook for me and I found the beginning hard to track. So, I decided to check the reviews and see if there might be a reason I chose this book. I normally do not start an audiobook without reading reviews and listening to a sample. The reviews are amazing and the narrator’s reviews are so complimentary, so I knew I needed to stick with the book. I am so thankful I did.

This will likely be on my Best Books of 2020 list. And it is heartbreaking.

Boady Sanden is a teenager living with his mom in Jessup, Missouri. His father was killed in an accident and Boady is a freshman at the local private school. He is new to the school and this has caused him some problems so he plans to leave home when he turns 16 and pursues a job away from Jessup. In the meantime, the disappearance of an African-American woman, Lida Poe, is one of the town’s secrets. It is believed that she skipped town with hundreds of thousands of dollars skimmed from the plastic factory for which she worked as the bookkeeper.

Then the Elgins move to Jessup. This African-American family moves in across the road from Boady and the dad’s job as the new plastic factory overseer is appalling to the townspeople, many of whom are mired in the racial divide of the country at this time. (It is 1976.) The workers at the factory resent the intrusion of this new boss and as he begins to make changes, including firing people. The retaliation is fierce. The Elgins happen to have a son the same age as Boady and they become good friends. They are harassed by sons of the factory workers which includes attempts to threaten and harm them.

The heart of this story is the neighbor named Hoke. The man lives alone, having lost his wife and daughter. Hoke plays a huge part in the story of Boady, his mom, the Elgins, and the resolution of this story. This book is heartwarming and heartbreaking. There are parts that are expressed with such beautiful writing and then there are parts that will end in tears for you.

Highly recommend! 5+ stars. NOTE: I also highly recommend that you listen to the book from Audible. The narrator is amazing. He shares emotion well and not in a phony way. In fact, you will think it is Boady talking. There are moments throughout the book that the narrator’s voice will break and sound as if he is teary-eyed himself. Excellent!

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

I first became acquainted with this author when I read the book The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life, Freedom, and Justice by Anthony Ray Hinton. Mr. Hinton was an inmate who spent 30 years on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Bryan Stevenson is the lawyer that helped Mr. Hinton appeal his case and he was finally freed. I can highly recommend that book – you can read my review of it right here: The Sun Does Shine.

Mr. Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative. His legal practice became dedicated to defending people that were desperate, who were wrongly accused, or who were sentenced to unbelievable sentences for minor infractions. He also became a champion for countless young teenagers, as young as 13, who were tried and sentenced as adults. Many of these teenagers were sentenced to life in prison.

The book follows one man in particular, Walter McMillian. Walter was accused of a murder he says he did not commit. He had witnesses that could place him elsewhere and evidence that disputed that his truck was seen at the scene of the crime. Deep in southern Alabama, the sheriff and officers had “witnesses” that could place Walter at the scene and they testified to this. Walter was found guilty and was sentenced to death.

Mr. Stevenson pursued this case and hammered the legal system to allow the admittance of evidence that could exonerate Walter. In the meantime, Mr. Stevenson had other cases that he took on. Many of those are described- including one of a 13-year old that was accused of a crime and placed in jail with adult men. When Mr. Stevenson visits him to talk about his case, the young man will not make eye contact and refuses to speak. Mr. Stevenson continues to talk to him, trying to find out what has happened to him while in prison. Finally, the boy breaks and ends up crying as he tells Mr. Stevenson of the attacks he has suffered from the men in prison with him.

Heart-breaking details about our justice system- or lack thereof. The chapters alternate with the cases, Mr. Stevenson’s life, and essays about the laws that make justice so difficult for people of color. Near the end, Mr. Stevenson encounters a judge that asks him when the lawyer will be arriving. He patiently lets the judge know that he is the lawyer. He makes the point that the prejudice shown to all people of color is something he continues to fight for himself and for his clients every day.

5 Stars. I listened to this book and would suggest you do also. The narrator is Bryan Stevenson.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Eddie is 12 years old when the plane he is in falls from the sky- killing 191 people including Eddie’s parents and older brother. Eddie is the only survivor. Eddie moves in with his mother’s sister and her husband who are childless.

Eddie, now called Edward was severely injured in the crash and spent time in the hospital. He is still recovering and learning to use his badly injured leg. He does not eat and does not sleep -until he meets the girl next door, Shay.

Shay becomes his sanctuary. She is forthright and carefree and allows Edward to be himself. Edward starts at the public school and discovers he is quite a famous person- just for surviving the plane crash.

The chapters alternate between Edward’s new life and the details about the passengers on the plane. It is quite startling to read of their background stories, knowing that they will not survive. There are moments of clarity for Edward as he grows into his teenage years- the most heartbreaking was the day he turned an age that would be older than his brother could ever be. For years he wore his brother’s old clothing and jacket, his thoughts were always with his brother, and in the midst of some turbulence on the airplane, he was holding his brother’s hand.

This book will be worth your time- yes, it has sad moments, but it also has moments that will be inspiring as Edward discovers something that was kept from him and it helps him move forward. Shay is always at this side and Edward also relies on his aunt and uncle and Shay’s mother to guide him. 5 stars!

Yes, books can make you cry, but, honestly, those are the ones I remember, years later. Those might be the best ones- the ones that touch us and make us feel we are part of the story.

My rating system: 5 stars means perfection- the book was written well, held my attention, and I did not want it to end. 4 stars- the book was really good, but I had questions or concerns about parts of it – usually the way it ended stupidly. 3 stars- the book was okay, but I just didn’t like it much. 2 stars- I skimmed most of it. 1 star- I could not finish it.