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abusing the drug of books

2016 February 4
by Rachel Turiel

I don’t really know how to set the stage here. Ok, lets try this: if you’re interested in atomic weapons, or high-secrecy, high-cost, highly-destructive government projects funded by your tax dollars, or the insider scoop on abysmal conditions in WWII Japanese POW camps, or starving dust bowl farmers making their way to California in the 1930’s in ragged jalopies, I have some book recommendations for you! *also, one bonus, feel-good, book, too.

The kids and I are cocooned in words surrounding the historical time period of 1930-1945. Admittedly, it all started with Rose’s American Girl Doll, Kit, who, according to the brilliant and slightly sinister Mattel marketers, “lives” during the Great Depression. And then, in December, we took a trip to Los Alamos, New Mexico (site of the conceptualizing and manufacturing of the first atomic bomb), where even now upon entering the city, your car will be stopped and a serious looking man in uniform will ask the car’s driver if they can vouch for the people in the backseat (i.e. the two small people in back buried in crumbs and flotsam).

I’ve been cleared for reading, concussion-wise, which I’ve been abusing like the drug it is for me, finishing approximately one book every 2-3 days. Otherwise, healing continues to be non-linear and unpredictable. I’m functioning at half capacity, and operating under the very un-American goal to do less than I think I should every day. If I overdo it, I get extremely tired or grumpy. Yesterday I blew up at the entire family and Col said gently, “it sounds like you’re a little angry and maybe looking for someone to blame.” Damn emotionally-aware kid.

Ok, the books:

109 east palace

This book, 109 East Palace, is an enthralling, suspenseful account of the Manhattan Project, which was so secret, that wives didn’t know what their scientist husbands were doing 50 hours a week. And yet, somehow a city of 3000 of the brightest minds, average age 25, sprung up in the high desert of New Mexico to work together on a horrible project that also appears morally defensible. At the helm was Robert Oppenheimer, a pacifist who quoted from the Hindu spiritual text, The Bagavad Gita, after watching the first test bomb detonate. I now see that if our government wants to achieve a goal, they will funnel unbelievable amounts of time, money and brainpower into the project, which leads me to think there’s hope for renewable energy, ending income-inequality, and slowing climate change…if we want it bad enough.


Six years after publication, Unbroken is still so popular, that even in our small town all five copies were checked out of the library and I had to read the one “large print” book available. (Also, holy moly: 26,000 five-star reviews on Amazon). This book is about an Italian-American delinquent, Louie Zamperini, who marshals his defiance into running, and then becomes a bombardier in WWII. Zamperini’s airplane goes down in the Pacific, and he and two crewmates float for 47 days, during which Zamperini reaches deep into a well of resolve, cunning and a mix of acceptance and hope, which literally keeps him alive. Although things go from bad to worse (sharks! enemy aircraft! malnutrition! abusive POW conditions!), Zamperini remains “unbroken,” filled with compassion and enough of his defiant, youthful rebellion to get him through numerous trials. (Plus, bonus: Col and I now gawk together at photos of B-29s, and he’ll rummage through his collection of books to show me exactly where Zamperini, the bombardier, crouched on a B-24 liberator).


The Grapes of Wrath, which I read to Col and Rose, is about a large, extended, share-cropping family from Oklahoma who loses everything during the Great Depression and moves to California, where they believe work and fertile land will be abundant (spoiler: not so much). Although the Joad family faces one hardship after another, they remain dignified, generous and upright. The writing is simple, beautiful and funny, and John Steinbeck truly exemplifies the writing advice to “show not tell” by revealing entire notions of financial inequality through dialogue. Plus, it was the kids’ first experience of a non-happy ending (over which they almost rioted), which is sort of a poignant and sad manifestation of their own growing up.

Ok, one more (mostly upbeat):

I found Love is a Mix Tape at our library, and after reading it felt a little shocked that this book had likely been sitting quietly on our library’s shelves for nine years, and then fate brought us together and now my life is a little different in the best way. This book, as the title says, is about “love and loss, one song at a time.” If you’ve ever made a mix tape, fallen in love, danced and sung your way through 1990’s, are curious about how to rebuild your life after widowhood, you’ll probably love this book written by a Rolling Stone writer who knows music is holy.

We are now open for babysitting:

rose and irie2

Also, 2 more books, both about adoption, both written by celebrities, and both funny and light with just the right side of heavy:

The Kid, Instant Mom.



24 Responses leave one →
  1. Ellie permalink
    February 4, 2016

    Rachel, books are my drug of choice, too; I was just thinking in the shower last night that given a choice between a glass of wine and half an hour to read, I’d always always pick the latter; there’s probably a diagnosis for that. I wonder if you’ve read *Fates & Furies* yet. I picked it up on the recommendation of several people, and I still can’t decide if I like it. But I’m engaged. Reading.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      February 4, 2016

      Ellie, I am a little embarrassed at the level of gratitude I feel every night when everyone’s in bed and I am cleared to climb into bed with a book.

      • Ellie permalink
        February 4, 2016

        Yes! It is, unabashedly, my absolute favorite time of the day.

    • Ellie permalink
      February 4, 2016

      Also, I teach East of Eden to high-schoolers, and I am always blown away by how much they like the book. It’s a really good story, if you are looking for more Steinbeck.

  2. Susan S permalink
    February 4, 2016

    Rachel, I just finished God’s Hotel, by Victoria Sweet. This was one of those books that changed my life, especially how it relates to my desire to be a person always deepening in compassion and learning from steeping in the human experience (spell check wanted that to be “stepping.” Stepping in human experience works, too, huh?) Can’t recommend that book highly enough. I had to wait about 4 months to get it from my library, then immediately went to Better World Books (an online bookseller you really need to know about) and bought a copy. Fantastic book.

    So glad you’re healing! Baby steps, baby steps . . .

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      February 4, 2016

      I like “steeping” too. Are you gently telling me that there’s a better choice than Amazon?

      • Susan S permalink
        February 4, 2016

        Well, they buy and sell used books, recycling anything they can’t find a home for, so books don’t get dumped into landfills. The thing I like best about them is that they donate one book to a literacy program for every book you buy. Also, shipping is free. Actually, there are so many absolutely fabulous things I love about Better World Books, I’ll just put their link here and you can check them out for yourself when you’re feeling better. You’ll love them!

  3. Amy permalink
    February 4, 2016

    Thank you Rachel. I had just been putting the word out to friends for book recommendations. Grapes of Wrath is one of my all time favorites. I am currently reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante and can’t seem to put it down. Glad you are healing, our little Caleo got a concussion this fall and it was tough. Here’s to reading again!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      February 4, 2016

      I’ve heard good things about that author -will check her out. Sorry to hear about your little one (with the stellar name)’s concussion.

  4. Sarah permalink
    February 4, 2016

    Sad to say, I saw the movie Unbroken, before I knew it was a book. It was gut wrenching, inspiring, and wholesome, by turns. My action- adventure boyfriend, my 16 year old daughter, and my own romance loving self, all enjoyed it.

    I haven’t read “Grapes of Wrath” since high school, when my assignment was to pick it apart from a literary standpoint, but I’ve been thinking of reading it again just for the, hmm.. enjoyment? Doesn’t seem to be quite the right word for that book.

    It seems winter is the perfect time to cocoon yourself and heal! Take care of yourself and enjoy the down time ;)

  5. Kayleigh permalink
    February 4, 2016

    Farewell to Manzanar is a good kids book, too.

  6. Carrie permalink
    February 4, 2016

    Rachel, there is a YA version of UNBROKEN that Col would probably love–my son, who is the same age, read it last year. Laura Hillebrand abridged it herself, so it’s well done, although I admit I didn’t read the whole thing since I’d already read the big book. I think it just leaves out the worst of the torture. There’s also a YA version of BOYS IN THE BOAT, so I think a lot of history writers are getting into this. Good news for history-nerd kids!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      February 4, 2016

      Wow. That is so good to know! Col read many sections of Unbroken, and I did worry about all the brutality. And yes, what a cool way for kids to learn history!

  7. February 4, 2016

    LOVED Unbroken. Have recommended it over and over. And Steinbeck is one of my all time favorite writers. Have you read The Worst Hard Time, which is a non-fiction book about the dust bowl. It will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and give whole new meaning to driving through southeast Colorado and seeing a lone house, clearly abandoned, in the distance. I can not recommend that one enough if you haven’t read it. It’s about the people who stayed, vs Wrath’s story of the people who left.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      February 4, 2016

      Wow. I wondered about the people who stayed.

  8. February 4, 2016

    If you want to spend some more time with the dust bowl, I recommend Out of the Dust (YA written in free verse) and The Worst Hard Time (nonfiction).

  9. Barb permalink
    February 4, 2016

    Hillenbrand also penned Seabiscuit: An American Legend, a great page-turner about a depression-era racehorse (movie was also made from book). Loved Unbroken, but knew I wouldn’t want to see it on screen.

    Glad you are feeling better every day!

  10. Megan permalink
    February 4, 2016

    Thanks Rachel (and the other commenters), I love your book recommendations!

  11. February 6, 2016

    You are inspiring me to branch out more in my book selection! I visit the library every week, but seem to either be reading self-help (parenting) books or very light reads lately. I love that you read The Grapes of Wrath to your kids!

  12. Ivy permalink
    February 8, 2016

    (I’ve read every one of your blog posts for years but never commented. There, shame admission over and out.)
    I’ve read every one of the books on you list today. My darling husband got me Love Is A MixTape for Valentines Day years ago. I’ve been urging him to read it but he’s resistant because be hates Nirvana (“it’s not about Nirvana! I promise!”) and I was in love with Dan Savage’s The Kid cause I’m in love with pretty much everything he writes. Every couple years I get on a Steinbeck kick. I just finished Tortilla Flats for like the zillionth time.

    Have you read ‘The Secret Life of Wonder Woman”? It’s a bit dry but totally fascinating. Might wanna give it a whirl.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      February 9, 2016

      Ivy, thanks for coming out of anonymity to say hi!
      I just finished Rob Sheffield’s: Turn Around Bright Eyes. I laughed out loud, marveled at how Sheffield got me to care about Rod Stewart (!?), and is just generally awesome. But, I bet you’ve already read that one, too. :)

      • Ivy permalink
        February 10, 2016

        I just downloaded the sample of ‘Turn Around Bright Eyes’ into my iPad and I swear I just splorted tea out my nose in the second chapter when he says “I may as well sing, Mama Tried Wicked Haaaahd.”

  13. February 10, 2016

    I approve of your un-American goal and am glad to read that you are better enough now to be reading again! I am currently reading The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, which has a mix tape theme but is not upbeat.

  14. Clarissa permalink
    February 11, 2016

    oh, here’s yet another book recommendation: The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages. It is set at Los Alamos, and is a young adult, historical fiction book, during the 1940s. One of my all time favorite reads. It’s the story of two girls, not really friends, but thrown together on “the hill” where their parents are working on what they call “the gadget”. I think all of you would like it (by which I mean you and the kids…), and it’s what I would call a middle grade book. Just thinking about it warms my heart (though it’s not just a simply heart-warming story… plenty of drama and ups and downs..). The main character, Dewey, is a total gem.

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