Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Books Read in April

 


The Wife Upstairs by Freida McFadden

The story: Sylvia needs a job, and Adam has one. Adam watched her give the Heimlich maneuver to a choking restaurant patron, and he thinks she can handle his wife, Victoria, who has been in a serious accident. Victoria, once a strong, capable professional, can't walk or speak, and Adam, a novelist, just needs someone to keep her company in their big house out in the middle of nowhere. But Victoria clearly has something to say, if only she can make Sylvia understand. And then Victoria somehow communicates to Sylvia that she has a hidden diary that will tell ALL. Sylvia, however, has fallen for Adam, and just can't believe that Victoria's diary is for real. Who to believe? 

My reaction: Oops! I bought this book for my daughter for Christmas, thinking it was, well, The Wife Upstairs, which it was. Except I really meant to get her The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins, which I read last month. Silly me! I had the title in my head but not the author, so here we are. I was totally sucked into this book, all the while thinking, "This is SO dumb." If you haven't read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, go read that instead. It's the same basic story, sorta, but infinitely better written and engrossing. My recommendation: skip this unless you need a very cheap thrill.



The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson

The story: The story opens on a wonderful night: Barack Obama has just won the presidency. Ruth and Xavier, a Black couple, are elated, and Xavier feels this is the right time to start a family. But Ruth has a very big secret. As a teenager, she gave up her baby for adoption. She didn't have a choice in the matter; her grandmother insisted that Ruth give them baby up and took care of all the arrangements. No one except her grandmother and brother even knew she'd been pregnant. Ruth then went to Yale, became an engineer, married Xavier, and put her past behind her. But before she begins a family, she needs to know more about her son... and she really needs to tell her husband about him. She heads back to her small town in Indiana and searches for clues. While she's there, she puts together pieces of her past and meets a little white boy named Midnight who desperately wants a family... and ultimately leads Ruth to her son. 

My reaction: I loved this book. The title is perfect, as I questioned, as Ruth did, the nature of lies. Were the lies in the book kind or selfish? Hurtful or beneficial? Is there a right time for telling the truth? This is a multilayered book, incorporating themes of racism, adoption, class, family, and the ripple effect of decisions and lies. I heard an interview on Fresh Air with Nicole Lynn Lewis, whose memoir Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families would be a compelling partner to this novel. How might Ruth's life—as well as so many other characters' lives— had been different had she kept her son? Johnson's debut novel is highly recommended! It is well written, engaging, and thought-provoking.



The Girls of Brackenhill by Kate Moretti

The story: When Hannah's Aunt Fae dies in a car accident, she and her fiancé return to Brackenhill, where Hannah spent her summers as a child and teenager. Hannah hasn't told Huck much about her past (seems to be a theme in this month's reading!), so he is shocked to find that Brackenhill is actually a castle. As soon as Hannah steps into the castle, she is reminded of just how much she loved this place as a child. It was her comfort, her happy place. Her own life back with her mother and stepfather was terrible and terrifying, but here in Brackenhill, she had been carefree and cared for. Aunt Fae and Uncle Stuart truly loved her and her sister, Julia. But on that last summer, Julia disappears. There's no body, no sign of foul play —she's just gone. Hannah has been convinced all these years that Julia ran away, and now she is determined to figure out what really happened.

My reaction: I was both wrapped up in this book and annoyed with it. I think it could have used one more revision, honestly, to knock out some of the repetition and sharpen the focus. As so often happens, this novel was intriguing for a good two-thirds of the way through, and then the ending just fell apart.  It's the kind of novel you finish and think, "Huh? Did I like this?" For one thing, Brackenhill Castle itself is confusing. Hannah has wonderful, warm feelings about the castle, but it's frankly portrayed as an evil character. Moretti sets up an atmosphere of haunting, complete with a sinister basement. (DON'T EVER GO IN THE BASEMENT!) And yet Hannah loves this place. It was confusing. Is she comforted or terrified? Is the castle good or evil? Or is the answer supposed to be just, "yes!" There were a lot of extra characters in the novel who just seemed a distraction, and we're never really sure what happened in the end. I give it a three out of five stars for a middle-of-the-road read. 



Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

The story: The title pretty much says it all. This is the historical perspective that never gets told. The one that is ignored, pushed aside, and buried. As Dunbar-Ortiz writes:

US history, as well as inherited Indigenous trauma, cannot be understood without dealing with the genocide that the United States committed against Indigenous peoples.

This book tackles just that: the U.S. crimes against Indigenous peoples. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, is quoted at the beginning of one chapter as saying: 

Our nation was born in genocide.… We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. 

Dunbar-Ortiz traces the history of the US in its interactions with the Indigenous people. Or rather, its destruction of the Indigenous people. So much more than utter disregard, but a purposeful annihilation of millions of people. 

My reaction: I wrote back in January that Isabel Wilkerson's Caste is a book every American should read, and I will make that plea again for this one. We should also be talking about this and teaching this to our children and in our schools. It's a hard truth, an ugly truth — but we have to acknowledge that the U.S. was created by people with no regard for lives other than white European ones. I read this as part of a special book discussion group, hosted by a friend whose life as been deeply affected by her family's Cherokee roots. As part of our group, she read to us from her memoir-in-progress. The particular passages she read included visits to see her grandmother in Cherokee, NC, on the reservation and in the town itself. It was a wonderful companion to the book — her one small story of how poverty and loss of land affected just one family. Her story is told by thousands of Indigenous people through the generations. 

Like Caste, the book ends with a call to action and a challenge:

That process rightfully starts by honoring the treaties the United States made with Indigenous nations, by restoring all sacred sites, starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks and land and all stolen sacred items and body parts, and by payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations. In the process, the continent will be radically reconfigured, physically and psychologically. For the future to be realized, it will require extensive educational programs and the full support and active participation of the descendants of settlers, enslaved Africans, and colonized Mexicans, as well as immigrant populations.

Like Caste, everyone should read it.


My other most recent reviews are on my Books Read in March post.

Linked up with Top Ten Tuesday at the Artsy Reader Girl.

 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Books Read in March


 Anxious People by Fredrik Backman.

"…We all have this in common, yet most of us remain strangers, we never know what we do to each other, how your life is affected by mine. When this day is over and the night takes us, allow yourself a deep breath. because we made it through another day."

The story: A bank robber. A man who jumps off a bridge and the girl who doesn't. A real estate agent, a couple of cops, and a few people in and out of love. Mothers and fathers. Lovers and lost loves. This beautiful, tender novel features a cast of characters who are accidentally held hostage and who hold themselves hostage with secrets too painful to share. Their anxiety is palpable... but sometimes, when you share just a little bit, the anxiety can be relieved, and hope can be restored —if everyone works together. 

My reaction: Fredrik Backman does it again. HOW DOES HE DO IT? Once again, Backman took me by surprise, made me fall in love with characters, and got me all choked up. This novel took me a little bit to get into but once I did, well, I never wanted it to end. His rhythm and pace, as well as the connectedness of the stories, reminds me so much of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, which is one of my all-time favorite books. 


The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

The story: Laura Lyons and her family live in the NYC Public Library, where her husband is the superintendent. They seem to have a wonderful marriage, and then Laura decides she simply must pursue her journalism degree; her husband suggests she wait a year until their finances are better. Suddenly, she sees him in a new light. He's holding her back, and she pursues the degree anyway. She meets a whole new crowd as a result of journalism school, and her life changes. In the meantime, books are missing from the special collections at the library, and her husband is blamed for the thefts. The second story alternates chapters with this one. Sadie works at the library

My reaction: I love the setting of this novel. Imagine living inside the NYC Public Library! Fans of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler know what I'm talking about. This novel has a lot of the same issues I complained about in last month's book club novel also by Fiona Davis, The Dollhouse. It's jumbled. We're here and then we're there and squirrel! Way too much isn't explained. The dual stories are better connected in this one, for sure. Davis starts strong, but ultimately way too much happens, the characters are poorly drawn, the action is outrageous (way too many coincidences, for one), and her messages seem didactic and yet confusing and contradictory. I did enjoy the peeks into early 20th century feminism as well as the book trade, but otherwise... too much eye rolling and "what just happeneds??" going on in my head. 



The Reckoning by John Grisham (audiobook)

The story: Small town Clanton, Mississippi's local war hero and respected resident Pete Banning kills the pastor. And 18 hours later, we find out why. In the 16 hours between the killing and the big reveal, we get the complete story of Pete Banning, including an entire extremely detailed section on his wartime experience in the Philippines, his courtship and marriage; plus every detail of his son Joel's life (loved his meeting with Faulkner), a little on his daughter, and lots on his wife. 

My reaction: I have John Grisham issues. I've written about this before, and yet I keep going back to him. This time, we listened to this as an audiobook all the way to Florida and back and then a few more hours even. 18 hours of a story that could easily have been half that long. I mean, Grisham is a great storyteller. He is terrific at building and maintaining suspense. We cared about these characters. We were sucked in, waiting for the great reveal. Which was... a big thud. A big Are you freaking kidding me? Ugh. So much wrong with the big reveal. I won't say what it was, but it was not only disappointing but terribly trite. It was just an old, old story that needs to stop being told. Randy and I felt like Grisham really wanted to tell the story of the Bataan death march, which is the whole middle section of the book. It was interesting, for sure, but it was absolutely not necessary. Grisham is so good at nonfiction; in my 2007 review of An Innocent Man I wrote that "Grisham needs to pursue writing nonfiction a little more often," and I'm sticking with that. Why not write an actual account of one of the survivors of Bataan, rather than squeezing this in with this novel? Anyway, I felt ripped off at the end of this novel, as well as annoyed throughout for many reasons, but particularly for Grisham's stereotypical, rude treatment of Black characters. (He actually uses the term "colored." For real. But there's so much more.) Also, for the last few hours, we were rolling out eyes at all the completely extraneous details and shouting "GET ON WITH IT, JOHN!" My recommendation: skip it.


The Survivors by Jane Harper

The story: After a decade away, Kieran returns home to his tiny coastal village in Tasmania to help his parents. His father is struggling with dementia, and it's time for them to pack up and move into assisted living. Kieran left for a good reason: the summer after he graduated from high school, a huge storm struck and lives were lost —because of him. When he heads into the local cafe with his wife and newborn daughter, he can feel all eyes upon him, accusing him. And then tragedy strikes again, and as the townspeople and official investigate this new murder, all kinds of secrets surface.

My reaction: I absolutely loved this book. This is my introduction to Jane Harper, and I will definitely be reading more. Reviewers seem to like this one a bit less than her others, so I'm super excited to read The Dry, Force of Nature, and The Lost Man, too. Harper is a wonderful writer. Her characters are richly drawn, her dialogue spot on, and the mysteries about what really happened were revealed slowly and satisfyingly. I love the long ending. So many books I've read lately reduce the ending to a quick wrap-up, as if the writer herself got tired of the book and declared, "I'm done." Not so with The Survivors. This is everything I love in a book: a long story with plenty of backstory, a setting that acts as another character, a true mystery, excellent writing, strong and likable characters, and just the right amount of tension. Highly recommended. 


Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire by Jen Hatmaker

The story: Subtitled "The Guide to Being Glorious You," this is a "embrace who you are,"  "you can do it" and "we're all in this together" book. It's divided into five self-reflective categories: who I am, what I need, what I want, what I believe, and how I connect. The chapters within those categories explore strategies, offer stories, and provide encouragement for navigating who we are and feeling exuberant (or at least okay) with that. This is listed as "Christian Women's Issues," but the theology is light-handed but extremely refreshing. 

My reaction: We chose this book for our small group (six women) over the past year -- pandemic year. At first, we were all super excited and found relief and connection in this book. We loved the dismantling of what it means to be a "Christian woman." We loved knowing we aren't alone in our questions and searching. Ten months later, we were all thrilled to be done with it. I don't think that's a reflection on the book or Jen Hatmaker. I think we transitioned, as the rest of the world has, from exploring ourselves to being sick of exploring ourselves! Toward the last third of the book, sick of Zoom and longing for normalcy, we became annoyed with Jen's cheerleading and capital letters and LET'S GO GIRL rah-rahs. Somehow, at the end of a year of isolation, perhaps it's been difficult for us to connect with who we were pre-pandemic. Our values have shifted. Our inner eye is tired. I also think this book would be much more appreciated by women in their 30s-40s, and we are all in our mid-40s and 50s. Also, I don't recommend spreading this out over nearly a year! This could be a quick read but a kind and thoughtful one, if read at the right time in one's life.



When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O'Neal

The story: Sisters Josie and Kit has a terrible and wonderful childhood. Their parents, free-spirited restaurant owners, were so obsessed with their own lives that they completely neglected their daughters, who ran wild on the California beaches. Fortunately, they have Dylan, an informally adopted older brother, to keep them straight, help them with their homework, teach them to surf, and basically care for them as if he were their parent. And then tragedy strikes when an earthquake completely shakes up their lives. Nothing is ever the same after the earthquake. The sisters drift apart, and Josie dies in a terrorist attack on a train Or does she? One day Kit and her mother see a face on a screen that looks exactly like Josie, and the search begins. 

My reaction: I absolutely loved this book. O'Neal does a masterful job of revealing the story bit by bit through flashbacks interwoven with the current day story of Kit and Josie. Each character is carefully, lovingly developed. I was rooting for both sisters -- I wanted Kit to find Josie, and yet I wanted Josie to be able to keep the beautiful new life she'd made for herself. Honestly, I was just utterly wrapped up in the entire story and was so sad when it was over. Some of the issues in the book are hard, but it is well worth the emotional investment. Highly recommended.


The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

The story: The is a modern-day retelling of Jane Eyre. Jane falls in love with Eddie. Eddie has a secret wife, well, upstairs. And so the story goes.

My reaction: Honestly, I tend to steer clear of retellings of classic stories.  Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels ever, so I probably would not have picked this up had I realized what it was about. But... I liked it! As a true Jane Eyre fan, I appreciate all the characters being included: the insipid St. John Rivers shows up as John Rivers, Jane's sniveling, sneaky roommate. Rochester's daughter, Adele, is Eddie's dog in this version; Jane is the dog walker. In fact, she's the dog walker for all of Thornfield Estates, the ritzy subdivision. I thought Hawkins' reimagining was fun, and there are a few twists that made me smile. I would actually recommend this for fans of Jane Eyre, if you're up for a playful adaptation.  




Love, Life, and Elephants by Daphne Sheldrick

The story: This is Daphne Sheldrick's lovely memoir of growing up in Kenya, from her early childhood to her many years as the warden's wife of Tsavo Park, a wildlife refuge. Sheldrick was a mother to hundreds of animal orphans, from a weaver bird to a mongoose to rhinos and, most famously, as an elephant keeper. She is the first person to ever successfully raise an orphaned baby elephant to adulthood. Woven in with her animal tales are her people tales -- her loves, her losses, and her friendships. 

My reaction: This is a book I would probably never have read on my own— and that's why book club is so wonderful! I absolutely loved this sweet memoir. I listed to this one, and Virginia McKenna is an absolutely delightful narrator. I was utterly wrapped up in Daphne's life, rooting for the animals, rooting for her. You can't help but fall in love with each animal and with Tsavo Park and, of course, with Daphne. She had an incredible life and shares that with her readers so beautifully. I learned so much about all kinds of African animals! I don't know that I would have enjoyed the book quite as much if I'd read it; I think McKenna's narration feels as if Daphne herself is telling the tale. Highly recommended! 



Girl A by Abigail Dean

The story: Lex is the girl who escaped the House of Horrors. Once identified by the press and police only as Girl A, she's now a successful attorney, trying to live a normal life. But her past haunts her; how could it not? She and her brothers and sisters grew up in utter poverty, starved, neglected, isolated, and, ultimately, held captive by their parents. She wants only to forget it all, but when her mother dies in prison, Lex is appointed executor of the estate. She has to go back and face her story, her childhood home, and her fellow captives: her six siblings. Each of their stories — during and after their childhood — is different. Each has coped in a different way, and their bonds to each other are tenuous and complicated.

My reaction: I absolutely loved Dean's debut novel. It was emotionally tough to read at times (OK, most of the time) because the subject matter is unthinkable, but it's utterly engaging and so well written. Abigail Dean handles the story with grace, allowing these fictional siblings their dignity and giving the reader enough detail to let us see the horror but without going into extraneous, over-the-top description. This is somewhat along the lines of Educated, Tara Westover's memoir. Although this is a work of fiction, we all know that horrors like this do occur. Highly recommended.


Linked up with The Sunday Salon at Readerbuzz and  It's Monday! What are you reading? at Book Date


Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Next Up: Books on my Spring TBR List

What's next on my reading list is mostly based on what becomes available on my e-READS library holds, as well as squeezing in my book club's monthly choice. There are also a couple books I'm working through slowly, a chapter every couple of weeks.

 Currently Reading


Next up (library e-reads):


For Book Clubs:

(I'm  listening to Love, Life, and Elephants)



This is for a discussion group initiated by a college friend of mine with a group of women I don't know (i.e., not either of my regular book clubs). My friend, whose parents grew up in and around Cherokee, NC (including on the reservation), will also be reading a few excerpts from her memoir-in-progress.


Coming soon on my library wait list for e-reads:

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein (wait time: 2 weeks)*

What My Mother and I Don't Talk About by Michele Filgate (wait time: 2 weeks)*

The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson (wait time: 2 weeks)*

 {*YIKES! Three books coming at the same time -- my usual predicament!}

Girl A by Abigail Deen (wait time: 6 weeks)

Four Hundred Souls by Ibram X. Kendi (wait time: 10 weeks)

The Paris Library by Janet S. Charles (wait time: 14 weeks)


Physical Books on my Shelf

I prefer to read on my Kindle because I have terrible eyesight! But I do have dozens of actual books that are waiting to be read. These are at the top of my gigantic stack:


My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie: This is for July book club, but it's over 600 pages, so I should start it in June!

The Wife Upstairs by Frieda McFadden: Borrowed this one from my daughter.

Kindred by Octavia Butler: My younger son read this in his freshman English class last year, and I keep seeing references to it. Definitely looking forward to this one.

Pylon by William Faulkner: My older son, who somehow has ALL my Faulkner books, gave me this one for my birthday. It's one of only a couple of Faulkner's novels that I haven't read.


Twelve books for spring seems like just the right goal... but I find that surprises always come along!

Linked up with Top 10 Tuesday at That Artsy Reader Girl


Monday, March 1, 2021

Books Read in February

 Woman 99 by Greer Mcallister

The story: It's the mid 1800s, and Charlotte's beloved older sister, Phoebe, suffers from what appears to be bipolar disorder. Her parents commit Phoebe, who they consider to be an embarrassment to the family, to an insane asylum. Charlotte absolutely cannot let Phoebe rot away there, and she hatches her own insane plan: she'll get herself committed to the asylum so that she can bring Phoebe home. By appearing to be suicidal, Charlotte gets sent to the asylum. She is shocked and horrified to discover that many of the women have been committed merely because they were somehow not "proper" women: they suffered from postpartum, loved the "wrong" person, or perhaps their husbands were just tired of them. She learns their stories while searching for Phoebe, and she also considers her own life and pending wedding.

Willard

My reaction: I've always been both drawn to and terrified of books about asylums. The tension is real! I grew up on Seneca Lake, roughly across and down some from The Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane, and Willard, as we called it, loomed largely in our young imaginations. I used to terrify myself by imagining that an escaped inmate would row a boat across the lake and land on our beach. Anyway... it's always been a strange fascination of mine. The thought of Charlotte willingly entering an asylum was both fascinating and unbelievable to me. I enjoyed very much the descriptions of the various wards, each focused on a different "ailment": love, silence, oversexualization, melancholy, etc. And I loved that Charlotte quickly recognizes that so many of the women in the asylum are there simply because they are inconvenient in some way. This is basically storage for women who dare to buck the system. There were definitely times that the book was too repetitive and drawn out, and some scenes seemed quite implausible; however, I found the book ultimately satisfying. For a book about an asylum, it was not graphic nor horribly disturbing. Recommended! 




The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The story: This is a marvelous story of a brother, a sister, and their rightful inheritance, the Dutch House, a grand house purchased by their father and ripped out from under them at his unexpected death. For the rest of their lives, Danny and Maeve try to figure out what went wrong and how to get it all back. They move forward with their lives when they are apart, but each time Danny and Maeve get together, they pick apart every detail of the events that led up to their father's death. Other people in their lives fill in details now and then, and as they leave middle age, the siblings finally have some closure as questions are answered.

My reaction: Ann Patchett is just the real deal. What a storyteller! Everything about this works together. There are no loose ends, no wondering for me. The characters, including the house itself, are all richly drawn. It's somewhat of a Hansel and Gretel tale, with an evil stepmother, a kind but distant father, and that irresistible gingerbread house that draws them back again and again. I love Ann Patchett, and I love this book.




After Alice Fell by Kim Taylor Blakemore

The story: It's just after the Civil War, and Marion has spent the past year as a battlefield nurse. While she was gone, her beloved sister, Alice, was committed to an asylum by their brother and his wife. And then Alice fell off the roof of the asylum and died. Everyone assures her that Alice committed suicide, but Marion knows she would never do that. So how did Alice get to the roof, and who pushed her? Let it go, her brother and his wife tell her, but she cannot rest until she finds out how Alice fell.

My reaction: Eh. Well, first I have to say how weird it is that I read yet another book this month set partially in an asylum in the mid-1800s. Between this and Woman 99, the latter is far more interesting. This one had so many missing pieces. It was terribly disjointed, and at times I felt as if I were in an institution. None of the character, except the dead Alice and the nephew, were particularly likable, and I like books with likable characters. I'd give it a solid 3.5. 




The story: Lucia and Miranda are Chinese-American sisters, fiercely loyal to each other. Miranda, as the elder sister, is protective and motherly toward Lucia, who is carefree and impulsive, a girl who thoroughly enjoys each moment of life. Both sisters are independent and brilliant, but as Lucia heads into her 20s, she develops a mental illness. Only Miranda knows about it for awhile, until Lucia marries Yonah. Within the first year of their marriage, the "serpents" begin tormenting Lucia. The voices in her head drag her down, and Miranda is there to rescue her. Their relationship suffers, as Miranda becomes more and more insistent that Lucia take her medicine, and Lucia resists. Lucia spends the next decade or so in and out of hospitals, in and out of relationships, and in and out of motherhood. Miranda is walks the tightrope of caring too much and letting go.

My reaction: What are the chances that I would read yet a third book centering on two sisters, one of each pair with a mental illness, in the span of a month? This was totally not on purpose; I just grabbed the books when they became available on the library's electronic reading system. This is my favorite one by far. This book is so beautifully written. Each of the characters — Lucia, Yonah, Manuel, Esperanza, and Miranda — is richly brought to life. We are especially submerged in Lucia's world— from vibrant and then impoverished neighborhoods in NYC to rural Ecuador. Lee's  perspective on various immigrant experiences in the U.S. was powerful and so lovingly written. I especially appreciated the section on Lucia and Manuel, an Ecuadorian immigrant who is constantly afraid of being deported. Lee paints all her characters with such tenderness and such vivacity. Miranda and Lucia are a classic pair: the Martha and Mary, the steady worker and the prodigal daughter, one responsible and one reckless; but both fight demons in their own way. Highly recommended. These characters will stay with me for a long time.




Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The story: This is a sweeping story of a family through many generations and across continents, beginning with the half sisters, Effia and Esi, who are born into different villages in Ghana in the 1700s. One sister is sold into slavery; the other is taken as an Englishman's Ghanian wife. (He has another back in England.) From there, the novel proceeds through subsequent generations of each sister's line, telling a different  family member's story up until present day. One line goes through Ghanian warfare, the slave trade, and colonization; the other sister's descendants are enslaved people on Southern plantations, convicts in the coal mines, part of the Great Migration, and all the way to today. Ultimately, the two lines meet again in a powerful, hopeful conclusion.


My reaction: Brilliant. Heartbreaking. Beautiful. Eye-opening. This is a tremendous undertaking on the part of Gyasi (this is her debut novel), and she absolutely succeeded. Each character's story is told with such love and devotion; it's as if she freed dozens of voices to speak and say, "I am here. I lived, and I loved, and I have a story you need to hear." I wish I had read this in an actual hard copy book rather than on my Kindle because Gyasi includes a wonderful family tree at the beginning that I should have returned to again and again, to keep all the characters straight. I am too lazy to do this on my Kindle. That is a small, reader's issue that has nothing to do with the actual novel itself, which is astonishing. Read it. Pay attention. And then tell someone else to read it. Truly incredible.

And that's it for February! I've started March with Fredrik Backman's Anxious People. So far, so good!

Linked up with It's Monday! What are you reading? at Book Date.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Top 10 Tuesday: TBR Books Written Before I was Born

This is surprisingly challenging.. and I feel really old. I perused my Goodreads TBR list and found these books on my to-read published before I was born (1966). It's a pretty short list! In college and graduate school, I focused mainly on 20th century lit, so I don't have much of that on my TBR list. That doesn't mean I've read everything in the 20th century, of course, but I have read a LOT! And again, as an English major, I've read a heck of a lot of classics. I could definitely add some re-reads of classics or some first-time reads, but here we go:


Shirley by Charlotte Brontë. Published in 1849. This is probably the only novel by any of the sisters that I haven't read yet. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. First published in 1901. This is a YA novel about a young girl growing up in the early 20th century.


North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. Published in 1855. A young woman has to move from her comfortable, middle class home to a millworking town in the north of England.

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayers. This book won the Pulitzer in 1931. It was referenced in another novel that I can't remember now, and I immediately added it to my list. 



Sons and also A House Divided by Pearl Buck. Published in 1932 and 1935, these are sequels to The Good Earth.

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell. Published in 1937. It tells of an American family overtaken by the epidemic of the Spanish influenza of 1918. Seems appropriate for now!



Stoner by John Williams. Published in 1965. This is the story of an ordinary man who falls in love with literature, choosing a life of academia over farming. Apparently this novel has quite a cult following.

Obviously, I lean much more toward contemporary literature these days! Perhaps I had my fill of reading and teaching classics through the decades. So many books to discover!

 

Linked up with Top Ten Tuesday at That Artsy Reader Girl




Monday, February 1, 2021

Books Read in January


 The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

The story: Adunni is a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl who wants two things: her mother, who was her greatest advocate, and an education. She can't get her mother back—she has passed away—but she is determined to get an education. This, her mother told her, is how she gets a "louding voice"—how she can speak for herself and determine her own path. Adunni lives in a traditional village in Nigeria, under traditional tribal laws. When her father pulls her out of school and trades her to an old man as his third wife, her dream of an education looks impossible. She faces daily abuse, drudgery, and fear, and then tragedy strikes. She makes a bold decision that saves her life and ultimately leads her to a new one. 

My reaction: This was a perfect book with which to begin a new year. Adunni is the most wonderfully courageous young woman. She is compassionate, gutsy, curious, intelligent, and determined. The story is told through her voice, which makes this even more compelling, inviting the reader right into her world. In her words:  “I want to enter a room, and people will hear me even before I open my mouth to be speaking. I want to live in this life and help many people so that when I grow old and die, I will still be living through the people I am helping.” I loved the wide array of women introduced in this novel, each with a different voice and a different experience. Some of their voices are muffled, some completely shut, some shouting, but each one cries out in some way for understanding. Highly recommended!



Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

The story: Isabel Wilkerson explores the characteristics of caste systems, the way human beings are ranked, and shows how the United States is rooted in a brutal caste system that puts Black Americans firmly at the bottom of the ladder. She compares and contrasts the U.S. caste system with that of Nazi Germany and India. As she writes, 

"Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States. Each version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations." 

My reaction: I think every single American should read this book. We need to be talking about this, teaching this in our schools, and working toward demolishing the American caste system. As Wilkerson writes (italics mine), 

Americans are loath to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history. It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces. But in the same way that individuals cannot move forward, become whole and healthy, unless they examine the domestic violence they witnessed as children or the alcoholism that runs in their family, the country cannot become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order. For a quarter millennium, slavery was the country. 

Wilkerson uses stories about real people —including her own experiences— to show how insidious and pervasive the caste system is in America -- how it seeps into every aspect of our lives. I highlighted about a billion passages in this book. I had to put it down sometimes and just mull over what I'd read. Wilkerson is a wonderful writer, using just the right balance of personal experiences, analysis, and research, both historical and scientific. (At one point I shouted to my husband, who has a PhD in genetics, that I was reading about telomere length and understanding perfectly!) This book is a lesson, a reprimand, a call to action, a plea, and a challenge.

"Each time a person reaches across caste and makes a connection, it helps to break the back of caste. Multiplied by millions in a given day, it becomes the flap of a butterfly wing that shifts the air and builds to a hurricane across an ocean."


The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson. 

The story: Miranda's favorite uncle dies and leaves her his independent bookstore. Well, that's the simple way to explain the book. But Miranda, now in her late 20s,  hasn't seen her uncle since she was 12-years-old, when he disappeared from her life without explanation. Her mother, his sister, won't talk about Uncle Billy. Her father just says, "Ask your mother." And the bookstore is on the opposite coast, far away from Miranda's current life as a high school history teacher. When Miranda returns for his funeral, she realizes his inheritance comes with a scavenger hunt. In order to solve the mystery of why Billy disappeared from her life, she has to follow the clues and put the whole story together: “Like Prospero, Billy wanted to tell me of his betrayal, the event that had exiled him from our family." And so the search begins, taking Miranda from person to person, event to event.

My reaction: Boy, did I ever need this one after reading Caste! This is lighthearted (mostly), warm, happy (mostly), quick read. This is a book lover's book, for sure. I love all the titles listed throughout, the literary references, the celebration of reading. And what a DREAM: to inherit a whole bookstore! Meyerson does a fantastic job immersing us in the world of bookstores—I could smell the books, feel the covers, and take comfort in the shelves. Miranda herself was a little annoying now and then, but certainly not enough to keep me from highly recommending this.

My biggest gripe: the title. I cannot remember this for the life of me! Shakespeare's The Tempest was such a prevalent theme throughout the book—Prospero Books and the name Miranda, just for starters. Why not use Prospero in the title? (Or maybe the title IS a reference from The Tempest, and I'm not getting it! "Dreamers of tomorrow and yesterday," perhaps...)  I keep getting this title mixed up with others I've read recently: The Little Paris Bookshop, The Library of Lost and Found, The Book of Lost Friends... I know—it's a petty complaint and should not stop anyone from reading this lovely book!




My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

The story: Vanessa is an outcast at her boarding school. She's lonely, friendless, isolated, and 15. She's the perfect prey for a predator like her 40-something English teacher, Mr. Strane. He singles her out and grooms her carefully, telling her that she's just like him, that he's madly in love with her, that she's brilliant. He knows all the right things to say, knows exactly how to manipulate Vanessa. Over 15 years later, he still knows all the right things to say: he knows how to convince her to keep their story quiet when another young woman, and then another and another come public with accusations of being abused by Strane. "They're lying," he tells Vanessa, and she believes him. He has been telling her since she was 15 that she's special, after all. The book alternates between 15-year-old Vanessa and Vanessa in her early 30s, when the accusations are flying about Strane. It's the #metoo movement, and Vanessa claims she is NOT a victim: that she made all her own choices, willingly. How long will she keep protecting her abuser?

My reaction: Haunting. Disturbing. Unsettling. Brilliant and brave. My heart absolutely broke for Vanessa, over and over again. This book is full of triggers, so beware. It is a difficult, gut-wrenching journey. To read how a 15-year-old is brainwashed, manipulated, and degraded by an authority figure is just so heartbreaking and maddening. I was angry at her parents for treating her like a leper, for the school for not pursuing the initial report of abuse, and of course for Strane for being a despicable pedophile. But I was never angry with Vanessa, who was so deeply twisted by Strane that she could not see the truth of their "relationship." This book is not for everyone, for sure. It is raw, graphic, and so disturbing, but Russell does an incredible job of inviting the reader to explore the complexities of abuse, the thread between abuser and the abused, the voiced and the voiceless. Highly recommended but know ahead of time: this is hard stuff.




The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis.

The story: Rose is a 30-ish journalist who has recently moved into the once glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, now luxury condos, with her partner. She becomes intrigued by the older women who live on the fourth floor of the hotel—women who are long-term tenants, now living in rent-controlled apartments. She learns that one woman fell to her death in the 1950s, another has a terrible scar on her face from some kind of altercation. Rose pitches the story to her editor and starts interviewing these women. From there, the book alternates between Rose's present day story and the story of Darby, one of the Barbizon women in the 1950s. 

My reaction. The first half of the book was great... and then it fell apart. Darby's story just took too many unrealistic turns, and Rose's story never reached much development after the first half. I mean, she thinks she is about to get engaged, and then her boyfriend leaves her for his ex-wife. Exit long time almost fiancé, enter new guy. She's over her ex really fast. And there were a lot of references to what "really" happened at her previous job, but it just seemed extraneous and distracting. Darby's 1952 story could have been so much more interesting had it been given more attention. The characters there held promise. It was as if too many stories were happening at once, and none of them made it to a satisfying conclusion. Honestly, the book just went on way too long, and the climax was like a balloon that slowly and limply deflates. 

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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Revisited Authors I Read in 2020

The prompt for this week's Top Ten Tuesday is "New-to-Me Authors I read in 2020," but I'm going with authors I revisited in 2020—the other list would be much too long!

Here is everything I read in 2020. The authors below are repeat authors; the rest on the list were new-to-me!


The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline: I've also read Sweet Water, Desire Lines, A Piece of the WorldThe Way Life Should Be, and, of course, Orphan Train. I was surprised to peruse my blog and see how many books of Kline's I have read and enjoyed!

Persuasion by Jane Austen: A re-read for book club. I've also read Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma.


The Bean Trees
by Barbara Kingsolver: Re-read for another book club. I've read lots of Kingsolver: The Lacuna,  The Poisonwood Bible (three times), Pigs in Heaven, Prodigal Summer, Animal Dreams. There are several I have yet to read and need to add to my TBR list.

The Secrets of Love Story Bridge by Phaedra Patrick. I'd previously read The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper and loved it. The Library of Lost and Found is on my library wait list.

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate. I've also read Before We Were Yours.

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver. I've read many collections of Oliver's poems, including Devotions, A Thousand Mornings, Why I Wake Early, and New and Selected Poems.


Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. I'm not sure there is anything by Anne Tyler I haven't read, beginning with The Accidental Tourist when I was 22, right after graduating from college. I've devoured every one of her books since then.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Multiple re-read.

When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica. I've also read The Good Girl and Every Last Lie.

You Were Always Mine by Nicole Baart. I read her Little Broken Things in 2019.


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