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!


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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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