Saturday, June 12, 2021

Books Read in May

The Book of Lost Names by Kristen Harmel

The story: Eva Traube and her mother escaped from Paris in 1942 to a small village in France. They have two goals as Polish Jews: to survive and to find Eva's father, who was taken by Nazis. But Eva is unwillingly, at first, pulled into the Resistance because of her excellent forgery skills. She spend the next several years hiding in plain sight, forging thousands of documents for Jewish people fleeing for their lives. She's especially disturbed by the children, who have to take on new names. How will they remember who they really are when the war is over? She and another forger, Remy, come up with a code and record their names in a book. Sixty years later, this book resurfaces and Eva, now an elderly librarian living in NYC, heads back to Paris to claim it. As she does so, she remembers her years as a resistance worker and her love for Remy.   

My reaction: The story itself was intriguing and inspiring, but the writing was stiff and the dialogue was so atrocious I could barely read this at times. I mean, bad. And the characterization: dreadful. Eva's mother was ridiculous. No mother goes from being a daughter's best friend to being a harpy who finds her daughter despicable, even in the midst of war. In fact, in such a traumatic time, one would expect the mother to be even kinder and stronger. The way Harmel chose to portray that whole relationship made no sense. And again — that terribly stilted dialogue just made me want to rip pages. This should have been a fantastic story, but the characters felt flat, rushed, and annoying.      

     The author missed an opportunity here to really focus in on the children themselves and the idea of being erased, as an individual and as a nation. My advice: you might read this to get a further picture of the Resistance, but go into this knowing it has serious problems.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (audio version)

The story: Edna Pontellier is a young wife and mother in the late 1800s who begins to awaken to her real self in her late 20s. She'd just floated through life until this point, but one summer she begins to really feel things, to see the world and her limited place in it. As she becomes increasingly aware of her own wants and needs, so also sees that her own views on womanhood are unorthodox and unacceptable in polite society. She is trapped in her upper middle-class life, utterly alone and despondent as she realizes that the rest of her life will be the same year after year. 

My reaction: It's probably been 30 years since I last read this novella, considered one of the earliest feminist works. Man, this is one of those novels that should be read each decade in one's life, as it has an utterly different effect on me now than it did in my early 20s. I have so much more understanding of the historical struggle of women now. I think when I read this in my 20s, I was strong and independent and didn't really fully grasp just how utterly stuck women were (and, of course, many women still are today). I loved this audio version, read by Hilary Swank on Spotify. (Classic Audiobooks on Spotify are fantastic, by the way!) Highly recommended.

Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad

Subtitled "Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor," this book is a step-by-step guide to examining the reader's own relationship with racism through historical and cultural contexts. Each short chapter focuses on a specific topic, such as white privilege, color blindness, racist stereotypes, and optical allyship, and prompts the reader to consider how each has shown up in their lives. Each chapter includes definitions, explanations, anecdotes, and examples, as well as a list of reflection questions, such as "What emotional outbursts have you had during racial interactions? Or how have you shut down, walked away, deleted everything and pretended nothing happened and hoped no one would notice?" and "How do you and have you stayed silent when it comes to race and racism?"

My reaction: Randy and I actually took an entire year to work through this 28-day book. We picked it up last year at the recommendation of a friend, and we read it only during longish car trips (almost always on our way to a hike). On a few occasions, one or more of our young adult (20s) children were with us as we read and discussed, which was awesome. Each chapter was incredibly thought-provoking and informative, and the reflection questions were intense. We had a year's worth of fantastic and often uncomfortable discussions. I can't imagine going through this book in just a month. Spreading this out over a year gave us time to really absorb and chew on the text, helping us become even more aware of subtle racism and our own part in it. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is open to doing the hard work of examining their own white supremacy and their relationship with racism and working toward doing better. 

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

The story: Lydia and her family live in Acapulco. She owns a bookstore, her husband is a journalist, and together they have a son, Luca, who is eight. She has a close-knit extended family, until one afternoon when a local drug cartel comes in and kills them all except Lydia and Luca. Lydia knows that in order to save her son, they have to leave Mexico and the far-reaching fingers of Javier, the cartel's leader. The book chronicles Lydia and Luca's journey to the United States as they join other migrants from Central and South America.

My reaction: I have to say I could not put this novel down, utterly drawn into Lydia's journey and experiences. That said, I am aware that this book comes with a lot of controversy. Cummins is not a migrant (nor is she Mexican American); this is not her experience. Critics maintain that these stories should be told by authentic voices (#ownvoices), that Chicana and Mexicana writers should be getting their works published widely. Instead, they continue to be passed over and marginalized in and by the publishing and reading world. Mexica readers note that Cummins gets so much wrong in this novel. I respect and appreciate those critiques. Because I do not know the Spanish language, I was not aware of the many mistakes in her usage. I can only imagine how painful and offensive this was to Spanish speakers. She also makes, as I understand it, terrible cultural blunders and perpetuates stereotypes. (Those are just a few of the problems.) As a result of reading reviews of this novel, I have garnered a reading list of books to read by Latinx writers. Some of the books I've added are on this list of 17 Great Books to Read Instead of American Dirt and 8 Books by Latin American Authors to Read Instead of American Dirt.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

The story: This is the story, based on true events and with some characters' real names/jobs, of the American Library in Paris during World War II. The main character is Odile, a young librarian, and the cast of characters that she encounters are many (too many): coworkers, subscribers, soldiers, and more. Odile is immature (or maybe just flat), selfish, and impulsive; but the story itself, of how the library stayed open and also delivered books to soldiers and Jewish patrons, is interesting. Interwoven with the historical story is a modern-day(ish) story that takes place in Montana in the 1980s. In this story, young Lily forms a special friendship with Odile, the French recluse living next door. 

My reaction: The true story of the American Library in Paris is fascinating, and I kept reading this book because I wanted to hear Odile's story. But...the writing was just not good, honestly. The plot was interesting and kept me reading, but it was a struggle. The writing was trite, jumpy, heavy in the wrong places and then light in the wrong places. Shallow. The dual stories —one historical, one present day — format just does not work for me in general. Like most people, I almost always love the historical portion but am bored/annoyed with the modern day story. This technique feels contrived and unnecessary. The dialogue was stiff and completely unbelievable, and the story itself was... jumpy. Scenes jumped around, characters were undeveloped, emotions were flat and did nothing to stir my soul. The whole feeling was being rushed and trying to get in as much as possible. Characters jumped from place to place, and I often had to look back to see if I'd missed something. This felt almost the opposite of the writer's mantra to "show, don't tell." Way too much telling, and the showing part —the dialogue and action —was unsatisfying. I found myself cringing, saying, "Huh?" and rolling my eyes way too much. So... I give this a 2.5/5 rating for the historical significance and because I guess I cared enough about Odile that I wanted to know why she ended up in Montana with a husband named... wait for it... Buck. Because what rancher wouldn't be named Buck?

The Push by Ashley Audrain

The story: Blythe and Fox are blissfully happy, and Fox is ready to start a family. Blythe's childhood was rough—she was neglected, abused, and abandoned— and she's convinced she'll be a terrible mother. When their daughter is born. Blythe just cannot connect with her. She feels none of the warm fuzzies that motherhood is supposed to bring, and she's convinced there is something off about their daughter. She scream when Blythe holds her and she bites kids at daycare, but she's an angel for Fox. And then Sam is born, and Blythe falls madly in love with her son, understanding, finally, the magic of motherhood. But Violet decides she doesn't like Sam, and Blythe's world explodes. 

My reaction: I loved this book. It's a psychological thriller at one level, but it's also an exploration of motherhood, parenting, and marriage. Can a kid really be a bad seed? Is there a "bad mom" gene? How can you trust your instincts if everyone tells you you're wrong? This was definitely not a feel-good read; in fact, it was disturbing, disquieting, and sad. But it was so well written and positively gripping in the way the story is revealed. Blythe was such a vulnerable, richly drawn character; readers can't help but root for her, even as we question her. Warning: this novel deals with difficult topics of abuse and death of a child, so be ready for some heavy emotions. If you can handle that, then I highly recommend this! I couldn't put this one down.

Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan

The story: Maple Street is the perfect place to live, if you're the right kind of person. The Wildes are not the right kind of people, and the perfect people of Maple Street let them know it. Arlo is a former addict and rock star, Gertie shows way too much cleavage, and nine-year-old Larry is just weird. Julia, age 12, fits in for a while, until Shelly, daughter of the queen bee Rhea, turns on her. Right about that time, a sinkhole forms in the neighborhood, and everyone starts to go crazy. Accusations fly, and then someone gets sucked into the sinkhole. Who is to blame? Rhea points her finger at the Wildes, and a witch hunt ensues. In the midst of the witch hunt, secrets come to light and Rhea falls apart. 

My reaction: I have a love/hate relationship with this particular theme: the hierarchy of suburbia, the idea of moving up the social ladder by means of moving into a "good" neighborhood.  I find it fascinating but also so disturbing and so sad. Obviously, this was a main exploration in this novel. What do the Wildes have to do to be accepted into the Maple Street crowd? Why does one person get all the power? How can you fight against a system that's already made up its mind? This is a dark, complex, and disturbing book. I finished it with no clear sense of a recommendation. Did I like it? Not really... and yes. The writing was excellent, and the story itself was completely engaging. But it's so unnerving, so depressing. Why are people so terrible? So easily swayed, so weak, so thoughtless and desperate? This is an excellent illustration of mob mentality, group think, gossip, and social mobility, but it's just so dark, and, well, as murky as that sinkhole. Reminds me a bit of The Stepford Wives, with a dose of Stephen King and Shirley Jackson. If that's your thing, read it!

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