Sunday, May 17, 2020

Two books by Black women: Kindred and Tough Love

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

How have I never read Octavia Butler until now, for goodness sake?!?!? My dear friend Catherine gave me this book for Mother's Day, and it was the perfect distraction for a pandemic. It had been on my "to read" list for a while, but when it landed in my lap, I had to read it.

I have always loved time travel, but this time travel is far more serious than usual. Written and set in 1976, this book finds 26-year-old Dana suddenly flung back into the antebellum south to save a drowning white boy. It turns out that he is one of her ancestors. Over the course of several years (in the time travel south) or days in the present, Dana ends up back on this plantation over and over again, each time to rescue clueless and careless Rufus.

It goes about as you might imagine. Slavery was brutal and tragic and soul-destroying...but many enslaved people found the strength to attempt escape or stay captive and endure. Apparently Butler's critics said she softened the horrors of slavery in this book, but it was horrible enough to understand that it was often far worse.

I will remember this book for a very long time to come, and I stayed up late into the evening to finish it. So worth the read!

Tough Love, by Susan Rice

While I was reading Kindred, I was listening to Tough Love by Dr. Susan Rice. Tough Love represents the life of a highly successful, highly educated Black woman, 44 years after Kindred was written by another Black woman.

Truth be told, I didn't know much about Susan Rice until I heard her interviewed on a podcast. She struck me as incredibly bright, funny, and capable, so when I saw she'd written a book I was immediately intrigued.

Most people associate her with Benghazi, because unfortunately she was tasked with being the spokesperson for the Obama administration after the Benghazi attack and then she became a scapegoat for the right wing, in spite of all investigations finding that she did nothing wrong. She continues to be vilified by Republicans to this day. She's now on the list of potential candidates for VP for Joe Biden. Her parents were both highly accomplished educators...her dad was a Cornell professor and her mom was an educational policy scholar who helped design the Pell Grant system. Rice was raised amidst the political and policy world, mentored by Madeleine Albright, headed to Stanford for her undergrad degree (to the chagrin of her parents, who wanted her to go to Harvard), studied at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and earned her M.Phil and Ph.D. there. She worked on the Dukakis campaign and served for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama while they were presidents.

This book is packed with stories about her childhood and young adulthood, diplomacy and policy work here and overseas, and family. She married her college sweetheart and has two children--one a diehard liberal and the other a Trump supporter. Yikes!

Susan Rice is a rock star, and I enjoyed learning about all she's accomplished in her time on earth.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

A Reliable Wife

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

Set in cold northern Wisconsin in the early 1900s, A Reliable Wife is the story of many people from various backgrounds who share something in common: miserable childhoods lacking in love and nurturing. Wealthy businessman Ralph Truitt asks for "a reliable wife" to come join him in the far-flung north, and Catherine Land claims she fits that bill.

I don't usually read books that get less than 3.5 in Goodreads ratings, but I found this on our bookshelves. Since the library is closed right now, I've been taking this opportunity to read through some of the books we actually own...and I forgot to look up the review on Goodreads first.

Furthermore, in the past couple of years I have made a concerted effort to read mostly authors who are women and people of color. I hesitated before choosing this book, because it doesn't fit that category.

Last night I revisited my decision when I realized that ALL of the women in the book--Ralph Truitt's mother, his first wife, and then Catherine herself--were horrible and completely unredeemable. I questioned whether I should keep reading. But I then I realized that, in fact, all of the characters were unlikable...not just the women.

I couldn't sleep last night (coroninsomnia), so I stayed up and read (and finished) the book. The main characters grew on me and I became more concerned about what happened to them in the end.

Goolrick is a talented writer, but I must confess that at times I found myself scanning through the text. Something about his writing style reminded me of Hemingway, not one of my favorites. Overall, though, an interesting story about deeply unhappy, unloved people. If that sounds appealing to you, give it a try. I think I need something a bit more cheery next!

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Real American: A Memoir

Real American: A Memoir, by Julie Lythcott-Haims

Real American is a book, like Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, or Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility, that all white people need to read...or even better, listen to, which is how I absorbed this beautiful and heart-breaking memoir. (And of course, people of color should read it too!)

If you are white, it will make you profoundly uncomfortable (a condition we white people need to feel a whole hell of a lot more often), and it will make you think and view the world differently and more sensitively, like the other two books.

Lythcott-Haims was born to a white (British) mother and a Black American father. All her life she never felt like she fit into either race, beginning in kindergarten when her friend asked, "What are you?" In high school, her best friend described her love of "Gone With the Wind" and told Lythcott-Haims that she thought of her as "normal," but not Black. Her locker was defaced with racist slurs on her birthday. These are just a few of the racist acts she experienced.

After being raised in an academically focused, cosmopolitan family, she attended Stanford University in the 1980s before earning her law degree at Harvard and an MFA in writing from the California College of the Arts. After working as the Dean of first-years at Stanford for 10 years, she wrote How to Raise an Adult, an acclaimed treatise on how not to helicopter parent.

Much of the book is about her growing-up years, and it's a love letter to her parents, neither of whom had easy lives. Her father eventually became a prominent pediatrician and served in Jimmy Carter's administration...but he made the decision to raise his family in predominantly white circles, which had a huge impact on her throughout her life.

In the second half of the book, as she ends up marrying a white Jewish man and becomes a mother herself, she comes to grips with her low self-esteem and lack of a sense of belonging. She elaborates on the constant microaggressions she and other people of color receive every day...even (and especially?) at fundraisers for her children's school when a few people show up in costume and blackface.

I urge you to read this unforgettable book. I just happened across it when I was looking for an audio book for a car journey, and I think it needs a lot more attention!

Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Canterbury Sisters

The Canterbury Sisters, by Kim Wright

A nice, light read...that was the order after being immersed in all the coronavirus news and also having read a lot of heavy nonfiction lately. I went downstairs into our cluttered study and found The Canterbury Sisters.

Given the fact that we are two English majors, avid readers, and professional writers, some of our friends might be puzzled at the lack of books in our main living space. That's because they are all hidden away downstairs on packed bookshelves and piles on the floor! One advantage of being confined at home and having our libraries closed is that I will finally make a dent in our own library. Last year Mike and I gave away 2/3 of the books we owned in a fit of Kon Mari decluttering. But we still have loads!

The Canterbury Sisters fit the bill for a distraction. I started the book while taking a highly unusual bath, prompted by a rainbow bath bomb sent by my beloved friend Catherine. I was informed by my 13-year-old that I was in the bath for well over an hour, possibly for an hour and a half...reading. Good for the soul.

Che de Milan is the daughter of a narcissist who has died. When her mother's ashes arrived, they came with a plea to take her to Canterbury Cathedral. On that same day, Che received a "Dear Juanita" letter from her long-time lover, dumping her. She booked a ticket to England.

Although she originally wanted to take a solo walking tour to Canterbury from London, things didn't turn out the way she'd planned. She ends up with a group of American women, Broads Abroad, and from the very beginning she's not too happy about that. She loses her phone, her fifth limb, on that very first night, but it turns out to be just the ticket to distract her from her usual life and focus on the present.

A wine critic and a critic of everything else, Che is not a particularly likable character. But because the book is told in the first person, we only see things from her perspective. She looks down on all the other women in the beginning of the story.

Akin to The Canterbury Tales (which I read once upon a time in college), their tour guide, young English professor Tess, informs them that each of them should tell a story about love on their walking trip. And it was the stories that I actually enjoyed most about this book. They were not all directly about love, but each story shed more light on that particular character's life.

By the end of the novel, Che (named for the revolutionary by her hippie parents) is more likable...but I'm not sure she's someone I would want to befriend. She told a great story though, and in times like these, that was enough for me!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Best Books of 2019

I've been capturing my top books of each year since 2001. You can access all of them here.

*I continue to read books mostly by underrepresented voices. Only the asterisked books are by straight white men.

Fiction

1. Theory of Bastards, Audrey Schulman
2. The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah
3. The Satapur Moonstone, Sujata Massey
4. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See
5. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sanchez
6. Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate
7. The Dead Women of Juarez, Sam Hawken*
8. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
9. A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman*
10. Outlander, Diana Gabaldon

Nonfiction

1. White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo
2. Shameless, Nadia Bolz-Weber
3. Dear Church, Lenny Duncan
4. Educated, Tara Westover
5. We Are Displaced, Malala Yousafzai
6. Everything Is Figureoutable, Marie Forleo
7. Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert
8. Over the Top, Jonathan Van Ness
9. You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start
Living an Awesome Life
, Jen Sincero
10. Getting Started in Consulting, Alan Weiss*
11. My Love Story, Tina Turner
12. In Pieces, Sally Field
13. What Happened, Hillary Clinton
14. The Diabetes Code, Dr. Jason Fung
15. Delay, Don’t Deny, Gin Stevens

You can find reviews for these books by searching in this blog.

Catching Up: Great Nonfiction Reads

I seem to have read even more nonfiction than fiction in the last several months!


Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert

Yes, it's a bit woo-woo, but it was just what I needed at the right time, as my dear friend Caley knew as she chose it for our book group. I loved the story about Gilbert's idea for a novel, landing with Ann Patchett after she let it go. Gilbert believes that ideas have a life of their own, and they are demanding to be expressed.

“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.”

Her comment that “It might have been done before, but it hasn’t been done by you!” reminds me of my entrepreneurial hero, Marie Forleo, who exhorts her students not to worry if someone else is doing the same thing as you...because you will do it in your own unique way. People don't just hire a service or product...they hire the person behind the creative idea.

Judging from the reviews, people either love or hate this book, and this was also the case with my book group. I loved it, but mostly because I read it at the right time in my life...when I had a creative idea (starting and working on my own business), just urging me to believe in it.

Educated, Tara Westover

This story was so astonishing it seemed almost preposterous, but it certainly demonstrates the power and resilience of the human spirit. Tara Westover was raised in an isolationist Mormon family in remote Idaho. At times it was difficult to read, especially trying to understand her desire to maintain connections with her dysfunctional, violent, and gaslighting family members after she escaped and made a life for herself, but that's what abuse does to a person. A great read, and a great true story.


Getting Started in Consulting, Alan Weiss

A friend who had started her own business recommended this book to me. I found it to be a great start in setting up my own consulting business. I haven't followed everything Weiss recommends (for example, he recommends you mark up your subconsultants by up to 50 percent!), but I used it for the basics. I especially appreciated the way he inserted words of wisdom from other people who had set up their own consulting firms.

It tends to be more male focused, while much of what I've been reading and the people I've been following have a more female-centered approach, but still a valuable resource.


In Pieces, Sally Field

Growing up on "Gidget" and "The Flying Nun," followed by "Norma Rae," "Places in the Heart," and "Steel Magnolias," I've always loved Sally Field, especially playing the matriarch in "Brothers and Sisters" and seeing her impassioned speeches in support of LGBTQIA rights.

I listened to In Pieces on audio so I could hear Field tell her story. I was taken off guard to learn she had been sexually abused by her stepfather...somehow I had not seen any information about that before I read the book. She hated "The Flying Nun" and "Gidget," and Burt Reynolds was a complete tool and waste of space.

Listening to Sally tell her story felt like an old friend sharing her intimacies with me.


Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson

I wanted to read Stevenson's book before seeing the movie. Bryan Stevenson is a hero for the neglected, the abused, the convicted without a fair trial, and those who are forgotten on Death Row. Just Mercy relates his stories of working tirelessly on their behalf, combined with facts and historical context about the prison industrial text and racism in this country. I found this book to be tragic, moving, inspiring, and infuriating. Highly recommended.


My Love Story, Tina Turner


Another book I listened to on audio, Tina Turner's memoir begins with heryears she has had to stop touring because of extensive health challenges...but I read that she's publishing another book this year. Tina Turner is a rock star in more ways than one...she has endured horrible hardships in her life, including the suicide of her beloved son a few years ago, yet she still remains hopeful and resilient at age 80.
wedding to the love of her life in Switzerland...and then three weeks after this highly awaited day, she suffered a massive stroke and had to learn how to do everything all over again. She looks back on her life, beginning with her birth as Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee, and describes her awful existence with the abusive Ike. In her later


Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love, Jonathan Van Ness

Of course I had to listen to this one on audio. It's Jonathan Van Ness! I love this guy, although I know some people find him a bit hard to bear. He pours his guts out in this memoir, and I loved his raw vulnerability, honesty, and truth. Watching "Queer Eye," what many people would not imagine is that Jonathan Van Ness was pretty damn poor before he landed that gig. Trigger warnings for sexual and drug abuse, drug use, eating disorders, cancer, and homophobia. I love his podcast too ("Getting Curious"), in which he interviews experts on a wide variety of topics...essentially anything that piques his interest.


Shameless: A Sexual Revolution, Nadia Bolz-Weber

I feel extremely lucky that we were at Holden Village when Nadia Bolz-Weber was writing the first drafts of this book, and she workshopped them with us in large sessions. Of course, she's Nadia Bolz-Weber, so even her first drafts were brilliant. Of all the books she's written, this one is my favorite. I have to laugh, reading all the negative reviews on Goodreads, with people claiming her book is not biblical or adhering to Lutheran doctrine, etc. They are completely missing the point.

“It doesn't feel very difficult to draw a direct line between the messages many of us received from the church and the harm we've experienced in our bodies and spirits as a result. So my argument in this book is this: we should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people. If the teachings of the church are harming the bodies and spirits of people, we should rethink those teachings.”

The church has a major problem with sex. Until we solve this problem and embrace the fact that God created sexuality as a gift, not a sin, Christianity will continue to alienate and harm people.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, Maarten Troost

Maarten Troost moved to Tarawa, a tiny South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati, with his then-girlfriend, now-wife. Travel writing? Count me in! I was intrigued. This was a book group choice, and many found it to be an interesting read. I, however, would not recommend it.

I found Troost to be a whiny, full-of-himself bore who feels sorry for himself, hardly writes anything about his girlfriend's very different experience of the island, and treats the islanders themselves like pariahs. The titles of his books--The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Getting Stoned with Savages, and Headhunters on my Doorstep--are meant to be tongue in cheek, but they speak more of his personality. He never gets to know any of the I-Kiribati or makes much attempt to appreciate anything about living on the island.

After leaving Kiribati, he lands a plum job back at the World Bank. Reading this book reminded me why I prefer to read books by women and people of color. Troost represents exactly the type of privileged, overpublished white guy whose books I do not want to read.


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo

Every white person needs to read this book, as soon as possible. I have recommended it repeatedly. Until we white people face our "whiteness" problem, we will never be able to begin to fix our own racism. This book is a great start. That is all. 

We Are Displaced, Malala Yousafzai

Malala has written a beautiful collection of essays about others who have been displaced from their countries of origin because of war, terrorism, famine, or other challenges that make it dangerous for them to stay home. 

According to the United Nations, "an unprecedented 70.8 million people around the world have been forced from home by conflict and persecution at the end of 2018. Among them are nearly 30 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18."

These figures are mind-boggling. No one chooses to be a refugee. It's one of the worst things that can happen to a person, or a people. It breaks my heart when Americans, sitting in their comfortable houses with plenty to eat, do not understand that people do not flee here unless they have no other options available. These stories will move you and remind you of how far we have to go as a civilization. 

You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life, Jen Sincero

I began listening to this book at just the right time in my life, when I had a serious case of imposter syndrome.

Some may say it's just another self-help book, but I found it helpful. I remember driving down the freeway, shouting out loud "YOU ARE A BADASS!" and it actually felt healing for me.

“You are perfect. To think anything less is as pointless as a river thinking that it’s got too many curves or that it moves too slowly or that its rapids are too rapid. Says who? You’re on a journey with no defined beginning, middle or end. There are no wrong twists and turns. There is just being. And your job is to be as you as you can be. This is why you’re here. To shy away from who you truly are would leave the world you-less. You are the only you there is and ever will be. I repeat, you are the only you there is and ever will be. Do not deny the world its one and only chance to bask in your brilliance.”

“You are loved. Massively. Ferociously. Unconditionally. The Universe is totally freaking out about how awesome you are. It’s got you wrapped in a warm gorilla hug of adoration. It wants to give you everything you desire. It wants you to be happy. It wants you to see what it sees in you.”

If you need a shot in the arm or a boost in your self-esteem, give this book a try. I liked Sincero's funny, flippant style.


Thick and Other Essays, Tressie Cottom McMillan

One (white male) reviewer on Goodreads used the term "firebombing" when describing this book. He thought that McMillan wasn't nice enough, I guess, and how dare she criticize David Brooks? That attitude (Black women need to be nice) is telling, given the fact that firebombing has been used for mass destruction of Black people since the Civil Rights Movement.

This book by sociologist Dr. Tressie Cottom McMillan, contains a number of incisive, insightful essays about race and racism, white people, Black girlhood, academics, sociology, beauty, and other topics. The most powerful essay for me was about the high mortality rate for Black women in labor and childbirth, when McMillan shared her own heartbreaking story. Dr. McMillan is a writer and wise voice to follow.


Untamed, by Glennon Doyle

I loved this book. First of all, if you cannot abide Elizabeth Gilbert or Brene Brown, steer clear. Glennon Doyle is not for everyone.

I first found Doyle when she was getting known as a "mommy blogger," writing about her "littles." (Aside: I hate the term "littles" when referring to one's children!) She was also an evangelical Christian at the time and had a long history of anorexia/bulimia, addiction, and anxiety. She continued to pour her heart out on the web after she learned her husband had been unfaithful. (Talk about being public about what a jerk you are...being unfaithful to a well-known blogger!) Through therapy, she found a way to forgive her husband and wrote about their continuing journey in Love Warrior. Then, while on the road to market that book, she met and fell in love with soccer superstar Abby Wambaugh.

I got to hear Glennon and Abby tell their story on stage a few years ago. It's clear they were made for each other. Now they have formed a co-parenting team with Doyle's ex-husband, Craig.

Untamed is about Glennon's journey back to herself, after a lifetime of trying to please everyone else and becoming the image of what she thought God and her parents wanted her to be. Yet again, this book came along at the right time for me, at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown. I rarely read books a second time, but I might reread this one.

“When women lose themselves, the world loses its way. We do not need more selfless women. What we need right now is more women who have detoxed themselves so completely from the world's expectations that they are full of nothing but themselves. What we need are women who are full of themselves. A woman who is full of herself knows and trusts herself enough to say and do what must be done. She lets the rest burn.”

The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom

Sarah M. Broom's book, The Yellow House, is a story about her family of 12 children, born to Simon and Ivory Mae Broom. Sarah (born as Monique) was only six months old when her father died, leaving Ivory Mae, who did not know how to drive at the time, with several children at home and a rambling, ramshackle house she bought with her own money at a very young age.

It's also a story about New Orleans, specifically New Orleans East, where the yellow house, with a life of its own, stood until it was split in half during Hurricane Katrina.

It's about a family displaced, and about a young writer who can't stay away from New Orleans for long, trying to recover from great losses, even traveling to work in Burundi to grieve and rediscover herself...and seeing many parallels between wartorn Burundi and hurricane-torn New Orleans.

It's about the Black, working-class experience on the outskirts of New Orleans, and the glaringly obvious distinction between the touristy French Quarter. It's about a failure of infrastructure and corrupt leadership, a failed safety net, and the displacement of people who cannot afford to live in New Orleans any longer.

And still, it's a love affair of sorts for New Orleans. All wrapped up in a towering, split-in-two Yellow House.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Catching Up: Great Fiction Reads

I have gotten really behind with my book reviews, and it's hanging over my head! So in this post and the upcoming ones, I will attempt to catch up with what I've read in the past several months. First, a fiction roundup!

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

Judging from some of the reviews on Goodreads, many readers believe that this sequel to The Handmaid's Tale was unnecessary, similar to what they said about To Kill a Mockingbird. A writer always takes a huge risk writing a sequel to a beloved, highly acclaimed novel. Even when they write a different type of book (e.g., JK Rowling writing A Casual Vacancy after Harry Potter), they are skewered in the reviews because it was not what readers expected. I find that reaction to be tiresome!

I actually really liked The Testaments and found it to be a suitable conclusion to The Handmaid's Tale, and it complemented the Hulu series well. The story takes place 15 years after the founding of Gilead, and it is told from the perspectives of three different people, including Aunt Lydia. If you prefer endings that are unresolved, stay away from The Testaments. If you'd like to see a resolution for Offred and others, and get some hope, read this sequel.

Sweet Bean Paste, Durian Sukegawa

I loved this sweet story of Sentaro, an ex-con who runs a doriyaki shop, and Tokue, a woman who has Hansen's disease, otherwise known as leprosy. Although I lived in Japan in the late 1980s, I was not aware that people with leprosy were isolated in sanitoriums and not allowed to mingle with the public until 1996. Japan was one of the last developed countries to quarantine leprosy patients for life. Tokue was wise and resilient in spite of lingering discrimination and prejudice, and Sentaro's life was so much richer for his relationship with her. She shared her friendship so freely in spite of the way people treated her. I discovered recently that this book has been made into a movie (available on Kanopy), which I look forward to watching.

On the Come Up, Angie Thomas



I love Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, especially after having her seen her in person when she was promoting this novel. On the Come Up is about Starr Carter, who has a true gift for rap, taking after her dad who was gunned down in the streets. She traverses a world of gang violence and school, where she feels like she can never get ahead. She's damned if she tells her truth through rap, and she's damned if she doesn't. Generally not drawn to rap because of the misogny in much of it, I now have a much greater appreciation for the art of hip hop. It is poetry, and rappers are gifted artists, even if I don't always like what they are saying. I will read everything Angie Thomas writes.

Women of Juarez, Sam Hawken

After seeing the gripping play "La Ruta" at the Artist's Repertory Theater in November, I was determined to read more about the missing and dead women of Ciudad Juarez. That's how I found The Dead Women of Juarez, a gut-wrenching, dark story narrated by a washed-up addict American boxer Kelly Courter who is love with a Mexican woman, Paloma, and gets wrapped up in organized crime and drug dealing. It's difficult to read, violent, and sad, but I would expect nothing less given that it's about the feminicide in Ciudad Juarez, one of Central America's great tragedies of this century. This book stuck with me for a very long time.



A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman


It took me a while to appreciate Ove and like him as a character. I don't have a lot of patience for curmudgeons who only like things to be done a certain way and who can't abide change. I appreciated the way Backman gradually peeled the layers back on Ove's character, so we could understand what contributed to his difficult personality. In the end, I was cheering for him along with all the other readers.





I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sanchez

As a Mexican-American girl, Julia feels that she can never measure up to her sister Olga, now dead. She does not feel loved by her grief-stricken, stressed-out parents, and as an adolescent, she's actually not very lovable at times. As she unravels the love-hate relationship she had with her "perfect" sister Olga, she also unravels the truth of Olga's life. She wasn't as perfect as everyone thought.

I chose this book as the first in a series of "Voices from the Margins" for a book group I led. This is a strong young adult novel about contemporary Mexican-American girlhood and an easy read.


Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours is based on the Tennessee Children's Home Society, a horrible case in which director Georgia Tann kidnapped and sold children. Always fascinated by historical cases like this, I was gripped by this story.

I did find one of the main characters, Avery Stafford, to be supremely annoying. This was one of these southern books I felt really lacked understanding or awareness of race (like The Help). For example, one scene takes place in a slave cabin...and the characters (and presumably, the author) didn't seem to see any parallels between all the Black children that were kidnapped and sold...a far bigger scandal than the Tennessee Children's Home Society. This lack of awareness tainted the book for me.

The Satapur Moonstone, Sujata Massey

The Satapur Moonstone is another great book by one of my favorite authors, Sujata Massey! The second in her Perveen Minstry series, The Satapur Moonstone follows up The Widows of Malabar Hill. As Bombay's only woman lawyer, Perveen is given special access to women in purdah. Set in 1922, this adventure takes Perveen up into the remote mountains, where she acts as a liaison between the royal family, beset by tragedy, and the British agent there. I read everything Massey writes, whether it takes place in Japan or India, and I'm never disappointed! Minstry is a strong, independent, and bright professional woman in a man's world, and she bristles against British colonial rule and patriarchal traditionalism while knowing she must be careful to not be too obvious about her views, lest she lose clients. I look forward to the next book in the series.

The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah

Compulsively readable, The Great Alone is about a family who ventures off to the wilds of Alaska, completely unprepared, and once there, is forced to face the demons of PTSD, domestic violence, and mental illness. I really enjoy Kristin Hannah's writing, and this book was hard to put down. It reminded me of Jon Krauker's Into the Wild...a man who doesn't fit into the Lower 48, seeking his fortunes and answers in the wilds of Alaska. Not an easy book to read, though, because of the domestic violence.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Most people know Shirley Jackson for her short story, "The Lottery," like me. From what I've read about Jackson, she was a fascinating, quirky person. This short novel fits that description as well. It's the story of two sisters, Mary Catherine and Constance, who appear to be agoraphobic and highly unusual. Their family has been struck by great tragedy. Jackson brilliantly unravels the mystery, one layer at a time. Spooky, mysterious, weird...another book group choice by my friend Katie. This is a great example of why I like being in a book group...I had never even heard of this book, and Katie had read it as a y oung person. I liked it!

My oldest son, Christopher, just watched Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" on Netflix, and liked it. Adding it to my list!


The Sun Is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon

The Sun Is Also a Star was another young adult read I chose for the "Voices from the Margins" book group, and all of us enjoyed this day in the life of a Jamaican-American girl, Natasha, whose family was due to be deported. She meets a romantic, idealistic Korean-American boy, Daniel, whose views of the world sharply contrasted with her own science- and reality-focused beliefs. As children of immigrants, both Daniel and Natasha are far more American than their parents, and certainly far more American than Jamaican or Korean.

This is the kind of book that makes you almost cringe at the number of coincidences...but outside of that, I loved it. It reminded me a bit of The Fault in Our Stars, but the immigrant version...so even more interesting.

“I don't believe in love."
"It's not a religion," he says. "It exists whether you believe in it or not.”
― Nicola Yoon, The Sun Is Also a Star

The Power, Naomi Alderman

This book blew my mind. The Power is a dystopian novel, imagining what it would be like if women had a course of power running through their collarbone, capable of great strength and power. I read it for my book group, and it produced an outstanding discussion.

Some found the book to be highly disturbing (there is a great deal of violence), and all of us found it incredibly creative and thought-provoking.

As women, we would like to think that if we were in power, the world would be a more compassionate, gentle, and civilized place. This book turns that theory on its heel...but as I argued in our book group, the women who were most likely to use their power for harm were the ones who had been horribly abused by men or male power structures. So it's not an apple-to-apple comparison. The book lays bare the broad, damaging effects of the patriarchy, and does it in sometimes subtle, sometimes overwhelming ways. This book will stick with me for a very long time, much like The Handmaid's Tale. It's actually an antithesis to The Handmaid's Tale.

Monday, January 20, 2020

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir


When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele

My Lutheran-Catholic church Spirit of Grace has been studying two books: When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by artist, organizer and freedom fighter Patrice Khan-Cullors and minister, theologian, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited. I just finished When They Call You a Terrorist today on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

I was particularly inspired to pick it up when I saw a friend open our worship service by sharing her thoughts of the book. This white woman has worked for social justice her whole life and has traveled to the important sites of the civil rights era in the south. As she described what she learned in this book, she was brought to tears. I knew I had to read it right away.

When They Call You a Terrorist is the beautifully written story of a Black girl growing up in inner-city Los Angeles by a hard-working single mother and a father and stepfather who come and go. Although raised in poverty, she and her family fiercely love and protect each other...as they have to do big time when her beloved brother Monte is repeatedly targeted, beaten, and incarcerated for his mental illness.

Patrisse emerges from her childhood with a feisty, creative, and confident spirit in spite of the fact that she sees firsthand the destructive damages of racism every single day. And when Trayvon Martin and so many other Black children and adults are gunned down and their assassins go free, she knows she has to act. With a team of other Black women and people in the queer community, she starts a movement, #BlackLivesMatter. Not only do they fight against racism and hatred, but they also take care of each other's mental, physical, and spiritual health because so many of them have been traumatized by racist violence on a daily basis.

And what do these committed activists get for their efforts? They are called terrorists. They are terrorized by police departments. They are killed in their cars. They are the ones called racist.

Today, on this holiday when we celebrate the greatest civil rights leader of our time, people will be sharing his quotes freely on social media. But as author/activist Ally Henny wrote on Facebook,

"You might be seeing a lot of activists telling you not to quote King today
unless you’re standing up for black folks every day.
Maybe you’ve been confused or bothered by this. “But shouldn’t we be honoring Dr. King today?,” you might be asking yourself. And yes. We absolutely should be honoring King today.
The issue is that, if you’re out here sharing quotes and whatever else by Dr. King, but you’re not living the principles that he stood for, your “commemoration”
rings hollow to the black folks in your circles.
Today is a “safe” day to talk about race. It’s a day where a lot of folks want to get sentimental and talk about race in America as if we’ve somehow arrived. We haven’t.
What are you going to say the next time white supremacists march?
What are you going to say when the next black persons is murdered by the police?
What are you going to say when black kids in your community
 are trying to learn in inferior environments?
What are you going to say when your coworker does something racist?
What are you going to say when your company, church, school, or other institution that says they’re “committed to diversity” but they’re an unsafe place for black, brown, and indigenous people?
Posting a quote, picture, or speech doesn’t mean crap if you’re not out here every other day fighting white supremacy."

Here's who needs to read When They Call You a Terrorist:
  • Every white person who thinks we've transcended racism.
  • Every person who has ever uttered "All Lives Matter" or "Blue Lives Matter."
  • Every white person who thinks they are "woke."
  • Every white person who has never had to fear their children being arrested for just existing.
  • Every white person who looks away when #BlackLivesMatter comes up in discussion.
  • Every white person who voted for Trump.
  • Every white person who voted for anyone else but Trump.
  • Every white person who thinks that police are always fair and friendly.
  • Every white person who believes people should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps."
  • Every white person who thinks there are more drugs in Black neighborhoods than white ones.
  • Every white person who thinks that people in prison deserve to be there.
  • Every white person who lives in a predominantly white neighborhood or community.
  • Every white person who has never been pulled over and questioned because of their race.
  • Every white person who can conveniently stop thinking about racism when they want to.
  • Every white person.
And everyone else too. 

Patrisse Khan-Cullors is our modern-day MLK Jr., and she needs to be heard. What will you do on this day of commemoration? I am going to start by listening.



Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane


The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See

Amazingly, because I love books based in Asia, this was the first book I'd read by Lisa See. I'm not sure why it has taken me so long!

I enjoyed this family saga about a Chinese girl, Li-Yan, who was born into a very poor Akha tea family in the Yunnan Province. I'd never heard of the Akha or their strict traditions before, so I was
fascinated to read this story.

The story soon takes a dark twist, as Li-Yan's mother is a midwife, and Li-Yan witnesses a birth of twin babies. Because the Akha follow 100-year-old traditions extremely faithfully, her mother kills the babies (twins are bad luck) and exiles their parents. 

Clever, independent Li-Yan chafes against the misogynist, old-fashioned rules of her tribe, and when her own path takes a difficult turn, she leaves the village.


I won't say any more because I don't want to spoil the story, but I do want to say that Lisa See does an exceptional job tackling the complications of Chinese adoptions...and giving the reader a great appreciation for tea, especially the aged Pu-er tea.

I read this book for my book group, and I hosted the evening we discussed it. I ordered Chinese takeout and remembered I had intended to buy some Chinese tea for the occasion. On the off chance, I raided our tea cabinet, and what did I find? A box of Pu-er tea, which my husband had purchased on a whim. I was delighted at this lovely piece of synchronicity!

Read it, and drink some Pu-er tea! #NaBloPoMo2019

Becoming

Becoming, by Michelle Obama
I read Becoming earlier this year, and I loved it. Although her family did not have much money or resources, she grew up in a family of deep, consistent love on the south side of Chicago, rich in memories.

A few of my most vivid memories of the book were when she learned how to play the piano from her strict Great Aunt Robbie, who had a strict protocol about lessons. The students could not move ahead in the book until they had accomplished a particular song. This struck Michelle as particularly boring and unfair, so she played ahead in the book and got in trouble. I could relate so much to Michelle's reaction, chafing at this rule! Some rules are meant to be broken!


At her first piano recital, Michelle learned her family's circumstances were not like everyone else's. Great Aunt Robbie's piano had a chip to mark the middle C. Sitting at a beautiful grand piano for the recital, Michelle panicked because she could not find middle C. Great Aunt Bobbie came to her rescue, pointing out the C. 
“Maybe she knew that the disparities of the world had just quietly shown themselves to me for the first time." 
She and her brother Cliff shared a small bedroom, jerry-rigged into two extremely small areas. Her parents were strict but she always felt loved, and although her dad became ill with multiple sclerosis, he continued to work tremendously hard for as long as he could. Michelle followed in her parents' hard-working footsteps, committed to academic excellence, and earned two Ivy League degrees.

I admired her self-awareness when she realized, working as a corporate lawyer, that this life was not for her. After meeting a much more laid-back and carefree Barack and losing her best friend from college to cancer, she reinvented herself and her career. I enjoyed learning about Michelle's professional life and aspirations--we heard so little about the real Michelle when she was first lady.
“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.” 
Reading about Michelle and Barack's courtship made me smile...they were so different in so many ways, but alike in the ways that mattered. She is still not a fan of politics, but knew that he was meant to be a public servant and would not stand in his way.
Getting ready to hear from Michelle in Portland!
Michelle writes extensively about parenting and balancing her work and family life, especially as Barack was away from home more frequently because of his political career. She was determined to protect her daughters from the privileged life as much as she possibly could.

She also writes about the value of female friendship, which is also sacred to me.
“Friendships between women, as any woman will tell you, are built of a thousand small kindnesses...swapped back and forth and over again.” 
And about how challenging it can be to be a woman:
“Women endure entire lifetimes of these indignities—in the form of catcalls, groping, assault, oppression. These things injure us. They sap our strength. Some of the cuts are so small they’re barely visible. Others are huge and gaping, leaving scars that never heal. Either way, they accumulate. We carry them everywhere, to and from school and work, at home while raising our children, at our places of worship, anytime we try to advance.”
And where "when they go low, we go high" came from:
“Since childhood, I’d believed it was important to speak out against bullies while also not stooping to their level. And to be clear, we were now up against a bully, a man who among other things demeaned minorities and expressed contempt for prisoners of war, challenging the dignity of our country with practically his every utterance. I wanted Americans to understand that words matter—that the hateful language they heard coming from their TVs did not reflect the true spirit of our country and that we could vote against it. It was dignity I wanted to make an appeal for—the idea that as a nation we might hold on to the core thing that had sustained my family, going back generations. Dignity had always gotten us through. It was a choice, and not always the easy one, but the people I respected most in life made it again and again, every single day. There was a motto Barack and I tried to live by, and I offered it that night from the stage: When they go low, we go high.”
I closed the book feeling inspired by the life she has lived, much of it so publicly, and sad for what we have lost as a country.
With my heart full!
My husband and I were extremely lucky to be able to see Michelle when she came to Portland, and it was a night I will never forget! I wiped away tears many times. She designed her book tour so it was a conversation with someone who knew her well. In Portland, it was with Sam Kass, the Obamas' personal chef starting in Chicago, and who designed the garden and healthy cooking at the White House with her. It was funny, poignant, endearing, and intimate, and it filled my heart!
“For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.”
 #NaBloPoMo2019