Sunday, July 6, 2014

Free Spirit: Growing Up on the Road and Off the Grid

Free Spirit : growing up on the road and off the gridFree Spirit: Growing Up on the Road and Off the Grid, by Joshua Safran

When I first chose this book, I thought Joshua Safran was one of the Safran Foer brothers. I'd read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, and later on read Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. From what I can tell, there is no relation whatsoever, but "Safran" must be a relatively common Jewish name (as is "Joshua"). I'm so glad I found this book anyway!

Joshua Safran, an award-winning attorney who has committed his career to combatting domestic violence, tells the story of his childhood. This book was born when he represented a battered woman who had been serving life in prison for killing her batterer. This case resonated with him, as he realized he had a story to tell about his own experiences.

Safran's mom with her
feminist artist friends in San Francisco
Safran's mother ("Claudia") was a counterculture feminist artist/activist, and when he was four years old, they left Haight Ashbury in San Francisco and hit the road. He was raised in an extremely open, permissive home and "homeschooled." He heard his mother having sex with her lovers. He felt inadequate because he didn't have a vagina. They hitchhiked all around the west coast (mostly in Washington state), constantly seeking a true intentional community--utopia. Safran's village of parents were not necessarily related to him--he had a few positive role models along the way, but none of them were ideal. Many of his childhood experiences made me squirm with discomfort...being bullied after he puts himself in a regular school, being completely separated from his mother and nearly sliding down a mountainside or drowned at a hippie festival, or careening up a mountain with a drunk driver (his stepdad).

Safran as a child
But as much as his mother was proudly independent and strident in many ways, she ended up with loser after loser. (His father wasn't actively in the picture.) The last one--who she married--was physically abusive. Safran observed the abuse and felt humiliated for not supporting his mother and stopping her attacker. This book, more than any other I've read, describes well what it's like to be in a home full of domestic violence.

Joshua Safran constantly yearned for a "normal life," but wasn't able to find this until he'd graduated from college, married someone who also was raised in a hippie home, reconnected with Judaism, and creates his own family.


Now he's a practicing Orthodox Jew, husband and father, and attorney. He's written the story of his childhood with his mom's permission. It's a story of redemption and discovery in spite of a very difficult beginning.

This book brought me to tears at the end...especially this paragraph:
"People sometimes ask me: If you could do your childhood all over again, would you grow up in the cushy suburbs you always dreamed of? And I always give a complicated answer. As a father, I have done everything in my power to give my children the stable, secure, and comfortable childhood I never had. But I also recognize that while my early life was difficult, I received an unconventional and powerful education that taught me self-reliance, righteousness, and empathy like no other. In the end, I would rather slog back down those trails at my mother's side again. There are many ways to judge a mother, but I think the best way is to look at the man her son grew up to be." 
As a mother of three sons who sometimes doubts her own parenting strategies and patience (who doesn't?), this is reassuring and touching. And the way Safran has dedicated his work to helping women who are unable to help themselves is the most inspiring of all.

If you're interested in knowing more about Joshua Safran's story, take a look at this video presentation of him talking at Google:


I'm a hippie at heart, but this book shows the dark side of living off the grid and on the edge of mainstream culture...especially for children. Safran is already working on a sequel and his mother, Claudia Miriam Reed, is writing her own book. You can view her spoken word poetry about domestic violence here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What Alice Forgot

What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty

Interesting premise: Australian Alice hits her head at the gym and when she wakes up, she's lost 10 years of her life. She thinks she's 29, pregnant with her first child, and happily married, but instead she's 39, has three highly spirited kids, and on her way to a divorce.

This book turned out to be more in the genre of "chick lit" than I thought it would be. Although I hate the term "chick lit," most of its books share these elements:

  • Woman meets man and gives up her career
  • If she does have a career, it's journalism, PR, or magazine editing
  • Woman achieves desired perfect, privileged life, with a gorgeous house, rich husband, and 2+ children

In the intervening 10 years, Alice got her perfect life and became a shallow, spoiled brat (in my view). I did enjoy this beach read in spite of its flaws...it made me think about my own life, my priorities (am I spending enough high-quality time with my kids and my husband?), and how quickly life is passing me by. But several things bugged me about it:

  • Does someone really change THAT MUCH in 10 years? I find that hard to believe.
  • Alice didn't seem very smart. It took her a long time to get that she'd wreaked a lot of damage in the past 10 years.
  • I could have done with all the extra plots...especially Frannie's letters to Mr. Moustache. This side plot seemed unnecessary and detracted from the main story. Also, although I have great sensitivity to infertility, I found Elisabeth's letters to be cumbersome as well. Yes, they allowed us to see inside these characters' minds, but I found this book to have too many side characters in general. And what happened in the end to Elisabeth and Frannie was no surprise of course.
  • SPOILER: I liked the storyline about Alice's daughter's troubles at school...but could she really do a complete turnaround? A teenager who's been neglected and angered suddenly becomes an angel just because she starts getting positive attention. A bit unrealistic, I think.
  • Alice's life seemed frivolous, pampered, and shallow to me. The world's largest lemon meringue pie? Really? I don't think I would like Alice very much.
  • I found the character of Gina to be baffling...her close friendship with Gina changed the course of Alice's life? I guess she needed some kind of conflict, and Gina was meant to present that conflict.
  • Does her husband suddenly decide that he is working too much, or does Alice decide that she doesn't care about all the long hours?
  • Alice gets her dream job at the end, even though she has NO relevant job EXPERIENCE. Classic chick lit.

I know I'm sounding overly critical. I did enjoy the book, but it was multiply flawed. I'm curious to hear what my book groupies think of this one.

Now to read a novel with a woman character that inspires me.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars
It seems that people either love this book (some obsessively) or hate it (calling it cancer porn), judging from the Goodreads reviews. I am one of the lovers, and I'm looking forward to seeing the movie and crying my eyes out.

Here's a fascinating example of serendipity: just as I started to write this review, I was multitasking in my binge-watching of "Orange Is the New Black." And what do I see? One of the characters is reading The Fault in Our Stars and tries to pass it along to a woman with cancer:



So this book is about two teenagers with cancer. It's a love story. Hazel and Gus are keenly intelligent, down to earth, bookish, and unconcerned with what other people think of them. They have strong family connections, and they fall in love over a book. What's not to love? No spoilers here, but be warned: it's unflinchingly, heartbreakingly sad. It's also raw and honest about cancer.

House of Prayer No. 2

House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey HomeHouse of Prayer No. 2, by Mark Richard

Clearly, Mark Richard has a gift for writing. The end of this book made it all worth while for me, but my mind wandered a bit along the way. Perhaps I'm getting too old or shallow.

I found it awkward that the book starts out in third person and then goes into second person, making the narrator appear detached...as if he's observing his disaster of a life from afar, absolving himself of any responsibility. As a child, he's labeled as "special" because of his deformed hips and spends a great deal of time in charity hospitals.

It's a wonder he made it to adulthood, with some of the risks he took. It's almost as if he didn't feel his life was worth preserving...having faced his crippling hip problems and a dysfunctional family.

By the time he becomes a writer, he's also worked in a variety of odd jobs...on a fishing boat, painting houses, as a radio DJ, photographer, journalist, bartender, and almost a pastor.

The book traverses over his life in a scattershot way. We don't learn much about his writing career or his marriage. I enjoyed the end of the book the most--when he helps build the "House of Prayer."

Although the book was lyrically written, I guess I was looking for something more compelling.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Light between Oceans

The Light Between OceansThe Light between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

I'm dreadfully behind in my book reviews and have three to catch up on. I read The Light between Oceans for my May book group selection, and I really enjoyed it.

Could you live in a lighthouse on a remote island and have contact with other humans only once every few months...and be able to go to the mainland only every few years? I couldn't do it. I would need more human contact, being an extrovert!

Tom Sherbourne, a returned WWI vet and clear introvert, signs up as lighthouse keeper on remote Janus Rock in Australia. Then he gets married and takes his wife Isabel to the lighthouse. At first she loves it, but then she experiences two miscarriages and a stillbirth. Racked with grief, she's also told that she has entered menopause and she won't be able to have any more babies.

When a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a live baby, the couple decides to keep the baby and not tell anyone. Tom is uncomfortable with the idea, but Isabel persuades him. They both fall in love with "Lucy," their adopted baby, and claim her as their own.

However, Tom's racked with guilt over the years...especially when they learn more about the circumstances that led to the boat washed ashore and the damage their decision has done on others.

Some in my book group felt critical of Isabel, but I could understand her rationale. She didn't think she would be hurting anyone by keeping the baby. They were more sympathetic to Tom, but at times I found Tom hard to relate to because he kept himself so remote from others.

My only quibble with it was the idea that a woman in her 20s would be going through menopause...that just didn't make any sense to me! Also the book had a pattern of people dying right before someone important was to happen.

But...if you like books laden with ethical dilemmas and no easy choices, you'll enjoy this beautifully written novel.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Gone Girl

Gone GirlGone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
This thriller novel was nothing like I expected it to be. I thought it would be more of a kidnapping type of scenario, I suppose. Right from the beginning, it's clear that's not what this is.

Usually I am not crazy about books that have no likable characters, but this one was different. These characters are extremely unlikable, but they are interesting. Amy is married to Nick, and the book starts out with Amy going missing. The book alternates between each spouse's viewpoint, and our narrators are not reliable. They're both also spoiled brats in their own ways.

It's beautifully crafted, and I couldn't put it down. But I also understand the perspective of people who didn't like this book.

It doesn't exactly give you hope in the future of humanity, and it makes me wonder how on earth people could want to stay married to each other when they clearly despise each other so much.
Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder

Location of  Burundi  (dark green)in Africa  (grey)  –  [Legend]Before I read this book, I knew very little about Burundi. After reading this memorable narrative nonfiction, I feel more educated about this part of the world. Landlocked in the middle of Africa, Burundi is in the middle of Africa. It is one of the five poorest countries in the world with one of the lowest per capita gross domestic products. Germany and Belgium occupied Burundi and its neighbor Rwanda at the beginning of the 20th century, and the colonists contributed greatly to the divide and hatred among both countries' native Twa, Hutu, and Tutsi peoples. Burundi has had two mass genocides--one in 1972 (killings of Hutus by the Tutsi-dominated army) and one in 1993 (killings of Tutsis by the Hutus), resulting in around 250,000 deaths. The war-torn country is also the hungriest country in the world.

As a third-year medical school intern, Deogratias (Deo) Niyizonkiza fled the genocide in 1994. He arrived in New York City with $200 to his name and no English, and ended up sleeping in Central Park and eking out an existence by delivering groceries to rich New Yorkers for a few dollars a day. He spent any spare time he had trying to learn English by hanging out in bookstores (until he got kicked out). When someone first took him to a library, he was overjoyed!

Helped by a few kind people, he eventually enrolled at Columbia University, where he received a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and philosophy. Then he attended the Harvard School of Public Health, where he met Dr. Paul Farmer and began working at Partners in Health.

Deo helping an impovered child in Burundi
Tracy Kidder tells Deo's extraordinary story with vivid detail. I found myself entranced with Deo's tale of his early New York days and how he transformed himself through the help of others. He was haunted by his demons...how can you see so many people murdered by hand, with machetes, including children, and ever have a normal life? He felt great ambivalence when he received so much financial help from others, but without it he would have been back on the street.

In the last part of the book, Tracy Kidder writes about traveling back to Burundi and Rwanda with Deo, as he was establishing Village Health Works, a community-driven health center. (This last part of the book was a bit hard to follow at times.) In the first four years of operation, the center saw more than 50,000 patients, installed solar panels to power the facility, established an Internet system for electronic medical records, and built a 14,000-gallon water collection cistern to provide potable water to the center and surrounding communities. Amazing!

Deo now frequently lectures on global health and has received numerous awards. Most people do not return to Burundi after they leave, but Deo has dedicated his life to helping the poor in his native land. His life and story are astonishing.




Tuesday, April 29, 2014

My Notorious Life

My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning
I LOVED this book, but it's probably not for everyone. Kate Manning was inspired to write this book when she saw this photo and learned that 30,000 homeless children lived on the streets of New York in the nineteenth century.



Introduced as a lost diary, the book opens with a suicide. We don't know who died, but we learn that the main character fakes her own death with this dead body of another. We know she's married, and her husband helps cover it up. The authorities are after her, and we know she is famous because her carriage would be recognized in the street.

Then we go back to her childhood, Axie Muldoon, who is a poor Irish immigrant child, wandering the streets of New York with her sister Dutch and brother Joe. Her father--an alcoholic--has died, and her mother has lost her arm in an industrial accident. Soon they are discovered by a famous do-gooder, who gets medical care for Axie's mother but arranges for the children to go to the Children's Aid Society. Soon the children are off to the midwest on the Orphan Train. (This is the second novel I've read this year about the Orphan Train--the first was The Chaperone.) Axie--a spunky, independent, and bright child--ends up returning to New York City after a few months, but her siblings have been ensconced in new families and appear to not mind their separation.

Once back in New York, Axie finds her mother again, but she has remarried Axie's layabout uncle and is pregnant again. When she goes into labor, Axie must act as midwife...at 11 years old. And so begins her story of helping women in labor and childbirth.

Madame Restell being arrested
Without giving too much more of the plot away, I will say that Axie is a complex, fascinating character, as are her husband and best friend. Axie's story is based on the life and death of Ann Trow Lohman (1811-1879), also known as Madame Restell, a "notorious" midwife who was a friend to desperate women but the enemy of moral crusaders such as Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock finally brought her down, she was vilified in the press and in society, and she ended her own life (although it was rumored that she had faked it). Comstock was proud of the number of suicides he prompted.

My only quibble about this book is that at times I found the Irish brogue inconsistent. I think it was written in such a way because this was Axie's true speaking style, but it comes and goes and at times I found that off-putting.

Demonized in the press
We had such interesting conversations last week at book group when we discussed this book...about feminism, history, birth control, the status of women in this era and now, midwifery, and abortion. This wonderful piece of feminist historical fiction will give you new perspectives about the status of women--then and now--and the lesser evil of abortion. I couldn't help but think about Rush Limbaugh, our modern-day Anthony Comstock, and Sandra Fluke, who in advocating for birth control was blamed for debauchery...much like Madame Restell/Axie Muldoon.

As the mother of three children, one of whom was born at 24 weeks, I am deeply grateful to have been born and become a mother when I did. I'm also grateful to have been able to plan my own family by using birth control.

I could not put his book down...read it! It's sad and thought provoking, but redemptive. Here is author Kate Manning, talking about what led her to write this book:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

I love novels like this, when I learn about historical figures through fictionalized accounts of their lives. The Invention of Wings is based on the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, abolitionists and feminists long before women's suffrage or the Emancipation Proclamation.

Sue Monk Kidd quotes Professor Julius Lester in her notes at the end of the novel, "History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another's pain in the heart our own." Kidd expands beyond the facts and events to put flesh on the stories of four women.

The novel begins in the early 1800s, with Sarah Grimke turning 11 and her mother "giving" her ownership of her very own slave, Hetty, or Handful. From the beginning, Sarah is deeply uncomfortable with her family's legacy as slave owners, and she also chafes against her role as a girl and woman. All she wants in life is to study and become a lawyer and a judge, but her family throws cold water on her dreams. As a female, all she could hope to become is a wife and mother. She rebels in her own way, by teaching Handful to read and write.

The novel weaves the story of Sarah with that of Handful and her mother Charlotte. Both Handful and Charlotte are highly talented seamstresses, spunky and spirited and seeking a way out of their own lives. They are the most fascinating characters in this novel, and they are mostly made up. (Sarah's mother did "give" her a slave when she turned 11, and Sarah wanted no part of it, but that's about all that is known about the slave girl.)

While Sarah struggles to put a voice to her passionate thoughts, Handful and Charlotte have no problem expressing what's on their mind. They weave their own pains and desires in their quilts and pass on their family history through stories. They take chances for the sake of freedom, even if it might cost them their own lives.

Angelina is the sister with the gumption--probably because she'd been mostly raised by Sarah--but Sarah, too, eventually finds her own voice. I enjoyed reading about the sisters speaking out against slavery, even though their family and their own city (Charleston, South Carolina) were horrified by their actions. The schism in the early abolitionist movement between abolition and women's rights reminded me of the division in the 1960s, when women who fought for civil rights were not given their own voice in the movement.

Sarah, Angelina, Handful, and Charlotte are all trying to find their own wings and escape the prisons of their lives. Handful's and Charlotte's restraints were real, while Sarah and Angelina were bound by the cultural expectations of their time.

This novel is not an easy read--Kidd depicted the horrors of slavery without flinching. I was grateful for Kidd's notes at the end, and also for the Internet, so I could learn more about the Grimkes when I was done reading the book. Sarah and Angelina Grimke were pioneers of their time, standing up for what they believed was right, even if their voices shook.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons Why
Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

I read this book because it got my 17-year-old son hooked on reading again. Before Hannah commits suicide, she creates a series of audiotapes explaining to 13 different people how they contributed to her decision...with instructions that they pass the tapes along to next person on the list.

The book alternates between Hannah's voice, explaining her "13 reasons why," and the perspective of Clay, one of the people on the list. I found this constant going back and forth to be a little distracting.

Many people LOVE this book, but I was not as taken with it. Toward the end of the book I actually started scanning it...not a good sign! Some people have said that it glamorizes suicide, and I can see their point.

It does shed some light on the plight of a teenage girl who is receiving unwanted attention from boys and is often objectified and not treated with respect. It also shows how desperately teenagers need real friendship and love (she was lacking both).

Typical of many young adult novels, parents hardly ever appeared or were mentioned in the book...which I thought seemed strange. What part did Hannah's parents play in her life? Did she leave a suicide note for them? As a parent myself, I couldn't help but note this strange lack of adult figures.

Some of her "reasons" seemed inconsequential, and in fact they made me think of all the people in the world who endure far, far worse than what Hannah had...yet they endure and survive.

From what I know about suicide, it usually happens because the person is deeply depressed...yet the book does not touch on Hannah's depression. I felt that her relationships with many of the thirteen, including the main character, were not fleshed out.

So I was disappointed. I'm glad it got my son reading again, but it wasn't really my cup of tea.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

It is telling that I didn't realize Oryx and Crake was a trilogy and was upset to discover its open ending...even though two of my friends (including the book group member who nominated this book) had told me it was the first in a trilogy. I think I heard "science fiction," and I just blocked out the rest. :) But it's the kind of science fiction I'm drawn to: dystopia.

In fact, Margaret Atwood prefers to call this "speculative fiction" rather than science fiction, because science fiction involves things that are unlikely to happen or impossible, while speculative fiction is about things that could actually happen or were possible on earth...not about outer space. And that is exactly why this book is so frightening.

Oryx and Crake are actually minor characters in this book...the protagonist is Jimmy, or Snowman, and much of it takes place after most of humanity has been decimated by a plague brought on by humans' obsession with genetically engineering everything that moves (and doesn't). Cloning has gone wild, as has the pharmaceutical industry. Corporations run the world, and the powerless live in the "Pleeblands," like the "districts" in The Hunger Games. Crake has invented a new breed of (sort of) humans, who are like an open book--they are innocent and dull, and they lack drama or sexual longing. In short, they are incredibly boring, and they are all Snowman has for company in the end of the world.

The characters are deeply flawed and did not experience childhood love, and as we discussed at my book group meeting, brilliant scientist Crake and ethereal, distant Oryx are not particularly likeable or easy to understand. Jimmy/Snowman's and Crake's love for Oryx, whom they first encounter while watching kiddie porn (yes!), reminded me of the shallow foreign men who went to Japan to meet women, and often stayed there...they sought the type of woman who adored them unquestioningly, were more submissive, and didn't question their actions or words. I have a difficult time understanding men who fall for these types of women, like Jimmy and Crake. And I found it all too disturbing and depressing that kiddie porn and sexual trafficking would exist into the future. But as we know, desperate times call for desperate measures...and sex is a commodity.

While I was toward the end of this novel, I read about a timely, depressing NASA-funded study that predicts the collapse of civilization in a few decades and warns about the depletion of the world's resources and society dividing into the elite and commoners (all of which are essential elements of this book). (Now NASA is trying to distance itself from this study, probably because the agency doesn't want to be accused of being fatalistic, even though Margaret Atwood doesn't mind that.)

I've been reading Margaret Atwood for 30 years, and she is an exceptional writer. I've heard that the books only get better as they progress...and now that she's gotten me hooked, I will be reading the rest of the trilogy. But I might have to recover from this one first. It makes me truly worried for my children and grandchildren, because I can see these things happening so easily.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

I've been wanting to read this book for awhile--many of my friends have given it high ratings on Goodreads--and another friend recently urged me to read it after she'd read it for her book group. I'm glad I finally got around to it.

It's the story of Junior, who is keenly intelligent and creative in spite of being brain damaged at birth. He doesn't fit in well on the Spokane Indian Reservation and soon finds a way to go to the white school nearby. His community is not happy with him to say the least, including his best friend, who feels betrayed. It reminded me of a high school friend who got really hurt when I went away to college. 

But in spite of the alcoholism, incessant poverty, and too frequent deaths around him--even making it hard for him to get a ride to and from school--Junior excels in his white school. He has the advantage of two parents (and a grandma) who love him, even though his dad is a sad alcoholic. 

In addition to the stellar, well-crafted writing (which was distinctly better than the last young person's book I read, My Basmati Bat Mitzvah), Alexie has included cartoons by artist Ellen Forney as Junior's art. The drawings bring the text to life and help the reader understand Junior better. 

I love stories of redemption in spite of overwhelming odds, and this is an excellent example of that genre.

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah

My Basmati Bat MitzvahMy Basmati Bat Mitzvah, by Paula L. Freedman

Drawn to this book because of its cover and title, I found it to be a light middle-grade read. Tara Feinstein is studying for her Bat Mitzvah while grappling with her combined Indian-Jewish heritage. 

From what my middle grade novelist husband tells me, it's unusual to have an intact, happily married set of parents in these types of books, as Tara does. Her parents are caring, engaged, and funny, and she worries a lot about disappointing them. She also has a supportive extended family, both Indian and Jewish. Furthermore, her rabbi is great--so it's a positive depiction of religion as well.

Her life is full of friendship drama, especially as she comes to realize that her best friend, Ben-o, has a crush on her.

Ultimately, Tara discovers that doubt does not mean a loss of faith, and she finds a way to happily marry both cultures in her Bat Mitzvah.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead



Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg

Every woman needs to read this book. Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, admits that she didn't
always call herself a feminist. Like many other women of her generation (a bit younger than me), she thought that feminism was not necessary any more because we'd achieved equality. Then she learned how naive she was.

Sandberg has been broadly criticized for being blind to her own privilege, but I didn't find this to be true. She repeatedly says that not everyone has had the advantages she has (including a nanny to care for her children, and a supportive husband). She does have privilege and a very different perspective than blue-collar single moms, but she owns up to that. She has a different perspective than lower-income, less-educated women, but she's writing from her own experience, and many of her lessons apply to us all. It's especially hard for these women to "lean in," but the wisdom and inspiration in the book can help them too.

Sandberg tackles the systemic issues of sexism and backs them up with personal stories and research. The personal stories were fascinating...such as going to financial offices where they'd never had a woman ask to use a bathroom, or discovering--on a corporate jet--that her children had lice, or revealing the fact that she was brought to tears and comforted once by Mark Zuckerberg, who gave her a hug (and she was then criticized for that!). 

Here's just a bit of the compelling research I noted in the book, which is packed full of footnotes:
  • In the last decade, child care costs have risen twice as fast as the median income of families with children.
  • When the Harvard Business School surveyed alumni, they found that 91% of the men's graduates were employed, while only 81% of the women graduates from the early 2000s were employed, and only 49% of those who graduated in the early 1990s were working full-time. Highly educated women drop out of the workforce in droves, contributing to the leadership gender gap.
  • 40% of employed  moms lack sick days and vacation, and 50% of them are unable to take time to care for a sick child.
  • Only 1/2 of employed moms receive maternity leave pay.
This morning I heard on NPR that women make closer salaries to men's when they first start working after college graduation, but the income gap spreads as the years go on. This study explains.

Sandberg's also been accused of blaming women, but I didn't find that either. She issues a challenge for all of us to lean in, to rise to the challenge, to be confident in ourselves and the choices we make, and strive for greater equality in the workplace and in our broader culture at large. 

She also calls on men to lean in and calls out the stereotypes they face if they choose to stay home with the kids. She says that men need to speak up, set new pathways, and demand paternity leave. She quotes Gloria Steinem, "Now we know that women can do what men can do, but we don't know that men can do what women can do."  The revolution will happen one family at a time...younger generations appear to be more eager to be real partners in parenting.

One of the new Getty images from the "Lean In Collection"
She clarifies that "doing it all" is a myth. Women have to make choices, but Sandberg hopes that women will stay in the workforce. In fact, women who work outside the home spend more time with their kids today than our moms did in the 1960s and 1970s. An employed mom spends about the same time on primary child care as a non-employed mom in 1975.

Since I finished the book, Sandberg has been in the news again with her great work with Getty Images to create positive images of women in stock photos (the "Lean In Collection"), and for her "Ban Bossy" campaign in partnership with the Girl Scouts.



”When a girl tries to lead, she is often labelled bossy. Boys are seldom called bossy because a boy taking the role of a boss does not surprise or offend. As someone who was called this for much of my childhood, I know that it is not a compliment. The stories of my childhood bossiness are told (and retold) with great amusement.“

So yes, Sandberg might be a privileged, educated, white woman, but she is doing good work...necessary and overdue work, prompting women and men to look at our status quo and realize that many things are not right. She is using her position to advance the cause of women in the workplace and society, and this is to be applauded.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity (Code Name Verity, #1)Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

I LOVED this book...in fact, it's my favorite so far in 2014. I would not have been drawn to the title, but it was my book group selection for the month.

The story is about "Verity," a female British spy, is captured in Nazi-occupied France, and her best friend Maddie, the pilot who flew her into France. The Nazis torture and interrogate Verity (or "Queenie"), and she writes about her friendship with Maddie and their training before and during the war. Slowly, the reader learns the pieces of her story...at least, what she is telling the Nazis.

I don't want to say much more about the book for fear of giving any details away. It did take me a bit of time to get into (I'm not terribly interested in flying airplanes--so the beginning bored me a bit at times), but it is SO WORTH PERSEVERING.

I finished it in the middle of the night before book group...and I found myself crying in the living room at 5:00 a.m. The book is not only beautifully written, but it's cleverly crafted. It's one of the few books I've read that makes me want to go right back and reread it now that I know the ending...it will stick with me for a long time.

I think next time I will listen to it so I can hear the English and Scottish accents. It's one of the few books I've read that has the word "gormless" in it (one of my English husband's favorite words, which I'd never heard before I met him).

Some have called it as a "love letter to female friendship," which is an excellent way to describe it. I do think it's one of the most beautiful homages to friendship I've ever read. This is one of my favorite lines from the book:
"It's like being in love, discovering your best friend."
Read it!

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Ayah's Tale

The Ayah's Tale, a novella by Sujata MasseyThe Ayah's Tale, by Sujata Massey

Sujata Massey, author of the wonderful The Sleeping Dictionary and the Rei Shimura series, has written a novella about the relationship between an Indian ayah and the English children under her care.

The role of a child care taker is a complicated one. During a few summers in college, I worked as a nanny taking care of my two cousins in Seattle. I also babysat extensively during high school and formed strong attachments to many of my charges. When I left my two cousins at aged 2 and 4 to go to Japan, I sobbed because I knew how much I would miss them. I had grown very attached to both of them.

My situation was different than Menakshi, who was forced to drop out of school and take up a job as an ayah (nanny) because of her father's death and her family's poverty. Although she had great potential, she had to give up her own dreams to help her family.

Even though the children in her care were privileged and spoiled, she becomes attached t to them and they to her. What the children (especially middle child, Julian) don't understand is the complication in this attachment. The children's mother, Marjorie, is snobbish and shallow, and disengaged from her children's lives and inner thoughts. She doesn't want to spend much time with her children, but she also feels resentful because of their attachment to Menakshi, their ayah. The children don't understand that Menakshi is paid to be with them: it's not her choice, and she has her own life.

I always enjoy reading stories that take place in locations where I've lived or visited. Menakshi's story starts and ends in Georgetown, Penang in Malaysia, a place I visited in 1988. Sujata Massey beautifully depicts the life of an Indian ayah and the complicated relationships that people in the employ of their colonial employers had to deal with--and in fact, still deal with in many countries. 

Even though Menakshi endures great hardships in her life, she finds love in these pages and a more hopeful future than working as an unappreciated ayah. So even though her life improves, she feels some sense of loss as she misses these English children who came to love her.

I'm looking forward to Sujata Massey's next full-size novel. I prefer novels to short stories and novellas, although this was a fun one to read!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Weight of Silence

The Weight of SilenceThe Weight of Silence, by Heather Gudenkauf

In this quiet, easy read, seven-year-old Calli Clark is best friends with Petra Gregory. Although Calli does not speak, Petra speaks on her behalf. Calli's father is a mean drunk, and her mother tries to pretend that everything is normal.

When Calli and Petra disappear early one morning, Calli's mother Antonia is forced to face what she has been trying to ignore.

Gudenkauf portrays a family damaged by alcoholism and abuse, with two sensitive children who have been deeply scarred by the disease.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Game of Thrones (and 10 reasons I disliked it)

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

Or as I call it, A Game of Endless Unlikable Characters

My husband DEVOURS these books. When he's immersed in one of them, he doesn't pay attention to much else. He loves them.

Then my 17-year-old son, who used to be such a great reader but in recent years has been deterred by electronics, also read the whole book and is now watching the show.

Plus one of my close friends, who doesn't usually go for fantasy, became obsessed with the show and the books, and she told me that I should give them a try.

So I gave Book 1 a try, and I will not be reading any more of the series. Remember, I finished Book 1 of the Lord of the Rings series and gave up during The Two Towers. Fantasy is not my thing, unless it's something fun like Harry Potter. I can take the violence, and I have read many dystopian sci-fi novels. It's just that this didn't hold my interest.

I should have known better when in the beginning, every single chapter was told from the perspective of a different character. I have a 50-page rule (ala Nancy Pearl). I was about to give up, but then on Page 49, we returned to a character that I had seen before. So I plowed on, thinking I might become more engaged.

When I took a break at around Page 625 to read The Chaperone and enjoyed it much more, I should have known better. 

I also should have considered that my husband never thought I would like these books. 

But I was determined to finish the book, much like I felt that I needed to read Twilight. It's such a part of our popular culture, and I wanted to know why everyone seems besotted with it.

So here are the 10 reasons I wasn't crazy about A Game of Thrones:

1. Far too many characters!
I know Martin provides lists at the end of the book, but honestly, why did there have to be so many? I lost track. Many of the characters are mentioned in passing only once or twice. Why include them at all?

2. Lack of character development
Very few of the multitude of characters are fleshed out fully. Even the primary characters...we get very little back story on how they became who they are, with only a few exceptions.

3. Lack of sympathetic characters
The only person I cared about in this book was Arya Stark. That's it. I didn't care what happened to anyone else. Daenerys was interesting, but she was brutal too. Ned was better than most of them, but even he was not loyal to his wife and had a dark past. Nearly everyone in this book lacks morals, compassion, or kindness. These people are unlikable!

4. Rape and brutal treatment of women
I had heard that Game of Thrones had lots of sex, but I didn't expect the huge amount of rape and horrific treatment of women...constant child bride rape, incest, gang rape, and forced prostitution. Is this typical of fantasy? No thank you. I'd heard that this series has more strong female characters than other fantasy books, but even those strong female characters are often powerless in such a patriarchal, misogynist culture.

5. Too much detail
Martin goes way into detail about political posturing, history of various families, and geography, while sacrificing real, valuable information. And then there's the endless, repeated titles of royalty, such as "King Joffrey, the First of His Name, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm," blah, blah, blah. 

6. Way too long
I am not scared of long books. In fact, I loved Vikram Seth's 1,500-page long A Suitable Boy. But you've got to keep me interested to make me feel like the length is worth it. This book could have used a good editor. (See #1 and 5.)

7. Endless plots
From what I understand about this series, each book does not end...it just goes on and on into more books. I need closure. 

8. Lack of geographic perspective
I needed a map, like Tolkien provided. I am a visual person. Where in the heck is "The Neck"? How does the wall divide the kingdom? So much of this book and series is about place and kingdoms. I didn't know where the heck anything was, except sometimes "north" or "south."

9. Does not compel me to read any more
I'm not interested in seeing where this series continues. 

10. Very sad outlook on humanity
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote wonderful villains and complicated characters and had redemption in his books...the friendship in the fellowship of the ring, the rip-roaring fun in the Shire, the wisdom of Gandalf, the great adventure, the beautiful Elfen lands...so many more things to like about that series, even though those books were not my cup of tea either. As one reviewer wrote, "I have bums and alcoholic friends that blaze like Gandalf the White compared to most of Martin's characters." That reviewer went on to say "It is a story mired in filth and obscenity and shines the light on the worst conditions of human experience and offers them up as plot lines, dialogue and personal, social and political interactions."

As I mentioned above, I've read my share of dystopian literature (The Hunger Games series, The Road, A Handmaid's Tale, etc.), but even those types of books have some redemption in them, usually in the relationships between the characters. If I'm going to read a dark, dark book, I need to get some satisfaction out of it. 

My apologies to the Game of Thrones lovers!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Chaperone

The ChaperoneThe Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty

I took a break from reading A Game of Thrones to read The Chaperone, and I found it to be highly engrossing (much more so than Game of Thrones)!

It's the story of Cora Carlisle, a small town Kansas woman who agrees to be a chaperone for young Louise Brooks, who heads to New York City to study dance. The story is loosely based on the life on silent film star Louise Brooks, who lived life more freely than her time allowed. Cora has her job cut out for her in trying to keep the reins on young Louise.

Cora has another motivation to go to New York--to plumb the depths of her childhood. She learns about herself as a result, and most important, realizes that her high moral ideals are hypocritical and not all that they seem...and that other things in life are more important than strict morals.

The story is more about Cora's life (which is fictional) than Louise's, which is one disadvantage to the book. After Cora returns from New York, the rest of the book focuses on her life, and rarely touches on Louise's story.

But I enjoyed this book and learned some historical tidbits, always a great thing!
Louise Brooks at age 21

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Best books of 2013

With my family at the City Lights Bookstore
 in San Francisco in August
Here are the best books I read in 2013. Click the title to read my review. These are listed in approximate order of how much I liked them (#1 being the best). I'd love to hear what you thought of any of these books. If you've read any, please leave me a comment.

You can also refer to best books lists back to 2001 here. Enjoy! (This is cross-posted in Every Day Is a Miracle.)


Fiction
1. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki: Canadian novelist finds a diary of a Japanese girl washed up on the beach…loved this lyrical, spiritual tale and got to see Ozeki read from the book
2. The Sleeping Dictionary, Sujata Massey: Pom loses her family in a tsunami, and her life takes many difficult courses around Indian independence (another one of my favorite authors)
3. Cinnamon and Gunpowder, Eli Brown: England, 1819…female pirate kidnaps a male chef…great foodie adventure!
4. And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini: vivid landscape and complex, multilayered, and interesting characters
5. The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, Gail Tsukiyama: sweeping, WWII-era story of two orphaned brothers in Japan
6. The Cuckoo's Calling, Robert Galbraith: J.K. Rowling’s new detective novel—worth a read!
7. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Helen Simonson: stiff English major and Pakistani shop keeper fall in love
8. In the Woods, Tana French: Irish literary detective novel
9. Bruised, Sarah Skilton; young adult fiction
10. Cross Currents, John Shors; takes place in Thai desert island struck by the tsunami
11. The Burning, Jane Casey; another Irish detective novel
12. Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear: historical detective novel
13. The Little Book, Selden Edwards: time travel in Austria
14. The Chosen One, Carol Lynch Williams: young adult fiction

15. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, Brady Udall: coming of age novel of abandoned Native American boy

Nonfiction
1. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber: the title says it all—memoir of a tattooed, alcoholic ELCA pastor with an emergent church
2. Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her HomeLaura and Lisa Ling: one sister rescues the other sister in North Korea
3. Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala: A woman loses her entire family in the Sri Lankan tsunami and battles huge grief
4. Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank about Faith, Erin Lane and Enuma Okoro, ed.: essays by female Christian leaders about taboo topics
5. The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, Jennifer Worth: Inspired “Call the Midwife,” which I love
6. Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, Piper Kerman: Inspired “Orange Is the New Black” show, even better than the book
8. Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson; author returns to USA after living in the UK
9. The Invisible Girls: A Memoir, Sarah Thebarge: cancer survivor befriends Somali refugees
10. Bruce, Peter Ames Carlin: the life of the Boss
11. Loud in the House of Myself, Stacy Pershall: poignant memoir of mental illness
12. Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church, Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer: insider account of what makes the hateful Westboro Baptist Church function
13. Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir, Cyndi Lauper with Jancee Dunn: she’s quirky, strong, and fascinating

Thursday, December 26, 2013

I Am Malala

I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

What an inspiring young woman! With assistance from writer Christina Lamb, Malala Yousafzai tells her story...beginning from when she was born. In her village in the Swat valley, people rejoice when a son is born, but not a daughter. However, her father was immediately delighted to have a daughter. Reading Malala's story, it's clear how tremendously lucky she was to be blessed with such a father. Fathers have incredible power in traditional, religiously conservative countries such as Pakistan. “Our men think earning money and ordering around others is where power lies," wrote Malala. "They don't think power is in the hands of the woman who takes care of everyone all day long, and gives birth to their children.” Because of her wise, brave father's belief in women's and girls' potential, Malala was able to pursue her dreams of education. He dedicated his life to educating girls by starting his own school:

“His sisters--my aunts--did not go to school at all, just like millions of girls in my country. Education had been a great gift for him. He believed that lack of education was the root of all of Pakistan's problems. Ignorance allowed politicians to fool people and bad administrators to be re-elected. He believed schooling should be available for all, rich and poor, boys and girls. The school that my father dreamed of would have desks and a library, computers, bright posters on the walls and, most important, washrooms.” 

Throughout her life, Malala has been an ambitious, competitive, and passionate young woman. She emulated former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, another strong Pakistani woman who bravely faced her opponents to fight for what she believed in. She has been supported along the way by both her father and mother.

Sadly, it's hard to say whether Malala will ever be able to return to Pakistan. It's not safe for her there, and many condemn her speaking out against the Taliban.

As I was reading this book, I was explaining it to my younger sons, aged 7 and 10. I wanted them to understand how lucky they are to have a good education. My 7-year-old, in particular, is highly interested in the plight of Malala and wants to know why she can't return to Pakistan and why the Taliban fights violently against women's rights to be educated.

I highly recommend this story of a phenomenal young woman, and I admire her passion and commitment to stand up for girls' education in her homeland.

Monday, December 16, 2013

In the Woods

In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad, #1)In the Woods, by Tana French

I've seen this book around for awhile, and I had a copy of it on my bookshelves that I finally decided to read. It's the story of Rob Ryan, victim of a crime 20 years before and now a murder detective himself. He's on a case in which a young girl is murdered in the same area where his two best friends vanished when he was a child.

My favorite character is Ryan's partner, Cassie Maddow, a tough, tender detective with secrets of her own.

I would describe this book as a literary thriller/detective novel. It took me a bit of time to finish it, but I enjoyed it. After I closed the last page, I looked up the rest of the series. French chooses a different main character to profile in each book, all based in Ireland (the "Dublin Murder Squad"). The next book will focus mostly on Cassie herself. I'm not sure whether Rob ever returns to the plot...but I will be reading more of the series!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith

Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith, edited by Erin Lane and Enuma Okoro 


I discovered this book when Nadia Bolz-Weber (author of Pastrix) recommended it on her Facebook page. It's a collection of essays by female Christian leaders under the age of 40 (it's part of a series by young female spiritual leaders). The title immediately caught my attention. These women, many pastors and teachers, share their thoughts on a variety of topics that have been off limits in Christianity. 

Some of the essays by more conservative women wrestle with the teachings of men as the head of the household, women speaking in church or preaching, women as professionals, the decision to live with a partner before marriage, leaving an abusive marriage and being cast out by her church, choosing not to follow in parents' footsteps as a Christian missionary caring for the poor, choosing celibacy, being called to work with refugees, tattoos, freedom without makeup, recovery, dealing with dissatisfaction in one’s marriage, etc. Many of these are even greater taboo topics in conservative Christian circles. We all have our own taboos.

The following essays struck particular notes with me:

"The Gatherer-God: On Motherhood and Prayer," by Micha Boyett…who struggled to find time to pray with young children. She has found that her most contemplative time is when her mind is fuzzy and she has no book before her…when she was breastfeeding, for example. She takes her cue from Christ’s own mother, who twice is described as “pondering” at the work of God in her son. “Why else would such a prayer be mentioned in the Gospels unless to call us to such deep work?”

"Naughty by Nature, Hopeful by Grace," by Enuma Okoro, who confesses that she develops a crush on a close male friend, but through talking to her friends and wrestling with the issue, she comes to peace with it and finds a way to move on without disrupting their friendship (or his marriage). “I am beginning to realize how little the churches of which I have been a part have taught me about the beauty of boundaries and the reality of fine lines.” I admired Okoro's honesty on such a difficult topic.

"Married by Children," by Erin Lane. The author grapples with the decision not to have children, and how unusual that is in the church. We tend to be heavily focused on family and children in our churches.

"High Stakes Whack-a-Mole: Noticing and Naming Sexism in the Church," by Lara Blackwood Pickrel. Pickrel writes about being treated as “less than” as a woman, having comments directed about her appearance because she’s a woman, and being told she’s too sensitive when she notices sexism. That last one is a particularly strong pet peeve of mine!

"Crafting Bonds of Blood," by Patience Perry. The author writes about reclaiming the menstrual and labor rituals and our sensuality. Perry writes, "Imagine if ALL women were validated for their potential to create life as evident in their monthly cycle…I am seeking ways that we can strengthen and reinvigorate women through the common bonds of blood…I’d like to see our society embrace women’s rituals and reconcile our disconnection with creation.” Have you ever heard menstruation or women's reproductive organs mentioned in church?

"The God of Shit Times," by Rachel Marie Stone. This was definitely my favorite title. Stone reclaims the power of profanity after being raised in a family where Christian "ladies" don't swear. When Stone's friend was in cancer treatment, she acknowledged that profanity had a purpose: “In the midst of my frigid and tedious winter, I needed some good profanity to adequately describe how much it all sucked. Sometimes an f-bomb is the exact, right word.” After seeing several close friends through deep, dark times and experiencing them myself, I can relate. Our God is a God of shit times.

"Naming God for Ourselves Amidst Pain and Patriarchy," by Rahiel Tesfamarian. The author changed her imagery of God through her divinity studies. Tesfamarian writes, "The image of my Maker as a ‘soft, still voice’ or ‘gentle whisper’ found in 1 Kings 19 was comforting and reassuring…I have done the hard work of unpacking God for myself. But that responsibility should not fall solely on me as an individual. The church also has a lot of work to do. Will more churches rise to this occasion, commit to being cutting-edge on matters of gender equality, and go where women of faith dare to take them? IS the church ready for a generation of women who are determined to define God on their own terms?” I went through a similar journey myself when I studied feminist theology in college and discovered that God was so much bigger than one gender alone.

“The Silence Behind the Din: Domestic Violence and Homosexuality," by Rev. Sarah C. Jobe. As a chaplain who works with victims of sexual abuse, Jobe reflects that the church does not address sexual assault or domestic violence, even though 30 percent of women are victims. Instead the church condemns homosexuality while ignoring sexual assault and domestic violence. She raises the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the fact that instead of addressing the issue of rape in the story, this story is used as a weapon against homosexuality. “Will we continue to read the Scriptures according to our taboos around homosexuality and domestic violence, accepting interpretations that maximize violence?”

"No Women Need Apply," by Gina Messina-Dysert. This essay is about the war on women being waged by the Catholic church. Messina-Dysert finds a way to identify as Catholic by realizing she is her own agent and will not allow anyone to tell her what her religious status is based on her refusal to accept discrimination. She is also raising a daughter who will fight for women’s ordination in the Catholic church. This essay is important to me because I am married to a Catholic and belong to a Lutheran-Catholic community. 

"The Pastor Has Breasts," by Rebecca Clark. Clark writes about pregnancy, body awareness, sexuality, and breastfeeding in a highly public environment that is church. This essay made me think about what the unique journey female pastors must take and how the standards can be very different for them. When I was breastfeeding my children, I did so in church during worship. I'm grateful no one ever questioned this. As a pastor, I no doubt would have been under a microscope and judged for doing this.

"Created for Pleasure," by Kate Ott. Ott became aware of masturbation as a blessing from God. She notes her "aha moment" of learning in a seminary sexual ethics class that the clitoris is the only body part created solely through pleasure. She asks, ”What would the world look like if every girl and woman knew exactly how her body worked? If it was respected and her enjoyment of sexual behaviors was as important as that of her partner…that would be the world God intended…God created us to experience pleasure for the sake of knowing and loving ourselves better, so that we can know and love others better, including God.” What a wonderful way to look at our bodies and sexuality...and a wake-up call for the church.

"Flesh and Blood," by Ashley-Anne Masters. As a chaplain caring for women who have experienced pregnancy loss, Masters writes about pregnancy loss not being openly addressed in the church. She also writes about her own loss conducting a baptism right after experiencing her own miscarriage and how she shared her own grief with strangers. I received some support from church friends when I experienced several miscarriages, but it wasn't something I felt comfortable talking about. 

"What Do Cinderella, Lilies, and the Cross Have in Common," by Carol Howard Merritt. Merritt had to ask for a salary raise at her first church and experienced condescension from church members about her husband being the stay-at-home dad. Money, especially needing to ask for it, is a huge taboo topic for pastors...especially female ones.

"My Secret Buddhist Life," by Mary Allison Cates. After Cates was told she didn't look like a minister, she rediscovered her body through yoga and nose piercing. She also wrote about how she is feeling more comfortable with her female pastor body now that she is older and her body attracts less attention.

I liked the wide variety of perspectives in this collection, and this book made me long to sit around a dinner table with all these women and get to hear their stories personally.