Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Hundred-Foot Journey,
by Richard C. Morais

I found this at the library and thought I'd read it before seeing the movie, as is my habit! Turns out that Richard C. Morais wanted to make a film even before and while he was writing the book.

I loved the first half of the book...the colorful depiction of Indian cooking, Hassan's relationship with his family and then Madame Mallory, and the process of running a restaurant in India and then France.

But AD (after the deaths of both Hassan's feisty father and the equally feisty Madame Mallory), the book slumps. It takes us, very quickly, through Hassan's trajectory of becoming one of Paris' top chefs. Much of the fancy French cuisine, heavily butchery and innards-focused, does not sound very appealing to me. The second half of the book focuses on the Paris restaurant scene and the process and snobby politics of earning Michelin stars.

Hassan seems more devastated by the death of another character than his own father or most significant mentor. Morais also confesses that he didn't go to India until after he'd begun writing the novel, and then only for 10 days. This is evident to me, not in the way he describes Indian cooking but rather how he describes (or fails to) the culture. After Hassan moves to Paris, he's hardly even Indian any more. This doesn't seem realistic to me. I was hoping to have the author touch on the perspective of an Indian chef learning and practicing French cooking, and that just doesn't happen.

I've heard great things about the movie, so I'm looking forward to seeing that. I understand from friends that Madame Mallory does not die in the movie, and Hassan's also more in touch with his Indian roots.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a 50 Year SearchThe Lost Child of Philomena Lee, by Martin Sixsmith

Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year SearchWith the success of the movie "Philomena," this book was reissued as Philomena with a cover showing Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the actors who play Philomena Lee and Martin Sexsmith in the film. The book, which came first, is not really about Philomena. It's about her son Anthony, known as Michael Hess in the United States.

Although I found the book to be mostly fascinating, it is decidedly not nonfiction. As a fictionalized account of Michael Hess' life, British journalist Sixsmith took extreme liberties with the story...inventing dialogue and fabricating scenes that didn't actually happen. I looked in the back to see his sources, but no interviews, letters, or other paperwork were cited. We know he interviewed people, but one of his key sources, Susan Kavanaugh, has said that he made up a lot of what's in the book and painted Michael's character in an unflattering way. How could Sixsmith have known what Michael said confidentially to his therapist and priest in confession? He should have stated at the outset that this was a fictionalized account of Hess' life.

With that said, I found Michael's story to be moving and interesting. I learned a great deal about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the inner workings of the Republican party during Reagan's tenure, and the Irish Catholic church. I already knew about the Magdalene laundries and found the beginning of the book to be fascinating and heartbreaking, as Philomena Lee's beloved son is ripped away from her...and she was powerless to prevent it. I saw the film "The Magdalene Sisters" back in 2003 and know the Joni Mitchell song well. Watch this 5-minute video with the song, which gives more information about the Magdalene laundries. The Catholic church has never taken responsibility for these abuses, and staunch Catholic defenders either defend the practices or deny that any abuses took place. In fact, young women and girls (such as Sinead O'Connor) were enslaved in these Catholic-run prisons until 1996.

Pope Francis meets Philomena Lee and Steve CooganIn my research, I was glad to discover that Philomena Lee met Pope Francis recently, giving her a sense of closure:
"I felt such a sense of relief yesterday for the guilt I carried and that I still carry a little bit today," said Lee on Thursday, a day after the audience. "Because you were made to feel so, so bad about having a baby out of wedlock. "He really made me feel so good inside because I carried the guilt inside me for 50 years, without telling anybody."
However, the Catholic church has yet to issue an apology or validate the abuses suffered in its name.

Back to the book. One quibble I had, echoed by Michael's friend Susan Kavanaugh, is the author's near-obsession with Michael's sexual practices. He is portrayed as a sex-obsessed, promiscuous. and thrill-seeking gay man who is incapable of staying faithful to his partners. That might be true, but we have no way of knowing where he got his information. It's almost as if he's implying that Michael contracted AIDS because of his sexual behavior. He also infers that Michael is never satisfied and cannot make a commitment because he is tortured by being abandoned by his mother. That seems to underline every single activity in Michael's life...that he didn't deserve to be happy. In spite of this, Michael led a highly successful career (as a closeted gay man and supposed Democrat) in the Republican party and the White House. That must have been enough torture for him--as he heard all sorts of homophobia, hatred, and AIDS jokes from the party itself and the religious right. One Goodreads reviewers put it well:
"Having stuck this very bad book through to the end, I really would have liked to understand Michael/Anthony's true character but perhaps only glimpses of that can be extrapolated from Sixsmith's words. He portrayed Michael on the one hand to be generous, witty, fun loving, brilliant, sensitive and on the other to be moody, self destructive, dangerous and insensitive. Completely misleading and contradictory. If a writer can't truly get to the heart of someone's character, then do bereaved friends and family still living a courtesy and don't write about character at all. If Sixsmith had focused on Philomena's quest rather than trying to fabricate a dead man's personality, he would have been more in his element."
Finally, Sixsmith's writing was choppy and didn't flow together well. In a few early chapters, we learn about a civil servant who is trying to stop the tide of Irish babies being sent to the USA to be adopted...Sixsmith alludes to his man's unhappy marriage as well, but to what point? He drops out of the story. We also never hear about Michael's relationship with his brothers later in life...one of them mercilessly bullied him as a young child. We know he doesn't include them in his will, but that's about it. Sixsmith also wrote a couple of chapters in first person as he described how he wrote the book--this totally threw me off and confused me until I figured out who was speaking. These chapters would have been better put in an introduction.

I would have liked to have known more about Michael's sister Mary in her later years. She is mentioned a few times and comes to see Michael at the end of his life. Given the fact that she was the most important person in Michael's life--and she is still alive--why didn't we get more of her story? I can find little about her on the Internet.

Judi Dench with Philomena Lee
Philomena herself doesn't come into the book again until the very end, which was a loss. I'm not sure why Sixsmith chose to portray the life of a man who had died...instead of the mother who was alive. Maybe so he could take literary license with the facts? Who knows?

I was annoyed by the ending, in which Sixsmith mentions Anthony/Michael's father...he alludes to the fact that his father might have been discovered, but says that is a topic for another book. What the hell? That is definitely not enough for another book. Why not share the information in this book??
Philomena Lee at her son's grave

Both Michael and Philomena stalled in their efforts to find each other. The Catholic church and the Irish government were not helpful. In fact, if the book is correct, Philomena found out about her son when her daughter Jane spied a photo of a new gravestone on the convent grounds. That small lead led to this story.

I give the real Philomena Lee and Michael Hess, both fascinating characters with interesting lives, five stars. The book gets two or three, because the story was compelling...but loses a lot in the telling.

Tiny Beautiful Things

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed

You know those books that stun you and make you marvel at the beauty of the writing? This is that kind of book. But it's not for the faint-hearted or for anyone who doesn't like salty language.

Acclaimed author Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild (link to my review), wrote an advice column called "Dear Sugar" for The Rumpus for a few years. When she began writing, she described herself as having the “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” Yes, that fits well. It's just as much raw, honest memoir as advice columns.

Letters to Dear Sugar range from people trying to decide whether to stay with their partners to others who don't know how to handle their partners' sexual desires. One woman wrote in to ask about whether she should try to have a child, while others expressed confusion about whether it was okay not to have a child.

In every case, Sugar responds in the most loving, kind way she can...like your closest, most honest and compassionate friend. Honest is the key word here; sometimes it's tough love, such as the letter from a privileged young person complaining about her parents not being willing to pay off her college loans. On other occasions, Strayed shares candidly about her own sex life and relationships.

Here's another example: a man overheard his close friends talking about his relationship with a woman they didn't think was particularly good for him. Understandably, he felt betrayed and upset. Sugar responds empathetically, but then shares her own similar story and explains that his friends were not discussing his love life to be mean, but because they care about him.

Strayed is heartfelt, honest, and authentic in her responses. In one column, someone writes in with a simple but vague question: "WTF, WTF, WTF? I'm asking this question as it applies to everything every day." In response, Sugar shares her experience of her grandfather sexually abusing her. In so many of these columns, she guts herself to bear her soul.

Strayed made me cry many times, mostly when she shares memories of her dead mother...such as in her title essay, "Tiny Beautiful Things," when she offers advice to her 20-something self.

In one letter, a woman writes about her 6-month-old daughter with a brain tumor and how she questions God's existence...how can God exist if her baby is allowed to die? Even though Strayed is a professed atheist ("I don't even believe in God") and wonders who the hell she is to respond to the letter, she does respond in the most beautiful, graceful way imaginable. Here's an excerpt:
"What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway? What if you trusted in the human scale? What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah? Would you see the miracle in that?"
You can read Sugar's columns online on the Rumpus blog, as I've shared, but I encourage you to read it as a book. You can read them in bite-size chunks so you can savor them slowly. And as it's Thanksgiving week, I direct you to Dear Sugar's Thanksgiving column (not in the book), in which she shares 94 things to be grateful for, collected from her readers. I plan to read this post gradually and savor it throughout the week!

I will leave you with a few great quotes from Dear Sugar:
“It is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep.
The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it.” 
“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.” 
"You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”
“Forgiveness doesn't sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.” 
“But the reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels like to be a selfish jackass first.” 
“We are all entitled to our opinions and religious beliefs, but we are not entitled to make shit up and then use the shit we made up to oppress other people.”
“I can’t tell you what to do. No one can. But as the mother of two children, I can tell you what most moms will: that mothering is absurdly hard and profoundly sweet. Like the best thing you ever did. Like if you think you want to have a baby, you probably should.
I say this in spite of the fact that children are giant endless suck machines. They don’t give a whit if you need to sleep or eat or pee or get your work done or go out to a party naked and oiled up in a homemade Alice B. Toklas mask. They take everything. They will bring you the furthest edge of your personality and abso-fucking-lutely to your knees.
They will also give you everything back. Not just all they take, but many of the things you lost before they came along as well.” 
 “The place of true healing is a fierce place. It's a giant place. it's a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light.” 
“One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.
Say thank you.” 
Loved this book. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Body Work

Body Work (V.I. Warshawski, #14)Body Work, by Sara Paretsky

I've been reading Sara Paretsky since my 20s...she's one of my favorite detective novelists. V.I. Warshawski is based in Chicago, and she's a hard-boiled feminist, whiskey-swilling, kick-ass detective. That's why I like her.

In Body Work, V.I. encounters edgy young artist/entertainers, grumpy night club owners, Eastern European gangsters, and Iraq war vets, while trying to help out her young, impulsive cousin Petra.

This novel was not my favorite...I did finish it, but it was not as compelling as her other books.

I will continue reading all of Paretsky's books, in the hope the next one will be better!

All About Those Books

My youngest son, Nicholas, loves "All About That Bass,' that contagiously catchy, retro-inspired pop song. "All About That Bass" has been accused of "skinny shaming"

("I'm bringing booty back; go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that...") 

and encouraging women to feel validated by what a man thinks

("Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase and all the right junk in all the right places...my mama she told me don't worry about your size...
she says boys like a little more booty to hold at night"). 

I'm not too concerned about the "skinny shaming," because there's just no comparison to the fat shaming that overweight people experience. But I don't like the word "bitches." I've clearly explained to my kids that they are never to use that word...I don't like the way it's become so commonly accepted in popular culture (thanks, Breaking Bad).

I'm glad to report that I've found a better alternative to the original song, and it's "All About Those Books," by Mary Ellen and the Readers! It's produced by Mount Desert Island High School in Maine. Enjoy! I'm glad to report that I've found a better alternative to the original song, and it's "All About Those Books," by Mary Ellen and the Readers! It's produced by Mount Desert Island High School in Maine. Enjoy! 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A House in the Sky

A House in the SkyA House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett

This is sure to be near the top of my list of the year's top nonfiction reads. Canadian Amanda Lindhout grew up in a dysfunctional family and escaped by poring through National Geographic magazines, dreaming about exciting adventures.

When she grew up, instead of going to college, she opted to work for several months as a waitress at high-end restaurants and save all of her money...and then spend everything she'd earned on several months of travel. Soon she began taking photographs in the hopes of funding more travel. In addition to more "secure" countries, she also ventured to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Sudan and worked in Bagdad for an Iranian broadcasting company. She became addicted to travel...and the more daring and dangerous, the better.

Then in 2008, she decided to go to Somalia, the most dangerous country in the world (at least, at the time), primarily because no one else was going there and she wanted her big break. She convinced her Australian ex-boyfriend Nigel to go with her. Crazy? Yes! Naive? Completely. But she didn't deserve to get kidnapped, gang raped, and tortured. In spite of it all, she was able to forgive her captors and after her release after 460 days, she founded a nonprofit foundation, the Global Enrichment Foundation, to provide university opportunities to women in Somalia. (See accomplishments at right) She's since returned to Somalia a couple of times.

She and Nigel converted to Islam in the hopes of it protecting them, although it didn't really. I was particularly touched by the poignant interactions Lindhout had...exchanging notes and handmade gifts with her co-captive Nigel on Christmas, a desperate and tender encounter she had with a woman in a burkha on the day she and Nigel tried to escape (unsuccessfully), and the rare times she got to speak to her mother.

Lindhout doesn't always come across well--especially in her traveling days before the kidnapping--but her bravery is phenomenal. She kept herself grounded by meditating on hope. The book is beautifully written, and I'm surmising that is cowriter Sara Corbett's doing. It's been optioned for a movie, and Rooney Mara will portray Lindhout.

The saddest thing about this book, in the end, is that after all they endured together, Amanda Lindhout and Nigel are no longer in contact. Nigel wrote his own book with his sister, and it was highly critical of Lindhout and her family. They've fallen out and lost their shared connection through the greatest crisis of their lives.

Highly gripping, educational, and inspirational. I strongly recommend it!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Lean On Pete

Lean On PeteLean On Pete, by Willy Vlautin

I picked this up on a library visit, drawn to it because the author hails from Portland and part of the story is based here. At first, I balked at the writing style because it reminded me of Hemingway--passive voice, telling versus showing, etc. But then I settled into it, and I'm glad. I found this story to be heart breaking and memorable.

It's the story of a 15-year-old boy, Charley, who has bounced all over the Northwest with his single dad who is neglectful and inattentive. Charley's seen way more than a 15-year-old should see, and it only gets worse in this story.

Horses at Portland Meadows
The story opens when Charley and his dad arrive in Portland and he begins hanging out and working (sort of) at Portland Meadows, a once-busy and now shabby horse racing track. He's hired by a crusty, grumpy, dishonest, and mean old man named Dell, who takes advantage of him and constantly insults him. He treats his horses horribly, while Charley befriends them, especially one in particular: Lean On Pete.

Soon marked by tragedy, Charley ends up on the run, not knowing where his next meal will come from or where he will sleep that night. Lean On Pete is the only true friend he has. Although he sometimes has to resort to stealing and breaking and entering, he is a hard-working, ethical young man in spite of it. He heads east to find his aunt, the only relative he has, with very little information to go on.

Stories about children whose safety nets fail them always touch me. This story was profoundly sad, but redemptive at the end. Vlautin exposes the underbelly of horse racing and also of western towns, truck stops, and cities where those of us who lead privileged lives look the other way when we see kids like Charley.

Here's a great book trailer, with photos of some of the locations, and here's Vlautin talking about this book and what prompted him to write it...along with a song.

After Eli

After EliAfter Eli, by Rebecca Rupp

In this thoughtful middle grade/young adult novel, young Danny struggles to cope with the death of his older brother, Eli, in Iraq. He's not getting much help from his angry father and vacant mother, who grew much more distant after Eli died. Eli had filled the gap of his parents' attention, and now not only was Eli gone, but his parents were even more far away.

Over the summer he befriends two unusual young people: the decidedly "uncool" but extremely smart Walter, and the beautiful, exotic Isabelle, who has quirky and creative younger twin siblings.

I actually found Isabelle to be annoying and pretentious. One Goodreads reviewer described her well as an irrelevant Manic Pixie Dream Girl (defined as "a fantasy figure who 'exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.'” Walter and the twins offered more of an appeal for me.

My favorite parts of the book were Danny's memories of Eli, who was sarcastic and mischievous but loving, and Danny's friendship with Eli's high school friend and purple potato farmer and his girlfriend, who come to be like a family for him.

Rebecca Rupp approaches grief with a quiet, sensitive touch, and even though Danny chronicles the death of various people in his "Book of the Dead," the book was redemptive in the end.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World SpinLet the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

A few years ago my husband and I watched "Man on Wire," the documentary film about Philippe Petit, the man who walked between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. I kept remembering that movie as I read Let the Great World Spin, as that breath-taking feat is the centerpiece of this novel. This was my take on the film:
It was a fascinating story of how they engineered this legal and amazingly daring feat, but in the end I was gravely disappointed in Petit's personal character. At times I felt it moved too slowly and jumped back and forth...and I wanted to cheer for Petit but was disappointed in the way the experience changed him.
This is not the type of novel I'm typically drawn to, because I tend not to prefer short stories. But one of the benefits of being in a book group is being exposed to the types of books one wouldn't normally read. Well written, with a wonderful sense of setting, Let the Great World Spin tells the stories of a variety of different characters, many of whom encounter each other at some point in the day or in their lives.

But one of my major gripes with novels is when each chapter starts from the different perspective of a different character (can you say Game of Thrones?). And as soon as I grew to love a particular character or story (like the Irish priest John Corrigan and his brother Ciaran--the most interesting story), that story ends and we move onto someone else. So I found it a bit hard to sink into this novel, with all that moving around.

On the other hand, the novel tells the story of New York City in so many different slices...of the priest Corrigan who works amongst the prostitutes and dealers in the Bronx ghetto and loves a Latina single mom...of the prostitutes themselves, whose children become prostitutes...a Park Avenue mom befriending a black mother, both grieving their sons who died in Vietnam...a drug-addicted artist who finds herself involved in a hit and run...and a prostitute's daughter who was raised in love and stability, who returns to New York full circle...beautiful individual stories woven together...

A few of the stories didn't work for me...the hackers in California who call pay phones in New York to quiz passersby about what's going on between the towers, and the young graffiti artist who is also a photographer. I found these stories to be the least interesting and engaging.

I'm glad I read this novel, though...it was especially poignant to read this book during September, as we all remember the World Trade Center and 9/11.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

Such a wonderful quiet surprise of a book! Harold Fry, an Englishman in his early 60s, is feeling driftless in his retired years. One day he learns that his old coworker and friend, Queenie Hennessy, is dying of cancer all the way at the farthest north point of England. He's inspired to walk all the way up England--a 600-mile journey--to see her, with the hopes that she will stay alive until he can get to her. He thinks this will save her.

Along the way, Harold reflects on his life and his marriage, and gradually we learn what has made Harold be the way he is. He attracts followers and meets interesting people who help him along the way. Even though all he possesses in the beginning is a pair of yachting shoes and a simple set of clothing (no rain gear, map, or cell phone), he is determined to keep things simple along the way and refuses to invest in hiking boots or better attire or equipment.

I thought this was a sweet, sensitive book, and extremely English. It's also very sad--both about Harold and his wife Maureen's life and own son--and about Queenie herself. But in the end, he finds redemption...always a good ending in my book!

Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat

Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat: Secrets of My Mother's Tokyo Kitchen
Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat: Secrets of My Mother's Tokyo Kitchen, by Naomi Moriyama with William Doyle

Naomi Moriyama grew up in Tokyo with a typical Japanese mom provided attractive, nourishing food for her daughter.,.on the strict orders of Naomi's school!
(On the first day of school, a teacher made a speech: "We request that every mother make lunch for your daughter every day. Our main theme at this school is to help our students learn how to be giving and loving. One of the ways your daughter learns this is from your love-packed lunch box.") Can you imagine hearing this kind of a message in an American school???
Moriyama ended up moving to the U.S. to attend college and subsequently met and married her American husband. But she also came to miss and appreciate her mom's Japanese home cooking.

This book is a combination health book and cookbook. Moriyama includes statistics about how Japanese people live longer and have the lowest obesity rates in the world. They are also extremely active (few Japanese people use their cars every day, especially city residents)--instead they use mass transit, walk, or bicycle. I walked more during the three years I lived in Japan than I've ever walked in my life.

Moriyama also shares her own personal experiences--for example, when she arrived in the American Midwest to attend college, she gained a great deal of weight right away. When she moved back to Tokyo for awhile, she lost it all without dieting or exercising. The Japanese lifestyle, combined with fresh ingredients and home cooking, is the secret sauce!

Picking mikan (mandarin oranges)
As I was reading Moriyama's stories, I kept thinking of my wonderful stay in an old, traditional Japanese farmhouse on the western coast of Honshu (the most populated island in Japan), where we picked fresh persimmons, mountain potatoes, and mandarin oranges. My friend Debbie and I learned how to make gyoza (potstickers) and sushi, and the family had a brazier-fired kotatsu where they ate dinner each day. (A kotatsu is a wonderful table with a heater underneath it--we had one in our apartment with an electric heater, and the heat was kept under the table with a blanket...I loved that kotatsu as we didn't have central heating!) That weekend was the most traditional Japanese of any time I spent in Japan--it was fantastic.
Picking Japanese mountain potatoes (which taste amazing!)
Grandma on her tractor
Debbie and me with Grandma and Mama
(who was the mom of one of our businessmen students)

At the kotatsu at dinner--puzzled by the American Almond Roca we brought as a gift
(I don't think they liked it very much!)
Japanese home cooking is so much more than sushi and sashimi...you can find more of it at American Japanese restaurants than when we first returned from Japan. I loved delicacies such as spinach soaked in ground sesame seeds, okonomiyaki (Japanese-style pizza), takoyaki (octopus balls), yaki soba (fried noodles), ramen (noodle soup), gyoza, zaru soba (cold soba noodles with a dipping sauce), oyakodonburi (chicken and egg over rice), clams in sake broth, anything cooked with miso, rice balls with pickled plum seasoning, mochi with red bean paste, broiled mackerel or salmon, nabe (a soup that consists of each person dipping his or her own meat and veggies into a broth), traditional Japanese breakfasts, and edamame (steamed soybeans, now readily available in the U.S.).

Japanese roasted sweet potato street cart
Moriyama also enfolds some priceless Japanese history in her pages, including the stories of some kick-ass Japanese women in ancient times: Queen Himiko and Tomoe Gozen. (I need to learn more about these two!)

This book made me miss Japan and Japanese food so much! I love the way Moriyama gives tribute to her mom's own Tokyo kitchen...and I definitely want to incorporate more Japanese cooking into our own kitchen. But the truth is that cooking Japanese does take a great deal more time, and we don't all have Japanese housewives in our families!

I made one of the recipes in the book the other night--Eggplant Sauteed with Miso--and it was oishii (delicious)! This book inspired me to do more Japanese cooking and think more about what I'm eating--is it fresh? Is it processed? Has it been made with love? And I'm longing for Japan!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Silkworm

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

This is #2 in J.K. Rowling's new adult mystery series. Detective Cormoran Strike is an interesting character--he's a disabled veteran with a prosthesis, born to a famous rock star father but alienated from him, motherless and still deeply ambivalent about breaking up with his psychopath girlfriend. I preferred the first book in the series, The Cuckoo's Calling, but this one still contained vintage J.K. Rowling story telling.

The Silkworm is all about the dog-eat-dog world of writing and the publishing industry, and it doesn't paint a particularly warm picture! For example, this quote accurately sums up the novel:
...writers are a savage breed, Mr. Strike. If you want life-long friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels. 
Novelist Owen Quine writes a poison pen novel about everyone he knows...then he shows up dead. Quine's novel itself is a bizarre, sexually weird, and symbolically complicated story that I can't imagine why anyone would ever want to read. The writers, publishers, agents, and their family members in The Silkworm are mostly all cut throat and vicious. They have few, if any, redeeming qualities. 

Also, I would love to see J.K. Rowling write a book with a really standout, great female lead...instead of consigning women and girls to the supporting character role (ala Hermione Granger). Robin, Strike's assistant, is smart, resourceful, and dedicated, but she's still stuck with her boring drip of a boyfriend and can't seem to realize he's no good. I'm finding that to be tiresome! Also, she's desperate for more opportunities to become an investigator, but this process is so slow it makes me sleepy!

J.K. Rowling is a skilled writer, and I will keep reading anything she writes...but this one just didn't hit the mark for me.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Word Nerd

Word NerdWord Nerd, by Susan Nielsen

We picked this book up at a children's book shop in Vancouver, BC, a few years ago, and I've finally read it. Rare for me, I even finished it in one day! Highly readable.

I loved the painfully awkward and uncomfortable Ambrose...who is deathly allergic to peanuts and always manages to say the worst possible (and often, honest) thing. Consequently, the only one who really likes to be around him is his mom. Because his dad died while his mom was pregnant, and Ambrose almost died because of his peanut allergy, his mom is obsessively overprotective.

When Ambrose crosses some school bullies who put a peanut into his sandwich, he and his mom decide that home schooling might be the best approach. He befriends Cosmo, a grumpy ex-con, ex-druggie son of his Greek landlords, and his life changes. They join a Scrabble club together, after much cajoling and conniving by Ambrose. (His mother has instructed him not to have any contact with Cosmo.) Soon Cosmo falls in love and Ambrose's life finally starts to get interesting.

In the quirky world of competitive Scrabble players, Ambrose finally feels at home.

My Beloved World

My Beloved WorldMy Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

What a phenomenal woman! I never would have guessed that someone so accomplished--reaching the top rung of her field at a fairly young age--would start her life with such large obstacles. She had an alcoholic father, was raised by a hard-working single mother in poverty, and continues to struggle from anxiety. In this memoir, she opens up and shares her stories from a young age...from when she was first diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and had to start giving herself daily injections...to talking about how her marriage failed. She decided to write a book because "People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible."

She revealed more about herself than typical for a Supreme Court justice and knew she might be judged harshly for some of her choices, but she made this decision consciously to offer comfort, and maybe inspiration, by showing that an "ordinary person, with strengths and weaknesses like anyone else, has managed an extraordinary journey."

From an early age, she chafed against injustice...beginning with Catholic school, where she reflected that "I accepted what the Sisters taught in religion class: that God is loving, merciful, charitable, forgiving. That message didn't jibe with adults smacking kids." The nuns also criticized working mothers, which angered Sotomayor because her own mother worked long hours in a couple of jobs to send Sonia and her brother to that private school. This passion for justice fed her desire to become a judge, and after she became a judge she dreamed of becoming a Supreme Court justice.

Even though she has accomplished amazing things in life, she has not done it without carrying along a load of doubts. From her school days well into her professional career, she wrote about settling into new places or positions before jumping in with both feet. In college, she didn't want to join a club in her first year until she had gotten the lay of the land.

I love Sotomayor's views on mentors and friends: "Whenever I make a new friend, my mind goes naturally to the question, what can I learn from this person? There are very few people in the world whom you can't learn something from, but even rarer are those souls who can reveal whole worlds to you if you observe them carefully." From her far-flung Dominican family from childhood, to her current family of close friends and relatives, Sotomayor highly values close relationships with others. Although she never had children, she has a special affinity for them and has close bonds with countless godchildren. She has a special relationship with her niece was an early preemie.

Living with diabetes her whole life has given Sotomayor a wise, deep appreciation for life:
"I've lived most of my life inescapably aware that it is precious and finite. The reality of diabetes always lurked in the back of my mind, and early on I accepted the probably that I would die young. There was no point fretting about it; I have never worried about what I can't control. But nor could I waste what time I had; some inner metronome has continued to set a beat I am unable to refuse. Now diabetes has become more manageable, and I no longer fear falling short in the tally of years. But the habit of living as if in the shadow of death has remained with me, and I consider that, too a gift." 
I share her philosophy of every experience containing a lesson or a blessing:
"With every friend I've known, in every situation I've encountered, I have found something to learn. From a task as simple as boiling water, you can learn a worthwhile lesson. There is no experience that can't avail something useful, be it only the discipline to manage adversity. With luck, there will be plenty of time ahead for me to continue growing and learning, many more stories to tell before I can begin to say definitively who I am as a judge."
Although I had a hard time sinking into this memoir at first, it was well worth the effort!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

We Are Water

We Are WaterWe Are Water, by Wally Lamb

I've read everything Wally Lamb has written, and this plot sounded promising. Sadly, I found this novel lacking in comparison to his others.

It's the story of Anna Oh, an artist, wife, and mother, who has left her marriage of 27 years and is about to marry another woman: Viveca, a wealthy art dealer who helped Annie become a successful artist.

Annie has three children with her psychologist husband, Orion: Ariane, Andrew, and Marissa. The book spans all of these lives and many others.

Here are the three things I found difficult about the book--if you'll read other reviews you'll find a theme in my criticism of certain novels:

  • Too many characters...did we really need to know about all of them? I also noted some convenient coincidences with some of the characters.
  • Most of the characters were not really likable.
  • Each chapter began with a different character perspective. This seems to be a popular novelistic approach, but it often makes it harder for me to connect with the characters or get drawn into the book.

Annie is a damaged soul--and we find out why--but I found it hard to sympathize with her much. The novel examines the generations of damage caused by sexual abuse, and reading it from the perspective of the pedophile was particularly difficult for me.

How many books do we have available that tackle the subject of a woman leaving her husband and getting married to another woman? This book could have treated that topic in a much more compassionate way. Instead, I found myself wondering what she saw in Viveca, who seems to be a shallow snob. Maybe Annie just doesn't choose very wisely...similar to her children.

Lamb digs deep into these characters' souls, and most of them have complex personalities. I guess I was just looking for more soul and redemption, which I've found in his other novels. This is still a good book, but not as great as his others.

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.