Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Book of Unknown Americans

The Book of Unknown AmericansThe Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez

A timely and tragic read of the immigrant experience in America, this is an important story for all Americans to read. The Riveras come to the U.S. to create a better life for their head injury-affected daughter, Maribel.

Henriquez crafts stories from Central and South American immigrants, pulling from their back stories and their struggles in making a new life in this country.

Sad but worth a read to understand immigrant struggles and the complex experience of trying to make a life in a place where you don't speak the language or understand the culture.

Born a Crime

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah's memoir is one of my favorite books of the year--although I actually listened to it, and that's the way I recommend experiencing this book.

Noah's mom is a Black South African, and his dad was German. Their relationship was illegal at the time of Noah's birth. He grew up poor, but deeply loved and cared for by his very strict mother and wide range of extended family.

Noah is an incredible storyteller and linguist, doing all the accents masterfully. My favorite story, one I replayed for my husband, was about the shit in the kitchen.

It's not all funny, though--Noah addresses the deep racism and apartheid, reflections on privilege and religion, and what happens when you grow up in poverty.

The Separation

The SeparationThe Separation, by Dinah Jefferies

I bought this book for my mother-in-law. She read it and left it behind, so I picked it up.

The Separation takes place in the 1950s in Malaya during the emergency, and it shines a light on the lack of opportunities and independence for women and girls during that time period, as well as the damages of colonialism. Having visited Malaysia, I am drawn to stories set there and elsewhere in Asia. But it was not a particularly memorable or deep novel for me.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Find Me Unafraid

Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African SlumFind Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum, by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner

This is not your usual "white savior" book. Jessica Posner went to Nairobi, Kenya as a college student to work in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. Instead of staying with her middle-class homestay family, though, Posner insisted on moving into the slum, informing Kennedy Odede she'd be living with him. After growing up deeply poor, Odede had started a youth empowerment nonprofit to help other poor Kenyans: Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO). Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., he scraped together 20 cents for a soccer ball and started a youth group.

Beyond the cultural complications of Posner insisting she must live with Odede, she is an impressive young woman who becomes increasingly aware of her own privilege by immersing herself in life in the slums.

Posner and Odede eventually fall in love and get married. Facing many challenges, including corruption, violence against women, and lack of infrastructure, they put their focus on educating young girls and realize great successes in their work. With Posner's help and connections, SHOFCO started a tuition-free school, health center, and water treatment plant. They've accomplished amazing work together.

I found Odede's chapters far more interesting than Posner's, as he reflects on his own childhood compared to his American wife's, and he feels some ambivalence from the ways he's benefited from her wealth and privilege.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi

The Forty Rules of Love

The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak

Written by a Turkish author, this novel consists of two stories: one of Ella Rubenstein, an unhappily married American homemaker who's taken up a new job as a reader for a literary agent (this was my only quibble with this book: how unlikely is this prospect after not working outside the home for decades?) and who begins to edit Sweet Blasphemy, a novel about the Persian Sufi poet Rumi by a mysterious author, and the actual story about Rumi and his beloved friend Shams of Tabriz, a dervish.

I've long been fascinated by Rumi...his words capture my thoughts so much more often than most writers. For example, this is one of my favorites:

I'd heard the term "whirling dervish" before, but I didn't actually know it referred to a religious practice. Part of the dervish order is to dance or whirl about ecstatically.

Although the story of Ella and author Aziz Zahara was interesting enough, I found the story about Rumi and Shams to be the most fascinating part of this novel. How often do you find a story about a deep, abiding, and intimate friendship between men? Shams is Rumi's muse and shares with him the 40 lessons of love, based on an ancient philosophy uniting all people with love. Elif Sharak also lays out the difficulties of being a woman in Rumi's era--the most desperate figures in the story are the women.

This story was tragic and poignant, and I couldn't put it down.

Here are some lessons from the rules of love:

“If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven't loved enough.”

“Whatever happens in your life, no matter how troubling things might seem, do not enter the neighborhood of despair. Even when all doors remain closed, God will open up a new path only for you. Be thankful!”

“Fret not where the road will take you. Instead concentrate on the first step. That's the hardest part and that's what you are responsible for. Once you take that step let everything do what it naturally does and the rest will follow. Do not go with the flow. Be the flow.”

“How can love be worthy of its name if one selects solely the pretty things and leaves out the hardships? It is easy to enjoy the good and dislike the bad. Anybody can do that. The real challenge is to love the good and the bad together, not because you need to take the rough with the smooth but because you need to go beyond such descriptions and accept love in its entirety.”

“How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.”

“The words that come out of our mouths do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space, and they will come back to us in due time.”

“Hell is in the here and now. So is heaven. Quit worrying about hell or dreaming about heaven, as they are both present inside this very moment. Every time we fall in love, we ascend to heaven. Every time we hate, envy, or fight someone, we tumble straight into the fires of hell.”

"The universe is one being. Everything and everyone is interconnected through an invisible web of stories. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all in a silent conversation. Do no harm. Practice compassion. And do not gossip behind anyone's back - not even seemingly innocent remark! The words that come out of our mouth do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space, and they will come back to us in due time. One man's pain will hurt us all. One man's joy will make everyone smile.”

"Bountiful is your life, full and complete. Or so you think, until someone comes along and makes you realize what you have been missing all this time. Like a mirror that reflects what is absent rather than present, he shows you the void in your soul—the void you have resisted seeing. That person can be a lover, a friend, or a spiritual master. Sometimes it can be a child to look after. What matters is to find the soul that will complete yours. All the prophets have given the same advice: Find the one who will be your mirror!"

“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Best books of 2016

Reviews of all of these books can be found by searching at the top of this blog. Interesting that both of my top books start with "All the"! I have gotten the titles mixed up more than once!

1. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
 2. Pull Me Under, by Kelly Luce
3. The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
4. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
5. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath (3rd time to read!)
6. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by John Tiffany
7. How to Be an American Housewife, by Margaret Dilloway
8. We Love You Charlie Freeman, by Kaitlyn Greenidge
9. Secrets of Eden, by Chris Bohjalian
10. My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1), by Elena Ferrante
11. The Martian, by Andy Weir
12. Sisters of Heart and Snow, by Margaret Dilloway
13. Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike #3), by Robert Galbraith
14. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

1. All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness, by Sheila Hamilton
2. Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink
3. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, by Lindy West
4. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, by Janet Mock
5. Blood Brothers, by Elias Chacour
6. Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, by Peggy Orenstein
7. Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
8. The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
9. America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallis
10. Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, by Michael Schulman
11. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein

Best books of 2015

Somehow this annual post completely escaped me last year, so here is 2015! Reviews of all of these books can be found by searching at the top of this blog.

1. Golden Boy, by Abigal Tarttelin
2. Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver (reread)
3. The Kizuna Coast, by Sujata Massey
4. The Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant
5. Room, by Emma Donoghue
6. Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein
7. I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson
8. Skeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian
9. The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, by Syrie James
10. A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness
11. The Circle, by Dave Eggers
12. Baby’s on Fire, by Liz Prato
13. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
14. Maud’s Line, by Margaret Verble
15. Paper Towns, by John Green
16. Keeping the House, by Ellen Baker
17. The Secret of Shadow Ranch, by Carolyn Keene
18. Rapture Practice, by Aaron Hartzler
19. The Residue Years, by Mitchell S. Jackson
20. In the Blood, by Lisa Unger
21. Evil at Heart, by Chelsea Cain
22. Judgment Calls, by Alafair Burke
23. A Gesture Life, by Chang-Rae Lee
24. In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware
25. Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

1. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
2. Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande
3. Nature's Fortune: Why Saving the Environment Is the Smartest Investment We Can Make, by Mark Tercek & Jonathan Adams
4. The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
5. Half-Broke Horses, by Jeanette Walls
6. A Book of Uncommon Prayer, by Brian Doyle
7. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls
8. Believing Cassandra: Getting Beyond the End of the World, by Alan Atkisson
9. Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, by Paul Vallely
10. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo
11. Prime Time: Love, Health, Sex, Fitness, Friendship, Spirit: Making the Most of All Your Life, by Jane Fonda
12. The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, by Cynthia Bourgeault
13. Tibetan Peach Pie, by Tom Robbins
14. God Is Disappointed in You, by Mark Russell
15. Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules, by Rosalind Wiseman
16. A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today, by Kate Bornstein

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Born to Run

Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen

I came late to Bruce Springsteen...I didn't become a fan, beyond his greatest hits of course, until he put out a folk album honoring Pete Seeger ("The Seeger Sessions"). Then, a little over 4 years ago, I went to a concert on "The Wrecking Ball" tour (still my favorite album). I only went, really, because I was waiting to have ear/brain surgery and it had been postponed, and I was ticked. I decided to do something nice for myself. That concert blew my mind and made me a fan.

Anyone who has listened to Springsteen very carefully knows he's a born, self-educated writer and poet. He never went to college, like most of the members of the E Street Band. But he's a seeker, reader, and philosopher, driven by a strong commitment to music and being a voice for our times.

I don't think many people realize how political his music is, but he was inspired by Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, along with his rock and roll heroes. Two of his big honors were introducing Bob Dylan when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and singing "This Land Is Your Land" with Pete Seeger at President Obama's inauguration. I just dare you to watch that video without getting misty. Just looking at the people who were there, the diversity of voices and faces, and comparing that to what our country will be facing on January 20 (a return to white, privileged power), and it's enough to make me cry. And now Pete Seeger has died, probably a good thing so he won't have to see the One Who Will Not Be Named take on the most important job in the world.

Back to the book. I loved the way Springsteen wrote about his relationship with his dad, complicated as it was. And shared his battles with depression. And now I understand how and why he, as a nearly-70-year-old-man, still does concerts that last over 3 hours. He has to.

And he wrote of his deep, complicated, and special friendship with the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, and how he coped with Clarence's death. Back when Clarence joined the band, the E Street Band was unusual because it was half black, half white. "If you travel for years in an integrated band, you see racism in action." Springsteen, inspired by the likes of Pete Seeger, tackled racism in his music in ways most other rockers do not do. After police killed Amadou Diallo, he wrote the chilling "American Skin," a song about racism and police violence, which angered the police and the media (even though he tried to include a sympathetic depiction of the involved police officer). Many of his political songs ("Born in the USA" and "We Take Care of Our Own") have been grossly misunderstood by the public.

I think "Wrecking Ball" is an album we should all listen to for inspiration in the coming years. "Wrecking Ball was a shot of anger at the injustice that continues on and has widened with deregulation, dysfunctional regulatory agencies, and capitalism gone wild at the expense of hardworking Americans." Just watch "We Are Alive" for some inspiration:

To learn more about what makes Springsteen tick and what his songs really mean, read this book. Be inspired.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Secrets of Eden

Secrets of EdenSecrets of Eden, by Chris Bohjalian

I'm a big Bohjalian fan, reading everything he writes but I'm a bit behind at the moment! I love authors who make me ponder ethical questions and have complicated storylines and characters. Bohjalian doesn't usually disappoint.

This book has a lower rating on Goodreads than most of his others, but I own it so I thought I'd better read it!

The first page captured my attention immediately...about the whiny members of the protagonist's congregation. In Pastor Stephen Drew's congregation in Vermont, he baptizes Alice Hayward, a woman who's in an abusive relationship. And later that day, she is killed by her husband in a murder-suicide. Or so we think.

This book is told through several different perspectives...the pastor's, the attorney on the case, a random angel author (Heather Laurent), and Alice's surviving daughter, Katie. Heather brings another perspective to Stephen Drew, but at times it was hard to see why she was part of the story. Stephen Drew was a difficult character to understand or like, and I thought he could've been drawn with more detail. What made him tick? Why did he not seem to have any morals?
I didn't see the ending coming, but that's not surprising for me (I don't tend to try to guess how things will turn out). I thought this was a good book overall, but not my favorite of Chris Bohjalian's.

The Nightingale

The NightingaleThe Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

We joke in my book group about not reading too many World War II books each year, but it's easy to see why authors are drawn to the subject. And I'm always up for a new spin on that important part of our history. The Nightingale is a good example of that.

It's a beautiful story of two sisters' lives in Nazi-occupied France: Viane and Isabel. Neither of them are universally likable; in fact, I disliked Viane actively in the beginning. Both of them make critical choices for their survival. I particularly enjoyed the stories of the Nightingale ferrying people over the mountains into safety, although I also found them a bit implausible.

It's the kind of novel that makes you question what you would do, if you found yourself in a similar situation. Overall, a highly satisfying, lovely story with a surprise twist at the end.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two (Harry Potter, #8)Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

Some Harry Potter fans are bound to be disappointed with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but I enjoyed it. Written as a play script, the book has an entirely different feel about it.

But I enjoyed the story of Scorpius (Malfoy's son) and Albus' friendship, and I like time travel. So it worked for me. Not anywhere near as good as the actual books, but an entertaining spinoff.

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New LandscapeGirls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, by Peggy Orenstein

This is such an important book, and it opened my eyes to the kinds of messages our young people are getting about body image and sexuality. It's also made me realize I need to do some education with my own three young men about sex. Like for example: why a blow job, which appears to be freely given nowadays in lieu of intercourse, is only benefiting the man and does nothing for the woman's pleasure. And why foreplay is important.

Some criticisms: lack of diversity in the girls she spoke to, and where are the boys' perspectives? Also, many have criticized Orenstein for not citing her sources and identifying what is her opinion and what is backed up by science or research.

Important work, and I'm hoping it's just the beginning of more research into female sexuality in these times.

Pull Me Under

Pull Me Under: A NovelPull Me Under, by Kelly Luce

This fascinating novel made me long to return to Japan, while at the same time reminding me of the problems of that country.

At age 12, Chizuru Akitani, daughter of a famous Japanese concert violinist and an American woman, has an outburst in school and stabs her bully with a letter opener. Bam! That opening scene pulled me in immediately!

She's sent to live in a reform school of sorts, and her dad disowns her, as does her country of origin. Many years later, she's reinvented herself in the U.S. as Rio Sylvestri, registered nurse, wife, and mother. She's left her Japanese life behind completely...until she receives word that her father has died.

She decides to return to Japan for his funeral, and eventually the truths unravel. The novel is set in Shikoku, a small island off the island of Honshu, where I visited when I lived in Japan. She makes a temple pilgrimage on Shikoku, which sounds fascinating. She also realizes why she no longer belongs in Japan.

Beautifully written, this novel evokes Japanese fiction and the complicated spirit of Japan.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman

We Love You, Charlie FreemanWe Love You, Charlie Freeman, by Kaitlyn Greenidge

I was drawn to this book after reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves the year before, another novel about a family raising a chimpanzee like a child.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman was far more ambitious, because not only did it tackle the issue of animal rights, science, and ethics, but it also addressed racism, bullying, family dysfunction, and childhood obesity, and interlaced historical fiction with the more recent past.

The (African-American) Freeman family moves to the shrouded-in-mystery Toneybee Institute to be part of an experiment: they would adopt a chimpanzee into their own family. Charlie Freeman, like most chimps, is hard to love and decidedly not human. Each family member reacts to the odd situation differently. The mother, Laurel, throws herself into the experiment completely, neglecting her own family while developing an unhealthy attachment to Charlie. The husband withdraws. One daughter retreats into her own intense friendship with another girl, while the youngest feels alone and abandoned and resorts to food as comfort.

Intertwined with the Freeman family story is that of Nymphadora Jericho, a young woman in the 1920s who is part of the Toneybee Institute's past.

This disturbing, thought-provoking novel is still sticking with me. It doesn't shy away from asking the hard questions.