Monday, August 9, 2021

An American Marriage

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

I got the good fortune of hearing Tayari Jones speak on her book tour before actually reading this book. 

It's a heart-breaking story, for sure...about a married couple--Roy and Celestial--whose relationship transforms when the husband is unfairly charged for rape and imprisoned. 

A character-driven story, the novel also examines what happens when one person is imprisoned and how everything changes after that. 

Neither of the characters are particularly likable. In fact, I found both of them to be annoying at times. But Jones still manages to create sympathy for both parts of the couple. 

Beautiful writing. A truly sad book and reflection on the complexities of being Black in America.


Island of Lost Girls

Island of Lost Girls, by Jennifer McMahon

I picked this up in a Little Free Library, and it sounded intriguing. Ultimately, though, I found the characters to be a bit unreliable (especially the main character, Rhonda), and as the "mystery" played out, it didn't make much sense to me. 





Black Like Me

Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin 

Our priest, who is a highly well-read 90-year-old, mentioned Black Like Me in his (Zoom) homily earlier this year. It prompted me to pick up this book again.

I originally read it in high school, and I've never forgotten this book. It was one of a few books, including The Autobiography of Malcolm X, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bluest Eye, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, that I read in high school and that formed my thoughts about racism.

John Howard Griffin was a white man who wanted to witness racism in the only way he could experience it: as a Black man. He used medication to darken his skin and traveled through the south as an undercover observer. When news of his investigation leaked out, he and his family were targets of what he called a "dirty bath" of hatred. He ended up moving his family to Mexico to escape the threats, and his parents went into exile too.

Black Like Me is definitely dated now. A white man donning what we now know as "blackface" would be frowned on. Black people do not need white saviors. But in the late 1950s, this book was revolutionary. And it opened the minds of many middle-class whites, who had no idea of how horrible and pervasive racism was, especially in the American South.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Best Books of 2020

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

While some of my friends are reading far less this year (for example, my book group has continued reading but is not reading books because many members are having a difficulty finding the time or energy), I guess I've actually amped up my reading a bit. 

Links go to my reviews. I have fallen behind in my reviews, so some of them don't have full reviews yet!

Fiction

1. Daughter of Black Lake, Cathy Marie Buchanan

Historical fiction all the way back to the Iron Age, this fascinating novel features two powerful women characters...a mother and daughter named Devout and Hobble. I haven't read a story this old since reading The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Red Tent, and the Bible. I had a great time interviewing the author for my Finding Fertile Ground podcast series on resilient characters, and I'll be featuring her interview in the next month.

2. The Power, Naomi Alderman

This dystopian novel blew my mind, imagining what it would be like if women had a course of power running through their collarbone, capable of great strength and power. I still think about it, even though I read the novel several months ago. At my book group, we discussed whether women would be as violent and aggressive as men if they had the power. I actually think it's not fair to make comparisons, because the women in this novel were oppressed and had a reason to be angry and violent. It was not a level playing field to make this comparison. This book will make you ponder.

3. Kindred, Octavia Butler

Dana suddenly gets flung back in time into the antebellum south to save a drowning white boy. It turns out he is one of her ancestors. Dana ends up back on this plantation over and over again, each time to rescue clueless and careless Rufus. This book is grueling and difficult, but amazing, and my first Octavia Butler, thanks to my friend Catherine. She published this book in 1979, so it's amazing I'd never read it before.

4. There There, Tommy Orange

A series of interconnected short stories about the Native American experience...all characters traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Beautifully told, compelling, heart-breaking, and so important for every American to read to understand the Native experience. I learned so much, both from reading the novel and from my research afterward.

5. Sweet Bean Paste, Durian Sukegawa

I loved this precious little story, about a former convict, Sentaro, who sells dorayaki, a pancake filled with sweet bean paste. His life is meaningless until a disfigured elderly woman, Tokue, walks through the door. Tokue makes sweet bean paste beyond his imaginings. I learned a great deal about the way Japan treated people with leprosy in the not-so-distant past, including the time when I lived there in the 1980s. I plan to watch the movie (available on Kanopy) one of these days too.

6. The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

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

7. Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens

So many people recommended this unputdownable book to me, and it did not disappoint. It takes place in the North Carolina marsh country in the late 1960s, an area of which I'm unfamiliar. Kya Clark is a resilient protagonist, and the natural world and its wild creatures are just as vivid of characters as Kya herself. It's a tale about deep poverty and child neglect. My heart broke for Kya, so alone throughout her life.

8. The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

John Boyne is a gay Irish writer, and this story is a poignant tragedy about the travails of being an unwed mother, or being gay, in Ireland. It's a great family saga that takes place from the 1940s to the present. It's definitely also an indictment on the hypocrisies and cruelty of the Roman Catholic church.

9. Dragonfly in Amber, Diana Gabaldon

The second in the Outlander saga, I actually enjoyed this book more for having watched the Outlander series on Starz. Time travel, romance, France, and Scotland. A perfect distraction from the modern-day mess of this world right now.

10. Rooftops of Tehran, Mahbod Seraji

This was a beautiful story, pre-Iranian revolution, of Pasha and his friends, who gathered in the evening on his neighborhood's rooftops. This book is about coming of age, with deep bonds of friendship and the blossoming of a forbidden romance. It's also deeply sad and lovely, if you can stand the sadness.

11. On the Come Up, Angie Thomas

I love Angie Thomas, especially after having her seen her in person when she was promoting this novel. Starr Carter, who has a true gift for rap, takes after her dad who was gunned down in the streets. She's damned if she tells her truth through rap, and she's damned if she doesn't. This book gave me an appreciation for the artistry of hip hop. I will read everything Angie Thomas writes.

12. An American Marriage, Tayari Jones

I also got to see Tayari Jones promote this novel, which turned out to be especially topical reading for this year when so many Black people have been falsely accused and gunned down by police. It's the story of a couple, Celestial and Roy, who seem on their way to "the American Dream" until Roy is falsely accused of rape and sentenced to prison for 12 years. The characters were not particularly likable, and I found it hard to believe they ever really had love in their marriage, but they were survivors facing difficult conditions.

13. The Canterbury Sisters, Kim Wright

A nice, light read. Che de Milan is the daughter of a narcissist who has died. When her mother's ashes arrived, they came with a plea to take her to Canterbury Cathedral. On that same day, Che received a "Dear Juanita" letter from her long-time lover, dumping her. She booked a ticket to England and embarks on a walking trip following the Canterbury Tales. She had hoped to journey alone, but she ends up in a motley tour group, sharing stories along the way.

14. A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick*

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

15. What She Knew, Gilly Macmillan

I think this was a decent effort for a debut novel about a missing child, a distracted mom, and the toxicity of the Internet. But I felt disappointed with the ending...both the identity of the abductor and also the character development of many of the people in the book.

16. Island of Lost Girls, Jennifer McMahon

Another "missing child" novel...this time, the main character actually sees the child being taken. As she tries to help solve the crime, she is reminded of her childhood friend who disappeared when she was younger. It was a compelling read, but I found the plot to be implausible at times.

17. A Stranger in the House, Shari Lapena

A thriller with unraveling secrets, about a seemingly normal married couple in upstate New York. Again, the characters were unreliable and unlikable, but read it if you like twists and turns.

Nonfiction

1. Real American: A Memoir, Julie Lythcott-Haims

Real American is a book, like Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, that all people need to read...or even better, listen to, which is how I absorbed this beautiful and heart-breaking memoir. New York Times bestselling author Lythcott-Haims was born to a white (British) mother and a Black American father. All her life she never felt like she fit into either race, beginning in kindergarten when her friend asked, "What are you?" This is such an important book. I'm featuring Lythcott-Haims on my podcast too! She's better known for her book How to Raise an Adult, about her reflections from working as a dean for Stanford University.

2. Untamed, Glennon Doyle

I loved this book. If you cannot abide Elizabeth Gilbert or Brene Brown, steer clear. Glennon Doyle is not for everyone. Untamed is about Glennon's journey back to herself, after a lifetime of trying to please everyone else and becoming the image of what she thought God and her parents wanted her to be. “When women lose themselves, the world loses its way. We do not need more selfless women. What we need right now is more women who have detoxed themselves so completely from the world's expectations that they are full of nothing but themselves. What we need are women who are full of themselves. A woman who is full of herself knows and trusts herself enough to say and do what must be done. She lets the rest burn.”

3. Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is a hero for the neglected, the abused, the convicted without a fair trial, and those who are forgotten on Death Row. Just Mercy relates his stories of working tirelessly on their behalf, combined with facts and historical context about the prison industrial text and racism in this country. I found this book to be tragic, moving, inspiring, and infuriating. Stevenson shows up in the documentary 13th and also in the Nicholas Kristof/Sheryl WuDunn book I'm reading right now, Tightrope. Highly recommended.

4. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, Patrisse Khan-Cullors

When They Call You a Terrorist is the beautifully written story of a Black girl growing up in inner-city Los Angeles by a hard-working single mother and a father and stepfather who come and go. Although raised in poverty, she and her family fiercely love and protect each other...as they have to do big time when her beloved brother Monte is repeatedly targeted, beaten, and incarcerated for his mental illness. Patrisse emerges from her childhood with a feisty, creative, and confident spirit in spite of the fact that she sees firsthand the destructive damages of racism every single day. Here's who needs to read When They Call You a Terrorist:

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

5. More Myself: A Journey, Alicia Keys

This book is meant to be listened to, because Alicia Keys' voice has such a lovely lyrical lift, and she also sings on the audio book. She bares her soul and her personal struggles in this book, and the most vivid memory I have is when she talks about racism and parenting Black children. Such a beautiful retelling of her life.

6. The Guilty Feminist: From Our Noble Goals to Our Worst Hypocrisies, Deborah Frances-White

Deborah Frances-White is the host of one of my favorite podcasts, The Guilty Feminist, which discusses topics “all 21st century feminists agree on” while confessing their insecurities, hypocrisies, and fears that underlie their lofty principles. The book is a great primer and commentary on feminism, with a wonderful sense of humor to boot!

7. The Middle Finger Project: Trash Your Imposter Syndrome and Live the Unf*ckwithable Life You Deserve, Ash Ambirge

Ash is a rags-to-riches author, internet entrepreneur, and founder of The Middle Finger Project, a blog about following your passions (unless you’re a serial killer). Her work focuses on helping women find their voice and use language as a tool to increase upward mobility, create economic opportunity, and increase their sense of personal agency in their career and life. I listened to this book on audio, and it was a fun ride.

8. What We Carry: A Memoir, Maya Lang

In this beautiful memoir, Maya Lang (who is of Indian origin) writes about her experience with her highly ambitious and accomplished mother developing Alzheimer's disease around the same time that she has a baby. At first Lang is heartbroken to experience her mom's apparent lack of support when she gives birth and has postpartum depression, but then she discovers the reason...her mom's increasing dementia. A wonderful story about mothers and daughters, especially growing up in an immigrant household with even higher expectations of grown children.

9. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped is a fast-track version of the longer Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, designed for younger readers. It traces the history of racism and the many political, literary, and philosophical narratives that have been used to justify slavery, oppression, and genocide. I had many ahas while listening to it, and I learned a ton, similar to the documentary Thirteenth, making me realize what a pathetic history education I had!

10. The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom

Sarah Broom grew up in a family of 12 children. Sarah was only six months old when her father died, leaving her mom, who did not know how to drive at the time, with several children at home and a rambling, ramshackle house she bought with her own money at a very young age. It's also a story about New Orleans, where the yellow house stood until it was split in half during Hurricane Katrina. It's about a family displaced and the Black, working-class experience, a failure of infrastructure and corrupt leadership, a failed safety net, and the displacement of people who cannot afford to live in New Orleans any longer. And still, it's a love affair of sorts for New Orleans. All wrapped up in a towering, split-in-two Yellow House.

11. Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, Susan Rice

I didn't know much about Susan Rice until I heard her interviewed on a podcast. She struck me as incredibly bright, funny, and capable, so when I saw she'd written a book I was immediately intrigued. This book is packed with stories about her childhood and young adulthood, diplomacy and policy work here and overseas, and family. She married her college sweetheart and has two children--one a diehard liberal and the other a Trump supporter. Yikes! Susan Rice is a rock star, and I enjoyed learning about all she's accomplished in her time on earth.

12. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, Angela Davis

A book encapsulating the brilliance of Angela Davis, talking about state-sanctioned oppression, the parallels between racial justice in the United States and oppression abroad, Black feminism, and more. She writes about supporting the presidency of Barack Obama, even while challenging him to do more. "Freedom is a constant struggle."

13. My Vanishing Country, Bakari Sellers

This book has been compared to Hillbilly Elegy, but for the Black experience. Bakari Sellers grew up under the shadow of his father's civil rights activism. His father was a friend of Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King Jr. Sellers describes his own struggles to come to grips with his history and the lives of his peers, who did not have as positive of an outcome as he did. 

14. Thick: and Other Essays, Tressie McMillam Cottom

One (white male) reviewer on Goodreads used the term "firebombing" when describing this book. He thought that McMillan wasn't nice enough, I guess. That attitude (Black women need to be nice) is telling, given the fact that firebombing has been used for mass destruction of Black people since the Civil Rights Movement. This book by sociologist Dr. Tressie Cottom McMillan, contains incisive, insightful essays about race and racism, white people, Black girlhood, academics, sociology, beauty, and other topics. The most powerful essay for me was about the high mortality rate for Black women in labor and childbirth, when McMillan shared her own heartbreaking story. Dr. McMillan is a writer and wise voice to follow.

15. Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin* (reread)

I first read Black Like Me in high school, so it was interesting to revisit. Journalist John Howard Griffin conducted an experiment in the 1950s, using a medication to darken his skin and living as a Black person. Although dated in many ways, his book still offers observations and lessons to modern-day America on racial justice throughout the ages. 

16. Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad

I led a book group on this and White Fragility this summer. Saad wisely outlines her lessons in bite-size chunks, so it's easier for white people to swallow a little at a time. I am aware of the controversy surrounding this book, and I actually thought it wasn't the best book on race I've read. But it has good elementary steps on how to become an ally and anti-racist.

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

What I've Been Watching: 

Sex Education, Crash Landing on You, Schitt’s Creek, Thirteenth, Outlander, Great British Bakeoff, The Great, Killing Eve, Kim’s Convenience, Self-Made, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Unorthodox, Atypical, Dead to Me, Never Have I Ever, One Day at a Time, Shrill, Grey’s Anatomy (for the first time), Mrs. America, Little Fires Everywhere, This Is Us, Law and Order SVU 

Friday, November 27, 2020

Rooftops of Tehran

Rooftops of Tehran
, by Mahbod Seraji


This was a beautiful story, pre-Iranian revolution, of Pasha and his friends, who gathered in the evening on his neighborhood's rooftops. Pasha is in love with the elusive Zari, who is engaged to be married to "Doctor," a socialist intellectual who Pasha greatly admires.

Pasha is bosom friends with Ahmed...in fact, this brotherly friendship is my favorite part of the book. It also sheds light on the terror wrought by SAVAK, the shah's secret police. But the bottom line is this book is not about Iran's politics, even though it serves as a chilling background. This book is about coming of age, with deep bonds of friendship and the blossoming of a forbidden romance. It's also deeply sad and lovely, if you can stand the sadness.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Daughter of Black Lake

Daughter of Black Lake, by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Ten years ago I read and loved Cathy Marie Buchanan's debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still. When I learned she'd written another novel about Iron Age Britain, I became immediately interested. I received an advance copy of this book, which just launched on my birthday, October 6. 

This book sent me to the Internet to read all about the Druids and the Roman invasion of Britain. All I knew about Druids was related to Stonehenge, the Solstice, and the TV show Outlander

I have not read many books set this long ago, with the exception of Clan of the Cave Bear, The Red Tent, and the Bible. The story alternates perspectives between Devout and her daughter, Hobble. They are finding their partners in ancient times, trying to make a life for themselves and their families and in Hobble's case, trying to survive being labeled as a "runt" by the Druids. 

Not much is actually known about the Druids, but it appears that they believed in making sacrifices to appease the gods. Sometimes the sacrifices were human, especially children who were believed to be imperfect in some way. 

As someone who was born with a cleft lip, cleft palate, and club foot, it did not escape my awareness that I would have been named Hobble or Harelip in those times and also being at risk of sacrifice. In long-ago times, birth defects like cleft lips were thought to be because of evil spirits.

Even though these were traditional, staunchly patriarchal times, Devout and Hobble are very much fully fleshed-out, strong women characters.

I found this novel to be fascinating and magical. It will stick with me for a very long time!



Sunday, May 17, 2020

Two books by Black women: Kindred and Tough Love

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

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

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

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

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

Tough Love, by Susan Rice

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

A Reliable Wife

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Real American: A Memoir

Real American: A Memoir, by Julie Lythcott-Haims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Canterbury Sisters

The Canterbury Sisters, by Kim Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Best Books of 2019

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

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

Fiction

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

Nonfiction

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

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

Catching Up: Great Nonfiction Reads

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


Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert

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

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

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

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

Educated, Tara Westover

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


Getting Started in Consulting, Alan Weiss

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

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


In Pieces, Sally Field

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

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

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


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

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


My Love Story, Tina Turner


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


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

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


Shameless: A Sexual Revolution, Nadia Bolz-Weber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

We Are Displaced, Malala Yousafzai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thick and Other Essays, Tressie Cottom McMillan

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

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


Untamed, by Glennon Doyle

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

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

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

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

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

The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 20, 2020

Catching Up: Great Fiction Reads

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

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

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

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

Sweet Bean Paste, Durian Sukegawa

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

On the Come Up, Angie Thomas



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

Women of Juarez, Sam Hawken

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



A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman


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





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

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

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


Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate

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

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

The Satapur Moonstone, Sujata Massey

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

The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah

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

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

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

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


The Sun Is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon

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

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

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

The Power, Naomi Alderman

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

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

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