Thursday, March 10, 2022

There Is Nothing for You Here, The Last Grand Duchess, and Good Talk

There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century, by Fiona Hill 

If you're like me, you hadn't heard of Fiona Hill until you saw her at the impeachment hearing. This book was outstanding, chronicling her life back to growing up in Bishop Durham, a mining village in northern England. 

She talks about how difficult it was for her to access resources in Thatcher's England, and how unlikely it was for her to be able to climb out of poverty and the working class to earn a Ph.D. 

As a Russia expert, Hill draws stunning similarities among the UK, the U.S., and Russia. It's one of the best sociological treatises I've read, written in a highly engaging and fascinating way. Definitely will be one of my top books this year.

Note: Russia seems to be all over my life now...I read this book before Putin invaded the Ukraine, my husband is learning Russian on Duolingo and writing a book about Russia, and we are immersed in "The Americans" (a show about Russian sleeper spies in the 1980s). Russia seems to be everywhere at the moment.

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, by Mira Jacob

I listened to Good Talk instead of reading it, not realizing until I had started that it was a graphic novel. Oops! But I actually enjoyed listening instead of reading because Jacob narrates it with a cast of others. 

Good Talk is Jacob's memoir about being an American, and it was inspired by her son's questions about what it means to be Black and brown and immigrant in America. 

She shares the deep conversations she has with her family, including her white Jewish husband, and the challenges of being a first-generation American. 

When Jacob was growing up in India, her family discounted her because of her dark skin...so she also shares the travails of being a daughter of India. Excellent book! 


The Last Grand Duchess, by Bryn Turnbull 

I heard the author speak on a webinar, and the topic--about Olga Romanov and the Russian revolution--intrigued me. First I tried the author's first book (The Woman Before Wallis) on audio, and I just could not get into it. At first I thought it might have just been the fact I find it hard to do audio fiction...but I don't think that was it.

My mother-in-law's family fled Russia around the time of the Russian revolution. Her name is Olga. I had a great-aunt Olga (my family incidentally is from Bukovenia, which is now the Ukraine). So I wanted to like this book. I love historical fiction. But I found it lacking, sadly, and it's hard to pinpoint why.

Part of the problem is that each chapter flips back and forth between the years. There's far too much jerking around. 

I also got tired of all the excess, frankly (similar feelings as Turnbull's previous book), and couldn't help but think about the oligarchy and autocracy in Russia right now. Also, although Turnbull qualifies the rule of the czar in her notes at the end, I couldn't get away from the horrible things the czar did during his reign.

There was just something about the writing style that didn't pull me in.

I know some people are drawn to stories of wealth, glamour, and royalty, but I suppose at this stage in my life I can't help but see through it all. 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

The 1619 Project, The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree, and Here We Go Again

The 1619 Project, a New Origin Story, by Nikole Hannah-Jones

I described this book to a friend by likening it to Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, but focusing exclusively on the way race and racism have drenched and contaminated every aspect of American life, culture, politics, etc.

This book began from an essay by Dr. Nikole Hannah-Jones about how all of our country's sins and structures grew out of that first ship carrying enslaved people from Africa in 1619. Next came The New York Times Magazine’s award-winning “1619 Project," containing 18 essays and 36 poems and works of fiction that explore the legacy of slavery in America. 

The 1619 Project ignited the fears about critical race theory, and over half of states have made some attempt, some successful, to ban it in schools. That's the first reason you should read it!

The second reason to read it is to unlearn everything you have learned about race and racism in the United States and abroad. This is a new origin story for America. Must read. Outstanding and eye opening.

The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree, by Nice Leng'ete

I happened across this book when browsing for a new audio book. I loved it! Nice is a human rights activist who was born in Kenya as a member of the Maasai tribe. When it came time for her to be "cut" (female genital mutilation), she ran away. She knew that girls who got the cut always dropped out of school, and she wanted an education. 

She had to face down her family members and leaders from her tribe to assert her right to get an education and avoid the cut. She went onto become a vocal advocate for girls to have an alternative rite of passage to FGM. She had great sadness in her life, but she has a fierce passion and she learned how to use it.

Nice has an incredibly engaging voice and spirit. She is magnificent! 


Here We Go Again: My Life in Television, by Betty White

I sought this out on audio because I wanted to hear Betty White's voice again! It was published in 1995, so it has aged quite a bit and doesn't include anything from her last 26 years in television.

But for a child of the '60s, I enjoyed hearing about how she got her start in television. She was such a spirited trailblazer!! I also loved hearing about her love story with her beloved Alan and how she met him on Password. 

This won't win any literary prizes, but it was a pleasant listen to hear Betty once again!


Thursday, January 27, 2022

Passage West

Passage West, by Rishi Reddi

This was a fascinating read about South Indians in the Imperial Valley in California...many Sikhs and other Indians came from the Punjab to work up and down the west coast in the early part of the 1900s. 

I learned a few years ago about the Ghardar Party, which was founded in Astoria, Oregon, in 1913. According to this informative article from the Oregon Historical Society, 30 million people left India between 1830 and 1930. Men would go off to other British colonies to work and send money back home.

In the early 1900s, they began to go to North America, and this is where our story starts. It's the tale of Ram Singh, who arrives in the United States in 1914. After experiencing racism and violence in Washington, he flees to the Imperial Valley in California, where he finds refuge with other Sikhs. 

He's left behind his wife in India, Padma, and their son, who was born after Ram left India. Over the years he plans to return home, but those years stretch on and on as he hopes to make more money.

The Indians in the United States worked extremely hard and were treated horribly. The white men envied their success and began getting violent to lash back.

And when World War II began, many immigrants joined the U.S. Army to prove their patriotism. A few years later, the U.S. government rescinded their citizenship, disallowing them from owning property, voting, and many other rights.

Many Indian immigrants married Mexican women, especially because if they went back to India to collect their wives, they were unable to return to the U.S. again.


I thought this book was fascinating and heart breaking...another example of our whitewashed history. It was primarily the story of the men, and I would have appreciated hearing more about the women's perspectives. The women in the story seemed a lot more relatable than the men.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Mrs. Kimble

 Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haight


I picked this book up at a Little Free Library, and it was compulsively readable. I did question the characters' motives throughout, though. Why did all these women fall in love with such a vacant, shallow man? How did he charm them all? He was like a chameleon, although a narcissistic one. Overall, the book just made me sad. 

Birdie and Dinah, I could understand a bit more. Dinah had rarely experienced love in her life. But Joan? Why did she give up her independence, her successful career, and her sense of self to marry this awful man? 

I like Jennifer Haigh's writing, and in the back of the book she said she identified with all the wives Mr. Kimble left behind, but she also identified with Mr. Kimble. I cannot relate to that statement at all. This man had absolutely no morals and no capacity for love. 

I feel like I need to read an inspiring book next after this one!

Saturday, November 27, 2021

What I Read in 2021

Starting my own business has severely dented my ability to keep up with my personal writing, in addition to my habit of regularly writing book reviews of what I've read! I've written very few book reviews this year, but I have read some amazing books, especially by writers of color. 

Yet again this year, I've read more nonfiction than fiction! This is a turn-up for the books! (See what I did there..LOL!)

You can see my other book lists, dating back to 2001, on this page. Here's a summary of 2021:

Fiction


The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn

I loved the intertwining stories of two women, a British woman who was a spy in France during World War I, and an American woman who is looking for her beloved cousin. I love a great woman spy story! I chose this book for our trip back east for parents' weekend, and it was the perfect choice for a trip!


Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi

I haven't yet read Gyasi's more famous Homegoing; I guess I started backwards. This novel explores the immigrant story while also touching on science, animal research, mental illness, grief and loss, and opioid addition. A beautiful book.


The Bombay Prince, by Sujata Massey

I read everything Sujata writes, especially after getting the joy of interviewing her on my podcast this years as a resilient writer. When I interviewed her earlier in the year, this book hadn't been published yet. Of course, it did not disappoint. With Book #3, we are getting to know Perveen Mistry, India's only female lawyer back in the '20s, much better. This time she finds herself in the midst of the famed riots in Mumbai, then known as Bombay. It's hard to imagine what it would feel like to not be able to talk to a man who was not your husband without casting shame on yourself. Sujata does an excellent job helping the reader learn what things were like in India in 1921, especially for women. 


Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson

I chose this book for our trip to Boston and Connecticut to drop our son off at college. It was a perfect choice, since we were surrounded by Revolutionary War sights. Chains deepened my understanding of that time by sharing the perspective of an enslaved teen who is caught up in the revolutionary fever. "Give me liberty or give me death" did not apply to everyone...only to white people, particularly men. I found Isabel to be a captivating character, and I definitely want to read the next book in the series!



The Distant Dead, by Heather Young

This book will make you look at poverty, drug addiction, and childhood trauma in a new way. It's the story of a high school teacher with a sketchy past, who gets acquainted with an outcast, in a small Nevada town. When the teacher shows up dead, a fellow teacher begins following the breadcrumbs.


The Pearl Thief, by Elizabeth Wein

A prequel to one of my favorite books, Code Name Verity, it's the story of Julia Beaufort-Stewart, a spunky 15-year-old Scotswoman. And it's the story of river pearls, Scottish travelers, and deep friendship. I love Wein's characters.


The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This was a beautifully written, lyrical book, as we should expect no less from Ta-Nehisi Coates. It's the story of Hiram, who is enslaved, and who has visions and special powers. It kept reminding me of Kindred by Octavia Butler, a sort of sci-fi look at slavery. 


Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery

When my friend Catherine heard I'd never read Anne of Green Gables, this book soon appeared on my doorstep...with this gorgeous cover. And now I'm a convert. My husband and I watched all three seasons of "Anne with an E" on Netflix this year. I love Anne Shirley Cuthbert...she is a redhead after my own heart!


Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam

This was an interesting piece of speculative fiction, a little bit too close to home with COVID. It certainly made me think a lot. Some of the plot seemed implausible, and somehow I expected more (especially with the Black couple arriving at the home they own, which was being rented by a clueless white family). 



Wench
, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

An eye-opening novel about a haven for slave owners and their enslaved concubines in Ohio before the Civil War. It was the author's first novel and it was lacking in some areas, but it was a memorable story and setting.


Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware

Lo Blacklock is a bit of a mess. A travel journalist who has been burgled and has PTSD, she's been given an opportunity to go on a luxury cruise in Norway...but nothing seems as it is. This was meant to be a thriller, but I found it not as effective as some other thrillers I've read. It started out well, but seemed like it had a ton of plot holes.


China Room, by Sunjeev Sahota

My husband really liked this book, but I was less enamored. I have read a lot of Indian fiction, so I am comparing this novel to many others. This story was not believable to me and it felt like it was a male fantasy. I found it difficult to fathom that a young girl would not know which of the three brothers was her husband...and then when he raped her without her consent, she fell in love with him. The story of Mehar's descendant was interesting at times before I lost interest. Overall, I found this book lacking.

Nonfiction


The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation, by Anna Malaika Tubbs

This book was recommended to me by one of my podcast guests, and I loved it. It's a classic example of a herstory untold. Each one of these women had a fascinating story and I'm glad to finally learn about them.

Broken Horses, by Brandi Carlile

When I first published this list, I somehow forgot one of my favorite books this year!! I absolutely loved this memoir by my all-time favorite singer-songwriter. Raw, honest, vulnerable, and beautifully written. I read the book as soon as it came out, and now I'm reliving it by listening to the audio. The audio book has songs on it!! (The paper book does too, but they are just lyrics.) There's also a gorgeous playlist that goes with the book on Spotify.



Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, by Brittney Cooper

Black feminism, scholarship, and fierce rage: what could be more powerful? Brittney Cooper is an associate professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, but this is not an academic tome. It is a manifesto. I listened to this as an audio book, and it's one of the few books I've listened to this year that I want to actually read again on paper.


You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism, by Amber Ruffin & Lacey Lamar

I happened across this in the Wesleyan bookstore on parents' weekend, and I downloaded the audio book to listen to as we were driving back into Boston for a few days before flying home. I finished the book when I arrived home. You probably know Amber Ruffin from Seth Meyers, and Lacey is her sister who still lives back home in Nebraska. And you'll never believe the stories they tell. Every white person needs to read/listen to this one to realize how racist this country is.


Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned from Trauma and Triumph, by Chad Sanders

Chad Sanders worked in the tech world and learned how much more included he felt if he code switched (acted white, essentially). When he realized how that was eating him up inside, he decided it would be better to just act his true self...use his Black magic of resilience. This book includes Chad's story and interviews with his friends and colleagues. He asked these people, how have their experiences of trauma helped them be more successful in their careers? This theme of course is appealing to me, since I have a podcast about finding fertile ground through adversity.

Nice White Ladies: The Truth About White Supremacy, Our Role in It, and How We Can Help Dismantle It, by Jessie Daniels

Another excellent non-academic book about race and racism by an academic. Daniels is a professor of sociology at Hunter College. She will shake up what you think about white women. If you're a white woman, this is a must-read. 


The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love, by Sonya Renee Taylor

A friend recommended this book to me when I was having some body image doubts after someone rudely told me I had a crooked face. (Yes, thanks to a cleft lip, ma'am!) This book shakes up our culture's mores and beliefs about beauty and needs to be read again and again. Much of the book is about Black women's bodies, but it is affirming for all!



Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity, by Justin Baldoni

I loved Justin Baldoni in "Jane the Virgin," and when I saw he had a podcast about masculinity, I decided to read his book. As the mom of three boys, I felt this was an important book to read. It's the only book I'm aware of that really examines the kinds of pressures men are under and how these pressures can affect their relationships with the women in their lives. Highly recommended.


Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker

This was an outstanding narrative nonfiction book about the Catholic Galvin family with 12 children in middle America (10 boys and 2 girls). Six of the boys had schizophrenia. Kolker alternates the Galvin story with the history of schizophrenia and attempts to treat it. This book is gripping and educational. 


How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, by Julie Lythcott-Haims

I got the honor of interviewing Julie on my Finding Fertile Ground podcast during my "Resilient Writers" series. At the time, I hadn't read this book but had watched her TED talk about it. She is a former Stanford dean and has become famous for helping parents not be helicopter parents...and for helping kids become independent. This was her first book on the subject, and I highly recommend it for any parent! 


Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: Poems, by Joy Harjo

I began listening to Harjo's book of poems as I took a walk on Thanksgiving this year. Ever more aware of the racist history of Thanksgiving, I wanted to soak up some indigenous wisdom. Harjo did not disappoint.


Women of the Blue & Gray: True Civil War Stories of Mothers, Medics, Soldiers and Spies, by Marianne Monson

I read this book in preparation for my interview with Marianne Monson on my "Resilient Writers" series on the Finding Fertile Ground podcast. I loved reading about these badasses of history.


My Sister: How One Sibling's Transition Changed Us Both, by Selenis Leyva & Marizol Levya

I received this in my book group holiday swap, and I really enjoyed it. Selenis Leyva was on "Orange Is the New Black." She and her adopted sister write about their childhoods, how Marizol slowly transitioned,  and how their family reacted. It's a sister love story.


Surviving the White Gaze: A Memoir, by Rebecca Carroll

Rebecca Carroll grew up feeling isolated as an adopted girl of a white family in New Hampshire. She hoped meeting her birth mother would help her heal from that trauma, but it only multiplied her stress and sense of self-worth. This is an excellent memoir of the complexity of raising a child of another color in a mostly white environment. 


Consent: A Memoir, by Vanessa Springora

I have always passionately disliked Lolita. As an English major, I had to read it more than once! This book is about a real life Lolita story, about celebrated French writer Gabriel Matzneff, who sexually exploited the 14-year-old Springora. Being France, and with him being famous, people went along with this bizarre "relationship." The #metoo movement made Springora realize how f*cked up this situation was and she decided to tell her story. Lolita takes charge of her life again.


Work Your Way: Reinvent Yourself, Create the Life You Want, and Thrive as a Consultant, by Lisa Hufford

My business coach bought this book for each of us and brought Hufford onto Zoom for a master class. Lisa Hufford was climbing the ladder at Microsoft until she realized she couldn't have high-quality time with her kids and continue working at the pace she had been. She quit and became a consultant, and years later, she now has a thriving consulting business. She lays out how she did that in this book.

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!