Monday, April 30, 2012

What joy to give away free books!

This is a cross-post from Every Day Is a Miracle. Last Monday (a week ago) Mike and I participated in World Book Night 2012.

World Book Night began in the UK in 2011 and spread to the U.S. this year. It's an annual celebration of reading and books. Authors, publishers, distributors, independent booksellers, UPS, printers, and binders collaborate to print and distribute the books, for free, to reluctant readers across the country. This year 25,000 givers distributed 20 copies of a book out of a selection of 30 books (some pictured at left). (We got to make three choices, and if we were lucky, we received one of the books we requested.)
I gave away a book by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. I went to pick up my stack of books at our wonderful local bookstore, Annie Bloom's, where they had a World Book Night Giver Reception complete with sharing of stories, cupcakes, champagne, and door prizes. It was fun, and I met one of my coworkers there. (Kieran was very happy to get my cupcake, while I enjoyed the champagne.) I also picked up an extra (unassigned) box for Mike to distribute: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. (He also helped another friend, laid up, who had signed up to give away The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, by arranging a giveaway at Chris' high school.) 

We decided to distribute the books after school at Kieran's elementary school, along with another parent, Leigh, who was also participating (she was distributing Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which I recently read for my book group).

Everyone who received a book was very appreciative and grateful. I'm afraid that we were not as successful as we'd hoped at reaching "reluctant" or "light" readers. A couple of self-admitted reluctant readers studied our selection and ended up leaving empty handed, saying that they already had enough books to read. I'm wondering if that was partly because all of our books were serious fiction and perhaps too literary for "light" readers. Now that I look at some of the other possibilities, I realize that our selections probably reflect our high-falutin' fiction preferences--perhaps not as appealing to those light readers. (We chose books that we'd read and loved.) If we'd been distributing The Hunger Games, perhaps even light readers would have been interested. (The Hunger Games was one of the choices, but of course it was the most popular!)

World Book Night is celebrated on April 23 because it's the UNESCO International Day of the Book, chosen in honor of Shakespeare and Cervantes, who both died on April 23, 1616. (It is also the anniversary of Shakespeare's birthday.) In the Catalan region of Spain, the day is celebrated by giving a book and a flower to a loved one.

We had lovely sunny weather for our book giveaway--all of the pale Portlanders were wearing summer clothing!

If you'd like to be a World Book Night giver in 2013, sign up here to stay apprised.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo

This is an astonishing, ground-breaking book. Katherine Boo, an award-winning American writer/reporter who has earned accolades for reporting on the poor, married an Indian man, Sunil Khilnani. They spend half of their time in the U.S. and half in India.

Over three years, she spent countless hours shadowing the residents of Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport filled with people without permanent work...each one of them struggling to make a living, mostly through garbage picking and recycling, temporary jobs, and theft. With the help of translators, she gradually got to know Annawadi's residents, and they finally got used to having the strange white woman around.

As she grew to learn their stories, a few stood out. Central to the book is the story of Abdul, a young Muslim who buys and recycles the garbage that others collect, whose family is accused of a crime by their angry neighbor. Manju hopes to become Annawadi's first college grad, but she's disturbed by her mother's constant conniving and corruption (which actually assist in paying her college bills). Kalu, a young thief, entertains the other boys by acting out scenes from Bollywood movies. A young woman commits suicide with poison to avoid the arranged marriage her family has made for her. As a Dalit, she knows that her life in a small village away from relatively progressive Mumbai will be miserable.

From Boo's web site
What struck me most about this book, more than the extreme poverty, lack of sanitation, and struggling for subsistence on the edge of the sewage lake, was the horrible corruption rife in Indian politics, law enforcement, business, and civil service. This, even more than the poverty, oppresses the disadvantaged and prevents them from advancing out of the slums. It made me think of the anti-corruption policies my company has in writing, and ponder how it does business in India or the Middle East without resorting to bribes. According to this book, when you give money to charities such as World Vision or Christian orphanages, you're lucky if the donation actually reaches the needy. Schools employ teachers without college educations (or even high school degrees), and the only way to get a government teaching job is to pay huge bribes. Boo writes about a nun who runs an orphanage and resells many of the clothes, food, and toys she receives for the children.

When Abdul and his father and sister are accused of inciting a spiteful neighbor woman to set herself aflame, everyone crowds in to make some money. They are tortured in jail and told, by many, that if they pay money, the problem will go away. Abdul's mother even goes directly to the other family to negotiate, but they believe they'll be able to extort more money through the courts.

From Boo's web site
This book is written like a novel even though it's hard-core, investigative reporting. Boo and her translators are completely invisible narrators. She took meticulous notes and recordings and documented her research thoroughly--important in the age of Greg Mortensons and the accusations thrown around about the "white savior complex." Boo's purpose was to shine the light on the Annawadians themselves and their environment instead of the white writer. Boo was threatened by the police and often felt insecure or threatened as she did her research. This book does not make the Indian government smell good.

And beyond that is an examination of the modernization and regentrification of India. Annawadi is located within sight of the huge, fancy Mumbai airport hotels, behind walls plastered with ads for ceramic tile that say "Beautiful Forever." As young Mirchi (Abdul's younger brother) is quoted in this review from The Times of India, "Everything around us is roses, and we are the shit between." Hovering over Annawadi and its residents is the constant fear that the slum--and their homes--will be leveled and destroyed.

This book has made me look at India and my own existence in a new way. It begs the question of what can be done to eradicate such corruption and extreme poverty in the world. It also makes one think about the price of affluence. When the economy began suffering, the Annawadians suffered as well. Yet on the other hand, what is the price of progress as the gap between rich and poor grows and grows?

For more information about Katherine Boo and this book, I encourage you to visit her web site, listen to this interview on NPR, or watch this video. This book and its stories of these desperately hard-working people will stick with me for a very long time.

Friday, April 13, 2012


Shine, by Lauren Myracle

Such a beautiful cover, and such a furore over this book. If you haven't heard, Shine was announced as a finalist for the National Book Awards ...but oops...the National Book Foundation staff misheard the name of the nominee. It was actually meant to be Chime by Franny Billingsley. The judges didn't catch the mistake until they heard the nominees being announced over the radio! Sorry, Ms. Myracle. Hope you'll forgive us! Oh my...what a debacle. Lauren Myracle handled the situation with professionalism and grace. Mike went out to purchase this book in support.

Because of that silly fuss and bother and also what I had read about the story, I was looking forward to diving into this book. It opens with a newspaper article: Patrick, former best friend of protagonist Cat Robinson, is in a coma after being attacked with a baseball bat and left for dead with a gas nozzle taped to his mouth. Cat, who had become an extreme introvert after a traumatic incident and shut all her friends out of her life, decides to find out who is responsible.

The book starts out reasonably enough...Myracle paints the deep poverty, ignorance, and malaise in a North Carolina backwoods town with vivid imagery and words. Soon Cat discovers secrets in her midst, such as heavy meth use all around her. Partly because of her own severe guilt for abandoning Patrick as a friend three years before, she wrecklessly dives into probing conversations with people in the town because law enforcement is inept and doesn't appear to be investigating the crime.

Unfortunately, the follow-through of the story could have been better. Many of the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes, and I found it difficult to imagine so many people looking the other way during Cat's own traumatic incident (notably her aunt and brother). I also found it implausible that Cat wouldn't have more knowledge of the drug use in her midst. And the police officers made absolutely no attempt to investigate the crime? None at all? Was that supposed to be because Patrick was gay?

And although Cat does experience a traumatic and horrific incident as a 13-year-old, it seemed strange to me that she would completely cut off contact from her friends and family, especially Patrick. I also found it implausible that suddenly Tommy turns over a new leaf and tries to make amends.

The story with Jason seemed thrown in there for a romance element, and it didn't quite fit. Also, for him to call Cat such a horrific name in the beginning...and then for him to turn out to be a good guy...didn't seem real.

The mystery doesn't turn out to be much of a mystery, either--the reader is able to see the resolution from a mile off. I didn't like the way the story resolves...and it didn't make much sense to me that Patrick's lover would attack him in such a way, even strung out on meth. But hey, I've never used meth so what do I know what it causes you to do?

Finally, once several people know who attacked Patrick, Cat and others (including Patrick, who wakes up in the end) conspire to keep it a secret from the authorities. And for what reason, exactly? That doesn't make any sense to me. (Would Robert really be able to keep such a secret, after he can't keep anything else secret??)

Of course, Patrick wakes up in the end and he's completely coherent and Cat explains everything that's happened in 1 minute before the nurses come rushing in. Everything's tied up in neat little packages. Because of Cat's decision not to share who was responsible, the town can continue to wallow in its insular bigotry, blaming the crime on out-of-towners and conveniently ignoring the rampant drug use among the town's young people.

Another concern I have is the major typos I found sprinkled throughout the novel...tales vs. tails, here vs. her, and a name incorrectly used a couple of times (Lawson vs. Larson). Sloppy!

I'm sure that Myracle intended one of the book's messages to be the importance of shining your light and doing the right thing in spite of your fears...but what kind of message does it send to young people when over and over again, people who hurt others are allowed to get away with it without exposure and without punishment? For the life of me, I can't ascertain why she decided to tell the story that way. For her aunt and brother to walk in and see her being assaulted, and do NOTHING? That made no sense at all.

Even though the book appeared to tackle the issues of homophobia and religious intolerance, in the end it did not. If anything, it seemed to send the message that this kind of bigotry is okay and to be tolerated in small southern towns. Even Patrick agreed to cover up the crime. Also, it does not accurately portray loving gay relationships. When Patrick wakes up to be told that his lover was dead, wouldn't he have been upset about it? Wouldn't he have been crushed when he realized what his lover had done to him?

The more I think about this novel, the less some of it makes sense to me. It could have been so much more!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Missing

The Missing, by Jane Casey

I discovered this book by reading a review of one of British author Jane Casey's other novels, The Burning. Because I like to read authors (especially mystery authors) in chronological order, I sought out her first book. It needn't have mattered in this case, as it does not have the same protagonist.

Unfortunately, this book did not live up to my expectations. I found it to be very readable, but much of what happened seemed unrealistic and unlikely to happen. I also guessed who the murderer is long before it was revealed, which I rarely do. (I'm one of those rare mystery readers who does not try to guess the perpetrator, but in this case it could not be ignored.)

As the protagonist, Sarah Finch is not entirely likeable and a bit too overcome with problems. She is a lost soul, lacking anyone she can confide in or trust, and in the end things just spiral downward in her life. Soon she is left with no one. She also makes some bizarre choices, and a few plot elements seem unlikely (such as the policeman on the case falling in love with her, and the highly convenient coincidences that keep occurring, to name a few). Life seems to just happen to her, and because of this she is not very sympathethic. For example, after she truly hates school and appears to have no motivation to succeed because of what happened to her brother, she somehow becomes a teacher herself, and does not seem to enjoy her job.

I also found it unlikely that a character who is completely obsessed with her would attack her and harm her outside of her home. And why on earth did she stick with her mother when she treated her so horribly? Of course, Casey ties it all up with a happy ending, also implausible.

I have The Burning checked out of the library, and I will give Casey one more try...I'm hoping her second novel is an improvement over the first.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Poster Girl

Poster Child, by Emily Rapp

Having suffered from birth defects myself in addition to self-image issues from not feeling beautiful or "normal" while I was growing up, I'm drawn to memoirs by people facing similar challenges. Many years ago I was similarly moved by Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, about a girl who had to have 1/3 of her jaw removed as a result of childhood cancer.

Emily Rapp was born with a rare genetic bone and tissue disorder that resulted in one of her legs being shorter than the other. Throughout her early childhood, she had surgeries to amputate parts of her left leg and began wearing a series of prosthetic devices. The daughter of a Lutheran minister, she soon became a "poster child" for the March of Dimes, which at that time focused primarily on preventing birth defects instead of prematurity. Perky and smiling on the inside, yet grieving and deeply angry about her lot in life on the outside, she reacted by lashing out at her supportive family and becoming, in her words from an interview, a "spoiled brat."

Stricken with self-doubt and a desire to be beautiful, she devoted herself to becoming perfect in every way. This not only manifested itself as becoming a perfect student, but also becoming anorexic and obsessed with her weight. She also sets out to be an athlete, excelling at skiing and swimming, and becoming a school mascot for various sports teams.

Rapp is brutally honest about her feelings of brokenness and deep, aching loneliness. She befriends the aging, rough-around-the-edges veterans and other amputees she meets at appointments with her prosthetists. When she discovers the liberation theology of disability (pioneered by theologian Nancy Eiesland, who wrote The Disabled God) and the writings of other disabled women, her awareness cracks open. She doesn't really deal with the grief of losing her leg until she's living in Korea (a country that shuns people who are different, especially those with disabilities) and is terrified that her host family and students will discover her secret...and she has a breakdown. Later on, she undertakes a program for the Lutheran World Federation by bringing together disabled women from around the world to share their mutual experiences of disability and faith.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I too had birth defects (my mom had German Measles while she was pregnant). I was born with a cleft lip and palate, as well as a club foot (I had to wear a brace as a baby, but it was corrected). I had numerous surgeries throughout childhood and had to wear an awful, gagging speech appliance in my mouth (an obturator) until I was 15. As an adolescent, I had severely crooked teeth and had to have extensive orthodontia and two corrective jaw surgeries. My nose is not symmetrical (because of my cleft lip). Like Rapp's parents and experience, my parents never treated me as I were anything less than beautiful, but some other kids did. They stared at my scar, and even still, curious children ask me about it. In spite of their support, Rapp hates her body and cannot fathom the thought of ever making herself vulnerable enough to have sex without her prosthetis.

While I was reading this book, I discovered that Rapp went on to get married and have a child of her own. Tragically, her son Rowan has Tay-Sachs Disease and will not live past the age of three. She writes poignantly of being a "dragon mom" in this New York Times article:
"We are dragon parents: fierce and loyal and loving as hell. Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice.

NOBODY asks dragon parents for advice; we’re too scary. Our grief is primal and unwieldy and embarrassing. The certainties that most parents face are irrelevant to us, and frankly, kind of silly. Our narratives are grisly, the stakes impossibly high. Conversations about which seizure medication is most effective or how to feed children who have trouble swallowing are tantamount to breathing fire at a dinner party or on the playground. Like Dr. Spock suddenly possessed by Al Gore, we offer inconvenient truths and foretell disaster.

And there’s this: parents who, particularly in this country, are expected to be superhuman, to raise children who outpace all their peers, don’t want to see what we see. The long truth about their children, about themselves: that none of it is forever."
Again, I can relate. Even though my once-fragile baby boy has had a better outcome than Rapp's beautiful and precious baby Rowan will, I share her thoughts about shallow parenting. You know what I'm talking about...those parents who complain about the most ridiculous things or push their children to be outstanding athletes or students. And especially those who brag about their children's brilliance and look down on other children who struggle with academics,sports, or social issues. I have no patience for that...not when parenting for people like Rapp and her husband is boiled down to treating each day as a blessing, knowing that this day might be all they have. I remember trying not to worry as my son did not talk until he was three years old...and as he struggled to become potty trained, write his letters or draw pictures, play sports, make friends. I know too many parents who have lost their children in infancy or early childhood.

"What I can do is protect my son from as much pain as possible, and then finally do the hardest thing of all, a thing most parents will thankfully never have to do: I will love him to the end of his life, and then I will let him go.
But today Ronan is alive and his breath smells like sweet rice. I can see my reflection in his greenish-gold eyes. I am a reflection of him and not the other way around, and this is, I believe, as it should be. This is a love story, and like all great love stories, it is a story of loss. Parenting, I’ve come to understand, is about loving my child today. Now. In fact, for any parent, anywhere, that’s all there is."
I feel blessed to have read this book and become aware of Emily Rapp's beautiful writing.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Friday Night Knitting Club

The Friday Night Knitting Club,
by Kate Jacobs

Meh. I didn't like this book and found it difficult to get through. I read it all, though, because my book group spontaneously chose it for this month's selection. As Jacobs' first novel, The Friday Night Knitting Club is about a yarn shop in New York City, its owner Georgia Walker and her daughter Dakota, Georgia's past friend Cat and ex-lover James, and the shop's various employees and customers. I liked the fact it tackled an interracial romance and the challenges of single motherhood.

But this is what I didn't like:
  • Georgia Walker herself. Supposedly, she is a magnetic personality who people want to be with...but I found her to be a bitter complainer about her lot in life.
  • Jacobs packed the novel with too many characters, about which we know very little. In particular, Peri, Darwin, KC, and Lucie...I didn't really like any of these characters and I didn't care what happened to any of them.
  • In one scene in the book, a crazy young woman bursts into the shop shouting about Julia Roberts. Then she vanishes out of the plot. What purpose did she serve? It was completely nonsensical.
  • I would have liked to know more about the most interesting characters--James, Anita, Marty, and Gran--but we got just the briefest of backgrounds.
  • I found the plot with Cat to be tiresome and ridiculous. Would a young woman really betray her very best friend like that? And for all the bitterness Georgia carried, why did she never try to contact and confront her?
  • Same with Georgia's relationship with James. I found it difficult to comprehend how she could carry around those two letters from James without ever opening them. Stupid. If he really loved her and wanted to be part of their lives, why didn't he try harder to get involved? And when he finally enters the scene, he appears to be perfect.
  • And finally, Georgia gets cancer and dies. How predictable is that?
I found the whole book to be annoying. It wasn't horrible, but I will not be reading any more of her books.