Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Best books of 2016

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

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

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

Best books of 2015

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

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

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

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Born to Run

Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen

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

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

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

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

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

I think "Wrecking Ball" is an album we should all listen to for inspiration in the coming years. "Wrecking Ball was a shot of anger at the injustice that continues on and has widened with deregulation, dysfunctional regulatory agencies, and capitalism gone wild at the expense of hardworking Americans." Just watch "We Are Alive" for some inspiration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-dhZR5uTgY.

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

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Secrets of Eden

Secrets of EdenSecrets of Eden, by Chris Bohjalian

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

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

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

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

The Nightingale

The NightingaleThe Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

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

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

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

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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

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

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

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape

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

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

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

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

Pull Me Under

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Love You, Charlie Freeman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Bell Jar

The Bell JarThe Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

Although I've read this book a few times, upon each reading I appreciate something different about it. My book group is tackling depression and mental illness by reading The Bell Jar and All the Things We Never Knew (in September). I reflected on my younger-days obsession with Plath when her son, who was just a baby when she committed suicide, also took his own life.

What struck me this time was the sheer beauty of the writing. It is so clear that this novelist was a poet. And evident to many in my book group was the fact that Plath makes depression and mental illness seem so normal, almost matter of fact. It was just something she was dealing with, nothing to make a big drama about. 

All the Things We Never Knew

All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental IllnessAll the Things We Never Knew, by Sheila Hamilton

I loved this heart-breaking and beautiful book, which is part memoir, part educational. Local Portland author, journalist, and radio DJ Sheila Hamilton tells the sad and difficult story of her former husband, who suffered from bipolar disease. She alternates telling this story with extremely helpful, well-researched information about bipolar disease.

I learned a great deal from this book--about bipolar disease, suicide, depression, and mental illness, and we had a great discussion at our book group. I highly recommend it!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Rainbow Comes and Goes

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and LossThe Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt

The Rainbow Comes and Goes is a poignant, thoughtful exchange of memories and insights between a mother and son. As a mother to three boys, and daughter to aging parents, I love the idea of mother and son writing emails to each other, getting to know one another on a much deeper level.

It's hard to imagine the depth of loneliness and despair Gloria Vanderbilt must have felt in her sad childhood. Far more valuable than riches is the love and compassion of at least one parent, if not two. Both Vanderbilt and Cooper are fatherless...Vanderbilt's father died when she was a baby, and Cooper lost his as a young man. And Cooper's only brother and Vanderbilt's son committed suicide when he was in his 20s. Such a sad family story.

When Gloria Vanderbilt experienced a serious illness at age 91, they decided to take advantage of her remaining time left to get to know each other on a deeper level and share information they'd never revealed to each other. The result is a beautiful collection of email letters, prompting me to want to interview my own parents and mother-in-law and document their experiences, and also to write more of my own story for my children to have after I am gone.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Her Again

Her Again: Becoming Meryl StreepHer Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, by Michael Schulman

When I read that Meryl Streep had not sanctioned this biography, I almost returned it to the library and did not read it. But I was swayed by my deep admiration for her and ended up reading it after all. I do agree with other reviewers that without Streep's involvement, some of the book fell flat. Much of it was a recitation of various things she had accomplished, without a true understanding of what she had experienced. But for a Streep groupie, it's hard to avoid this book entirely! She is definitely an amazing actor and artist.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Bell Jar

The Bell JarThe Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
Although I've read this book a few times, upon each reading I appreciate something different about it. My book group is tackling depression and mental illness by reading The Bell Jar and All the Things We Never Knew (in September). I reflected on my younger-days obsession with Plath when her son, who was just a baby when she committed suicide, also took his own life.

What struck me this time was the sheer beauty of the writing. It is so clear that this novelist was a poet. And evident to many in my book group was the fact that Plath makes depression and mental illness seem so normal, almost matter of fact. It was just something she was dealing with, nothing to make a big drama about.

Sadly, she was trapped in a time when women had to rely on men for finances, and when her husband Ted Hughes had an affair, she ended up saddled with two children and severe depression that was just too much to bear.

Such a gifted woman and such a loss to the world.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Womanby Lindy West

I first became aware of Lindy West when I happened across this article in Jezebel, "How to Stop Being Shy in 13 Easy Steps," a brief excerpt from Shrill. (In the book, this article is a whole, hilarious chapter.) I think I've read other essays by West, but her name wasn't familiar to me. Now I'm a big fan.

West has been writing in the blogosphere for years, first for The Stranger in Seattle and also for Jezebel and now The Guardian. She's loud, sassy, confident, funny, and brutally honest. She writes about what it's like to live fat (her word), be a comic in an environment much more friendly to men, fight sexism, have an abortion, aim for her higher self, and fall in love. She has stood up to nasty, woman-hating, fat-shaming trolls on Twitter and on the comedy circuit, both online and also in live interviews.

The most troubling thing about reading this book is realizing how much hateful crap women online face every day. In fact, while I was in the middle of this book, I read that famous feminist blogger Jessica Valenti has gone offline social media because the trolls were threatening to rape her five-year-old daughter! Such a dark side to the Internet, when men feel safe taking out their anger on women online. This has to stop, although I'm not sure what the solution is if outright, public misogyny is allowed in the comedy clubs. As West learned when she faced her troll head on, most trolls are pathetic white men who are jealous of confident women.

I often need to take a break when reading books of essays, but not this one. Lindy West is a funny, bright, brave, and passionate badass, and she's found a new fan in me.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climateby Naomi Klein

I read part of this book for our church book group, but I must confess I didn't get through the whole thing. Instead I supplemented my reading by watching the video, available for free on Amazon Prime.

Here's my key takeaway: trade contributes to our global carbon emissions, and they are not tracked like each country tracks their carbon emissions on their own soil. I knew nothing about this factor, and I found this chapter particularly enlightening.

Klein calls for a revolution, and I can see clearly why she was a Bernie Sanders supporter. She decries business and previous climate change resolutions, and she demands immediate change in our capitalistic economy to save the planet.

I find myself becoming more pragmatic as I age, and I'm sure part of this is my own role working as a sustainability marketing and communications manager for an environmental consulting firm. One of the most exciting things we are doing is partnering with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to promote the use of natural infrastructure. Klein comes across as very hard on "Big Green," as represented by groups like TNC. She criticizes TNC for drilling on land donated to the organization in Texas. I don't know much about this particular situation, but I can't help but wonder if there is more to the situation than meets the eye.

And the tricky thing is that we can't throw the baby out with the bath water. We are not yet ready to go fossil fuel free, and part of reducing our dependence on foreign oil supplies is being able to meet our own energy demands. I just take this all with a grain of salt.

This Changes Everything prompts many questions for us to consider, and it was a great book to consider with a group. The stories Klein tells, both in the book and the movie, about activists standing up to businesses invading the environment are inspiring. But in general, I believe we need to work with business and government instead of going it on our own. Capitalism is here to stay, and it's going to be more effective if we can find ways to work together rather than against each other. It's absolutely imperative, in fact, for our own survival.

The Girl on the Train

22557272By Paula Hawkins

I've had this book on my "to read" list for awhile...people have compared it to Gone Girl. But although less gruesome than Gone Girl, this novel was less compelling and gripping. I knew Rachel was an unreliable narrator, but this is because she blacked out and can't remember. Gradually, she pieces the truth together in her mind.

Consequently, Hawkins gradually unravels the story rather than diving right in. I thought she did a good job of depicting the harsh reality of alcoholism. But ultimately, I expected more out of this novel than I got. It is very British, and I appreciated that! And a decent read...but not as fantastic as I expected!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Career of Evil

Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike, #3)by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)

I enjoyed the first Robert Galbraith (The Cuckoo's Calling) but was much less enthralled with #2 (The Silkworm). Career of Evil was much more interesting and once again captured my attention.

Cormoran Strike is a fascinating, haunted protagonist. But OMG, Robin is such a strong, self-assured character in so many ways. Why on earth does she want to stay with Matthew? This is the clear weakness in this series, in my opinion.

I will keep reading. But I would love to get rid of Matthew!!

The Martian

The MartianBy Andy Weir

I read The Martian in one weekend, when my husband and I were celebrating our 26th anniversary at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon.

A few weeks later we watched the movie. Although I enjoyed seeing the book illustrated in film, I found the movie a bit lacking compared to the book. Weir's novel at times goes way too much into detail in the science, but it also does a better job of showing the conflict Mark Watney faced.

The most amazing thing about this story was the way "the martian" Watney won against Mars with science...and the book illustrates this much more thoroughly and convincingly than the movie.

At our book group meeting, it prompted us to research what's happening nowadays with NASA and Mars exploration. (The answer: not much, because of limited research funding.)

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)By Elena Ferrante 

I was not as enthusiastic about this book as were some of my book groupies. The first of a trilogy turned quartet, I enjoyed it well enough but don't feel terribly compelled to read on.

The story of two young Italian girls and supposedly a great story of female friendship, the novel disappointed me a bit. I had a hard time understanding what Elena saw in Lila. It reminded me of my younger days, when I was friends with girls who didn't really treat me very well.

In my older years, I've become more selective. So reading books like this that supposedly represent female friendship leave me feeling frustrated. This is not representative of an equal, life-giving friendship.

Apparently this author is a real mystery, and the forthcoming books are huge hits. But I will not read any further unless my friends, who treat me better than Lila treats Elena, tell me I must!

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love, and So Much More

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much Moreby Janet Mock

Wow. I know a few people who have transitioned from woman to man, but Janet Mock's book gave me great insights on what it feels like from the other perspective. And even deeper, it also enlightened me about what happens if a person feels uncomfortable in one's own skin and does not have the financial resources to change that. I read this book for my pastor's book group, and I'm grateful to be part of a church community that grapples with these questions!

Janet Mock knew she wasn't a boy from a very early age, but to make the changes she had to make, she had to resort to selling her body to get there. This broke my heart, as did her experiences of trying to become accepted by her own father. 

She was lucky in that she had a great fount of self-confidence and assurance, which led her through the process. And she was also lucky to live in an environment, in Hawaii, that was accepting of her transition. 

This book is an important story about finding out who you are and the journey to getting there. Janet Mock is a truly brave, inspirational woman. 

Sisters of Heart and Snow

Sisters of Heart and SnowBy Margaret Dilloway 

This is the second Margaret Dilloway novel I've read this year, and I was drawn to this book because I looked up books about female samurai warrior Tomoe Gozen. This novel intersperses stories about Gozen with two Japanese-American women, Rachel and Drew Snow, whose Japanese mom has Alzheimer's and who are estranged from their American father.

I was far more interested in the story about Tomoe Gozen than the modern-day women, but Dilloway does illustrate the often-complicated relationships between sisters. I enjoyed this book, but I think I would have preferred an in-depth historical novel about Tomoe Gozen. It seemed like we were only skimming the surface of her story.

Station Eleven

Station ElevenBy Emily St. John Mandel

Another book group read, this was a beautiful piece of speculative fiction. With the Zika virus, avian flu, and other outbreaks, you can easily imagine this kind of catastrophe happening in our time.

One one hand, I was wondering how people have the strength to carry on in such circumstances, and on the other hand, I was struck by how some characters find their own beauty, art, and poetry in stark conditions.

These types of books make me appreciate what I have--available food, shelter, health care, and loved ones around me.

America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America

America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New AmericaBy Jim Wallis

Jim Wallis calls this book his "lament of the white father." A central theme of the book is the fact that parents of black children have to have "the talk," about how to behave around police and how to just behave in general, in order to survive. Wallis was inspired to write this book after Trayvon Martin was shot and he witnessed the ignorance of the white Christian evangelicals in his midst. He realized that if his own son, a six-foot-tall athlete, had been walking down the street, doing the same thing, he would have been fine.

Wallis identifies racism as the true original sin. As Michelle Obama recently said, "I live in a house that was built by slaves." As Wallis says, "This nation was founded by the near genocide of one people and the kidnapping of another people to build this nation. So slavery and the indigenous destruction of those who were here--that was our original sin. And it still lingers in our criminal justice system--in most of our systems."

Wallis aims most of his message specifically evangelical Christians, because he was disappointed and dismayed by their response to recent highly publicized shootings of African-American men. But it's an important message for all white Americans to hear. He believes it's the call of our Christian faith to work for racial justice, and I agree.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged HospitalFive Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink

Well, what a brutal book this was. In short, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, hospitals all over the city faced huge crises...patients and staff were stranded for days without adequate water, air conditioning, and electricity. At Memorial, thousands of people and pets were stranded. The infrastructure and medical staff were grossly unprepared for the crisis that followed.

Not only was the rescue attempt poorly organized and managed (part of this was due to lack of resources in the city and the gross negligence of the hospital's parent company), but also, a few of the staff developed a sort of triage system to decide who should be rescued first.

Those who had a DNR (do not resuscitate) were rescued last, and patients in a nursing home that leased hospital space were at the bottom of the list as well. In the end, 45 patients died...far more than in other hospitals...doctors hastened the deaths of critically ill patients by injecting them with morphine. What bothered me the most about this story is that the patients' family members were kept in the dark completely. The doctors played God with these patients' lives.

Most of the blame for the horrors landed on Dr. Anna Pou...she was one of three women charged with second-degree murder; however, all charges were dropped. It seemed unfair that only the women were charged, as some male physicians were implicated as well...but the most egregious outcome is that Anna Pou went onto become some kind of expert in disaster medicine ethics!

This book should be read by every medical person and hospital administrator. Our hospitals and other infrastructure are terribly unprepared for natural disasters of this magnitude, which could happen anywhere!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

When reading this book, one of my first comments to my husband was how deeply evocative Idaho writer Doerr's writing is...and how it makes me feel a bit stupid. Later I learned that Doerr spent 10 years researching and writing this book, and it shows.

I tend to love sprawling wartime sagas about people around the world, all experiencing the horrors of war in different ways and circumstances. Marie-Laure is a precocious, bright French child going blind, while Werner is a German orphan who eventually finds the Hitler Youth as his only viable way out of the orphanage. Doerr skillfully weaves their stories together, intermixed with beautiful details about shells, museum archiving and curating, the lifeblood of radios during wartime, precious gems, the cruelty of the Third Reich, mental illness, the French Resistance, and the reality of war for everyday citizens. It will make you realize that when you're poor, orphaned, extremely bright, and German during the war, you don't have very many options available.

Sometimes I thought Doerr spent too much time on minor characters...I would have liked to learn more about Marie-Laure's father, for example, and less about the Nazi gem hunter. And the scene near the end, when Werner is nearly buried alive in bomb wreckage in a cellar? I found myself scanning. It went on far too long. Some of the coincidences are a bit far-fetched, so the book is not perfect.

But damn if it didn't drive me to the Internet to find out about the enchanting walled town in France where Marie-Laure finds refuge. It's called Saint-Malo, and it's on the Brittany coast in northwestern France. The colorful descriptions of this town, and the beautiful relationships Marie-Laure has with her father and uncle (and the precious miniature gifts her father created for her), are my favorite parts of this novel.

How to Be an American Housewife

How to Be an American HousewifeHow to Be an American Housewife, by Margaret Dilloway

Give me any book about Japan or Japanese people, and the author already has a head start toward my liking it. I enjoyed this novel about a Japanese woman who made a difficult choice in Japan and then moved to the U.S., determined to be the perfect American housewife. As she has children and ages, she realizes how difficult this prospect is. This novel captures the stress many Asian-American parents and children feel, as one generation places a much higher value on hard work than the other, and the younger generation adapts better than the older one.

Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature

Nature's Fortune: Why Saving the Environment is the Smartest Investment We Can Make
Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature, by Mark Tercek and Jonathan S. Adams

When I asked our global sustainability director how I could learn about natural capital and natural infrastructure, she recommended I read Nature’s Fortune, written by the CEO of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Mark Tercek. 

When I read in the introduction that he’d majored in English and then lived and taught in Japan like I did, I was hooked. We English majors who’ve been called gaijin have to stick together! I was fascinated to learn about his pathway into sustainability…he came into it through the back door, with a business background at Goldman Sachs, where he created a sustainability business and began partnering with TNC and other environmental nonprofits and exploring ways to make conservation profitable. "I was a late bloomer but protecting nature became my cause and my passion."

Tercek has transformed TNC into an organization that collaborates with business instead of fighting against business. As he says, "Hard-core environmentalists can be quick to criticize organizations such as TNC when they build alliances with companies. They sometimes see such collaborations as consorting with the enemy." But Tercek saw opportunity in working with businesses, because they "control huge amounts of natural resources, often more than governments." Companies are often quicker to act than government, especially as increasing numbers of businesses realize how dependent they are on natural resources and how critical they are for their survival. "The bigger the company's footprint, the bigger the opportunity for the company to reduce its impact on the environment by changing its behavior."

Nature's Fortune is jam-packed with illuminating examples of how the world's natural resources can be put to work, preserving the environment and the supply of these resources. In case study after case study, Tercek explains how cities, counties, states, and businesses are realizing how investing in green infrastructure is the best investment they can make.

For example, back in 1996, Dow Chemical Company's facility in Seadrift, Texas needed to increase its water treatment capacity...the logical (engineering) option would be to pour concrete and build a plant, at the tune of $40 million. But an innovative engineer proposed building a wetland instead, a solution that cost a mere $1.4 million. Now the wetland treats 5 million gallons of water per day, but it also provides habitat for wildlife. Environmentalists can fault Dow as a multinational chemical company, but the fact is that these multinational companies have enormous environmental footprints. When they take steps to reduce these footprints, it benefits us all. When companies invest creatively in nature instead of building traditional infrastructure, they reap many opportunities beyond just saving money. They protect the natural resources they rely on for their business.

Or take the case of Louisiana, where floods from climate change pose increasing threats. Scientists and engineers are realizing the value of floodplains, which have been replaced with hard-constructed levies, dams, and floodwalls. But nature's own resource, floodplains (flat lands near rivers where water can overflow) relieve pressure on levee systems, reduce flood risks, and filter agricultural runoff. Hard structures alone, as we saw during Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina, are often not enough to stop rising water and can actually make flooding worse for communities downstream.

A 2009 Harvard Business Review article concluded that "the current economic system has placed enormous pressure on the planet...traditional approaches to business will collapse, and companies will need to develop innovative solutions." Further, "failure to have a culture of sustainability is quickly becoming a source of competitive disadvantage. The argument about sustainability is over." 

While Tercek encourages cooperation and collaboration with businesses to protect the environment, he also appreciates the value of environmental organizations that prefer to work as watchdogs on business, commenting that the pressure they place on business partnerships results in better transparency and more successful approaches to protect nature.

I recommend this book as an excellent overview of how natural infrastructure can help organizations conserve resources, save money, and create more reliable, sustainable solutions to our changing world. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Yes Please

Yes PleaseYes Please, by Amy Poehler

Reading Yes Please is like sitting down with your wackiest, most honest friend, the one who tells you everything, warts and all.

I’d recommend this book to fans of comedy, SNL, Parks and Recreation, or Poehler’s movies…others might find it less interesting.

I enjoyed reading Poehler’s stories of her childhood (she was deeply cherished and told she could do anything, not a surprise when you see her optimism and cheerful spirit). She discusses her early career in comedy and how she made her big break onto SNL. She also talks of motherhood and being a professional woman, albeit a celebrity one. She speaks fondly of her friends, colleagues, and ex-husband Will Arnett…and warmly tells stories of making and tearfully ending Parks and Rec.

And she confessed one of her shameful secrets…being part of a SNL sketch that made fun of a disabled child, and trying to make amends after she learned what she had done. Honest to a fault though, she waited awhile after being called on the situation before she could ask apologize and ask for forgiveness.

I love Poehler’s brand of feminism: being unabashedly proud to be female; upbeat, optimistic, and fun; and embracing male allies, but not taking any shit, which she continues to espouse in her Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls videos and Facebook page. And best of all, like me, she cherishes her women friends, as important to our souls and spirits as food and water are to our bodies. She lives out this philosophy in her work (Leslie Knope’s Galentine’s Day and adoration of her best friend) and in her life (as she writes about one of her main collaborators, Tina Fey).

So if this sounds appealing to you, sit down with your imaginary best friend Amy for some funny, poignant, and touching tales.

Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers, by Elias Chacour

My dear friend and Lutheran pastor, who visited Palestine in 2014, advised me that Blood Brothers was a good introduction to the history of the conflict in the Middle East.

Until a few years ago, I only knew one side of the Palestine-Israel story. Several people from my church started a Holy Land team and regularly visit Palestine. We've had many speakers on the topic, including Lutheran bishop Mitri Raheb (who just won the 2015 Olof Palme peace prize), Rabbi Ned Rosch (representing Jewish Voice of Peace), and other speakers. So I was reasonably well informed before starting this book, but Blood Brothers gave me a more personal, home-grown perspective.

A few months ago, we discussed Blood Brothers at our church book group, and we had two special guests: a friend who is Syrian, Hazar, and her dear friend, who is the great-niece of Fr. Elias Chacour, author of this book. A deeply emotional, heartfelt conversation ensued as they both shared stories of loss and sadness about their homelands. 

One of Elias Chacour's mentors, Fr. Longere, gave this advice during a final lecture:
"If there is a problem somewhere, this is what happens. Three people will try to do something to settle the issue. Ten will give a lecture analyzing what the three are doing. One hundred will commend or condemn the ten for their lecture. One thousand people will argue about the problem. And one person--only one--will involve himself so deeply in the true solution that he is too busy to listen to any of it. Now...which person are you?"
This is the central message of the book...Fr. Chacour dedicated his life to building peace among nations and religions, even though his life and his family's was upended by the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The most important message about this book is that there's so much more going on in Israel and Palestine than what meets the eye (or crosses our path via western media). Blood Brothers begins when Fr. Elias Chacour is just a small boy, when his family had close relationships with Jews in his community. Peaceful farmers, his family did not have a lot of money, but they were rich in love and their Christian faith.

I learned in the book that the desire to form a Jewish homeland in Israel did not begin after the Holocaust. In fact, the idea first sparked in 1897 in Switzerland, at a conference "to lay the foundation stone of the house which was to shelter the Jewish nation." Over the years, many western countries talked about creating a homeland for the Jews.

In 1917 Jewish Zionists aligned themselves with Britain's Christian Restorationists, a group that believed they might bring to pass the second coming of Christ by creating a state of Israel. The intentions were not necessarily pure either. British Lord Balfour supported the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, while at the same time playing a major role in passing the Aliens Act in 1906, which expressly sought to exclude Jews from Great Britain. He also did not care at all what the Palestinians thought about this.

Through the 1920s, European immigration to Palestine increased and Zionist leaders became less guarded about their plan to institute a Jewish state. Many Zionists were ill at ease with those who insisted on Jewish "predominance" in Palestine. Yitzhak Epstein, an agriculturist, warned the Zionist Party that they "had wrongly consulted every political power that held sway over Palestine without consulting the Palestinians themselves..." and he worried about Palestinian resentment. He argued that the immigrating Jews should help Palestinians find their own identity and open to them the new Jewish hospitals, schools, and reading rooms...however, he was staunchly opposed.

By the 1930s, immigration from Europe was rising like a flood, with no intervention or plans by the British. In 1936, Palestinian leaders called for a general strike, as they were losing power over their own homeland...the strike lasted for 6 months, crippling commerce. But violence increased and in 1938, the protests were finally crushed.

Pres. Roosevelt held off the Zionists and wanted to open the free world to the victims of the Holocaust, but Pres. Truman had a different plan. The Zionist lobbyists argued that admission to Palestine was the "only hope of survival" for the Jewish people. The exhausted British found themselves pressured by the White House, even as they watched their mandate government in Palestine blitzed by a campaign of terror. In 1947 they announced their plan to surrender their mandate. And violence spread unchecked.

Then came the Holocaust, when many western nations refused to take in Jewish refugees. Chacour does not blame the terrified masses of Jewish immigrants who fled to Palestine. He says they were pawns of the Zionist leaders. Upon their arrival in Palestine they were indoctrinated against their so-called new enemy: the Palestinians.

In 1950, 50,000 Jewish people were celebrating Passover in Baghdad, Iraq. (More than 130,000 Jews lived in Iraq at the time, the oldest Jewish community in the world.) A small bomb was hurled from a car speeding along the river, and shock waves rocked the community. Leaflets appeared the next day, urging Jews to flee to Israel, and 10,000 signed up for emigration immediately. Then a second bomb exploded, then a third, killing several people outside a synagogue. By early 1951 Jews fled Iraq in panic until only 5,000 remained in the country. In the end, 15 people were arrested in connection with the bombing, and they were Zionists. They had thrown bombs at their own people to touch off a panic emigration to Israel. Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and others knew of the plot in advance.

But back to Elias Chacour's story. During the Zionist takeover of Palestine, Israel destroyed 450 Palestinian villages, including Chacour's. He and his family had to flee their orchards and house to settle in a nearby village that was much more shabby than their own. Chacour was eventually sent to seminary and became a priest and then a bishop.

Even though his family's lives were torn apart by the Israeli Zionists, he does not hate them. Instead, he shows compassion to them, the true biblical "turning the other cheek," because he keeps in mind what happened in the Holocaust. He has dedicated his life to bringing Jews, Christians, and Muslims together...through activism, advocacy, and community building. At a young age, he and other Palestinians were unfairly branded as "terrorists" even though they were not. Given the Palestinian apartheid and unfair treatment they have received, it's understandable why they would want to protest. But Chacour has chosen a nonviolent path in spite of what he has seen and faced.

He tells a touching story about arriving in the deeply fractured city of Ibillin, where he arranged to have three nuns visit and reach out to the villagers. He hoped the sisters would be able to do what he had not yet been able to do: broker peace. Even after the tension began thawing, enemies still existed. One day Fr. Chacour locked the church doors and exhorted them to act like Christians and forgive each other.

His mother's final message to him before she died was, "Be strong, Elias. What you do matters. Especially for the young ones."

The book ends with Fr. Chacour asking questions of Palestinians, Israelis, and westerners. "How can you take on yourself the right to decide who is the terrorist? Who is the fighter for liberty? How do you find it your right to judge?"

Coauthor David Hazard shares an anecdote in the afterword about a visit to a Gazan refugee camp, where he spoke to a 17-year-old Palestinian girl. She told how she witnessed her teenage cousin being shot through the head after he picked up a rock in response to Israel soldier taunts. She accused him and all Americans of knowing about these daily abuses against Palestinians but not caring, and even supporting the conservative Israeli forces that sponsor these acts. When Hazard tried to explain that Americans don't know about these things, she said, "Of course Americans know we're suffering over here. You're the most powerful nation on earth. And everyone has a television. I know you know."

In the group at my church, our guests--Hazar from Syria and Fr. Chacour's niece, who is Lebanese, emotionally spoke of their homelands and the misperceptions people have about the real story in the Middle East. The following month, we discussed Blood Brothers at my regular book group, and my British friend Niki spoke about what she learned about Palestine and Israel growing up, a much more complex and multilayered picture than what we were fed in the U.S.

We are so uninformed and ignorant. So much of the conflict and strife in the Middle East, hatred between Muslims and Jews, comes down to this conflict in Palestine. And until it is resolved, nothing will get better.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Baby's On Fire

Baby's on FireBaby's On Fire, by Liz Prato

I'm not really much of a short story person. I'd always prefer reading a novel. In fact, I didn't actually know this was fiction until I reached the beginning of the second story!! (Yes, I know it says "Stories" on the front!)

My first exposure to Liz Prato was when I heard her read at a book launch for Brave on the Page, an anthology of essays by and interviews with Oregon writers, in which my husband was also featured. Her autobiographical piece immediately drew me in....full of stark, gut-wrenching detail. I knew she was a writer to watch.

...So I was excited to read Baby's On Fire, the first book she's written (and I didn't know it was short stories). You know you've found a good short story, when you wish it were a novel...and that's how I felt about many of these stories.

One thread runs through these stories: the characters have been scarred by tough times. In the title story, for example, the unemployed, depressed main character arrives home in Portland to discover her family's house had been burned to the ground.

Two other sad stories in particular made me want more: "The Adventures of a Maya Queen" and Riding to the Shore," interestingly, both involving cancer. And one story, "Covered in Red Dirt," takes place in Hawaii, always an intriguing setting for me.

In each story, Prato paints a beautiful, if sometimes heart-breaking, picture of lives lived hard and people who have been through the wars. She too has survived more than one heart should bear, and it shows in her work. A person who hasn't experienced deep losses could not write like this and could not represent these characters' lives and thoughts so well.

Multnomah County Library named Baby's on Fire as one of its best books of 2015. I feel fortunate to know such a talented writer who creates touching stories that stick with you for days.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Maud's Line

Maud's LineMaud's Line, by Margaret Verble

I checked this historical novel out of the library because I actually knew a woman who grew up in Oklahoma with Native American roots. She, like Maud Nail, was a spirited spitfire! And she too often found herself dependent on men, much to her chagrin.

Maud lives with two incompetent men...her father is an alcoholic wanderer with a temper, and her brother is a troubled dreamer. Maud essentially keeps their homestead going.

When a peddler stops by, Maud's life changes...not only her own circumstances, but also that of her father and brother. She is a free-spirited heroine of the midwest. I didn't always agree with her decisions, but I enjoyed reading about her adventures.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Such a hard, beautiful, and important book! Highly acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me as a letter to his son, and last week it won the National Book Award for nonfiction.

Coates did not write this book for white readers (or as he says, "people who believe they are white," quoting James Baldwin). But that's exactly why we should read it. It's brutally honest, raw, and gut wrenching. He doesn't mince words, and he doesn't sugarcoat history or reality.
"I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner chocked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone's grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy ... The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include frisking, detaining, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible."
The book brought me to tears several times...when Coates arrives at Howard University and feels comfortable in his own skin for the first time...
"There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were the high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt. There were Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses."
...or when his friend, Prince Jones, is killed by police for the crime of driving while black...or when a white woman rudely pushes his son and he feels helpless to defend him...or when he takes his son to preschool for the first time and wants to warn him not to be so happy and carefree...
“But now I understand the gravity of what I was proposing—that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time. And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children, I am ashamed."
This idea, of parenting a child while knowing that you cannot fully protect him...of knowing that Prince Jones' mom gave him every privilege she could, yet all it took was one racist act to destroy everything...this realization of how many white male privileges my sons have that Coates' son does not and will never have...this brought me to tears several times while reading this book.
 “So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to 'be twice as good,' which is to say 'accept half as much.' These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile."
Black children are told, either directly or indirectly, to be twice as good and accept half as much, while white children are told to, or allowed to, take more.

I've observed black friends parenting their children in a way that is much stricter than my own, and Coates articulated why that is:
“But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know...black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered...I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made...later, I would hear it in Dad’s voice—'Either I can beat him, or the police.'"
I attended a well-attended book discussion about Between the World and Me this week at my church. Although everyone liked the book a lot, one woman said she was troubled by the anger in this book...because she believes that anger doesn't get you anywhere (e.g., look at the Islamic State). I can understand her perspective, but I can see both sides. 

I am not by nature an angry person, but I understand the anger in Te-Nehisi Coates' soul. I think we need anger at injustice to move forward. We need the nonviolent Martin Luther King Jrs as much as we need the Malcolm Xs. We need the Sandra Blands, who was a Black Lives Matter activist before she was killed, as much as we need the Maya Angelous. And Oh My Gracious God, do black people ever have the right to be angry. 

This country was built on their backs, woven with their arteries, and yet we continue to have racists like Donald Trump claim that racism no longer exists...and fail to understand why Black Lives Matter. We have people use the word "thugs" or decry "black-on-black crime," which Coates says is like shooting a man and then shaming him for bleeding. 

And I cried when I read about Coates' son giving up his hope for the first time:
“That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 P.M. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, 'I’ve got to go,' and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you."
This knowledge that it was no use to comfort his son, because he couldn't give any comfort. Damn straight he's angry, and he has a right to be. No more sugarcoating. We all need to wake up.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Masterminds and Wingmen

Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy WorldMasterminds and Wingmen, by Roasalind Wiseman

A great book about boys, written by the author of Queenbees and Wannabes, who is actually the mom of boys (rather than girls).

Wiseman wrote this book after interviewing hundreds of boys and trying to figure out how they think. As a woman living in a house with four males (three sons and a husband), I can honestly tell you that their brains are wired differently, and they are also conditioned to behave in a different way. It's called Boy World, and I'm often out of my element!

I learned some helpful tricks from this book, such as not bombarding my sons with questions. I am a detailed person, and they, alas, are less so. When I pepper them with questions at the end of a school day, or when they come home from college, it is less than effective.

Boys are faced with entirely different challenges than girls are, and this book identifies those challenges and helps parents figure out a way to assist their sons in navigating those challenges.

God Is Disappointed in You

God Is Disappointed in YouGod Is Disappointed in You, by Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler

This is a funny retelling of each of the books of the Bible, in a highly accessible, irreverent, and humorous way. If you're willing to flex the way the Bible is interpreted, and you have a great sense of humor, you'll enjoy this book. It's sort of like a Cliff's Notes told via Tina Fey...written by humorist Mark Russell with cartoons by the New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler.

Tibetan Peach Pie

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative LifeTibetan Peach Pie, by Tom Robbins

If you've ever read Tom Robbins, you're well familiar with his gallivanting across the field of language and experience. This book, which he insists is not a memoir, is no different.

It's a series of hilarious essays on a variety of topics. Robbins' stories of his childhood growing up in Appalachia, through his growing-up years and colorful relationships, are highly entertaining. Drugs, of course, made things more colorful!

This book made me want to go back and re-read some of the novels that made such an impression on me in my 20s...Jitterbug Perfume, Another Roadside Attraction, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Robbins is now in his 80s, but his voice and perspective (not to mention his author photo!) still seem to be in his 30s. Now he lives in quaint La Conner, Washington, a delightful spot. Wouldn't it be fun to go see him at a reading?

"A True Account of an Imaginative Life" of Tommy Rotten describes this book well.

Jacket photo

Robbins in 2014--he's aged pretty well, actually! 

Judgment Calls

Judgment Calls (Samantha Kincaid #1)Judgment Calls, by Alafair Burke

Confession: I acquired this book somewhere solely because it was based in Portland. I love to read books set in my hometown.

It was a solid mystery/thriller, by the daughter of famous writer James Lee Burke. Deputy DA Samantha Kincaid is a solid character. Sometimes the book veered a little too far into legal wonkiness, which led me to think "I COULD NEVER BE A LAWYER"! Far too many obscure legal procedures and technicalities.

I might read more of her to see where she goes as a writer...and where Samantha Kincaid goes as a character.

The Boston Girl

The Boston GirlThe Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant

Another book group selection, The Boston Girl came on the heels of A Gesture Life, our October book group pick. I found it much easier going than A Gesture Life.

It's the story of Addie Baum, whose Jewish immigrant parents arrived in Boston with her two sisters, and the hopes of a better life. Her mother is the classic Jewish critical mom, and the saddest thing about this book is that Addie never receives her approval.

I really enjoyed this easy read...it was written in first person, as Addie is telling stories to her granddaughter...it portrays the difficulties of life for a woman in the early 1900s. Addie was ahead-of-her time independent, smart, and feisty, which I loved. And that of course drove her mother crazy.

But as we concluded at book group, it doesn't go terribly deep. It would've been better if we had a better understanding of what was going on in Addie's head--and that of the other characters--and what her motivations were.

I also found the "stories for her granddaughter" format a bit far fetched. But all in all, it was a a fun read.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Gesture Life

A Gesture Life, by Chang-Rae Lee

A Gesture Life is another book that was really hard to get into, but the patience paid off. If it hadn't been a book group selection, I might not have stuck with it.

Franklin Hata was a man who was difficult to admire or respect, because he seemed cold and heartless. His stilted relationship with his adopted daughter Sunny just made me sad. He had a chronic difficulty in relating to anyone on a deep, true level.

Presumably, this was because of his difficult experiences in the war and his obsession with K, a Korean "comfort woman." The storyline about the comfort women made me truly sick to my stomach. Apparently when Chang-Rae Lee began writing this novel, it was going to be all about comfort women, but he found that to be too heavy of a subject. His obsession with K reminded me of the foreign men I knew in Japan who were obsessed with Japanese women...many of them ended up marrying them and staying in Japan. They were drawn to them because they were less likely to challenge them than western women. They liked the way the Japanese women looked up to them. Often, these men would not have been classified as "catches" in the US or UK. These relationships were not very equal.

That is the relationship between Franklin and K. He thinks he loves her, but she only views him as one more man who is taking advantage of her. In his case, perhaps he can help her a little. But he means nothing to her.

I appreciated this book more after discussing it with my book group. Some of them liked it better than I did, and one of my friends observed that perhaps it was the way she had been raised, with more distant parenting. That could be.

It was beautifully written, but a little bit disappointing for me. I expected more, and I found it to be really sad.

I'll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the SunI'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson

I loved this book. Written for young adults, I'll Give You the Sun is about fraternal twins...Jude and her twin brother, Noah, beginning with age 13. Told in alternating perspectives, the story is about their efforts to cope with adolescence and change, friendship, the experience of being twins and siblings, deep-seated grief and longing, art, love, and how to be truly, authentically yourself.

The only thing I didn't like about it was the use of the term "surftards." I kept thinking about John Green's stated regret about using the "retard" word in Paper Towns. One could argue that it's what kids say...but I also think that authors have the opportunity to raise the bar and set a higher standard.

As an Internet author friend has said in her review, "The words and terms toilet-licking, asshat, and surftard are used in nauseating excess. Plus, don’t get me started on how the word surftard is simply another version of “retard”--a slur wearing a cloak of originality. First Amendment aside, I think it is irresponsible for a young adult author to coin a new hate term. I challenge her to replace the tard in surftard with a racial epithet and see how it plays out. This unnecessary hate language adds absolutely nothing to the voice and persona of the character who uses it."

Otherwise, I adored this novel. It made me cry. Totally rich, complicated characters.

Friday, October 30, 2015

In a Dark, Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark WoodIn a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

Score one point for Ruth Ware for prompting me to think about this book in the middle of the night. In a Dark, Dark Wood is about Nora (formerly Lee), an antisocial, reserved writer in England, who is invited to a hen night (the UK version of a bachelorette party). The strange thing is she hasn't seen the bride for 10 years, since she was a teenager.

Bride Clare brings her "friends" from far and wide to a hidden-away, isolated glass house in the country where they drink heavily and have many an awkward conversation, especially since Nora and Claire fell out of friendship when they were teens.

And then someone is murdered, and Nora doesn't know whether she is the killer.

It's sinister, but not too grisly, and it's hard to care much about what happens to most of the characters. The characters, with the exception of Nina, were spoiled yuppies who thought the world revolved around them.

This was not bad for an airplane or beach read...but Nora annoyed the hell out of me. I don't have much sympathy for someone who cannot move on after a lost teenage love affair. Nora needed to get a life.

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

I debated whether to read Go Set a Watchman for quite some time, but finally curiosity got the best of me! It's worth reading if only to explore this progression of a writer and a book, as it preceded To Kill a Mockingbird.

What I liked about it:
  • Scout, or Jean Louise, is a grown woman. And she is a crusty, opinionated, and stubborn one at that.
  • As one reviewer noted, Go Set a Watchman is not the book we wanted about race...but it was the book we need. Others have said Atticus was always a racist.
  • The writing, at times, was beautiful...when it was not meandering.
  • It showed a slice of history, and perhaps a more realistic one, in the South during that era.
What I didn't like about it:
  • Oh, the meandering! Lee often goes off on various flashbacks, and I found myself questioning when we would get back to the main story. Not a good sign, and it reflects the need for the novel to be polished...which it was by the time To Kill a Mockingbird was published.
  • Some characters are mere shadows (Jem and Dill) of their evolved selves. I'm not sure why she even included them in this draft, as they appear only as memory fragments.
  • Many reviews discuss Atticus' racism while ignoring Jean Louise's own racism. Perhaps she wasn't as flawed as Atticus, but she was no saint. As "the book we need," it is a better representation of the south during this era than To Kill a Mockingbird, because it showed the many layers of racism. Yes, Atticus and Jean Louise's love interest Hank were worse, but Scout too was racist. Although Jean Louise was horrified by the KKK and its ilk, she was just as horrified by school segregation and interracial marriage.  
I'm glad I read it if only because I'm a curious reader and wanted to form my own opinion (similar to why I read Twilight). But it's easy to see why Harper Lee's first editor advised her to take a different tack. 

Ultimately, this book disappoints because Jean Louise is an old-school Southerner through and through, in spite of the higher hopes the reader might have in the beginning and middle of the novel. As Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times, "The difference is that Mockingbird suggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo and Tom Robinson, while Watchman asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus."

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

Here's one of the many values of book group for me: it makes me stick with novels that do not grab me immediately. Often, if I stick it out, they are worth it in the end. And so is the case with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

The main character, Rosemary Cooke, was hard for me to relate to, especially at first. She is reserved, private, and distanced from her family because of a tragedy in her childhood. As the book moves along, we eventually learn what that life-changing tragedy was.

Without giving too much away about the story, this book exposed a lot of disturbing facts about the animal testing industry, specifically about chimpanzees and other primates. I learned a great deal about what humans have done to our evolutionary predecessors, and it's not pretty. This book made for great, thought-provoking discussions at book group. I definitely recommend it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

In the Blood

In the BloodIn the Blood, by Lisa Unger

This was my summer light read; I took it with me to Florida in August.

It was a psychological thriller about a troubled, hard-to-believe protagonist and psychopaths in her life. Perhaps too many coincidences and unlikely events, but if you can suspend belief, it's worth a read.

I would read more from this author.

Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the FeastSkeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the Feast takes place shortly before the second world war ends, told from the perspective of Anna, a wealthy Prussian woman in love with Callum, a Scottish POW; Uri, a Jewish man on the run and in disguise; and a French Jewish woman in a concentration camp. Previously I knew very little about the Prussian people, and the story includes Anna's family's journey west to escape the invading Russians. Bohjalian always does such an excellent job portraying layers of complexity in his characters and situations, and this book is no different.

Some readers have balked at the violence and disturbing imagery in this book, but people, it was war. The Holocaust. A completely brutal time in our history. Based on a diary Bohjalian received from a friend whose grandmother grew up on a farm in East Prussia, the book addresses the dark side of Europe during the war...those who became Nazi party members and emulated Hitler while refusing to acknowledge what was really going on around them.