Black Girl/White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

black girl:white girl

Generva Meade has come from a family who assisted with the Underground Railroad and who is deeply entrenched in the Civil Rights movement, and she is currently assigned, her freshman year, to live with a conservative, religious black roommate at the prestigious Schuyler College where her family has donated founding money.  She is very excited to get to know her roommate, Minette, and is sorely disappointed when she sees that her roommate does not reciprocate this enthusiasm.  In fact, her roommate, she finds, is sullen, angry, and a fierce loner – scorning white and black girls in their dorm alike.  Generva is undaunted, however, and pursues the friendship in spite of the coldness with which every attempt at kindness is greeted.  When Minette becomes the target of hate pranks, Generva is her staunchest protector, even as Minette ignores her help.  And as the year progresses, and Minette’s situation worsens, Generva is also confronting her own family distress, with her mother’s unraveling as her father’s past transgressions are catching up to him (as is the FBI).  The final incident of Minette’s tragedy pushes Generva to face her own past as her family faces theirs.

I rarely listen to books on tape, but this was the result of a very long car ride – and I’m not sure if that tainted my view on this book or not.  It is a difficult story, both emotionally and technically.  There are many tangents, that are later significant but that are sometimes hard to follow.  The story is also steeped in history, shameful and bleak, and had many references to the attempts on the part of many whites who tried to help, but who expect more appreciation than they are deserving of.

The character of Minette is a tragic one.  She is trapped between the world of her conservative, Christian, independent and proud Black heritage and the more modern, socially-focused black girls in her dorm.  She refused to socialize with the other black girls just because they were black like she was, but this left her alone and deeply depressed.  She also refused any help with her studies, even as she was struggling academically, which further plummeted her self-esteem.  As she became the target of racial incidents, it became more and more heartbreaking to see how alone she was.  Generva could not comprehend why Minette would continue to repel her kindness.  It is not entirely clear if Minette’s ignoring of Generva is from a resentment of white privilege or just from her own self-absorption from depression – or perhaps both.

This story had the potential to be excellent, however, it feels like it tries a bit too hard.  The nagging earnestness on the part of Generva that is borne of her own family history and connections and her own wish to rid herself of that white guilt becomes cloying,  At least this reader/listener shouted more than once, “Just leave her alone!”  It is unclear why she would continue to try, when repelled so many times, when she would have had other friends in other groups.  Why did she need to befriend only this one girl?  Was it the challenge?  Was it because she was black?  Was it because her family was so disconnected from her as she was growing up and that gave her so little self-esteem? Was it her own sense of guilt from her family’s activities?

If you are psychologically inclined, you might be interested in reading this, as there is a lot of depth here.  But if you are looking for a quick, entertaining, light read, this is not the book for you!

 

This Is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel

this is how it always is

This is the poignant story of a loving family: parents, Rosie and Penn, and their 5 boys; that is, they believed they had 5 boys until the youngest, Claude, declared that he wanted to bring a purse to kindergarten instead of a lunchbox. Gradually, it became clearer that Claude was much happier in dresses than pants and identified more with the princess in his father’s bedtime fairytale than the prince.  While his parents and brothers were accepting of this, they were fearful that people around him were not, and they went to great lengths to protect Claude, who eventually called herself Poppy.  As the story unfolds, we learn that while intentions may be pure, our actions may not be in others’ best interests and over-protection can lead to inadvertent harm.

This is a fictional story, but it has all the markings of a story that is true.   Every character is endowed with a dynamic, vulnerable, and big-hearted quirkiness that makes all of them larger than life.  We come to love each member of this family almost as our own.  The story is enriched with some detail of how Claude/Poppy’s experience affects the other members of the family – as it certainly would – and their own struggles with growing and seeking their own identities.  And most genuinely, Poppy’s struggle is not straightforward – she is not sure what her journey will be like or where it will end.  This is the true meaning of a non-binary identity.  One does not have to be male or female.  While this may be hard for  many to comprehend, it is even harder for others to squeeze themselves into one or the other, and I believe because of that, we all just have to get over ourselves and accept the vast space in-between.

I loved this novel, both for the message within and for the beauty of the story on its own merit.  It is a story of a family dealing with a secret that they learn doesn’t have to be a secret.  It is a story of a family learning to cope with difference, which most families have to deal with on some level, as no one is exactly like anyone else anyway.  And it is a story about love and family bonds that keep a family tied together no matter what.

 

Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by Lisa Damour, PhD

under pressure

Working exclusively with young women over the past 15 years, I have seen a frightening trend of increased anxiety among them.  There are many explanations of why this is so, but there are few answers as to how to help them cope.  In this concise, articulate, and surprisingly upbeat book, Lisa Damour guides primarily parents in how to gently and supportively help their daughters to confront the sources of their stress and anxiety and in doing so, to combat them.  As she points out, quite aptly, when one shies away from the cause of the anxiety, most often that anxiety only builds.  Significantly, too, Damour does not demonize stress and anxiety.  She points out that without stress, we might not push ourselves to do our best to achieve our goals; likewise, without the anxiety response, we might not be alert to dangerous situations.  Stress and anxiety are only bad when they reach such high levels as to interfere with our normal functioning – that is when we need intervention.

The writing is insightful, readable, and filled with vignettes that engage the reader.  Damour relates experiences with her clients as well as her own daughters, which make the issues she discusses come alive and tangible.  She divides the issues into those that relate to girls in the home, girls in relationships with other girls, girls in relationships with boys, girls at school and girls as they are portrayed in our culture – and each of the stressors that are inherent to each of these realms.  There are helpful tips along the way, lots of analogies, and very wise, concrete suggestions.

One takeaway I loved was her response when a young woman wasn’t sure how to respond to a conflict.  Our culture conditions women to be agreeable and girls are expected to be and generally are particularly sensitive to others’ feelings.  She summarized peoples’ responses to conflict as being either a bulldozer, a doormat, a doormat with spikes (passive aggressive responder), or (the desirable response) a pillar (stands up for herself without stepping on anyone else).  I thought this was a great way to think about how we respond to conflict and and how we can guide others to do so in a constructive way.

I don’t think all of the advice in this book is exclusive to only girls.  Some of it is generalizable to boys as well.   But there is certainly plenty of evidence that girls experience more stress and anxiety than boys and that it is taking its toll on this generation of girls.  Here are, finally, tools to utilize to help them resist this scourge and be resilient.

Educated by Tara Westover

educaated

Deep in the hills of Idaho, among the potato farms and tiny villages, poverty reigns over large families like the Westovers, who cling to their Mormon faith for the little bit of truth that they can believe in.  Dad preaches to his children his beliefs that the government is part of a socialist plot to undermine the Lord’s will and public education is just a manifest of this.  So while the older children might have benefitted from having gone to school, the younger ones, Tara being the youngest of those, did not.  So the kitchen where Tara mixes herbs with her mother and the junkyard where Tara sorts metals with her father and brothers become Tara’s classrooms.   And the random, outdated history or mathematics textbooks that left around the house became her only source of book learning, such as it was. Sadly, her emotional learning was blunted by the abuse at the behest of her brother Shawn, and her ability to survive in her home was made possible only by quelling any feeling or reaction to what was going on around her. When she finally did allow herself to feel, she realized there was just too much rage at her whole family to do anything with it.  This was the face of mental illness and this was the face of her family.

This is the true account of the life of Tara Westover – and it’s truly a miracle that all of the children actually survived, especially Tara.  The severity of the neglect and abuse at the hand of her father (and her mother) is staggering.  It is really not entirely their fault, as they clearly are mentally ill – at least her father is severely so.  The most egregiously violent and abusive one, however, is her brother Shawn, who is viciously violent and his parents repeatedly turn a blind eye to his cruelty.

I find that the one I am most angry with by the end of the book, interestingly, is Tara’s mother.  She has so many opportunities to come through for Tara.  There are moments when it appears she just might finally side with Tara.  That she might stand up against Tara’s father, or against Shawn, and say that Tara may be right in accusing Shawn of acting violently toward Tara, or of Dad having mistreated Tara when she was younger, not having given her opportunities or believed her when she was telling the truth (that she was NOT a whore, as she was so often accused of being).   Even later, when her mother had more financial success and independence and might have had a chance to break free and it might have appeared she’d stand up for herself.  But no, she did not.  Such. a disappointment for Tara.  No wonder there was such heartbreak and fury.

The fact that Tara has achieved the success that she has is miraculous and I applaud her intellect and courage.  I only pray for her that she is able to find the support that will allow her to find kindness toward herself that will allow her to heal from all the hurt.

I thank her for sharing her story with all of us.  It has been so powerful.  Mental illness rears its ugly head in so many ways.  Sadly, the worst is toward children.

 

Chiefs by Stuart Woods

chiefs

In looking for something different to read, I stumbled upon this thriller from the 1980’s, which was so much more substantive and nuanced than I ever imagined.

It begins in 1919, when Will Henry Lee is appointed the Chief of Police in the tiny town of  Delano, Georgia.  Things are fairly quiet until the first body turns up – that of a young boy, naked, with suspicious marks on him.  This case is niggling at him but life goes on and he is forced to move on with the times.  As the years pass, the case becomes buried deeper and deeper in layers of race, power, politics, and in simple human nature and the ultimate resolution is a shock to everyone.

This story is so carefully delivered, over time, even over generations, and the reader’s patience is rewarded with an exquisitely intricate plot.  There is a horrifying overlay of the deep south’s history of racial bias which, sadly, is quite poignant and relatable today.  So too, are the political power plays, the small town alliances, and injustices.  Timeless, apparently.

The writing, too, is sharp and clear, with poignant dialogue and a few great scenes.  My particular favorite scene is one in which the wife of Billy, Will Henry’s son, buys a shotgun and shows what a woman can do all by herself to protect herself from the nasty Klansmen who are out to get her and her husband.  I won’t give it all away, but I’d say that scene alone is worth reading the book for!

This book is a definite page-turner and one that will stay with me for awhile.  I’m not sure it’s a “must read” but it’s close!

 

 

The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams

summer wives

Miranda Schuyler has just arrived back home to Winthrop Island to hide away from her life just a bit.  She just wants some quiet, to try to repair her relationship with her mother and her half-sister – if possible – and to heal, both physically and emotionally.  What she doesn’t expect is that on arriving back here, all of her memories and the emotions tied to them would come flooding back as well.  And with them, much of her understanding of her world might just be turned upside-down.

Beatriz Williams creates the most wonderful female characters – they are strong, smart, witty, and often rebellious without ever losing their femininity or grace.  They are characters who drive the plot, who outwit the demons, and who, while we guess will be victorious in the end, we never know exactly how.  There are always clever plot twists and there are sometimes dark details, but there is always a lightness and humor in the telling.  And Miranda, with her story, certainly falls in line with this pattern.

Williams also utilizes the shifting of voices and of time to build the story from various vantage points. I love this technique.  I find this builds suspense and keeps the motion of the story moving forward, even when we’re essentially hearing backstory.  It enriches both the story and the people in it and deepens our understanding of both.  Because sometimes it isn’t the “what” that is the mystery of the story but the “why” – and here is a good example of that.

I really enjoyed this book – and am hoping to read all of her books at some point!

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

we were the lucky ones

Addy Kurc tried desperately to make it home from France to his small Polish town of Radom for Passover, but in March of 1939, as Hitler and his German army was blocking travel through Europe, this was not to be.  The Kurc family tried to feign normalcy, going through the familiar seder rituals, but each of the members of this tight-knit family sensed that there was something about to change in their world.  Never, could they have imagined the horrors they would be facing, however, as Poland would be complicit in the anihiliation of millions of Jewish people along with Germany.  And never would they believe how far they’d travel and how many years it would be until they would be celebrating Passover together again as a Kurc family.

I wasn’t looking for a Holocaust novel, and when I realized that that is what this was, I almost put it aside.  But the writing was so compelling I couldn’t.  There was something about this story, about these characters, that I had to continue with it.  I had to know if Addy was reunited with his family.  I had to know if each of his siblings (and there were 5 altogether) survived the war, and if his baby niece actually made it through as well.  And how, if it were at all possible, would his parents survive the war, as they were elderly although not frail when the war broke out.  The characters were very compelling and each went through such harrowing experiences.

And that was even before I knew that the story was true!  Addy was the grandfather of the author!

I know that especially in this very difficult time, when we hear about hate in the news almost every day, with racial tensions, police brutality, shootings, and hate and bias incidents, it is hard to read about the Holocaust.  On the other hand, I feel it is crucial in this time not to forget what it can grow to be.  We cannot  get complacent and think the it can’t get there again.

That’s what they believed in Radom in 1939.