The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

Nora cannot reconcile the guilt she feels that while she was relaxing over a celebratory glass of champagne with her roommate, her father was, at that very moment, tossed into the air by an as yet unidentified driver and killed. Nor could she believe, even through her profound grief, any possibility that this was a random accident. All she had to do was convince others to see things from her point of view as well. Would she be able to do this, without any witnesses, without anyone coming forward in her favor? Especially when even her family was willing to accept the party line…?

This is an excruciatingly timely story, as it addresses the deep-seated fear and resentment that so many white folks have toward any immigrant that has achieved any modicum of success. This “replacement” conspiracy theory once again rears its hideous head here.  Nora, a smart, talented, but dark-skinned, Muslim girl has been left out and “othered” most of her life, growing up in their desert town near Joshua Tree. Similarly, she’s observed her father, a hard-working immigrant from Casablanca, survive being targeted by racial incidents as well. While Nora has found solace in her music, she’s continued to experience micro-aggressions repeatedly and continues to struggle with navigating her way through. 

The author makes excellent use of a rotating narration, imbuing a distinctive and familiar voice to each character.  It feels as if we are sitting with the characters, hearing their side of the story as it is told perhaps in an interrogation room to the investigating officer.  We come to know each character deeply, understand their passions, and feel their pain. It works.

One character that is particularly endearing is Efrain, the singular witness. I will not give away details about him or his perspective, but he is portrayed beautifully and his struggle over coming forward is both understandable and tragic.

This is an engaging story with a powerful message – a worthy read! 

 

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

If you don’t play hockey, or follow hockey, or at least tolerate hockey, you will not last long in Beartown. The entire population, intimate as it is, is consumed with it. Kids begin skating once they can walk, and everyone is on the lookout for those charmed few, those who have that natural gift, that drive, that will send them through to the A-team. Kevin certainly has it, and with Benji at his side, fighting off any opponent who might threaten his path, he is a sure shot. That is, until a crime is committed, which might just change everything.

Fredrik Backman is another writer who, by virtue of the beauty of his writing, has me convinced that there is no way I should ever even think of trying to write. He has the uncanny ability to weave complicated, layered, and realistic plot lines around complex and gorgeous characters.  And unlike with some novels with so many characters, we come to know each one so well that we never confuse any of them, never wonder who is whom, because we have fallen in love with most of them. The warmth with which he imbues them grants them their familiarity. They become our dear friends.

Also, there is a beautiful message here about the challenge of loyalty; whether that be loyalty to one’s family, to one’s friends,  to one’s team., or to one’s own values. Most of the characters find themselves wrestling here with conflicting loyalties. and some impress us and some disappoint us. But all of them are so stunningly human in their struggling. My favorite is Ramona, who is a bartender. She’s depicted as someone who’s seen it all, and who has been loyal to those who have lost the loyalties of most everyone else. She sees people for who they are, not who they profess to be. I would love to be more like Ramona.

This book has it all – characters, plot, warmth, important message – all the makings of a MUST READ!

 

Shrill by Lindy West

In this memoir, Lindy West shares her alternatingly traumatic and triumphant experiences as a feminist writer venturing into online journalism. Because she is also fat (her self-description), she also becomes a target in our fat-phobic, one-size-fits-all-definition-of-beauty society and is branded by trolls with repulsive vitriol. When she tries to stand up, for example, against comedians who use rape as a topic for jokes (which is about as funny to most women as I imagine Putin is to most Ukrainians right now), she gets accosted online by the most offensive trolls imaginable, with comments liked by some of her friends. (It is pathetic how quick people are to take sides against those who are perceived as vulnerable.) Lucky for women, she is a strong, smart, and good-hearted person who rises above and sees the forest for the trees, speaking out for all of us. She proceeds to make history in her accomplishments, one troll at a time.

This book is replete with paradoxes. West is vulnerable yet powerful. She puts herself out there, stands up and stands out in a public forum, knowing she’ll open herself up to criticism – and omg, does she – but yet she stands up again and defends herself so strongly that she silences others to a screeching halt. She hears the noise, feels it, but does not allow the noise to infect the clarity of her argument. Despite feeling isolated, she thinks about women in general and not just herself as a woman. She also sees herself as others see her, yet she will not bend to their perception of who she is.

Some may find her story stirring, even jarring. We are not used to hearing women with loud voices. We are not used to hearing women be comfortable and secure in larger bodies. We are not used to hearing women stand up for themselves when they have strong opinions and strong minds, especially when they go against the (male) grain. But I know it’s about time we got used to hearing and appreciating them!

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi

Now that Malik has grown and has been educated in a more formal way, Lakshmi feels a responsibility to continue his training by sending him back to Jaipur to be exposed to the practical aspects of the construction business, which will inevitably continue to open doors for him professionally. While he is not her son by birth, Lakshmi has taken him under her wing since he was 8 years old, cared for him almost like a son, and feels a responsibility toward him – no, really an affection toward him, as if he were her own. And while he is hesitant, because of his newly blossoming relationship with Nimmi, a local Himalayan widow with 2 young children, he is also respectful and appreciative of his opportunity to learn more and grow from the relationships he has in Jaipur. Little does he know that a disaster awaits of epic proportion that will change the course of his life and potentially endanger both his future and the future of his beloved Nimmi.

For readers of The Henna Artist, this is a must-read. It is the next in this beautiful series and informs us of what happens to the resourceful, loyal and beloved character, Malik after he has grown and matured. While he has become a bit more cosmopolitan from his prep school education, he retains his down-to-earth integrity and grit, and he and Lakshmi continue to be the force to be reckoned with as a team, almost despite themselves.

And even while we may see where the story is headed in general, there are enough suspenseful twists and turns to keep our noses in this book and keep the pages turning. And the warmth and love that spills onto the pages keeps us needing to know that our characters will all be ok in the end. We also have the added plus that we get to learn about Indian culture, as well as about the culture of some of the Himalayan nomadic tribes as well.

This is a delightful novel that will bring you joy and warmth as you read – and what is better than that???

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This epic tale begins with the birth of Effia, born during a fire that devastated her father’s crops, a harbinger of the impact that fire would have on generations to come. And as we learn about the generations that follow, we also learn about the history of the warring tribes that inhabit the Gold Coast of Africa as well as the movement of enslaved Black men and women to America and their experience through generations there.

This is another work of genius by Gyasi. Through many endearing characters and colorful and impassioned scenes, we learn about the history of the peoples of current day Ghana as well as how so many came to be enslaved in America. We learn, too, about their experience of continued oppression beyond the years of slavery in the US as well. The stories are so tactile and sharply painted, the reader cannot help but feel a connection to the many characters, as if we are traveling along the family’s lineage ourselves, through each generation.

And Gyasi omits nothing. She includes the dark reality for those who migrated north seeking relief from enslavement only to find continued prejudice and rejection in different forms. She includes the ugly truth about our history of replacing slavery with mass incarceration. She writes about our American reality now and how, in spite of some change and advancement, divides persist.

It’s a beautifully rendered portrait of the not-so-beautiful history of Ghana and the history of our country. Yes, another MUST-READ.

 

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

 

Lila (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel - Kindle edition by Robinson, Marilynne.  Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Lila is still trying to reconcile that she is here, now, in Gilead, married to the “old man,” John Ames, the respected preacher of this tiny village, especially given her meandering, even sordid past. If he knew the details, would he have so quickly and without judgement have been willing to baptize her? Would he still love her?  Is she willing to risk telling him her secrets? Lila continues to hold herself close, even as she gradually learns about love and trust from the very gentle and kind John Ames.

This is a beautiful prequel to Gilead, very gently revealing the traumatic story of Lila’s youth. We gain insight into her quiet and independent nature, reading about the tender but precarious relationship she had with her beloved Doll, the woman who snatched her away from her house of origin and who raised her and protected her as a mother lioness would protect her young.  We also are with Lila as she struggles to reconcile the ironies of organized religious precepts with the practical realities of the everyman’s day-to-day life.

Once again, Robinson’s writing is exquisite. She is able to quietly release the painful details of Lila’s life just as one might accidentally drop a pearl every now and then from a fine string. She creates images and characters that are imprinted in Lila’s mind, and so too, are imprinted in ours. We feel her loneliness and we are empathetic when Lila can only feel mean, because we are entirely with her in her lived experience. And the intermixing of philosophy and theology and storytelling is so subtle that we are contemplating it without even being aware.

If you’ve read Gilead, you must read Lila – it will only enhance your understanding of the story and of yourself. 

 

Joan is Okay by Weike Wang

Joan is an ICU attending at West Side Hospital in New York City. She is never happier than when she is reveling in the fast pace and the intensity of the Medical ICU, almost worshiping the machines that aid her in maintaining the lives of her patients. So why does everyone around her concern themselves with what else she might be doing? Why do her brother and his wife constantly ask her when she’s going to move to Greenwich and get married? Why does her neighbor, Mark, feel compelled to force-feed her a diet of current and past pop culture, as if there’s some form of test at the end? As Joan comes to terms with various changes around her, in her family, and in the world, she also learns to become more rooted and comfortable with who she happens to be.

This is, quite subtly, a coming of age story, although the heroine is already of age. While she is a fully accomplished adult, having achieved a brilliant career, those around her still are not satisfied and feel they need to impose upon her their own values of what a “full” life entails. Interestingly, I found myself, as the reader, getting sucked into the allure of what these others were suggesting for her. It initially feels innocent enough, particularly from her neighbor, Mark. It feels, at first, like generosity. But we see that what masquerades as kind very gradually reveals itself to be presumptuous and patronizing. Sometimes what others need and want, in fact, is to be left alone.

The writing here is superb. The story rumbles along in a way that is nakedly honest, much like the thought patterns of Joan herself. Her observations are often awkward and flat – and yet clearly betray her struggle over her identity and her relationships, both familial and social.

This is an engaging read, with a lot to say about how we interact with others who might see the world differently from how we might.

 

 

 

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee

Born in Hyesan, North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was raised, as all of her peers were, to believe that her country was the “Greatest Nation on Earth.” Indoctrinated from the time she was born to worship the leaders of her country above all else, she witnessed at the age of 7 what happened when one opposed the regime: public execution. But even while she felt the pressure to blend in and follow the party line, she noted that there were, in truth, stark differences in how people lived. While the communists sang about equality among the people, how their government provided for its people, Hyeonseo observed that a family’s social status determined just how much that government actually provided. In reality, it was far from an equal distribution. And while she was privileged to some degree, this privilege did not protect her family from political danger. In this memoir, she shares her utterly harrowing story of her years-long journey toward freedom.

If you’ve followed this blog, you will note that I have been reading quite a bit about various refugee experiences. All of them are impossibly harrowing, but none has read more like a suspense novel than this one. At every turn, this young woman and her family encountered unimaginable peril, always being on the verge of disaster and often experiencing heart-wrenching disappointment and suffering. They were constantly at the mercy of others, usually being preyed upon by corrupt officers and traffickers alike, rarely reaping the courageous generosity of others, even strangers. Most profoundly, once they finally did achieve freedom, they actually had to be taught that humans deserved fundamental human rights in order to understand how deeply their own had been violated.

The bravery and dedication to family demonstrated by this heroine is infinite. She is an inspiration to all of us, particularly in this moment when we are seeing so many fleeing their homes in search of safety. It reminds us that no one chooses to leave their home. One leaves only when there is no other choice.

I’d like to depart from my usual post and add a poem which I found deeply moving (shared with me by an inspirational leader for whom I am so grateful):

Home by Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child’s body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying —
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

 

The World to Come by Dara Horn

This fantastical journey sets out as we meet Ben, shattered by recent events in his life – a  nasty divorce and the painful death of his mother – who is encouraged by his twin sister, Sara, to attend a singles event at an art museum. As it happens, he stumbles upon a Chagall painting there that looks very familiar – so familiar that he is driven to do something impulsive, something that will have lasting implications for both him and his sister.

This story is told in layer upon whimsical layer, with narration as chromatic and surreal as a Chagall painting. The author weaves together the family stories of Ben and Sara’s parents, stories written by their mother, stories about Chagall and an author colleague Der Nister, and dream sequences, sometimes blurring what is real and what is fantasy. The prose is poetic and vivid, creating images that shower into the imagination and that will likely stay with the reader long after the last page is turned. 

There is also biblical referencing that reinforces a strong philosophical message here. Without giving too much away, there are many references to meaningful value of life and making the most of our time here on Earth. Sara’s mother tells her, “Everything counts. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re just rehearsing for your life.” We see different attitudes toward life between Ben and his sister, even between Chagall and his colleague, Der Nister. Some who live life while others who watch others live life.

There is much to keep track of here, as the story winds through its circular path. It can sometimes become challenging, even. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth the challenge, worth the swelling of your imagination, this beautiful tale. Like walking into a painting yourself…

 

 

 

 

Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly

On their route back to their hotel after a Sunday service at the African Free Church in Charleston, SC in the year 1859, Mother, Mary and Georgy Woolsey come upon a wagon transporting children – babies – to be sold at auction that afternoon. Horrified, they stay to observe what they’d never seen in their home town of New York City, and although they could not mitigate the cruelty of that moment, Mother slips her business card to their mother, hoping to give her a place of future refuge, a focus for hope. Georgy takes this a step further, by signing up to train and work as a nurse, bravely and passionately caring for soldiers who fight for the freedom of these enslaved individuals. Georgy’s story ultimately intertwines with the stories of both Jemma, an enslaved young woman on the Peeler Plantation in Maryland, and Anne-May, the young plantation owner.  As their stories unfold, so do those of the battles of the Civil War, the atrocities of slavery, the profiteering of spies, and the ultimate path to justice and freedom. 

This is an intricately woven, thoroughly researched, historical fiction novel based on the actual, courageous lives of the Woolsey women of Connecticut and New York City.  Georgy’s character is real, and while some of her exploits are fiction, much of what is written is based upon her actual life experience.  She is a strong-willed and fiercely independent character, and is not caught up in the superficial exploits of her wealthy cohorts.  While many look down at her for pursuing a nursing career, and while the male nurses and many doctors around her treat her and her female colleagues with brutal disgust, she plods along and doles out the outstanding, compassionate care she is trained to deliver.  

On the other hand, Jemma and Anne-May are not real people, but rather, created as representative characters that are typical of their era.  Jemma, a young and strong-willed woman, born into enslavement and treated harshly most of her life, carries trauma both physical and psychological with stolid forbearance. She keeps fighting for what she believes in, but she is also realistic and understands more than most man’s capacity for evil. And Anne-May happens to be one of the ones to show her how deeply this capacity runs. 

One of the most moving parts, for me, was a scene in which Jemma finds herself in the warm embrace of the Woolsey sisters. Finally finding a moment of respite from her terrifying world, she is given a chance to experience freedom in a way she’s never felt before. Sadly, she finds herself under a new kind of oppression. While there is good intention and care, she is still being told what to read, what to think and what to do. In a dramatic moment, she blurts out in anger, asking to be left alone to decide these things for herself.  As often happens, one of the sisters takes offense, because of her well-intentioned motives, not realizing that her actions and their repercussions are independent of her intention.  Only Georgy is able to take in what she is saying and their bond tightens because of it. This is a powerful moment that resonates still today.

In this gorgeous novel you will find breathless suspense, moments of deep sorrow, and dramatic scenes of triumph, and each of the characters will bring you on a journey you will love being on with them.  Martha Hall Kelly has absolutely done it again, with this third in the series about this awe-inspiring family and has created another MUST READ for us all.  These are truly gifts she has bestowed on us – and I for one am grateful.