A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel: Allende, Isabel, Caistor, Nick,  Hopkinson, Amanda: 9781984820150: Amazon.com: Books

Victor Dalmau has found himself rooted, with only a few years of medical training, in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, repairing the wounds of the Republicans fighting the Fascists who are seeking to rule Spain.  While he is useless with a gun —  quite unlike his brother Guillem, the consummate warrior — he finds purpose in healing those who are, and he supports them in their calling.  Little does he know how deeply he would continue to feel the pain of injustice and persecution and how this early mission would direct the trajectory of his life and that of his family. 

This is a beautifully written novel, based on the true story of one survivor of the Spanish Civil War.  After this war,  thousands fled first to France, were placed in dreadful concentration camps, and two thousand fortunate souls were rescued by the poet Neruda on a ship to Chile called the Winnipeg.  In Chile, they were welcomed and given refuge and opportunity and allowed to flourish until there was political unrest there as well.  Our hero, Victor, embodies the strong, immigrant character: hardworking, valuing family above all else, and devoted to the preservation of humanity and justice.    

I am so thankful to have read this novel.  In my ignorance of history, I have never known much about this tragic era in our world’s history.   Learning it through the eyes of these gorgeous characters was, in my view, the best way to attempt to correct this, because the facts are interwoven with deep emotion, and this is how they are best etched into our memories.  And while this is not necessarily an absolute/comprehensive and final look, it is certainly a great start to learning about this dark moment in Spain, France and South America.  

And even while enlightening us about the historical period, the author does not neglect to interweave a complex plot, with suspense, subplots, and even romance that bear surprise twists.  She keeps us intrigued with each step of Victor’s harrowing journey.  

This is an important read for those who are are unaware of this period of history – and even for those who aren’t.  And while I don’t like to overload the “MUST READ’s,” this has to be placed there – sorry!

 

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly

Amazon.com: Lost Roses: A Novel (9781524796372): Kelly, Martha Hall: Books

8-year old Luba is not happy, having to share her older sister Sofya with anyone, let alone this American, Eliza. Here in Paris, far away from their home in Petrograd, they seem to be the best of friends somehow, laughing and talking of anything but what Luba is interested in (astronomy, of course!)- that is, until their big surprise, arranged just for Luba. All too quickly, however, Luba understands that Eliza may be the best friend that the two sisters have, as their whole world comes crashing down on them, with the uprising of the Bolsheviks and the disintegration of the Tzar’s regime.

This story, loosely based on the real life story of Eliza Ferriday, is a gorgeous narrative about the plight of the “White Russian,” the elite Russian class torn apart and displaced by the Bolshevik revolution. It is told from the perspectives of each of the main characters, as well as from Varinka, a poor, young woman who worked for Sofya briefly, taking care of her young boy. While each woman was struggling with her own internal battle, each also was a victim of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. They were also interconnected and the story was woven together with threads that bound them throughout. This telling of the story through each of their perspectives also served to build tremendous suspense, particularly at the end of each chapter.

One unusual aspect of this story was the absence of demonizing the rich. So often in literature, the wealthy are assumed to be snobbish and evil and the poor are assumed to be altruistic and pure and good. What I admired here was that the characters were beyond that. There were some wealthy characters who were elitist for sure, but there were plenty who were generous and kind – likewise, with the poor. It was a refreshing avoidance of stereotypes.

I felt I gained more of an understanding of the Russian Revolution from this book. It gave an alternative version, something of a balanced viewpoint. It is true that the Tzar was terrible in his management of the country – his mismanagement of the economy, ignoring the needs of the masses, and certainly murder of the Jews in the country. This story strongly acknowledged this. But the Bolsheviks’ methods were not exactly honorable either. There was so much bloodshed and misery in order, really, to just put a different small number of people into a position of power over the masses. With new forms of propaganda that were just as deceiving and dishonest.

From the author of Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly, this is another MUST READ! Give yourself this very gripping and very loving gift!

Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir by Amanda Knox

Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir by Amanda Knox

In the fall of 2007, Amanda Knox joined the many college juniors who left their campuses to study abroad, Amanda choosing a small town, Perugia, in Italy for her experience. Because her chosen university did not have a dorm for her to live in, she felt fortunate when she stumbled upon an apartment she would ultimately share with 3 other women. Life with the others began quite peacefully, and she formed a comfortable relationship with each of them. What she never imagined was that one of them would be brutally murdered by a stranger, and that she, Amanda, would be wrongfully accused of being the twisted ringleader of this murder.

I felt compelled to read this story, as I’d felt compelled, years before, to listen to this story every time it came on the news, in each of its permutations. When it first was announced in the media, the story was quite bizarre, filled with seedy details of sex and drugs that sounded questionable even back then. And the more it was discussed, the more bizarre and unlikely it sounded.

Reading the actual story was much more painful, however. It was no longer someone far away – it was now someone I was getting to know and empathize with. I hadn’t remembered so many of the actual details of the story – or probably never was given the true ones — nor learned about her personal life before the murder or during the trials. I also didn’t know how much time she served in prison, before she was finally found to be fully innocent. And I also didn’t how the prosecution obtained their evidence and how willfully they pursued a feeble motive/explanation for the events against the weight of the evidence for the defense. It was truly like watching a car wreck – you can’t look at it and at the same time, you can’t look away.

And honestly, even though I knew the ending, there was still a great degree of suspense. The ups and downs were wildly intense and I felt the ride right along with her. When she was trapped inside those walls of the prison, I felt almost as if I was inside there with her.  It was almost hard to breathe. At the same time, she showed a courage and hopefulness I’m not sure I would have had.

This was a very quick read that I’d definitely recommend!

 

 

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration:  Wilkerson, Isabel: 8580001042800: Amazon.com: Books

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, and George Swanson Starling never knew each other, nor did they live in the same time or place — yet they all had something in common: they each participated in the Great Migration and for parallel reasons. Through this gritty chronicle of their lives, we earn a deeper appreciation for how the Jim Crow south drove millions of black folks northward and westward, in desperate search of freedom and civil rights.  We also see how they experienced both successes and failures when they arrived.

This impressive work of non-fiction reads like part novel/part PhD thesis, but as a whole, it works. The parts that tell the story of each of these individuals’ lives are profoundly beautiful and what drive the book forward.   The author delivers their stories with such tenderness and detail that she lifts each of them off of the page and brings them into the room with you, bringing with them their hopes and their heartaches.  And interwoven with their stories is the historical context in which they are living.  The author zooms out to portray the larger picture of what is happening — what wars, economic factors, or local social affairs, sometimes graphic, are impacting our 3 protagonists at the time.  This sometimes gets quite dense, but it definitely contributes a great deal to the depth of the story.  

The larger question is this:  Did those who risked their lives, often sneaking out in the middle of the night,  to migrate to the north/west fare better than those who stayed in the south? I believe this is a complex question and one the author was seeking to answer with the writing of this book.  Those who left were desperately seeking a chance to be recognized as individuals who deserved their civil rights under the law, to be seen as equal to everyone else.  When they arrived in the north and/or west, they were allowed to sit anywhere on the bus and to drink at any water fountain.  But they definitely were not treated as equals to everyone else in their their job searches or their housing purchases.   

I’d be very interested to hear your opinion about the conclusions drawn in this book.  It’s an important discussion.  

Becoming Eve by Abby Stein

Born to what was considered a royal Hasidic family —  a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov — Abby Stein was raised as a boy in one of the most gender-segregated societies on earth.  From an early age, she knew she was a girl and when she, at the age of 4 years, expressed this to her mother, she was given the very clear message that this was never to be spoken about again.  Throughout her childhood, she rebelled, against god, against her restrictive society, and against a world that did not allow her to be herself.

This memoir was so detailed and heartfelt – until it wasn’t.  We hear about every moment in Abby’s early life.  Her journey from one yeshiva to the next, from one rebellion to the next.  There are very intimate passages, revealing her first love for a young man who is obviously struggling with his own sexuality.  This episode is quite tenderly written and the reader feels such empathy for these two who cannot pursue their love in the restrictive society in which the two “boys” live.   We hear about the details of the study in which Abby immerses herself, how she advocated to learn about law and ultimately about mysticism.  And some of the details about Hasidic life are quite interesting.  And we hear about her marriage to Fraidy, which is actually quite sweet and hopeful, to some degree.

But suddenly, when she describes Fraidy giving birth to their son, and all of a sudden, it is as if she drops off a cliff and, POOF! she is a woman.  There is little to no mention of how she disengages from her prior life, with the exception of an epilogue, which tells only of how she tells her father she is a woman. We do not hear about her connection with her child, we do not hear about she experiences the transition from her insular world of Hasidism to the outer world, we do not hear about much of anything else.  This I find unbelievably disappointing and a sorely missed opportunity.  After hearing so much detail, the absence of detail is astounding.

I did learn from this book, but I was disappointed by the ending.  On the other hand, I do hope that Abby finds peace with her family and can connect with them.  She obviously loves them dearly and they do her.  I hope they can find a way to see that she is exactly who she always was.

 

 

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

funnyinfarsi

It is hard enough to be a seven year old girl, navigating family, friends, and school.  But in 1972, a little girl named Firoozeh had to navigate a move from Iran to a suburb of LA, where she did not know the language, was not familiar with the food, did not have the extended family around for support, and had to function as her mother’s interpreter as well as find her own way.  Fortunately for her, her intelligence, her family’s support (mostly!), and probably most importantly, her humor, enabled her to adapt and do so very successfully.  This book is essentially a collection of her memories of growing up in this colorful family challenged by the immigrant experience of balancing their own culture and tradition with integrating into the society into which they’ve landed.

First, I have to say that this was a good, light distraction from the other reading I’ve had to do these past 2 weeks!  If you’ve been like me, you’ve done more reading about viruses and epidemiology and how pandemics can be mitigated in the past 2 weeks than you’ve ever had in your life – even if you’re in Public Health.  So I am thankful that I’ve had something like this to alleviate the anxiety that all of that other reading has caused.  I implore you to use this time for more solitary reading — it will be therapeutic for you and it will socially distance you from others, helping to mitigate the spread of this awful coronavirus.

As a memoir, this book was amusing and entertaining to a point, but, I believe, a missed opportunity.  Dumas did enrich her stories with the rich flavors and aromas of Iranian cuisines, ceremonial customs, and, in particular, her father’s often comical and endearing personality quirks.  And we did get a sense of the warm acceptance into the community her family experienced in 1972, which contrasted drastically with the reception she received when they returned just after Iranian Revolution and the American hostage situation. But other vignettes, such as those about her father’s fascination with Denny’s Restaurant or her uncle’s dieting fads were much less engaging.  While an opening into her culture was an opportunity, peeking through a curtain into their family secrets felt almost voyeuristic.

This was less a memoir than a collection of short stories.  As such, it was entertaining enough, but did get a bit old after a bit.

Not a “Must Read” but good for a few chuckles.

 

 

 

Button Man by Andrew Gross

After tragedy hits the poor, struggling, immigrant Rabishevsky family, the 3 remaining sons struggle to find a way back to normalcy.  Each copes in his own way, but it seems that Morris, the baby, is the one with the most strength.  When challenged, it is Morris who doesn’t back down.   But when all his competition in the garment business is being ensnared by the Jewish mobsters’ union scam, will Morris and Raab Brothers be able to continue to resist? How brave is he really?  And whom will he put at risk if he does?

This novel is not only compelling, but, to my surprise, is based on a true story.  It is beautifully told, building the plot’s suspense as we come to know each of the characters more intimately and then twisting it into knots.  It is full of the unexpected, starting with Jewish strong-armed bodyguards to crazy  action-packed crime scenes. But there are many tender scenes as well.  And my favorite lines during one of these is this:  “When you’re scared, you’re nothing but a prisoner…but the moment you decide to stand up, become brave, you’re free.  Free of everything that holds you back…  You don’t have to think about it anymore.”  This is a brilliant line.  Hard to live by, but I guess something to strive for.

There are a. number of themes that wrap around the main character, Morris, and weigh him down throughout his life., but most dramatically it is the idea of not being able to forgive.  In Morris’s case, it becomes somewhat blinding, and later, when he realizes his error, he is crippled with guilt.  It is a powerful message, that is probably universal.  So many of us – myself included — carry grudges against those who have wronged us or who have wronged someone close to us.  It is extremely hard to let go.  Maybe impossible.  But whom are we harming when we don’t?  This story gives us pause to challenge our own difficult relationships.

I’d love to hear other themes or  that you’ve found in this book.  Please comment and add to this entry!

Thanks for reading!

 

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

If you have ever wondered what it feels like to be depressed or to have a panic attack – read this book.  In it, Matt Haig shares his experience with depression and anxiety and invites you straight into his brain.  You sit there with him at the brink of suicide,  you hold your breath as he wrestles with his demons and you ache with his pain. He chronicles his years of experiencing depression and anxiety and actually comes to a sort of peace with it, ultimately, seeming to acknowledge that it has led him to feel things more deeply in both directions, whether toward pain or toward joy.

I think this is an important book to read.  While nothing can ever really give anyone a perfect picture of what it feels like to have depression – and I’m sure it feels different for each individual who experiences it – this does, I believe, give a vivid, repetitive, and detailed description.  There are analogies, lists, comparisons, images, and examples of ways in which the author’s life was impaired by his illness that go beyond what most expect from what we think of depression.  His was particularly severe.

And I think it’s important that we as members of our society, such as it is today, familiarize ourselves as much as possible with the symptoms of depression and anxiety because it is, sadly,  so prevalent.  We need to be aware of how severe it can be, how invisible it can be, and how crippling it can be.  We also must learn how to help someone who is suffering with it.  There are suggestions in this book, which are quite helpful.

On the negative side, I believe this book was not well edited.  I found t grammatically lazy, somewhat repetitive, and missing large chunks of the story.  How does Matt actually get better?  Just time?   When does he get married?  And where do the two kids come in?  What role do his parents play really in his recovery?  There is so much that is glossed over  How has he been able to write through the depression?  What does he write about?

I like the philosophical tangents – there is a great amount of wisdom and helpful advice for others with depression and anxiety and for those who may be around those who suffer.  And I do think this book is an important read.  I wish the actual writing  had been given a bit more attention…

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

only woman in the room

When Hedy Kiesler receives her first ostentatiously presented, dozen bouquets of hothouse roses from an admirer after a performance at the theater, she has no idea that it is from the well-known, millionaire, munitions manufacturer, Fritz Mandl.  While she can’t imagine that she’d really be attracted to this older man, she finds she is actually taken in by his charm and charisma.  In actuality, she has little choice, as her father pointedly insists that Hitler’s advances in Germany in 1933 foreboded danger for Jews in Austria as well, and their family needed the protection Mandl might provide.  As Hedy acquiesced, she gradually became trapped in a marriage which was more like a cage.  As she plots her escape, she incurs a stain of guilt that she subsequently spends years of her life trying to repair.

This is in fact, the story of Hedy Lamarr, actress, scientist, and inventor.  After she comes to America, she spends her days behind the camera and her evenings combing physics textbooks in order to master an ideal system to direct torpedoes without being able to be intercepted by an enemy, for use during WWII.  She is not only beautiful and talented, but also brilliant and creative; much to the disbelief of the men around her.  But knowing her secretive backstory gives her inventions context and helps the reader understand her motivations and connections to the war effort.

While this book is based in fact, it is written as fiction, and therefore so easy to read.  Right from Page 1, it draws the reader in and it is difficult to put down until the end.  There is humor and warmth and even a bit of suspense, and certainly anger on Hedy’s behalf.  But overall, there is a great deal of respect for the person she was and the accomplishments she achieved.  It also showed how strongly she had to fight to be respected for her internal beauty and intelligence when she had such striking external beauty.

 

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Careyou

bad blood

This is the fascinating tale of one of the most outrageous scams in Silicon Valley – and the most outrageous part is that it is true!  It is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her startup, Theranos.  Elizabeth Holmes started out at Stamford, as an engineering student, but impatient to get started earning her first millions, she  quickly decided to drop out and start her own company.  She had in mind that because she had a fear of needles, she would develop a laboratory testing device that could run multiple tests on a small drop of blood from a finger stick specimen, taken by a device that would be relatively painless.  However, what began as a good idea, ballooned into a project that because of blind arrogance, deaf ears to any guidance or advice, paranoia, and pure irrational greed, broke laws and broke lives and caused irreparable harm to so many.  And it appears that, like most narcissists,  Elizabeth Holmes was completely unrepentant, seeing herself as the victim.

What is wonderful about this story is that it is told by the investigative reporter who broke the story for the Wall Street Journal, which gives both credibility and an insider’s perspective.  Careyou writes with vivid detail, laying out the gradual development of the background on Elizabeth Holmes, how she came to start the company, and how she ruled it, along with her henchman (and apparent lover) Sunny Balwani, with an iron fist, firing immediately anyone who disagreed with anything she said or did (even if they were looking out for her benefit and the welfare of the company).  He tracks her ascent to stardom, and it was nothing short of that.  People worshipped her – just as she worshipped Steve Jobs and took on much of his persona, even adopting his notorious black turtlenecks and deeper voice.  And because she had their attention, she was able to convince so many to invest in her dream.  Unfortunately, that is all it was.  She could not make it a reality, and because she could not face this, she faked it and lied to the world that it was.

This is a tragic story of how greed and ego took precedence over peoples’ health and welfare, and lawyers, Silicon Valley giants, politicians, and others bought right into it, swindled by a young, polished liar.  And, as Careyou acknowledges, the true heroes of the story are those who stood up to her and her pit bull lawyers and despite being tormented and hounded, told the public the truth. It is because of these brave people that these crackpot lab testing facilities were not expanded and put into more locations throughout the country and led to hurt even more individuals than they already did.

The details will just astound you!