East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: 9780140186390 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Cyrus Trask is a man who has returned from his brief stint in the army with a wooden leg and an enormously embellished story about his military experience. It is this military persona who has raised his two sons, Adam and Charles, and his driving pressure which divides them as well. For while Charles pines for the approval of his father, Adam shirks away from it. And like many sibling rivalries, it is just too onerous to overcome. Their journeys are both tortured and enriched by the people they meet and we follow Adam in particular as he winds his way across the country to the Salinas Valley, where he ultimately settles and raises his own two sons.

I have been maintaining this blog for over 5 years and I don’t think I have ever felt so humbled by a novel as I feel by this one. There is so much more than I could ever possibly understand in this story, so much significance and reference in this allegory that I can not even begin to appreciate the depth of it.

The underlying theme, to me, seems to be the struggle over good and evil impulses that exists in all of us. Steinbeck depicts some of the characters as being born to be destined to be purely one or the other, almost as if they do not have the choice over their path. Cathy, for example, is described as someone who is missing something essential, and we come to expect nothing but evil from her all throughout. Yet, there is discussion amongst three of the characters in the story about the biblical story of Cain and Abel about the possibility of having choice over what path a person chooses to follow – good or evil. Ironically, one of the participants is Adam, whose brother has assaulted him quite violently in an attempt on his life.

The unsung hero of this book is certainly Lee, who cares for Adam and his two sons. Because he is of Chinese descent, he experiences constant racism and is dismissed as being less-than, even when, in truth, he is far more intelligent and well-educated than most of the men around him. Yet he humbles himself to those around him and reveals to them neither his resentment nor his superior intellect, unless he is shown the respect he merits. Only then does he reveal his true self or his boundless wisdom.

If you never read this classic in high school or college, as I hadn’t, I would encourage you to give yourself the gift of reading this extraordinary novel. This is absolutely a MUST READ!

The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

The Last Story of Mina Lee: A Novel: Kim, Nancy Jooyoun: 9780778310174:  Amazon.com: Books

It’s been two weeks since Margot has heard from her mother, Mina. She’s not answered her phone, nor has she called. And while they are not close, they are really each other’s only family.   So Margot now finds herself driving down from Seattle to Los Angeles, with her best friend, Miguel, to investigate. What she finds there leads her on a search for answers – answers about her mother’s fate, about her mother’s past, and about her own origins.

This is a book that I wanted to love. Mina was an immigrant of Korean origin who came to this country seeking what so many come to the US seeking – refuge from war, refuge from a painful, dangerous past, seeking opportunity. And like many, what she finds is obstacles. Barriers because of language, culture, and xenophobia. There is a universality to this story that I know is important to readers in this moment – important for us to understand the immigrant experience, to develop an empathy toward it, and to fully comprehend the urgency to open doors for immigrants in our country.

The story does accomplish this goal. However, it is so bleak and so unrelentingly tragic, that the reader develops almost a compassion fatigue while reading it. Mina’s life is so full of horror that it is almost unimaginable. The details that are leaked, almost like tears leaking from the eyes of someone afraid to show emotion, are devastatingly heartbreaking.  Mina is truly the hero of the story, as Margot comes to realize, but we are almost too exhausted to fully appreciate her.

There was also much in the way of repetition. Rather than introducing additional vignettes about the life of either Mina or Margot, or, more importantly, of their memories together while Margot was growing up, the author chose to recount the same scenes again and again from different perspectives. This sometimes added some depth, but occasionally grew old, and it would have added more, I believe, to create additional memories, shared times between mother and daughter, to give further insight into their complicated relationship. Margot was searching for more – and so was I as the reader.

I think this is an important story to tell. I wish I’d loved the telling of it more.

 

 

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours - By Lisa Wingate (Hardcover) : Target

Avery Stafford is finding her place, as she’s come back to the south to possibly carry on the family’s senatorial dynasty. When she visits a nursing home during a publicity event, she stumbles upon a woman she fears may hold a family secret that may threaten all that she and her family have worked for.

Then flash backward and we meet Rill Foss, a precocious 12 year old living with her poor but happy family in their river shanty. Rill is thrust suddenly into being responsible for her 4 younger siblings, for keeping them together and safe, and we watch as she is torn apart as adults attempt to destroy the family she fights to save.

As these two stories unfold side by side, we are breathless to know how they intersect.

This was an excruciating story to read at times, but at the same time, it was one that I could not put down. And while Rill herself is not an actual person, her story is based on historical events and children’s experiences that have been documented from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. That is, a woman named Georgia Tann, ran an adoption center in Memphis that actually bought and sold children as if they were property. Some of these children were actual orphans, but many were stolen from their homes, kidnapped while walking home from school, or worse. Some were placed in high profile homes, such as in homes of celebrities and politicians, but many were mistreated and hundreds are thought to have actually died under her care. She apparently made thousands of dollars from this business and had politicians and law enforcement in her pockets and avoided any legal confrontation to her dying day. Georgia Tann is the one non-fictional character in this book.

The writing in this book is gripping, particularly Rill’s story. On the other hand, it at times can be so utterly painful that some is extremely hard to read. It’s that same feeling one gets seeing a terrible car accident – can’t look but can’t look away. I personally have the hardest time hearing/reading about abuse of children and tend to avoid books like this. I have to admit, though, that the author handled it well. Just as it reaches a moment of peak discomfort, the story switches to Avery’s story line to lighten the mood and give the reader a chance to breathe. This is the only way I was able to get through, I think.

And in Rill, the author has created an extraordinary character. Though young, she is wise, cautious, kind, and she fights for her family with a passion that brings tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat. There is no way not to love and empathize with this character.

This is an extraordinary tale, told well. Isn’t that all we want in a book???

 

 

 

 

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

Lakshmi has been cultivating her business for the past 10 years, painting henna designs onto strategic body parts of the socialites of Jaipur, and doling out her herbal remedies on the side. Now if she could only seal the deal on her newest and most ambitious venture, she’d be able to finalize the details on the house that has come to symbolize her dream of full independence. But will the advent of a surprise family member put a thorn in her meticulously laid plan? How will she negotiate what she now cannot fully control?

This artistically drawn narrative embraces you from page one and holds you in its tender wrap until the very end. The writing is lyrical and poignant and all the stark colors and radiant spice of India spill out of its pages to give you the full sensory experience. At the same time, we are also privy to Lakshmi’s emotional turmoil as well, feeling connected to her experiences by this same sensorial thread. Her struggles become ours and her victories ours as well.

I do wonder why the author chose to restrict the narrating voice to only Laskshmi’s. In some ways it gives some mystery to her sister, Radha’s character, but I wonder if it might have broadened the perspective to tell the story from her sister’s side as well. Her sister was an intriguing character with a tragic past who we know from hearing her story from Lakshmi’s point of view. It might have added that much more depth to the story to give her more of a voice.

At the same time, I loved the characters. They were full of lovely and sage Indian adages, which I loved, and they exhibited such warmth and humanity. One of my favorites was Lakshmi’s little assistant, Malik. His impish but extraordinarily wise tendencies and steadfast loyalty were heartwarming, and Lakshmi warmed to becoming almost a maternal figure to him as the story progressed. Their relationship was subtly and tenderly portrayed.

There was so much to love about this book – I’d love to hear from you what you loved. Please let me know when you’ve given yourself the gift of reading The Henna Artist! It is, I would say, a MUST READ as well!

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!

Her Last Flight by Beatriz Williams

Amazon.com: Her Last Flight: A Novel (9780062834782): Williams, Beatriz:  Books

As a photojournalist, Janey Everett has learned how to use everything she has to get information. In pursuing the backstory of the perilous crash of Sam Mallory, whom, she knew, was considered the best pilot of his time, she is determined to stop at nothing to get to the details. She knows that her only hope is to find the elusive Irene Foster, once his co-pilot, and thought to be lost at sea years prior. But Janey follows her instincts as well as the trail of rumors that she may just be alive. And as Janey chases her story, we are also brought back in time to follow Irene’s. Both women, through their narratives, reveal how courage and grit can lead to a life lived as one’s true self.

Once again, Beatriz Williams has knocked it out of the park with this book. Don’t let her breezy, familiar, and accessible style fool you. This is a heavy book – historical fiction, fully researched and chock full of detail that make it feel as real as any biography might. There is subtle reference to blood and war and the ugliness of humanity, just as in other historical fiction novels. But here, because the references are kept so subtle, they really hit you more when you look back on the story and realize all that you’ve just taken in.

Usually what I love most about Williams’ writing is her gorgeous, fallible, earthy characters. Generally, the main character is a strong female, who is in full control (how refreshing!!). She may make a few less-than-ideal choices, but she is smart, witty, somehow vulnerable, courageous and resilient. Nevertheless, in this novel, I was enthralled by the plot as well, as there were as many twists to it as I imagine there were in a flight demo by Mallory himself. It was as driving as it was passionate.

There is no question whether I’d recommend this book. I’d say it’s even a MUST READ!

 

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The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

The thirst for learning instilled into Adunni by her mother has been the driving force for everything she’s done, including continuing attending her small school even when she’s the oldest student there. While her best friend fantasizes about marriage, Adunni only worries about improving her academic skills, so that she can continue to teach others, as she’s done since she was very young. But her dreams come crashing down when her father reveals a proposal he’s made on her behalf – one that threatens not only her education, but any degree of autonomy as well. This sets her on a trajectory that both threatens her but also strengthens her as she sees what she has to do to set herself free.

This very powerful story ignites our deepest sense of injustice and we find ourselves loving and rooting for this heroine, Adunni, at every turn. Because of the poverty into which she was born, her gender, and her cultural milieu in rural Nigeria, she has no power and no agency over her own life. What she does have is intellect, stamina and utter grit, though, and these all serve her well. We love cheering for her and hating her oppressors, and while each character is portrayed with a realistic abundance of depth, we know who is on her side and who isn’t.

What I loved also about this book was the insight into the cultural strata of Nigeria, in both the rural/small town and the big city. There is apparently a vast chasm between the upper class and the lower class, and much corruption filling the space in between. (Pretty much like here in the United States, but I digress…) . Adunni observes more than once, also, that wealth, while it may wield power, it does not, in fact, bring happiness. This is starkly evident to her from observations of her extremely successful but painfully disgruntled boss, Big Madam.

The writing is also striking. It is written as Adunni might think, with her grammar and syntax. It has the singsong, innocent structure of a 14 year old Nigerian girl with an elementary education struggling to be respected. And as she struggles to pursue an education in whatever form she may, the writing develops as she does, and eases subtly into more sophisticated structure.

There are definitely some painful parts to read, and they are not where you expect to find them. There are also many tender moments from characters that are just beautifully written. And throughout, you will be inspired and sad and connected with this young heroine in a way that will surprise you.

 

 

 

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Young-sook has no time for talking – she has always busied herself with diving and collecting food from the sea on her Korean island of Jeju, and today is no different.  She usually has no patience for the tourists, but this family who is approaching her is different.  This family appears familiar, somehow.  When they begin to question her and mention the name of a woman from her past, they wash her whole personal history back to her in a wave that crashes over everything she ever understood about herself.

Lisa See has a gift for depicting historical fiction and here, again, she paints vivid cultural details into the well-researched,  deeply emotional saga of Young-sook.   By going back through the history of this fictional character, See recounts the history of the island of Jeju, caught in the middle of the two world wars, the Korean War, and the division of the Koreas.  She recounts the impact of the colonialism of the Japanese and then, essentially,  of the Americans on Korea, and the massacres that occurred on the island of Jeju during the power disputes.   This is history about which I personally have been quite ignorant and I am thankful I have learned, painful as it was.

What was beautiful was the passion with which See imbues her characters, which gives the story its energy.  The women of the island are the breadwinners, who dive in the ocean for food – with no oxygen tanks, no equipment, just each other as their safety net.  They are the farmers, who toil the land for the food they grow to support the families as well.  While the women were not normally educated, they supported the family in a practical way, and made the fundamental decisions for the family, such as the matchmaking, and saw themselves as responsible for the survival of the families in every sense of the word.  They also have a fiery passion for each other, as in the love that Young-sook and her friend Mi-ja have for each other- not a lovers’ passion, but a pure and devoted friendship that may even surpass many lovers’ relationships in their depth and trust.

This is a beautiful story in every way – the story itself and the telling of it.  Give yourself this gift!

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Saeed and Nadia have met at a difficult time.  It is just as their city is being overrun by militants who gradually infiltrate their city.   As the violence worsens, they become more desperate to find a way out.  But do they leave without Saeed’s dear parents?  And how do they escape, when all the exit doors seem to be closed to them?  As they find their way together, they learn about how the world may open up doors, but that there may not be a welcome mat waiting for them at the other side.

I had very mixed feelings as I progressed through the pages of this book.  On one hand, it does open the reader to the very gritty, naked reality of the immigrant experience of these past few years. While we are not told where the couple is running from (and details are vague throughout this book), we can guess Afghanistan or Pakistan as most likely.  As the couple move to new lands, they experience some support, but mostly harsh conditions and resentment and prejudice by the “nativists” in each of the countries to which they flee.  At one point, Nadia even wonders if it was worth running from their oppressors, having only come to another country in which she is being oppressed.

On the other hand, because the writing is so sparse on details, it feels somewhat disconnected from the characters themselves, and I felt almost less invested in their story because of this.  We like them both, Saeed and Nadia, but we don’t get inside their heads.  We don’t feel what is deep in their hearts – they are a sort of neutral territory.  And when random characters are introduced, some from across the world, in random order, with tiny, yet interesting stories of their own with no connection whatsoever to the story at hand – I am just not sure where those come from or why they are included.  It is either strange editing or I am just not smart enough to get it.  (It is probably the latter, I admit.)

On the other hand, again, there are some details I like and think are creative.  I like that Saeed and Nadia are the only characters to be given names, while all the other characters are identified by their descriptions only.  It is a powerfully literary way to  further isolate them – and their experience is certainly isolating — as they travel through each “door” into each new country, into each new opportunity.

As you see, I am truly going back and forth on this one, as I did while I was reading it.  It is an interesting read, but I am still not sure whether I liked it or not. If nothing else, it has stimulated much thought – so that counts for a lot, right?

I’d love to know what others think about this one!

 

 

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Amma is anxious.  Tonight is the opening of her newest play, and although she’s been doing this for years, she’s never before opened in the National Theatre.  This feels so much more colossal, so more auspicious than anything else she’s undertaken.  She thinks back to her modest beginnings, when she partnered with Dominique, an independent, creative woman like herself with ambitious dreams and a personality to match.  And she thinks about all the people who will be there for her.  And we will meet many of these people as the book unfolds, and we will hear each of their stories unwind through the pages as they all wind back to Amma.

Everything about this book is unique.

The writing is almost without punctuation, written as if it is one, very long, run-on, but poetic sentence.  However, it is divided by starting new lines,

very

strategically.

While I admit this took a bit of getting used to at first, I found it worked – and actually made the writing extremely powerful.

Most of the characters are women of color, often of mixed heritage, and often identify as LGBTQI – and each is given a deeply vivid story to tell.  While most experience racism of some kind, they confront it in many different ways, and most finding a way to either rise above or cut right through.  There are many characters – and to be honest, I did find it sometimes hard to keep track of them all – but each had her/their beauty, each was sympathetic in some way, and each was was someone you came to think of as an actual, tactile person.

It is easy to see how this book won the Booker Prize in 2019, as it is beautifully composed, with gorgeous characters and with a memorable round of stories to tell.  It will keep you glued and it will warm your heart.

I”ve got another MUST READ for you!