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 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

 

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. 

 

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi: 9781984899767 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Gifty is striving to complete her final doctoral thesis in neuroscience on addictive behaviors. She knows she’s obsessing over her data, and that she needs to move on to the writing of the final paper, but her past has come back to haunt her and she is stuck.  It may be that the visit from her mother, drowning in her own pain, will nudge her forward.  Or will it be her sifting through her old journals from her youth?  Somehow, Gifty works through a resolution and confronts the deeply painful religious, emotional and philosophical issues that are holding her back. 

This memoir is a recounting of a second generation immigrant from Ghana who suffers multiple layers of trauma during her childhood,  while seeking and finding little community support in her small town, Southern evangelical church.  Needless to say, her struggle is complicated.

One recurrent theme is the conflict she feels between religion and science.  Having memorized large swaths of scripture for her mother’s approval and having limited experience outside her small, Bible belt town in Alabama until college, she has a deeply ingrained emotional connection to her religion and to a traditional belief in God.  On the other hand, her more cerebral side has rejected much of the dogma the church espouses; whether the narrow views on sexuality, the scorning of evolutionary theory, or the criticism of science in general.  So when a fellow student criticizes those who are religious, she is not quite sure what to feel, but she is simultaneously insulted and embarrassed.  She identifies with those being criticized but also sees why they are being so.   

The other inescapable message here is the devastation that occurs when a family member has an addiction. Not only does the addict suffer, but everyone around him suffers as well.  When Nana, Gifty’s brother disappears, she and her mother spend hours searching for him to try to bring him home to safety.  When he is not functioning, the whole family is not able to function.  And the cycling and unpredictability has devastating effects on everyone for years to come. 

This very real story hits hard and is a hard read.  We are very fortunate that the author has chosen to share her experience with us.  

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Caste (Oprah's Book Club): The Origins of Our Discontents: Wilkerson,  Isabel: 9780593230251: Amazon.com: Books

Written by one of the most impactful writers of our time, this non-fiction masterpiece is a stark comparison of the caste system that we live with here in the U.S. and that which has existed in India for hundreds of years and that which enabled the rise of the Third Reich in Germany during World War II. In order to elevate the white, European (Aryan) male in both the U.S. and Germany, it was necessary to establish a scapegoat, or a group of humans deemed less-than, in order to maintain an identity of being higher than. Likewise, in India, it was necessary to invoke religious inspiration to insist that men are created with certain intrinsic value based on the class they are born into, rather than natural, proven talents/abilities. Those at the top convinced themselves (and are continuing to convince themselves) that those at the bottom were content with their lot – or at least, that this was a god-given right which they enshrined. The myriad historical details and the personal accounts only serve to enrich Wilkerson’s thesis and drive her very painful and compelling point home.

While this book is not an easy one to read, it is one of the most important books that help explain this moment we are living in. It is clear that the presidency of Donald Trump was not a cause but a result of a growing fear of white men of losing their power over all others (including women of all colors, by the way) in this country. The continued efforts of Republicans to gerrymander and inflict restrictive voting laws are clear evidence of their flailing attempts to grasp onto those strangleholds they view as their birthright. And, as Wilkerson so rightly points out, these restrictive and terrifying laws and movements, and the rising of the Alt Right, Neo-Nazi, and white supremacy groups, hurt everyone – including the perpetrators – physically and mentally. We all lose.

We owe Wilkerson a debt of gratitude for her years-long, painstaking research and her gorgeous writing that encapsulates it.

Again, everyone MUST READ this book – if you want to understand not only caste but the fundamental history of our country and what is happening in our country today.

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???

 

 

 

 

In Harmony: Early Vocal Groups Remembered & Celebrated by Lloyd Kaplan and Tom Shaker

At the onset of the COVID pandemic, most of us were bracing ourselves for a few weeks of solitude. Maybe thinking we’d have a few extra moments to ourselves, maybe some time to finally get to cleaning out those menacing closets we all have, maybe set up a home gym? Now that its been months and I’ve done none of those things, I am truly that much more inspired by my own father, who has taken it upon himself to have written and have published, with the help of his friend, Tom Shaker, an entire book. And here it is!

In this little paperback, available through http://www.consortiumpublishing.com, the authors give the history, backgrounds, and some fun, glossy photos of an assortment of vocal groups starting from the 1920’s and going up to about the 1950’s (although some groups are still performing today). While some groups are likely familiar, such as the Andrews Sisters and the Ink Spots, others are quite obscure; nevertheless, the authors impress upon the reader how even some of the most obscure groups had profound influence on many later vocalists that were more well-known.

What I found most engaging were the stories. The family conflicts, financial hardship, the many who were drafted into the armed forces because of the wars in these years. Many groups of color encountered flagrant racism, performing during the Jim Crow years in the South and being taken advantage of by many recording labels everywhere. Some of these vocal groups bravely paved the way for future performers and established new norms and higher standards in some cases.

Now I’ve got to do my homework – and start to listen to some of these groups. Here’s where the fun really begins!

(Please note, this is an entirely objective opinion, of course! This has NOTHING to do with the fact that the author is my dad…!!)

 

 

 

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!

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.  

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The library was a sacred place for Susan Orlean, having grown up visiting one regularly with her mother, and having treasured memories from these times.  So when she learned about the enormous fire that destroyed the Central Library in Los Angeles in 1986, it stirred something in her to investigate what happened, why someone might seek to destroy such a sanctified place.  In doing so, she also learns and then shares with us the history of this library and of its librarians.

This story had the potential to be interesting, and in some parts it was, but there were too many flaws in the writing, sadly – at least in my opinion. The story trajectory felt to me as if it was strapped onto a pool ball after someone yelled, “break.”  The timeline was erratic, skipping back and forth from one time period to another.  The topics switched in rapid fire from the librarians’ histories to the story of Harry Peal (the primary arson suspect), from the architectural details of the construction of the library to the function of libraries in general.  While each part did capture my attention – I love libraries too! —  the transitions were not smooth and it was hard to know what the purpose of the book actually was.  Even the most intriguing part of the story, the investigation into the setting of the fire, was, honestly, anticlimactic and unsatisfying.

That is not to say that I did not learn from this book.  The book exposed many sides of the library that may not be apparent to all – such as the broader functions that they have come to serve in many communities.  Most public libraries have evolved to become community centers and social service resources in many cities and towns throughout the United States, particularly as resources have dried up from other sources.  Librarians have had to become social workers, teachers, career counselors, and public health advocates in this age of limited resources and cutbacks – more a statement of bad government decisions than anything else – but librarians and public libraries have stepped up often to fill the voids in many communities.

Yet, while I did learn, it felt more like work, and I could not help wondering throughout the book what the purpose of the book was. Was it a book about a crime (arson)?  Was it a book about a library?  Was it a book about librarians?  Still not quite sure.

Curious to know what others think!