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!

 

 

 

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!

 

How to Be Less Stupid About Race by Crystal M Fleming

Although systemic racism has existed throughout our history, the COVID pandemic has unveiled a razor-sharp light on its ugly face for all to see.   The pandemic has unleashed an enormously disproportionate toll on black and brown communities, in terms of illness and of deaths, because of the underlying vulnerabilities in housing, healthcare, education, criminal justice, and economic resources — present because of decades of institutionally sanctioned denial of resources to these communities.   The good news is that it has thrust these issues to the forefront of our national conversation, and has inspired uprising and protest against the institutions that support and perpetuate the injustices,  particularly within the criminal justice system, which is the most urgent.  In support of this effort to undo racism, it is urgent for us to educate ourselves on this topic of racism, because especially we white folks really are particularly stupid when it comes to race.

Dr. Fleming, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stonybrook University, is probably one of the best authorities on race and racism.  She has studied this topic at Harvard and then additionally in France as she researched their history of colonialism and oppression.  More importantly, after returning to the US and exploring broader theories on racism, beyond the more patriarchal and, really, white perspective she’d received in the ivory tower, she learned how deeply rooted racism was in this country.  She learned how white supremacist ideas underlie every aspect of our nation, from the laws to the economy, and from education to the health care and housing systems.  And she has, so fortunately for us, translated her learning into this extremely accessible, heart-warmingly honest book.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may have noticed that I’ve been trying to do this work.  I’ve been trying to read as much as I can about racism and antiracism to try to open my brain to all that I’ve been oblivious to over most of my life.   It is hard and uncomfortable, but it is urgent and necessary and, in fact, vital if we even hope to move on and build an antiracist society.  And those with the power, those of us who are seen as white, are the ones who need to do this work.

Why do I like this book so much?  I love Fleming’s voice.  She deftly combines a deeply personal account of her own journey to becoming an active antiracist with frequent injections of scholarly notations and historical perspective.  She is unique in that she adds an entire chapter on black women’s and women of color’s issues, which differ further from those of just general people of color.   In addition, hearing her views on Barack Obama was quite interesting to me as well – but I will not give up any spoilers, by telling you what those views were.  Finally, I love that Fleming gives constructive suggestions on what to do, steps forward, on working on becoming more antiracist.  This work is ever-continuing and ever-evolving and not formulaic – it may be very different and very personal to each of us.  But her suggestions are topical and relevant and are informed by her research and experience.

I am on a mission to listen, to learn and hopefully to change.

I will continue to read other books on this topic, of course, but so far,  this is “the” book.  If you’re going to read only one – it might be this one.

A MUST-READ!

 

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

 

Bryan Stevenson is a graduate of Harvard Law School who, after graduating, went down South to work to establish the Equal Justice Initiative, which began as a legal nonprofit defending those who found themselves unjustifiably on death row, but expanded to defending others who were also victims of our imbalanced justice system here in the U.S. The primary thread that runs through the book is the story of Walter McMillan, an African American framed for the murder of a white woman in a laundromat in Alabama.  And while Walter’s story is compelling and tragic in and of itself, the many others that Stevenson shares with us along the way similarly intrigue and horrify in their revelation of the truth of how racially biased our criminal justice system is and has been for decades.

I honestly feel like this book should be required reading for every American.  Whatever we think we know about racism and bias – it’s just not enough.  Racism is ugly, and painful and insidious and pervasive and it infects our law enforcement, our criminal justice system, and our politics and even our day-to-day interactions with others.  This book reveals the magnitude of the problem. Thousands of individuals have had outrageous sentences for smaller crimes and so many children – 13 and 14 years old! — have been given extremely harsh, long sentences really just because they were of color.  Most of these “criminals” were victims themselves, whether of their circumstances, of trauma they’d experienced, or of their poverty that prevented them from obtaining suitable defense.

I think that Bryan Stevenson is one of the true heroes of our time.  He has stood up for the impoverished and for those who have had no voice and given them a voice.  He has bravely fought for those who would have been killed because of inhumane death penalty laws (one could argue – as I have, that all death penalty laws are inhumane).

I have not seen the movie, but I believe the movie could not possibly have all the details that this book provides and I always believe the details are crucial.  Especially in an important book such as this one.

This is absolutely a MUST READ!

P.S.  It’s been awhile since a book has made me cry the way this one has.  There is one particular vignette that really threw me, for its beauty and its power.  If you read this book and come upon a story about a chocolate milkshake, you’ll know when it was that I cried the hardest…!

 

 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

 

Every time I tell myself that I cannot read another Holocaust story because they are just too painful, another one comes along and lures me into its grasp. This one was another such story…

Lale, from Slovakia, volunteered in 1942 to work for the Germans in order to save his family from being deported (or so he was told). He, along with a cavalry of other young, fit men, were loaded onto cattle cars, given no food or water for days, and then unloaded onto the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau. On that very first day, he vowed to himself that he would survive, so that he could bear witness to the unimaginable cruelty that he and his fellow Jews (and others) were experiencing at the hands of the Germans. Lucky for him, he was picked out by the tattooist to be an apprentice and he became the main tattooist in the camp, making himself useful to the Germans. And in this hellhole of hate, Lale manages to not only inspire hope in others, but he manages to find love as well. His story is nothing short of miraculous.

I believe that the important message to take away from these stories of history is two-fold. I do believe that it reminds us to keep our eyes open – this can, indeed happen again. Not only has anti-semitism risen, but hatred for anyone who is “other” is so obviously rising (just look at the daily tweets from our so-called president). So we have to be vigilant, speak out, and vote for those who will be inclusive and bring people together.

But the other message I think this story highlights is that kindness wins. Lale shared the food he managed to procure with so many — and he was loved – and actually rewarded, in turn, for his thoughtfulness. He risked his life for others and when he could, he saved lives. He befriended everyone, no matter who they were. He became particularly friendly with the Romany – the Gypsies – who lived next to him for a time. Because he was curious and not judgmental, he became close to them and benefitted from their friendship as well. Through so many close calls and suspenseful moments, it was acts of kindness that enabled him to survive – his kindness and kindness from others. Kindness wins.

This is a remarkable story. Worth the read!

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!

 

 

 

My Name is Mahtob by Mahtob Mahmoody

my-name-is-mahtob

Many years ago, I watched a movie called Not Without My Daughter, with Sally Field.  Have you seen it?

It was a true story about an American woman married to an Iranian man and together they had a 5 year old daughter named Mahtob.  They lived in Michigan and were happily married, until he suggested they take a 2-week vacation to visit his relatives in Iran.  This was just after the Iranian revolution during which the Ayatolah Khomeini overthrew the Shah.  Once they were in Iran, it became clear that Sayyed, the father, had no intention of taking his family back to America.  He embraced the law of the land, which claimed that women and children were the property of the man of the family, and he held them hostage, watching their every move and threatening them with their lives if they disobeyed him.  They lived like this for almost 18 months, until Betty, Mahtob’s mother, was able to earn his trust enough to be allowed to go shopping in the market and make secret contact with an underground network of people who were able to help her and Mahtob finally and miraculously escape.

I remember having had nightmares about this movie for months after seeing it.  And now here is the epilogue…

This is the story from Mahtob, the daughter, herself.  She recounts her story, as the daughter of these two very different parents.  She shares her early memories of America, in a very loving home, with tender memories of her father at the start.  She recalls a subtle shift in his attitude toward his culture and religion just before their leaving for Iran.  But the change in his attitude was like a tidal wave once they landed in Iran, and the loving father that she knew essentially disappeared, replaced by a monster, in her eyes – one who beat up her beloved mother, who threatened her mother, and who separated Mahtob from her mother for days at a time.  And that’s when she learned to hate.

What I did not realized was that the story did not end with their escape from Iran.  This mother and child had to endure years of terror, fearing a kidnapping by her father – or worse! – their whole lives.  And the impact spread to everyone around them.

Betty Mahmoody coped by using their experience  to advocate for others in this situation.  She fought for federal laws that protected children against international parental kidnapping, which President Clinton passed.  And she travelled around the country and around the world, personally supporting  many families who were in the same situation that she had been in.

This is a very, very hard book to read emotionally but it is an important one, I believe.  It serves as a portrait of the convergence of mental illness and religious fanaticism, which is a  terrifying combination.

It  brought it all back for me, but it also brought closure as well.  It seemed to have done so for Mahtob herself.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

becoming

When Michelle Obama was quite young, she began to learn to play the piano, taught by her very strict aunt who lived downstairs.  The piano on which she studied and practiced had chips and imperfections that enabled her always to find the middle C, sort of grounding her and guiding her.  When she had her first formal recital, she suddenly found herself seated at a perfect, symmetric and distinctly un-chipped piano, and had to pause and figure out what to do to find her way.  With the help of her teacher/aunt, she managed to steady herself and to play her piece with great success.  This became a sort of metaphor for her life.  Michelle Obama has always worked hard, relied on important mentors to guide her, and whenever she encountered obstacles, she leaned on those she loved and who loved her to help her regain her center of gravity and succeed in a dramatic fashion.

Mrs. Obama’s story is a rags to riches story in some ways, but in many ways it is not.  It is true that she was raised in a poor neighborhood in Chicago and she may not have had much in the way of what money could buy.  On the other hand, however, she was rich in the ways that really mattered.  She had a loving family with mother, father and brother and many extended family members who were quite close and affectionate.  Her mother strongly advocated for her so that she was able to access an excellent education, which enabled her to attend Princeton and Harvard Law School, where she was able to raise her financial standing, in spite of where she came from.  She acquired an incredibly strong work ethic and was generous about helping others come along with her, rather than stepping on others to get ahead.  Her constant mission was to find mentors to assist her with moving forward, but also to then pay it forward and mentor others in return.  And each position that she held after her first job out of law school helped her to dive deeper and deeper into fields in which she could do good for others, which seemed to always be her driving force.

The discouraging part for me, of course, is the contrast between what was then and what is now.  The Obama’s were devoted to their country, both working so very hard to try to make things better for the people they were serving, both working to expand human rights, to give access to health care, to create jobs and improve the environment and to promote peace.  Barack Obama surrounded himself with wise advisers and listened to the advice of others and was thoughtful and respectful to others and read incessantly to learn as much as he could about an issue so that he could make the most informed decision.

Sadly, this is not what is happening in our White House now.

So while this book was inspiring, it was also quite sad, as it reminded me of what we’ve lost since 2016.

The Obamas were smart, dedicated to our country and to humanity, and were a class act.   I hope we find our way back to this again.

 

Educated by Tara Westover

educaated

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

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

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

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

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