A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler

Julia cannot believe how far she’s come. Considering where she started – a teen mom, struggling to keep a roof over her head – she’s feeling almost embarrassed at the size of her new home, with its pool and its technology that her husband Brad insisted on installing. When she meets her new neighbor, Valerie, she learns about the stately old tree whose roots they’ve apparently encroached upon with the building of their pool. She also meets Valerie’s son, Zay. And so does Julia’s daughter, Juniper. And here is where it all starts to get complicated…

I loved this book. Therese Anne Fowler confronts two common themes – climate change and racism, both obviously serious and challenging – but does so without preaching and with warmth, tenderness, and suspense. Creating characters that are entirely relatable, she wraps us up in their lives as if we are living right there in the neighborhood with them. She also uses an extraordinary narrative voice of “we” (presumably the neighborhood voice, perhaps even the book club members from early on in the book) which gives the reader the feeling that we are chatting over coffee with the neighbors about what is happening in our back yard. But we’re also inside the heads of the characters, so we understand their past and why they choose the actions than impact their futures. And just as if we’re watching a bad accident in slow motion, we can’t help yelling for them to not move forward, as we see them heading toward disaster. We are so invested in them because it feels like they really are our neighbors.

One concept that I’d not really heard much of prior to reading this was the “purity pledge” which this book brought to light. This is a vow of celibacy that girls (of course, mostly girls) take during a ceremony in their (often Southern Baptist) Christian church. It was most popular in the 1990’s and was apparently a source of great shame and struggle for so many. Yet another way to oppress women, deny their sexuality, and keep them under wraps, I suppose. (see article in NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/us/abstinence-pledge-evangelicals.html)

A Good Neighborhood is a quick read, but a valuable one. I’d even go so far as to give it a MUST READ rating. I think the writing is excellent, I think the story is valuable, and the message is critical, especially in this moment.

 

 

Truths I Never Told You by Kelly Rimmer

Grace is on the brink and she doesn’t know where to turn. She knows she can’t be trusted with the care of her own children – she just can’t pull her mind out from under the dense blackness that has taken root there, and she knows that it’ll happen again if she has another child. It’s happened each time before. She just has nowhere to turn.

Decades later, Beth is grappling with her own frustration. She is clearly just stressed – her father is dying, she’s sleep deprived from a new baby, and she’s just not feeling up to going back to work yet. So why is everyone on her case, asking her what’s wrong? She’ll be fine. Won’t she?

The narrative between these two women brings us back and forth through the generations of this vulnerable, tender family and winds us through a beautiful story of love, heartbreak, and resilience.

The difference between these two women is also just one generation, and the epic difference between their generations is the passing of Roe v. Wade. One generation has the luxury of choice – the other lives without any control because they do not have that access.

I find myself writing this post on the morning that the Supreme Court of the US, staggeringly, has announced the repeal of Roe. I am still numb from this, even having tried to brace myself for what I knew was coming, although I still held out hope that some of the judges would come out on the just side of history. But no, the 6 conservative judges’ allegiance to their biased, misogynistic, utterly anti-life, hypocritical base was clearly too strong a tie.

Women will now return to the back alleys, the sepsis-inducing, life-threatening, desperate means of trying to gain control of their lives, which men put them at risk of, once again. Women will have to endure pregnancies they do not want, bear children they’re not ready to care for, and those children will likely live in conditions that are sub-par, to say the least, because those same Conservatives never vote for safeguards for these children once they are born. Hypocrisy at its very gravest.

Health care should be left to health care providers and their patients. Everyone else should stay out of it. Abortion and contraception is health care. Period.

This is a MUST READ at this time – I really wish the SCOTUS judges had read this novel before writing this decision.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Osla and Mab come from very different backgrounds, but suddenly find themselves on a train headed toward the same, mysterious destination. What with the war on, who knew what they’d be brought in to do to fight the Nazis, who seem to be speedily and frighteningly making their way toward London.  What awaits them is a challenge beyond their imaginations, and an opportunity to prove that they can do more than be “witless debs.”  What also awaits them is a profound friendship that brings its own challenges and heartbreaks as well.

This is an amazing yarn of historical fiction that will keep you on the edge of your seat from the very first page to the last. Do not be daunted by its length, because it will glide by in a heartbeat and you’ll only wish it had lasted even longer (although you will be happy that it didn’t because you’ll finally get some sleep!). The writing is brilliant, with the story structured by flipping back and forth from during the war to just after the war, creating a knot of suspense that keeps getting tighter and tighter throughout. The characters are strong and vulnerable and we come to love them, even when they are imperfect and rash. And even if some of the final scenes are a bit implausible, we believe them anyway, because the drama is right there where we want it – no, need it – to be.

And we learn quite a bit about how the war was actually won against Hitler and his army. It wasn’t necessarily just about sheer force, but rather intelligence, breaking code. Somewhere in a small town outside London, on a compound where secrecy was maintained above all else, codebreakers – often women – were employed around the clock to break the codes the Germans were using to communicate their war plans to each other.  In addition, this base was utilized to enable false messages to be sent back, to mislead the enemy.  Apparently, this was done by those sworn to secrecy on threat of treason to the crown. 

This is another MUST READ – you won’t regret it, I promise!

 

 

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

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

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

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

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

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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

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

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

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

 

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. 

 

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Although she’s been told she’s worth nothing her whole life, Elsa still dreams of a world in which she might accomplish something worthwhile. Being 25 and unmarried in the early 1930’s is a pretty clear indication that chances are slim that you will be leaving your family home at all. No, you’ll likely be under the thumb of your overbearing, critical mother and father your whole life. Unless you take action. Unless you do something drastic – like maybe buy that bolt of bold, red silk and sew yourself that beautiful, lavish dress and just sneak out for that night on the town and pretend you’re like everyone else– to hell with what they say. Be brave, her doting grandfather used to say to her. Well, she just might. Little does Elsa know that being brave will have to carry her through all of what comes thereafter, as she takes each next step, wanted or not.

In The Four Winds, Kristin Hannah has written what will inevitably come to be known as a great American novel, a sort of Grapes of Wrath narrated through the voice of a woman. We are lured inside the head and the heart of our heroine, Elsa, a modest, resourceful, and hard-working woman, bitterly rejected by her own family. She easily earns our sympathy, as she gradually gains her own strength, visualizing her own purpose. We feel love when she is finally loved and we shed tears when she is hurt, and we applaud her as she overcomes one arduous obstacle after another.

This is also a story of a dark era in our history. The Dust Bowl crisis during the Great Depression was a tragic consequence of the prolonged drought that occurred during the 1930’s, and layered onto the economic crisis of the Depression, it could not have come at a worse time. Scorched farmlands bankrupted thousands, and, lured by advertisements for jobs, too many fled west and found only steeper poverty and absent resources. The narrative starkly highlights the failure of our country to adequately provide for those who were left with nothing.  This left those who were more fortunate, empowered by their vigilante groups, to demonstrate only anger and hatred toward these folks who were starving for work, starving to have the opportunity to help themselves. 

I love that the women here are strong characters. Elsa grows into a strong character as she comes to know herself. Her daughter, Loreda, is born strong – rebellious, with a righteous anger that is sometimes misdirected but always idealistic. And there is Elsa’s mother-in-law, Rose, with her quieter strength – a woman who is fiercely loyal, uncomplaining, and who has the softest heart and is present when it matters. These are beautiful characters who will likely stay with you long after you finish turning the pages of this novel.

This story will singe a hole in your heart, but it will also fill it with admiration for the souls who fought for others, to raise up the unfortunate. It also reminds us how frequently history does repeat itself and how important it is to learn from the past.

A definite MUST READ – and a future classic.

 

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

In this tender memoir, Trevor Noah shares his experience growing up during the final edge of apartheid in South Africa. Through vividly narrated vignettes, we learn about his complicated relationship with his mother, who is fiercely devoted to him and yet is independent, stubborn and vulnerable. We learn of his early struggles to find himself, and how he must battle against the vicious cycle of poverty that apartheid has inflicted upon his people.  

It was suggested to me to listen to the audio version of this book – and this was excellent advice.  Hearing Trevor Noah narrate his own story, in his own beautiful, South African accent and fluidly modulating to his family and friends’ voices and accents, is just a gift to yourself. 

Noah is a brilliant storyteller.  He shares his experiences with such warmth and humor, as if he is sitting with you in your living room, over a cup of your favorite hot tea – but as if he’s sharing his deepest, darkest memories, only with you.  He describes in colorful detail some of the most outrageous adventures and unbelievable experiences.  But even as he shares his joy and his pain, it is as if he is flickering a smile at you, as if to say, we can still laugh, even as we hurt.  This is how we cope.

You will be engrossed and amazed — you will gasp and you will laugh out loud.  Don’t just read this one – listen to it!  

It’s a “MUST READ” but more than that, it’s a “MUST LISTEN!”

 

Before I Let You Go by Kelly Rimmer

It’s been 2 years since Lexie has heard from her sister, Annie, but she knows that her call can only harbor some tumultuous disaster.  Chaos has always followed Annie, ever since their messy youth, and Lexie has always been there to be the adult in the room and to pick up the pieces for her.  But this call… this blow may be more than even Lexie may be able to patch back together for her.  This may be the one time that Annie may have to rise to the occasion and solve it for herself.  

From the first page, we are locked in.  Rimmer’s writing is fluid and compassionate although we can sometimes guess where the plot will take us, we are still so fond of these endearing characters that we feel compelled to keep turning the pages and follow them through their painful and hard-earned wins and losses.  As the narrative bounces back and forth between Lexie’s current day experience and Annie’s journal entries, we are given a window into both what is happening now and what their explosive past has been like for each of them.  And we cannot help but become emotional as this tender and tragic and beautiful story unfolds.

There is so much to unpack here, but I will try not to give too much away as I try to do so.  One major theme is the injustice of our patriarchal laws around maternal-child welfare.  Our laws that protect the unborn are geared to protect children, yes, but they completely ignore the woman who is hosting the growth of that unborn not-yet-person – and this is obvious throughout this story.  This problem with our judicial system is magnified if that woman/host is afflicted with any kind of addiction.  She is blamed for having a disease that is out of her control.  We do not take away babies from mothers who do not care for their out-of-control gestational diabetes- nor should we! –  but we imprison mothers who use illicit substances while pregnant.  These mothers all have medical issues that need to be addressed, but because one is considered “bad” and one is considered “medical” we place a moral judgement upon one vs the other.  As is pointed out in the novel, we should be spending the money that we use to imprison these women on evidence-based treatment for these mothers, parenting support when the babies are born and on early childhood interventions, if we REALLY want to benefit these children.  Children generally do best when they are with their families.  This is highlighted here so very starkly and appropriately.  

Families are complicated and messy and Rimmer gets this so right.  You cannot help but have your heart melt from this one.  

Another MUST READ!