Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Amazon.com: Deacon King Kong: A Novel: 9780735216723: McBride, James: Books

What could possibly possess that bumbling, mumbling, stumbling old man, Sportcoat — everyone is thinking — to walk to the middle of the crowded flagpole square, here in Brooklyn in 1969, and shoot Deems Clemens in broad daylight? Everyone knows that Deems has grown up to be the lead drug dealer in the neighborhood, in spite of their communal dream that he’d use his brilliant baseball arm to pitch his way out of there. Now they all have to worry about protecting Sportcoat, even if he himself doesn’t seem to even remember having done the deed and isn’t being at all cooperative about laying low. How will he manage to evade revenge, now that this seems to have triggered a much more magnified response among the parties involved. What could Sportcoat have been thinking?

As Sportcoat meanders through the buildings of the Cause Houses, he brings us with him on a journey that feels random but is, in fact, a meticulously and methodically crafted tale. His warm and breezy manner is deceptive, and unless you’re paying close attention to his intoxicated rambling, you might miss his astute observations and profound wisdom. Other characters, too, have surprising depth and heart and casually drop the clues that create the cleverly drawn story that entangles them all. The “Elephant,” or Tommy Elefante, the son who inherits his father’s, um… let’s say, “import/export” business in the neighborhood, is another such player. As we peer into his heart, we know he’s committed some foul deeds, but he’s also been consistent and honest, which, in his business – and really in any business – counts for a lot. We feel their internal struggles, and we are privy to the reconciliation with their pasts.

There is so much that is subtly brilliant about this novel, it, no doubt, deserves to be read more than once. McBride’s writing enables us to easily fall in love with his characters, their wonderful names, their gritty dialogue, and their wildly human vulnerabilities. We feel trapped with them, inside their lanes, trying desperately to break out of the stereotypical cards that are dealt them. Each of them is in his or her segment of the same neighborhood, managing the social and economic forces that are trying to pit neighbor against neighbor in Brooklyn, 1969. Because of the poignant writing, we are right there with them, feeling their pain, laughing along with their victories.

This novel is utterly beautiful, in all its gritty splendor. An absolute MUST-READ!

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams

Amazon.com: Our Woman in Moscow: A Novel (9780063090231): Williams,  Beatriz: Books

Ruth has always been more like an older sister than a twin to Iris, guarding her and shielding her to the extent that she could, especially after losing both their parents. When in Rome at the start of WWII, Ruth is fully aware that Iris is falling for this seemingly noble Sasha Digby, but she still believes it safest for Iris to leave when the Americans are evacuated. When Iris defies Ruth, she incises a rift between the sisters that cuts deep and festers for years. So why is it Ruth whom Iris calls upon when she is suddenly lost in the abyss of Communist post-WWII Russia? Will Ruth be able to save her sister this time?

Beatriz Williams never, ever disappoints. Using her chatty, familiar, and utterly engaging storytelling style she has created a truly suspenseful historical fiction masterpiece in Our Woman of Moscow. The secrecy and counterintelligence of the post-WWII era is a centerpiece of the novel and sadly, feels eerily relevant today, as we are still at war, albeit virtually, with suppressive, paranoid Communist regimes.

What I love so much about Williams’ books is that her female characters are strong women of substance and dominate the plots. And while there are a few good men, so to speak, there are many who are weak and vulnerable. Most importantly, here in particular, the men– and even some women– are duped primarily because of their preconceived notions about women. This is the sweetest part.

Another MUST READ by Beatriz Williams!

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett: A Novel: Lyons, Annie:  9780063026063: Amazon.com: Books

Eudora Honeysett is 85 years old and she is done. She is still of sound mind and, while she may have slowed down a bit, she still swims her daily laps at the community pool and she can still care for herself, by herself, thank you very much. She has seen how death can be an ugly, drawn-out affair, having witnessed her own mother’s experience- and that is not for her. So Eudora makes arrangements for her own plan of action. And she will not let anything deter her, not even her brand new and surprising friends, such as they are – the boisterous young neighbor called Rose, and the awkwardly emotional gentleman, Stanley.

This delightful novel is very much A Man Called Ove meets Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Eudora is a woman who’s had it tough, who has sacrificed much for others over the years, and at her older age of 85 is finally, if awkwardly, speaking up for herself. Much of her straightforwardness is cringeworthy, but, at the same time, it is so refreshingly stunning and true. And while one might expect her to repel others with her manner of speaking, she actually manages to endear them to her. (Could it be that our world is seeking this more genuine form of communication? That we are all just looking for honesty and kindness, rather than flattery or banality?)

The author has created utterly beautiful characters. Rose, Eudora’s 10-year old neighbor and adopted “BFF,” illuminates the pages of this novel. Her outrageously clashing fashion statements are clearly imprinted in the reader’s mind, and we cannot help laughing along as Rose enriches Eudora’s wardrobe (as well as her life) with color. As they are both unique in their own ways, they can appreciate each other for this – and accept each other as they are. And the relationship between them is tender and lovely and loving.

And, again, we meet another death doula! (I had never heard of this career path before the Picoult novel, and now here is the second novel with a death doula.) Once again, there is frank discussion about death and that one can choose to die with dignity and love and honesty instead of with machines and tubes and disconnection. So often, we are reluctant to face our mortality and so we do not plan for it. We deny the possibility, so we avoid discussing what we want. We do not complete the forms, we do not discuss our wishes. And then when it comes down to it, we end up where we may not want to be. The death doula can be the escort through this process of confronting those difficult conversations, those difficult moments, and to ease that time, for whenever it might arrive. For it will, of course, at some point, for us all.

This is a wonderful novel – on so many levels. Give yourself this gift – you will not be sorry!

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.

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Untamed: Glennon Doyle, Glennon Doyle Melton: 9781984801258: Amazon.com:  Books

Just as a cheetah in a zoo is caged and trained to repeatedly chase after what she perceives as prey, so too are women caged in by society’s expectations and rules. We live and breathe in the norms around us — the standard of the thin, beautiful, smart, soft, modest, quiet, unassuming, and all-giving idea of the perfect woman — and cannot avoid striving for this, even when we are not even aware that we are doing so. This is what Glennon Doyle becomes aware of as she watches this caged cheetah pace back and forth and sees that she is not much different from this animal. It’s just a bit more complicated for her to work her way out of her cage, as it involves more than just her own life – it involves the lives of her husband and children as well.

In this memoir, Doyle reflects, through tiny moments and vignettes, about her metamorphosis as she moves from inside the cage to outside. She reflects back through her journey through recovery from bulimia and substance use, disentangling from a dishonest marriage, and tiptoeing through tightrope-like moments of parenting. Unlike many of us who struggle with similar issues, she also had to do this while living as a public figure, so had to also contend with answering to the public about this deeply personal process. What she learns, however, is to use her anger and her pain for good. She learns that rather than trying to escape these feelings, sinking into them actually can make her stronger.and push her into constructive action.

This is a powerful book that has many lines of wisdom contained within. Here are 2 of my favorite lines:

“If you are uncomfortable – in deep pain, angry, yearning, confused — you don’t have a problem, you have a life… You will never change the fact that being human is hard, so you must change your idea that it was ever supposed to be easy.”

and

“Maybe Eve [from the bible] was never meant to be our warning. Maybe she was meant to be our model. Own your wanting. Eat the apple. Let it burn.”

This is an enriching read for both women and men. It will open your mind and your heart and force you to look both inward and outward.

Another MUST READ! (This list is growing so long!)

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Amazon.com: Anxious People: A Novel (9781501160837): Backman, Fredrik: Books

Ostensibly, this is a story about a bank robbery gone bad, resulting in a hostage situation in an apartment showing across the street from the bank.  It is even authenticated by the presence of a gun, a police interrogation, and even hostage negotiators on the way. However, what we gradually come to learn is that the real story is in the details of how each of the characters were brought together by an uncanny coincidence of fate to the hostage situation.  As we learn their stories, we become held ourselves, invested in seeing each of them resolve their own personal crises.   

Few are able to captivate their readers in the way that Fredrik Backman is.  His warmth and his humor permeate his writing, and he has a magical way of creating characters that are deeply human, layered and vulnerable.  He also constructs a tale that is utterly engaging.  What starts as a seemingly simple story winds its way into a much more complex drama, twisting with surprises that come when you least expect them, and occasionally unmasking our inherent biases  and beliefs.  

I am reluctant to say more, as I don’t want to give any of it away.  Suffice it to say that reading this will be a wonderful gift to yourself – it is a gem with perfect writing, beautiful characters, and a plot that will hold you and keep you smiling until the very last word.  

A DEFINITE MUST READ!!

 

 

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!

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Image result for image of quiet by susn cain

Do you ever crave an escape from the noisy world we live in? Do you thrive in quieter settings, when you’re either alone with a good book or just engrossed in deep conversation with one friend? Have you worried there was something wrong with you when you panicked at the thought of having to speak up in a group of co-workers or a study group? If you have, you may actually be an introvert – and that is not a bad thing! While our society seems to prize the extrovert, the one who is the outspoken, confident leader — think Homecoming Queen, for example — it may be the introvert who really is behind so many of our major advancements (think Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple). It is the introvert who may allow for the quiet time during which thoughts can generate and percolate, and who may seek deeper conversation that brings people close. To be clear, it is not that introverts do not seek to be with others, but their connections are generally in smaller groups, on their terms, and more intimate. Nor is there a judgement that being introverted vs extroverted is better or worse – this is just a variation in personality style and a way of relating that can be every bit as effective. This book helps to identify and elevate those who are introverts to allow for all of us to prize introverts for their unique value just as we do extroverts for theirs.

An important impact of how society values extroversion is on our educational system. More and more, classrooms are being set up to promote group activity, with desks moved into circles rather than in the classic rows. This is great for those who function well in groups, the extroverts, but those who learn better with time to themselves, this may be more challenging. It is up to the teachers to appreciate and value both personality types and learning styles and to accommodate both.

I wish I had had the opportunity to read this book years ago. I learned so much about both myself and members of my own family through the pages of this book. I now understand why after caring for patients and interacting with my colleagues all day at work, all I am usually able to do by the end of the day is to get into bed and read. I realize that while I feel privileged to have the interactions I have both with my patients and my colleagues and I do feel passionate about what I do and enjoy it, it does take all of my energy to maintain the level of human interaction that it requires. At the end of the day, I need to refuel. Apparently, I am a true introvert.

This is an important book for so many of us to read. It gives us a much deeper understanding of our family, our colleagues, and our friends and enables us to value each of them for their unique styles of interaction. It may also give us a deeper understanding of ourselves. It certainly did this for me.

I recommend this as a MUST READ!

 

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!