Sadie is full of resentment, even though she can’t admit it. She’s given up her summer to be with her sister – and that’s ok, I mean, her sister is battling cancer, for god’s sake. She’s doing her best to be out of everyone’s way, when she comes upon a quiet boy named Sam, who, it appears, likes to game as much as she does. In fact, as his nurse has observed, Sadie is the first person Sam has actually spoken to since his horrible accident and his multiple foot surgeries. When the nurse requests that Sadie come back and game with him some more, trying to pry him further out of his shell, she encourages the development of a friendship that will go through many lives – almost like those of the characters they become in their games.
I am not a gamer, in any way, shape or form. But I loved this book and found it relatable on all of its levels. While gaming is the language the characters use to communicate, we sense their vastly deeper connection to each other, the love they feel. We also experience their pain and understand how they rely on gaming to escape this pain – to dive into worlds that are dreamlike, fantastical and utterly distracting in order to just get through. As they create games for others, they use this knowledge to create alternate realities for others to escape as well.
I also love how the plot unfolds. It surprises, interrupts, detours, and restarts – almost as if in a game itself. Because of this, it captures our imagination but also feels as real as one’s own heartbeat. It is simultaneously lyrical and tactile. The characters are both idyllic and deeply flawed.
I believe this is a MUST READ – a creative, imaginative, and very modern love story!
From the very moment of his birth in the narrow, rented trailer home where his teen mom went into an early labor, Damon already felt the stacking of the cards against him. His father already six feet under only six months prior, Damon learned early to try to hide his mom’s alcohol even as he hid from her poor choices in men. He also knew when to escape to the Peggots’, their kindly neighbors and grandparents of his ally, Maggot. But he lost his battle to protect his mom when “Stoner” moved in. While his mom believed this newest partner might provide stability, Damon saw that what he actually provided was constant tension and outright physical warfare. This was the beginning of a journey for Damon that led him through the nightmare of the foster care system, which would test him to the limits of both his weaknesses and his strengths.
Barbara Kingsolver has always been one of my favorite authors and, again, she has proved this justified. As she recreates the narrative of David Copperfield through the voice of a young, poor, Appalachian boy at the brink of the opioid crisis, she does so with authenticity, respect, a love of this part of the land and its people, and, yes, even humor. It is a hard story. Damon, or “Demon” as he is nicknamed, is abandoned into the foster care system and left to his own creative devices and survival instincts at an excruciatingly young age. We follow him through his minimal ups and prolonged downs and we see that he has, in spite of his circumstances, a kind heart and an artistic soul. We come to love him and see his failings as the failings of the system that has tried to eat him alive, rather than his own personal ones. We see how these failings have been built on generations of systemic exploitation and vulnerability.
Kingsolver, through this narrative, brings to light a few important messages. One is how the large mining magnates exploited so much of Appalachia without regard to the land or the people who lived there. They created dependence on the corporations for everything. The people were owned by these corporations, but not protected by them, as their health, education, and welfare were not at all the company’s concern. And once the land was stripped of its use, it was abandoned, as were the people who lived there, leaving only poverty in its wake.
So it is not shocking that Purdue Pharma sought to prey also on this vulnerable population, sending out its sales reps like missionaries to these communities who were middle and lower-middle class without great access to adequate health care. Few on the receiving end were insured, so much of their health care was in the form of emergency room or in-hospital care only. The providers there were sold the BS that Purdue Pharma was dishing out on pain management: that they had invented the miracle panacea for pain relief through Oxycontin and that it was, miraculously, non-addictive. Well, we know how that fable goes…
What I believe I loved most about this story, and what Kingsolver does so tenderly, is highlight the beauty of both this region and the folks who live there. She describes the landscapes: the steep waterfalls, the green mountains, the valleys and rocky streams -and the fauna and flora that thrive there. How even if poverty exists there, folks are able to farm a patch of land to grow vegetables, hunt for food, or knit themselves a few sweaters for the cold weather – and that they do so for each other in their close-knit communities – because there are still close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else, and have known their parents and grandparents as well.
This is a uniquely gorgeous novel – one that should not be passed up. This is, without a doubt, a MUST READ!
(And I think it’s also time for me to revisit the original David Copperfield as well!)
Inti is on a mission here in this sheep farmland of Australia, and these farmers are not going to stop her. Can they not understand that after they had hunted the wolves to extinction, their ecosystem faltered and the forest became unstable because of it? Here she is, with her team of scientists, trying to save the forest with her proven method of rewilding the landscape with the reintroduction of wolves and they are fighting her at every step. Out of fear? Out of ignorance? Who knows? But as Inti battles these townfolk, she is also battling her own demons – hers, and those of her twin sister, Aggie. And maybe, anger and fighting can blind a person, dangerously, to what is right in front of them.
This is a stunning novel with a lofty mission. We are carried into Inti’s story, her mission to save the forest, a suspicious death, and her past that is entangled so deeply with her sister Aggie’s. Complex plot, complex characters, engaging from page one. But we are also afforded a window into the unique and mysterious wonders of the wolf – its habits, its predatory prowess, and its deep loyalty to its pack. We learn how essential the wolf as predator is to the whole ecosystem of the forest, keeping its prey in check in order to maintain the balance that evolved over centuries and that man did his best to try to destroy.
One can read article upon article about our endangered environment, but when we connect with it in a story such as this one, I believe it has a much stronger impact emotionally. By creating characters whom we relate to and who become heroes to us, we become more personally committed. Even the wolves are characters here, and we become attached to them, come to know them and their personality traits as Inti surmises from her tracking of them. And even though we know this is fiction, albeit with much fact woven through, because we are so invested in these characters and their outcome, we are also invested – enlightened, even – in the urgency of saving our planet – so much more than an article could ever accomplish.
It is a lofty mission that is absolutely accomplished, and beautifully so. Very highly recommend this – and if you’re environmentally inclined, consider it a MUST READ.
In this second in the Beartown trilogy, we happily find ourselves back in Beartown, where we learn that the sacred hockey A team has lost its funding. That is, until a shadow company suddenly appears through the machinations of an ambitious politician, propping up Peter Andersson, the team’s general manager. There is one minor condition, however: the team’s most ardent (and most intimidating) supporters, the “Pack,” will lose their spot in the stands. Because of Beartown’s small town interconnections, this stipulation has big implications, further dividing the population in mean ways. As their games approach, their rivalry with the opposing team of Hed grows fierce, and what should be “just a game” goes far beyond.
Backman once again has kept this reader utterly glued to this novel, as it has everything one could want – complex characters with palpable hearts; a plot that is elaborate but clear; and writing that is insightful but not preachy.
The warm love Backman feels for his characters is contagious. Backman has a way of showing the vulnerability of some who are troubled, where it may originate from, and how those who are labelled as “bad” may actually be so good, particularly when it really matters. The members of the “Pack,” for example, who, on the outside, appear as “hooligans” are fiercely loyal to each other and to so many folks in Beartown. When someone is in need or disaster strikes, they are the first ones there to help, to do whatever menial task is necessary. That is loyalty and that is what good people do. While they are described as having unconventional ways of expressing themselves, yes, and they may sometimes end up on the wrong side of the law, they are nevertheless the ones folks rely upon.
This is a beautiful story, once again. And I look forward to when #3 comes out, next month – I am guessing we won’t be disappointed!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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