This Is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel

this is how it always is

This is the poignant story of a loving family: parents, Rosie and Penn, and their 5 boys; that is, they believed they had 5 boys until the youngest, Claude, declared that he wanted to bring a purse to kindergarten instead of a lunchbox. Gradually, it became clearer that Claude was much happier in dresses than pants and identified more with the princess in his father’s bedtime fairytale than the prince.  While his parents and brothers were accepting of this, they were fearful that people around him were not, and they went to great lengths to protect Claude, who eventually called herself Poppy.  As the story unfolds, we learn that while intentions may be pure, our actions may not be in others’ best interests and over-protection can lead to inadvertent harm.

This is a fictional story, but it has all the markings of a story that is true.   Every character is endowed with a dynamic, vulnerable, and big-hearted quirkiness that makes all of them larger than life.  We come to love each member of this family almost as our own.  The story is enriched with some detail of how Claude/Poppy’s experience affects the other members of the family – as it certainly would – and their own struggles with growing and seeking their own identities.  And most genuinely, Poppy’s struggle is not straightforward – she is not sure what her journey will be like or where it will end.  This is the true meaning of a non-binary identity.  One does not have to be male or female.  While this may be hard for  many to comprehend, it is even harder for others to squeeze themselves into one or the other, and I believe because of that, we all just have to get over ourselves and accept the vast space in-between.

I loved this novel, both for the message within and for the beauty of the story on its own merit.  It is a story of a family dealing with a secret that they learn doesn’t have to be a secret.  It is a story of a family learning to cope with difference, which most families have to deal with on some level, as no one is exactly like anyone else anyway.  And it is a story about love and family bonds that keep a family tied together no matter what.

 

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.

 

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

bridge of clay

Markus Zusak, the author of The Book Thief, has proven once again to be part writer, part poet, and part craftsman in his newest, breathtaking novel.  The story is about 5 brothers who are raising each other, the parents who raised them first, and the complicated history of how these parents came to be.  It is a story of love and relationships and loss and not really coping and, well, trying to cope;   And while its a bit of an effort to get to know each of the characters at first (as in real life), it’s ultimately well worth the time.

The narrative here is stunning – and must be appreciated for its understated beauty.  There is raw emotion and silence and pain and beauty and love and everything in between that is utterly palpable and with a feeling of air between each word so that the reader has time to experience each of these right there beside each character.  Each word, each sentence is painstakingly chosen and there is poetry on each page of this prose.  By the later chapters, the reader feels the characters are so real that one might just walk in and sit on the couch and watch the bad, 1980’s movies with the boys and tussle with them as they do with each other.  And the love of storytelling by the main character, Clay, allows for the  actual storyteller, Matthew (the oldest brother) to switch gracefully back and forth between the boys’ adventures and the parents’ earlier experiences so that have the privilege of getting to know all of them.

But be warned – it is a slow start and a bit beyond midway it feels like it is finished when it is not.  This book requires patience and calm.  But like most things in life, patience is heartily rewarded here.  I literally could not speak for awhile after reading the ending of this story, feeling absolutely washed over by its utter warmth and love.

This is a masterpiece of subtlety and a very large poem of the heart.

I hope will allow yourself the privilege of loving it as I did.

 

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

rising out of hatred

Derek Black has been nurtured from the time he was born until the time he went off to college to be the great white hope for the future of the white nationalist movement.  His father, Don, established Stormfront.com, the earliest and largest promoter of racist propaganda on the internet, and David Duke, his godfather, is the well-known KKK/Nazi politician.  Everyone in this underworld knows Derek and believes he will take over for Don and Duke, as Derek has already begun to co-host their radio show, assist with the website, and even help organize their annual conference.  But as Derek enters college, he decides to keep this part of his identity secret, interacting with the diverse students in his classes and activities, even while he maintains his connection with his radio show daily.  However, what happens very gradually, when Derek is later exposed, ostracized and then quietly invited to the regular Shabbat dinner of an Orthodox Jewish friend of his, begins the process of challenging his deepest convictions — and is absolutely stunning.

This true story has been featured on various podcasts (The Daily is one) and has been written about in various newspapers, so you may know the basic story.  Derek himself has written opinion pieces for the New York Times.  But in this moment of unleashing of hatred and bigotry, this story is a crucial one – and the details matter.  It is crucial because it shows how hatred has been simmering underground for so long among those who are living their very insular lives, among those who think only like they do.  And it is crucial because it demonstrates, most importantly, that if we look at those who think differently from ourselves as human beings, only then can we start to have a civil and respectful enough discourse to come together on ideas.

I am in awe of the courage of the students who showed friendship to Derek even after he was “outed” as the co-host of the morning show on Stormfront.  They stuck by him, braving the derision of most of their peers, showing steadfast friendship to the the hero of the dark side, even as he degraded their racial groups on his radio show, even as they questioned their own wisdom in doing so.

And I am in awe of Derek himself, who has truly shown courage in the thought and heart that he has put into his own journey.  It is so much easier to go along with what your family and community preaches and to stick to your original beliefs.  It is so much harder to go against your family wishes, to turn around what you’ve been taught is right, to go against your indoctrination and open up your heart to other ideas.

But I am also not sorry he has accepted his responsibility to go public with his journey, because he has to share with others that those narrow-minded, absurd ideas about white supremacy are just wrong – and that the harm they do to others can not, under any circumstances, be justified.

In this moment, this book is absolutely a MUST-READ!

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

spark of light

Immediately on learning that both his daughter and his sister are inside the abortion clinic where a gunman is holding hostages, Hugh knows he should recuse himself from the situation and not be the hostage negotiator.  He knows he cannot be objective; but nor can he allow anyone else to do this job either.  And what are they doing in there anyway?  How did he not know they were there and why?  What did this say about his relationship with his daughter?

And inside there is a bloody scene.  The gunman has killed people but now he’s taking stock of his situation and wondering what comes next.  How did he get here?  It wasn’t supposed to be this messy.  Or this real.

The whole story is told over the course of a day, and actually told mostly in reverse.  We learn what happens, mostly, and then we hear the back stories, the histories of each of the characters who create the scene of what makes up this dramatic story of A Spark of Light.  The story is steeped in fact.  Characters who harass women entering the clinic (whether or not they are actually having an abortion or going there for a PAP smear)  but  who may have had abortions themselves, when it has suited them.  Single abortion clinics trying to survive to accommodate the needs of the women in an entire state, and trying to fulfill the rules imposed mostly by rich, white men on mostly impoverished women of color.  Characters like Dr. Louie Ward, depicted intentionally like the real-life hero, Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider who does so because of his Christian faith, not in spite of it.

In true Jodi Picoult fashion, this story is shared by many of the characters.  It is told from the eyes of each character, and built gradually by adding block by block, minute by minute, how each character perceives the passing of the day and of the experience.  We hear each opinion on abortion, religious and otherwise.  We hear each legal perspective and each is given credence, such that each perspective can be respected.  We also see that these women’s clinics serve as much more than abortion clinics as well. We also develop an appreciation for the various and desperate situations that lead women to require their procedures at a women’s health clinic.

This is an important book and serves as so much more than just a piece of fiction. Jodi Picoult never shies away from difficult subject matters and here conquers yet another.  In my opinion, she’s done another great job.

Another MUST READ!

The Girl who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

girl who wrote in silk

In the late 1880’s, Washington territory, Mei Lien’s whole world revolved around her father and grandmother, both of whom she revered and loved with all her heart.  But with one unthinkable strike, both of them were torn from her and her entire life trajectory changed.

Fast forward to current day, and we find Inara, whose favorite aunt has died, with a wish that Inara take her estate and turn it into an island inn.  In her exploration of the estate, Inara stumbles upon the sleeve of a robe, embroidered with an elaborate scene that appears to be communicating an urgent message from long ago.

What is the connection?  And what will that connection mean for Inara’s family?  What did it mean, more importantly, for Mei Lien?

I feel this book, while powerful in its message and matter, just missed its mark in the telling.  The idea of the story is a brilliant one, based in a historical reality that needs to be told – and one that I, for one, was beforehand, ignorant of.  In the late 1800’s and well into the 1900’s, the Chinese who immigrated to the US and Canada were treated abominably, often with prejudice at best and with violence at worst.  This story brings that racism to a very personal level, highlighting the loneliness, despair, and abject terror that racism induces.

On the more literary side, the resolution of the story that is told is just too extreme to be believable.  The family connections are too improbable.  The way Inara finds a chef for her kitchen for her inn is too coincidental.  And the ending just slides into home plate for that grand slam in a way that almost trivializes the story.  I am not saying that the ending is not what anyone reading the story would have wanted, but I think it was too neat and tidy.  It’s not real life.

But maybe that is why it’s called fiction.

I am still glad I read this book and would recommend it to others as well.  If not for the literary sparkle, for the historical perspective it provides.

 

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

female persuasion

This new, very popular novel centers around Greer Kadetsky, who begins as a young freshman at what she considers a mediocre college in western Massachusetts.  If her disappointing parents had filled out the financial aid forms appropriately, she would have been at Yale, where she was really meant to be.  But then she wouldn’t have met her best friend, Zee, who then wouldn’t have dragged her along to hear Faith Frank, the feminist, speak.  And then she wouldn’t have had that moment with Faith Frank that sparked, really, the trajectory for the rest of her life.

This novel encompasses two stories in one.  On one level, it tells the story of Greer, a smart, ambitious young woman who is seeking love and approval from others because she doesn’t feel  it from her nebulous parents.  She has it from her boyfriend, Cory, who is steadfast, but has his own life and stressors, and she has it from her friend, Zee, but she seeks it from an adult, in the form of Faith Frank.  And as she goes through her journey, she learns that no one is perfect, even those who appear to be.

On the second level, it is also a story of the women’s movement.  In the telling of the story of Faith Frank, the author essentially recounts the story of the fractions of women and the various perspectives, both forward and backward (at least in my opinion) as it is going these days, particularly with regard to availability of women’s choice and control over our bodies.  Faith Frank, in her early days, helps a friend through a life-threatening, almost-botched illegal abortion and it drives her friend in a totally opposite direction from Faith (which is very hard to believe, but I imagine is true of some women).  Faith is empowered by this experience to push hard for women’s access to safe, legal abortion.  In this, I think the author opens up the debate where we stand very precariously now – where women are arguing over the rights over our bodies.  (As an aside, I have to say that I believe that no woman likes the idea of abortion.  On the other hand, I believe that the majority of women in our country do believe that this should be a matter decided by the woman herself and perhaps her doctor, as it is a physical and medical and emotional decision for a woman – NOT a decision to be made by mostly MEN in a back room somewhere having nothing to do with the woman herself.  THIS is what “choice” means.)  And this depressing backlash that we are experiencing here in our country is discussed in the book and lamented.  It’s hard to see it in a book and not just in the news – it gives it so much more permanence, in a way.

What is somewhat disappointing about this book is how it sort of fizzles at the end.  Most of the book is engaging and there are a few twists and major events that turn the plot around on its head.  Most of it grabbed me.  But as it wound down, it really wound down and sort of fell.  Maybe even fell flat.

Otherwise, I think this is an interesting story of a woman’s struggle with finding her place and meaning in the world through the lens of the women’s movement.  An interesting read…

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

the alchemist

I finally had the opportunity to read what so many high school juniors have been reading for decades now.  Unfortunately, I did not have the benefit of what must be wonderful philosophical discussions about it with young, curious minds.

This story is about a boy, a shepherd, who meets a king who inspires him to follow omens and signs that will direct him to a treasure.  The king gives him 2 stones that indicate yes or no and are to be used to guide him through his journey.  Almost immediately the boy encounters failure.  Rather than becoming despondent, though, he picks himself up and begins to work to compensate for his initial failure and as he does, he learns that failure can teach lessons and that the journey is part of what enables him to achieve his Personal Legend.  Because he is mindful and attentive during each moment of his journey, crossing rivers and desserts, he inherits wisdom from each person he encounters, no matter how simple or how obtuse they may be.

It is clear why this book has been translated into so many languages and has been read by literally millions of people.  It can be understood on so many levels and its meaning broadened to so much significance.  So much so, that I will not begin to pontificate on that here in this blog.

Suffice it to say, that as I go on my personal journey in life, I will consider the message of the boy for me to be that we must be mindful of each step – good or bad – all the while taking into account and appreciating what we have already.

If you’re inclined to the philosophical, this book is for you!

The Myth of You & Me by Leah Stewart

myth of you and me

After having moved so many times, Cameron is finally feeling fairly at home in her routine with Oliver, caring for him as she would an elderly grandfather.  But when she suddenly receives a letter from her ex-best-friend, Sonia, it cuts into her world and forces her to remember their friendship, and it chisels at the wall she’s build around herself.  Oliver furthers that by sending Cameron on a mission to find Sonia in his own underhanded way, and it takes Cameron on an odyssey through her past as a way to pave her future.

It took a bit of time for this novel to capture my full attention and I believe it was because it took me awhile to like the main character, Cameron.  She is introduced as a bit aloof, unattached.  But as I read on, I came to understand why that was so.  She’s had to move many times, as a military child, and so she’s had to adjust so many times to new situations and social norms.  And then there were the disappointments and the pain, one after the other.  She has hardened herself, now, and she’s afraid to be vulnerable.  However, as she succumbs to the pressure of having to search for Sonia, her heart is gradually pried open by the memories that come rushing back to her and she finds her humanity – and softness – again.

One of the most striking characters is Sonia’s mother.  She is severely mentally ill and abusive of Sonia both psychologically and physically.  What I think is so well portrayed in this novel is not only the abuse itself, but how the abuse instills a sense of helplessness in not only the direct victims, but in those around the victims, so that they, in turn, become casualties of the abuse themselves.  There is a clear ripple effect that causes very tragic collateral damage.  It almost seems to have affected those around Sonia even more, perhaps, than Sonia herself.  I wonder if this might actually be more realistic than we know.

This is a tender story of friendship and trust, forgiveness and humanity that I ultimately enjoyed more than I thought I would.  I think you will too…

Playing with Matches by Carolyn Wall

playing with matches

Clea is a smart, but smart-mouthed girl who seems to not be able to stop herself from saying things that get her into trouble.  And while Auntie (her adoptive mother) loves her dearly, she still craves attention and love from her Mama, who seems to show love only to the men who come to her each night from the prison up the road.  As Clea grows older and the hurt grows deeper, Clea learns to internalize this hurt and drive it inward, until she finally learns how to cope and ultimately to forgive.

This is a poignant coming-of-age story, that blends flavors of the deep, poverty-stricken South into a young woman’s struggle with trauma and development of empathy and forgiveness.  While Clea starts off as a bold, outspoken, actually crass and rude child, she learns quickly that her words can do terrible harm.  And they do.  But she clings to words in other ways, and words ultimately become what save her.

The character I find the most beautiful in this story, actually, is Auntie.  Auntie is the one who has taken Clea in, an hour after Clea’s Mama has given birth to her, with no blood relation (in fact, she’s black and Clea is white) but only because she’s a human child with no one to care for her.  And she raises the child as she would her own child and loves her unconditionally.  She does not give Clea everything she wants, but rather she gives her everything she needs.  She sets admirable limits with her and guides her with wisdom and tenderness.  She is so very kind.

My only reservation about this book is that toward the end, there is a little more forgiveness than I think is realistic.  There is one character, in particular, who is extraordinarily evil.  Forgiveness for her may be beyond realistic – but maybe that is because I am not kind enough.  I’d love to hear others’ opinions on this one!

I definitely recommend this book – but it is pretty serious, so prepare yourself!