Season of the Dragonflies by Sarah Creech

Lucia has had no intention of being a part of the family perfume business.  She has never been a natural at mixing scents the way her sister, Mya, was, nor has she had the confidence in dealing with clients as her mother had.  But when she finds herself mourning both failed marriage and dead acting career, she has no choice but to return home.  Upon arriving there, however, she finds that her mother and sister have created a situation that could threaten their business forever, and it may be up to Lucia to intervene.

This story definitely has charm and a sort of lyrical lightness to it, which was a great diversion from what is happening around us at this moment of coronavirus.  The characters are amusing and pretty, albeit a bit monochromatic, but they do hold our hands through the ride of the plot. And the plot, while it brings us through some fantastical elements (which are never my favorite, I admit), is engaging.

But now it’s time for me to ramble…  I guess I just wonder why so many authors feel compelled to wrap up their characters in a neat bow before sending them all off into the sunset for the grande finale, when that is not necessarily how life happens.  I understand this is fiction, and we’d all love to think that we can make life be that way.  And maybe fiction is the only place where life is that way.  But can’t we be ok with how life really is?  Can’t we be ok with people not being perfect?  Can’t we be ok with the problems not necessarily being resolved, even though it’s hard?  I would think that we’re more evolved than that.

I’m not saying I like books unfinished, but I think that ensuring that everyone is tucked in and sated is not necessary either.  It’s too neat.

OK, I’ll get off my soapbox now, and leave you all alone now.  Sorry!

Maybe this pandemic is taking its toll and making me more ornery than I thought.

I hope you’re all hanging in there and staying 6 feet away from others, wearing your masks (even though our schmuck of a president won’t wear his!), washing your hands and staying healthy.  And I wish medical and economic recovery for all of us as soon as possible.

Becoming Eve by Abby Stein

Born to what was considered a royal Hasidic family —  a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov — Abby Stein was raised as a boy in one of the most gender-segregated societies on earth.  From an early age, she knew she was a girl and when she, at the age of 4 years, expressed this to her mother, she was given the very clear message that this was never to be spoken about again.  Throughout her childhood, she rebelled, against god, against her restrictive society, and against a world that did not allow her to be herself.

This memoir was so detailed and heartfelt – until it wasn’t.  We hear about every moment in Abby’s early life.  Her journey from one yeshiva to the next, from one rebellion to the next.  There are very intimate passages, revealing her first love for a young man who is obviously struggling with his own sexuality.  This episode is quite tenderly written and the reader feels such empathy for these two who cannot pursue their love in the restrictive society in which the two “boys” live.   We hear about the details of the study in which Abby immerses herself, how she advocated to learn about law and ultimately about mysticism.  And some of the details about Hasidic life are quite interesting.  And we hear about her marriage to Fraidy, which is actually quite sweet and hopeful, to some degree.

But suddenly, when she describes Fraidy giving birth to their son, and all of a sudden, it is as if she drops off a cliff and, POOF! she is a woman.  There is little to no mention of how she disengages from her prior life, with the exception of an epilogue, which tells only of how she tells her father she is a woman. We do not hear about her connection with her child, we do not hear about she experiences the transition from her insular world of Hasidism to the outer world, we do not hear about much of anything else.  This I find unbelievably disappointing and a sorely missed opportunity.  After hearing so much detail, the absence of detail is astounding.

I did learn from this book, but I was disappointed by the ending.  On the other hand, I do hope that Abby finds peace with her family and can connect with them.  She obviously loves them dearly and they do her.  I hope they can find a way to see that she is exactly who she always was.

 

 

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

funnyinfarsi

It is hard enough to be a seven year old girl, navigating family, friends, and school.  But in 1972, a little girl named Firoozeh had to navigate a move from Iran to a suburb of LA, where she did not know the language, was not familiar with the food, did not have the extended family around for support, and had to function as her mother’s interpreter as well as find her own way.  Fortunately for her, her intelligence, her family’s support (mostly!), and probably most importantly, her humor, enabled her to adapt and do so very successfully.  This book is essentially a collection of her memories of growing up in this colorful family challenged by the immigrant experience of balancing their own culture and tradition with integrating into the society into which they’ve landed.

First, I have to say that this was a good, light distraction from the other reading I’ve had to do these past 2 weeks!  If you’ve been like me, you’ve done more reading about viruses and epidemiology and how pandemics can be mitigated in the past 2 weeks than you’ve ever had in your life – even if you’re in Public Health.  So I am thankful that I’ve had something like this to alleviate the anxiety that all of that other reading has caused.  I implore you to use this time for more solitary reading — it will be therapeutic for you and it will socially distance you from others, helping to mitigate the spread of this awful coronavirus.

As a memoir, this book was amusing and entertaining to a point, but, I believe, a missed opportunity.  Dumas did enrich her stories with the rich flavors and aromas of Iranian cuisines, ceremonial customs, and, in particular, her father’s often comical and endearing personality quirks.  And we did get a sense of the warm acceptance into the community her family experienced in 1972, which contrasted drastically with the reception she received when they returned just after Iranian Revolution and the American hostage situation. But other vignettes, such as those about her father’s fascination with Denny’s Restaurant or her uncle’s dieting fads were much less engaging.  While an opening into her culture was an opportunity, peeking through a curtain into their family secrets felt almost voyeuristic.

This was less a memoir than a collection of short stories.  As such, it was entertaining enough, but did get a bit old after a bit.

Not a “Must Read” but good for a few chuckles.

 

 

 

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Feeling deflated by a failed marriage, Laura finds refuge in her new position — assistant to a very kind, older gentleman, the author, Anthony Peardew.  As they work together in his tastefully opulent home, she gradually comes to learn about his history, his heartbreak, and the secrets that have been kept hidden for many years.  When he dies and leaves his estate to her, he also leaves the legacy of his secrets to be reconciled by her, as his final gift.

This is a sweet story.  The characters are endearing and there are multiple threads that entwine to keep the plot loping forward. It is engaging and imaginative in many ways.

On the other hand, one can argue that once again, we are reading about a woman being rescued by a man.  Laura’s life has been ruined by one man, and she is paralyzed; her only savior comes in the form of another man, her generous boss.  Moreover, she cannot be fully complete nor can the mystery of the secret of the estate be resolved until she is married to yet another man.  Really?

Will we never get beyond our Prince Charming fixation?

That said, the book is light and amusing and, like all good fairy tales, has a happily-ever-after ending that wraps it all up in a neat bow for the reader.

If that is for you – go for it!

 

 

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

 

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

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

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

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

This is absolutely a MUST READ!

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

 

 

An Undisturbed Peace by Mary Glickman

Abraham has come from England in the early years of American settlement to work with his uncle who has sponsored his transport  He is surprised by the reception he receives:  he is thrown into the barren barracks with the other poor, desperate workers and sent to peddle the wares of the business to surrounding folks, to the best of his ability.  Abe, as he comes to be known, begins his journey as a traveling peddler by landing surreptitiously in the home of a stunning, fiercely independent, Cherokee woman.  She takes him in briefly, cares for him, and although amused by him, does not return his sudden, youthful passion.  As he seeks to reconcile this woman’s past and discover where her heart truly lies, he grows to understand not only himself,  but the complex stratification of the society he sees growing around him.

My first impression of this story was actually incredulity – that a story was being written about a Jewish man falling in love with a Cherokee woman hundreds of years ago in this country.  It just sounded to me an unlikely scenario, given the insular world of the Jews at that time.  As I read further, what I came to appreciate was that it was a clever vehicle through which to describe the era of the Trail of Tears.  This dark period in our American past is when President Andrew Jackson authorized the displacement of thousands of indigenous people from their land and moved them in caravans westward.  This atrocity  was committed under perilous conditions, and thousands of Native Americans perished because of disease, starvation, unwieldy weather conditions and a lack of adequate provisions from the American government.   In telling this story through the eyes of Abe, a Jew and an outsider trying to find where he fit in among the various strata of peoples, there is often a delineation of the pecking order and a redefining of that pecking order as Abe continues to struggle with it.  Where do the slaves of the Cherokees fit in?  Where do the slaves of the Whites fit in?  Where does he fit in relative to them all?  As he is sorting this all out, we see how the groundwork of all of it is being sorted out for future generations – and how some sought to fight against it but, sadly, lost.

So, at first glance, I wasn’t sure about this book, but as I continued through it, it gained more and more value to me and I appreciate it for its very powerful messaging.  I feel it educated me and gave me insight into this bleak blot on our American past.

 

 

 

The Body is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor

body not apology

In this book, borne of her movement and website of the same name, Sonya Renee Taylor, an activist and poet, propels the argument that our society has constructed systems which have forced most of us to apologize for the bodies that we live in.  Because we may not live in the body of the selected ideal of our time – whether because of our weight, our skin color, our ability, our gender identity, or any other identity – we are often made to feel less-than by the world around us, perpetuated by our own voices inside.  And for this we feel shame, we shrink away, we deny ourselves experiences that might actually give us joy.  In this book, Taylor seeks to provide the reader with tools to combat the external and internal pressures that we feel, in order to achieve “radical self-love,” that innocent, basic love for our bodies that we were all born with.

I think this is an important book to read, for anyone who has ever experienced discomfort in their body.  And honestly – who hasn’t???  It is delivered honestly, compellingly, and with a sensitivity to anyone of any identity who might be reading the book.  There is some sprinkling of her own journey, but she also derived quite a bit from others as well, which I appreciate.

I was particularly intrigued by the section on the “Body Shame Profit Complex” (LOVE this name) and actually wish there had been more on this.  This refers to the advertising industry which has allied with all the other companies that make billions of dollars on our attempts to improve the defects we perceive in our bodies – everything from make up to anti-aging creams to the diet industry.  Think about it – how much do you spend on these types of items each year?  I know I contribute to this complex on a regular basis.

I think this book differs from others in that it is not trying to teach new behaviors, nor self-acceptance, but rather self-love — which is different.  It hits deeper and is more sustainable if done properly and consistently and it also requires forgiveness and “grace” for the moments when you slip.

One soft criticism of the book that I have is that I believe it needed more vignettes, more stories about people to illustrate the concepts.  There are so many important ideas that are proposed here, and I think they are easy to read through quickly and potentially gloss over.  Occasionally, Taylor does provide examples of what she means to say with the use of  narratives, such as that of a young girl who is taunted for the bald spots on her head.  This is such a vivid image and becomes so starkly etched in the mind of the reader.  I wish she’d done this more often, so that more arguments would be similarly strengthened.

I think it will take awhile for me to fully digest all of the ideas proposed here.

I’d love to hear from others who have read it!

At Risk by Alice Hoffman

at risk

Polly and Ivan are concerned about their daughter, Amanda.  She’s a gymnast and has an unusual diarrheal illness for the past couple of weeks.  Their pediatrician, who knows them well, can deduce that this is not a good sign and from her low white blood cell count he is extremely worried about the possibility of cancer.  But not in a million years is he expecting that she’d be positive for AIDS, having contracted it from a blood transfusion after a complicated surgery for appendicitis 5 years prior, before blood was screened for the virus.  The paranoia and alienation that the whole family experiences is unexpected and devastating, possibly even worse than the actual diagnosis.

This book, published in 1988, reminds us of the experience that so many went through when HIV first appeared in the 1980’s.  With ads on TV for HIV medications so commonplace and ordinary today, it’s hard to remember that not so long ago, there was mass victimization of those who were infected with the virus.  Children infected via intrauterine transmission or from blood transfusions were sometimes not allowed in school because of fears of casual contact transmitting the virus to others, even when there was early evidence that this was not possible.  Millions of infected adults suffered not only from the disease but from the indignities of being ostracized from a society who rejected them because of their disease.  And we have still not cured it.  [The reason for this has probably more to do with financial incentive than the science – it is more beneficial for pharmaceutical companies to produce medications that sustain patients with the disease than to cure it.  Just as with cancer. But I digress…]

As for the book, I found the story compelling, but the writing a bit awkward.  It is told in the present tense, which I often dislike.  More importantly, though, the narration also shifts from one character to another almost as if they are passing a hot potato from one to another, to another.   This shift occurs so frequently and over so many characters that it dilutes and distracts from the actual plot and it is harder to become attached to the truly important players.   We just can’t feel that sorry for everyone.  So while the story is tragic, it does not cut quite as deeply as it might.

Nevertheless, At Risk is a timepiece and tells a part of the story of our bitter history of the HIV epidemic that is important to remember.  We think of HIV as a disease of adults only, but there were thousands of children affected by the disease as well.  And still are today.

Still Me by Jojo Moyes

Louisa is taking the plunge – she is reinventing herself, moving to NYC, starting a job as a personal assistant to a Fifth Avenue society wife.  It may seem daunting at first, but she will do this.  She will overcome her tiny room and her ugly uniform.  She will adjust to her insecure and capricious boss and the dysfunctional family who now employs her.  And surely everything will be ok when Sam, her paramedic boyfriend from back home in England, comes to visit – won’t it?  Louisa is determined to make this work – although it may cost her more than she ever imagined it would.

This third in the Me Before You trilogy is a book that I believe is most valued for its lovely characters.  While the plot may be a bit predictable and a little cliche, the characters feel like your comfortable old slippers that you’ve just found behind the dust bunnies under your bed.  Louisa is caring and honest to the bone.  When she returns home to her quirky and loving family, it feels like we are all coming home.   And when she’s with Sam, even when things are not going so well, we feel a tactile electric presence between them even when we know they are fictional characters.  Somehow, with words, Moyes is able to create actual warmth rising up from the pages of this book.  I think that is what I loved about it – the warmth.

So even though it is wrapped up a little too perfectly in its package, it is a sweet, fun read that makes you smile and root for the good folks.

I’d love to know if you agree!

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

As a young girl, Jane observes her brother and his girlfriends with a keen eye.  She watches her brother’s casual attitude toward women and sees how they hurt.  Later, Jane embarks on her own journey of relationships and it is no surprise that we accompany her through much growth before she is able to enjoy a healthy, honest, mutual relationship of her own.

This is actually a fun, lighthearted (for the most part), and entertaining read.  Some lines made me actually laugh out loud, because of the clever sarcasm that Jane slings at everyone around her.  Her character is kind and honest to the core, which is refreshing.  She is someone I’d absolutely want to be friends with – so much so, that when the book was finished, I felt I had lost a charming, new friend.

I only wish there had been depth to the story.  Yes we hear about her relationship with her father, which was so tender.   But she is utterly cavalier about her career, in spite of the fact that she is extremely bright and has such potential.  She is also more of a follower than we’d expect of someone with such a strong personality otherwise.  It feels inconsistent.  And disappointing.  But maybe I”m looking for too much or taking her too seriously.

The book, though, definitely served to put a smile on my face and that is worth so much at this moment in our collective experience in 2019.  So if you’re looking for some distraction from all the muck, this is it!

Enjoy!