Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours - By Lisa Wingate (Hardcover) : Target

Avery Stafford is finding her place, as she’s come back to the south to possibly carry on the family’s senatorial dynasty. When she visits a nursing home during a publicity event, she stumbles upon a woman she fears may hold a family secret that may threaten all that she and her family have worked for.

Then flash backward and we meet Rill Foss, a precocious 12 year old living with her poor but happy family in their river shanty. Rill is thrust suddenly into being responsible for her 4 younger siblings, for keeping them together and safe, and we watch as she is torn apart as adults attempt to destroy the family she fights to save.

As these two stories unfold side by side, we are breathless to know how they intersect.

This was an excruciating story to read at times, but at the same time, it was one that I could not put down. And while Rill herself is not an actual person, her story is based on historical events and children’s experiences that have been documented from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. That is, a woman named Georgia Tann, ran an adoption center in Memphis that actually bought and sold children as if they were property. Some of these children were actual orphans, but many were stolen from their homes, kidnapped while walking home from school, or worse. Some were placed in high profile homes, such as in homes of celebrities and politicians, but many were mistreated and hundreds are thought to have actually died under her care. She apparently made thousands of dollars from this business and had politicians and law enforcement in her pockets and avoided any legal confrontation to her dying day. Georgia Tann is the one non-fictional character in this book.

The writing in this book is gripping, particularly Rill’s story. On the other hand, it at times can be so utterly painful that some is extremely hard to read. It’s that same feeling one gets seeing a terrible car accident – can’t look but can’t look away. I personally have the hardest time hearing/reading about abuse of children and tend to avoid books like this. I have to admit, though, that the author handled it well. Just as it reaches a moment of peak discomfort, the story switches to Avery’s story line to lighten the mood and give the reader a chance to breathe. This is the only way I was able to get through, I think.

And in Rill, the author has created an extraordinary character. Though young, she is wise, cautious, kind, and she fights for her family with a passion that brings tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat. There is no way not to love and empathize with this character.

This is an extraordinary tale, told well. Isn’t that all we want in a book???

 

 

 

 

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!

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Lillian and Madison go way back – having been roommates at boarding school in high school. And while they’ve not seen each other in years, they’ve been in touch, with Lillian offering minimal details of her dull unaccomplished life, while receiving letters from Madison filled with details of her picture-perfect marriage to the senator, her picture-perfect home and her picture-perfect little boy. Now, finally, as Madison has written to ask Lillian to visit because she has a favor to ask of her, she will finally see her again in the flesh. Will it be the same between them? Will Madison really be as perfect as she has always seemed? What is this mission she is being asked to do? Will Lillian be able to live up to Madison’s expectations? Will she be able to live up to her own?

Spoiler alert: The mission involves Lillian caring for two children who spontaneously combust. Yes, they burst into flames when they are upset. They are not harmed but they can cause harm to what may be around them. They are awkward kids and are clearly affected by this inconvenient trait, but inside, they are just kids. Lillian appreciates them for who they are, in spite of this trait, but others fear them and have difficulty accepting them for who they are.

While I appreciate a dramatic metaphor as much as the next reader, I just find this entire story too incredulous to swallow. Even beyond the flaming children, there is the history between Lillian and Madison that leads one to question why Lillian would come running at Madison’s behest. And then there is the question of how, with such a neglectful mother as Lillian is demonstrated to have, she has such a knack for mothering challenging children that no one else seems to be able to handle.

I think the author had an interesting idea that started well but went so beyond the boundaries of reality that it was no longer viable. And this, at least for me, was a disappointment. Much of the story felt ridiculous and I had difficulty envisioning at least parts of it. While I did develop affection for some of the characters, such as the 2 flaming children, I wondered always what the attraction was that Lillian had for Madison, as Madison was quite the selfish, and eternally self-serving character. And while the message clearly was one I respect – that we should all be appreciated for our weirdness and quirks as well as what we can do for others —  it was delivered at too a high price.

So, unfortunately, I have to say for Nothing to See Here – nothing to read here, at least in my opinion.  

 

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly

Amazon.com: Lost Roses: A Novel (9781524796372): Kelly, Martha Hall: Books

8-year old Luba is not happy, having to share her older sister Sofya with anyone, let alone this American, Eliza. Here in Paris, far away from their home in Petrograd, they seem to be the best of friends somehow, laughing and talking of anything but what Luba is interested in (astronomy, of course!)- that is, until their big surprise, arranged just for Luba. All too quickly, however, Luba understands that Eliza may be the best friend that the two sisters have, as their whole world comes crashing down on them, with the uprising of the Bolsheviks and the disintegration of the Tzar’s regime.

This story, loosely based on the real life story of Eliza Ferriday, is a gorgeous narrative about the plight of the “White Russian,” the elite Russian class torn apart and displaced by the Bolshevik revolution. It is told from the perspectives of each of the main characters, as well as from Varinka, a poor, young woman who worked for Sofya briefly, taking care of her young boy. While each woman was struggling with her own internal battle, each also was a victim of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. They were also interconnected and the story was woven together with threads that bound them throughout. This telling of the story through each of their perspectives also served to build tremendous suspense, particularly at the end of each chapter.

One unusual aspect of this story was the absence of demonizing the rich. So often in literature, the wealthy are assumed to be snobbish and evil and the poor are assumed to be altruistic and pure and good. What I admired here was that the characters were beyond that. There were some wealthy characters who were elitist for sure, but there were plenty who were generous and kind – likewise, with the poor. It was a refreshing avoidance of stereotypes.

I felt I gained more of an understanding of the Russian Revolution from this book. It gave an alternative version, something of a balanced viewpoint. It is true that the Tzar was terrible in his management of the country – his mismanagement of the economy, ignoring the needs of the masses, and certainly murder of the Jews in the country. This story strongly acknowledged this. But the Bolsheviks’ methods were not exactly honorable either. There was so much bloodshed and misery in order, really, to just put a different small number of people into a position of power over the masses. With new forms of propaganda that were just as deceiving and dishonest.

From the author of Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly, this is another MUST READ! Give yourself this very gripping and very loving gift!

Her Last Flight by Beatriz Williams

Amazon.com: Her Last Flight: A Novel (9780062834782): Williams, Beatriz:  Books

As a photojournalist, Janey Everett has learned how to use everything she has to get information. In pursuing the backstory of the perilous crash of Sam Mallory, whom, she knew, was considered the best pilot of his time, she is determined to stop at nothing to get to the details. She knows that her only hope is to find the elusive Irene Foster, once his co-pilot, and thought to be lost at sea years prior. But Janey follows her instincts as well as the trail of rumors that she may just be alive. And as Janey chases her story, we are also brought back in time to follow Irene’s. Both women, through their narratives, reveal how courage and grit can lead to a life lived as one’s true self.

Once again, Beatriz Williams has knocked it out of the park with this book. Don’t let her breezy, familiar, and accessible style fool you. This is a heavy book – historical fiction, fully researched and chock full of detail that make it feel as real as any biography might. There is subtle reference to blood and war and the ugliness of humanity, just as in other historical fiction novels. But here, because the references are kept so subtle, they really hit you more when you look back on the story and realize all that you’ve just taken in.

Usually what I love most about Williams’ writing is her gorgeous, fallible, earthy characters. Generally, the main character is a strong female, who is in full control (how refreshing!!). She may make a few less-than-ideal choices, but she is smart, witty, somehow vulnerable, courageous and resilient. Nevertheless, in this novel, I was enthralled by the plot as well, as there were as many twists to it as I imagine there were in a flight demo by Mallory himself. It was as driving as it was passionate.

There is no question whether I’d recommend this book. I’d say it’s even a MUST READ!

 

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Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir by Amanda Knox

Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir by Amanda Knox

In the fall of 2007, Amanda Knox joined the many college juniors who left their campuses to study abroad, Amanda choosing a small town, Perugia, in Italy for her experience. Because her chosen university did not have a dorm for her to live in, she felt fortunate when she stumbled upon an apartment she would ultimately share with 3 other women. Life with the others began quite peacefully, and she formed a comfortable relationship with each of them. What she never imagined was that one of them would be brutally murdered by a stranger, and that she, Amanda, would be wrongfully accused of being the twisted ringleader of this murder.

I felt compelled to read this story, as I’d felt compelled, years before, to listen to this story every time it came on the news, in each of its permutations. When it first was announced in the media, the story was quite bizarre, filled with seedy details of sex and drugs that sounded questionable even back then. And the more it was discussed, the more bizarre and unlikely it sounded.

Reading the actual story was much more painful, however. It was no longer someone far away – it was now someone I was getting to know and empathize with. I hadn’t remembered so many of the actual details of the story – or probably never was given the true ones — nor learned about her personal life before the murder or during the trials. I also didn’t know how much time she served in prison, before she was finally found to be fully innocent. And I also didn’t how the prosecution obtained their evidence and how willfully they pursued a feeble motive/explanation for the events against the weight of the evidence for the defense. It was truly like watching a car wreck – you can’t look at it and at the same time, you can’t look away.

And honestly, even though I knew the ending, there was still a great degree of suspense. The ups and downs were wildly intense and I felt the ride right along with her. When she was trapped inside those walls of the prison, I felt almost as if I was inside there with her.  It was almost hard to breathe. At the same time, she showed a courage and hopefulness I’m not sure I would have had.

This was a very quick read that I’d definitely recommend!

 

 

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration:  Wilkerson, Isabel: 8580001042800: Amazon.com: Books

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, and George Swanson Starling never knew each other, nor did they live in the same time or place — yet they all had something in common: they each participated in the Great Migration and for parallel reasons. Through this gritty chronicle of their lives, we earn a deeper appreciation for how the Jim Crow south drove millions of black folks northward and westward, in desperate search of freedom and civil rights.  We also see how they experienced both successes and failures when they arrived.

This impressive work of non-fiction reads like part novel/part PhD thesis, but as a whole, it works. The parts that tell the story of each of these individuals’ lives are profoundly beautiful and what drive the book forward.   The author delivers their stories with such tenderness and detail that she lifts each of them off of the page and brings them into the room with you, bringing with them their hopes and their heartaches.  And interwoven with their stories is the historical context in which they are living.  The author zooms out to portray the larger picture of what is happening — what wars, economic factors, or local social affairs, sometimes graphic, are impacting our 3 protagonists at the time.  This sometimes gets quite dense, but it definitely contributes a great deal to the depth of the story.  

The larger question is this:  Did those who risked their lives, often sneaking out in the middle of the night,  to migrate to the north/west fare better than those who stayed in the south? I believe this is a complex question and one the author was seeking to answer with the writing of this book.  Those who left were desperately seeking a chance to be recognized as individuals who deserved their civil rights under the law, to be seen as equal to everyone else.  When they arrived in the north and/or west, they were allowed to sit anywhere on the bus and to drink at any water fountain.  But they definitely were not treated as equals to everyone else in their their job searches or their housing purchases.   

I’d be very interested to hear your opinion about the conclusions drawn in this book.  It’s an important discussion.  

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

The thirst for learning instilled into Adunni by her mother has been the driving force for everything she’s done, including continuing attending her small school even when she’s the oldest student there. While her best friend fantasizes about marriage, Adunni only worries about improving her academic skills, so that she can continue to teach others, as she’s done since she was very young. But her dreams come crashing down when her father reveals a proposal he’s made on her behalf – one that threatens not only her education, but any degree of autonomy as well. This sets her on a trajectory that both threatens her but also strengthens her as she sees what she has to do to set herself free.

This very powerful story ignites our deepest sense of injustice and we find ourselves loving and rooting for this heroine, Adunni, at every turn. Because of the poverty into which she was born, her gender, and her cultural milieu in rural Nigeria, she has no power and no agency over her own life. What she does have is intellect, stamina and utter grit, though, and these all serve her well. We love cheering for her and hating her oppressors, and while each character is portrayed with a realistic abundance of depth, we know who is on her side and who isn’t.

What I loved also about this book was the insight into the cultural strata of Nigeria, in both the rural/small town and the big city. There is apparently a vast chasm between the upper class and the lower class, and much corruption filling the space in between. (Pretty much like here in the United States, but I digress…) . Adunni observes more than once, also, that wealth, while it may wield power, it does not, in fact, bring happiness. This is starkly evident to her from observations of her extremely successful but painfully disgruntled boss, Big Madam.

The writing is also striking. It is written as Adunni might think, with her grammar and syntax. It has the singsong, innocent structure of a 14 year old Nigerian girl with an elementary education struggling to be respected. And as she struggles to pursue an education in whatever form she may, the writing develops as she does, and eases subtly into more sophisticated structure.

There are definitely some painful parts to read, and they are not where you expect to find them. There are also many tender moments from characters that are just beautifully written. And throughout, you will be inspired and sad and connected with this young heroine in a way that will surprise you.

 

 

 

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

As the Adler family proceeds to boarding for the flight to LA from NY, Jordan, Eddie’s brother, creates a scene. Feeling empowered by his newfound sense of being an almost-adult, he refuses to walk through the security scanner, holding up the line just enough to inspire annoyance in his parents. The others on the plane have taken notice as well, but proceed to contemplate their own lives, as one does on the “time out” that a flight offers. As the story progresses, and we learn about many of the colorful people on the flight, we also learn how it tragically ends – and how the lone survivor learns to cope.  

In this surprisingly moving story, the author deftly captures the mental paralysis, the constant feeling of being under water, that trauma can instill.  Edward, the teenager who survives, teeters on the verge of falling apart, but is held together by his aunt and uncle and his dear friend next door.  And while this might sound bleak, the story is kindly balanced with the lighter stories of the various passengers of the imperiled flight.  

The writing is quite poignant.  While there are a few moments that are a little unrealistic, we are drawn to Edward and suffer along with him.  But we also drawn to the kind folks who surround and bolster him as he muddles through.   I found myself particularly liking his principal, who, rather than forcing Edward to talk about what was going on inside, just allows Edward to come into his office and help him care for his treasured ferns.  In this quiet, kind act, he offers Edward an island of peace where he can escape the noise of the school he attends.   It is a place where Edward can just be, and not be alone, but just be.  Sometimes this is the most generous and sensitive way in which we can support someone who is in pain.  It is not always easy to do, but it might be the kindest path.

I found myself very choked up by the end of the story, as Edward seems to find his way.  I suspect you will be too.  

 

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD

Trauma, in its many forms, can impact people in devastating ways, both mentally and physically, especially when untreated. The way this manifests can be incredibly complex and we are only beginning to understand how and why this is. Dr. van der Kolk, a Harvard University psychiatrist who has treated hundreds of patients with trauma and has himself conducted much research in this area, has in these pages compiled a summary of the issues and the research to date in a palatable, accessible narrative.

What is striking is how physical psychological trauma can be. More importantly, as van der Kolk demonstrates, it is often not until one appreciates the physicality of the experience of the particular trauma, and until one actually experiences it again — with the banging of the heartbeat, and the shortness of the breath, and all of the other uncomfortable attendant bodily sensations — in a safe and nurturing environment where one can process it, can one truly overcome the trauma.

There is a lot of repetition in this book. Ir feels as if the author does not trust the reader to believe his conclusions and he therefore has to drive them home again and again. On the other hand, he does pepper his points with many vignettes and personal stories as examples, and these are what make the book so memorable. There are so many dramatic stories of recovery, it is utterly inspiring.

I will also add that for anyone who uses the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), there is some interesting backstory here. What has come to be used as a basis on which official diagnoses are made (and in turn, billing and insurance coverage), was originally intended as general diagnostic guidance only. In addition, there is a lot of money made from the publication of this book.

I highly recommend this book – you will gain insight into others – and perhaps into yourself.