The Best of Times by Penny Vincenzi

A complicated motor vehicle accident involving a “lorry” (semi) and many cars is the focal point of this novel.  We learn a bit about each of the characters that are involved as a prelude to the accident, and then it happens, sort of in slow motion, almost as they experience it.   But it is the aftermath that carries each story line (and there are many that intertwine).  The accident complicates and devastates, but in some ways revives and empowers.  In every case, it changes the course of each of the lives of those involved in it.

There are quite a few characters, but the author does a wonderful job of endearing each of them to the reader, such that it is easy to keep track and stay interested in each of their trajectories.  And transitions are particularly smooth.    And because there are so many different story lines, the book never, ever gets dull.  Honestly,  a few of the characters are so charming and feel so real that by the end you’d like to invite them over for tea!

This is an utterly delightful novel that I very highly recommend!

 

 

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

where the crawdads sing

At only age 5, Kya watched her mother carry her suitcase and walk away from their shack in the swamp, without even a glance back.  Most of her siblings already having gone, her older brother Jodie, her protector and confidant, soon said his goodbye as well.  It was then down to only Kya and her father, Jake, who was as stingy and unpredictable as his disability checks.   Fortunately, Jodie had coached her well on how to navigate her way around the swamp, how to make herself disappear, and most importantly, how to appreciate the natural wonders around her.  Because of the caring eye of a few who did look out for her, Kya  did become much more than merely the “Marsh Girl.”   But did the Marsh Girl also become someone capable of murder?

This is a riveting story, yet one told with subtlety and beauty and utter sadness.  The innocent heartbreak of young Kya just tears at your heart and you can’t help feeling her loneliness yourself.  Because the writing feels so intimate, as Kya grows, you feel her loss and vulnerability and her few victories personally, as if going through them yourself.  And the analogies from nature all around her are quite striking.

My favorite writing technique of flipping from one time period to another is used in this story to full advantage.  Going from when Kya is tiny and left alone to fast forward, when  a dead body is found in the marsh, helps to lay down the root of a suspense that grows over the course of the story.  It doesn’t play much of a role in the earlier part of the book, because we are so taken with little Kya, but it builds greatly later on as it comes to a crescendo.  It’s really quite patiently and beautifully constructed.

If you haven’t guessed already, this is definitely a “MUST READ.”  It’s beautiful, well-written, so very sad, but also suspenseful – definitely could not put it down!  Highly recommend it!

 

 

 

 

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

only woman in the room

When Hedy Kiesler receives her first ostentatiously presented, dozen bouquets of hothouse roses from an admirer after a performance at the theater, she has no idea that it is from the well-known, millionaire, munitions manufacturer, Fritz Mandl.  While she can’t imagine that she’d really be attracted to this older man, she finds she is actually taken in by his charm and charisma.  In actuality, she has little choice, as her father pointedly insists that Hitler’s advances in Germany in 1933 foreboded danger for Jews in Austria as well, and their family needed the protection Mandl might provide.  As Hedy acquiesced, she gradually became trapped in a marriage which was more like a cage.  As she plots her escape, she incurs a stain of guilt that she subsequently spends years of her life trying to repair.

This is in fact, the story of Hedy Lamarr, actress, scientist, and inventor.  After she comes to America, she spends her days behind the camera and her evenings combing physics textbooks in order to master an ideal system to direct torpedoes without being able to be intercepted by an enemy, for use during WWII.  She is not only beautiful and talented, but also brilliant and creative; much to the disbelief of the men around her.  But knowing her secretive backstory gives her inventions context and helps the reader understand her motivations and connections to the war effort.

While this book is based in fact, it is written as fiction, and therefore so easy to read.  Right from Page 1, it draws the reader in and it is difficult to put down until the end.  There is humor and warmth and even a bit of suspense, and certainly anger on Hedy’s behalf.  But overall, there is a great deal of respect for the person she was and the accomplishments she achieved.  It also showed how strongly she had to fight to be respected for her internal beauty and intelligence when she had such striking external beauty.

 

Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

green

This is a profound commentary on race, masquerading as a coming of age story of a white boy in a predominantly black middle school in inner city Boston.

Dave has terrible anxiety about navigating 6th grade in his challenged, underfunded public school.  He is not only white, but terribly non-“baller” (non-athletic), wears all the wrong clothing, and is afraid to fight physically to defend himself – a proverbial lamb thrown into the lion’s den.  His unlikely defender comes in the form of a short, khaki-wearing, quiet, intellectual, black, fellow 6th-grader named Marlon, who steps in and ultimately becomes his only friend.  The boys communicate mainly through a common love for the “uncool” Celtics, but they bond on a deeper level of shared temperaments and a common goal of getting into the more prestigious middle school, Latin.  While they do grow close, there are still things that Marlon seems to keep to himself.  And even as Dave feels a victim as a minority in his school, he also very gradually faces the reality, in his own middle school understanding, how he actually gleans privilege with his white skin that Marlon cannot.

The voice utilized in the telling of this story is powerful and symbolic.  It is Dave’s voice yet he has fully adopted the vernacular of his black peers.  He is desperately seeking approval from these peers and needs to speak their language, quite literally.  This language brings a raw and gritty texture to the story which feels so honest.  What are also honest are the characters themselves, as they are real and complex and not stereotypical.  Nor are they predictable – and guides the plot toward its both expected and truly unexpected routes.

This novel is a subtly disturbing commentary on our current state of affairs with regard to race.  The American “dream,” as Dave’s “Cramps” (not a typo) spells out late in the book,  is that if a person works hard enough, they can overcome any obstacle and succeed.  This may be true for some, but the truth is that it is not a level playing field and we have to acknowledge this.  People of color are denied advancement at every level compared to whites.  And although there are many groups who are persecuted — my own (and Dave’s) group included, as the rise of anti-semitic violence has been noted to be staggering over the past few years — there is still not clear, daily aggression and micro-aggression toward these groups as there is toward people of color.  The cards are still stacked against them, and we have to stop denying this and start turning this around.  And the first step is for white people to be aware of and acknowledge our privilege.

Maybe more can be enlightened by reading this book?

 

 

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Careyou

bad blood

This is the fascinating tale of one of the most outrageous scams in Silicon Valley – and the most outrageous part is that it is true!  It is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her startup, Theranos.  Elizabeth Holmes started out at Stamford, as an engineering student, but impatient to get started earning her first millions, she  quickly decided to drop out and start her own company.  She had in mind that because she had a fear of needles, she would develop a laboratory testing device that could run multiple tests on a small drop of blood from a finger stick specimen, taken by a device that would be relatively painless.  However, what began as a good idea, ballooned into a project that because of blind arrogance, deaf ears to any guidance or advice, paranoia, and pure irrational greed, broke laws and broke lives and caused irreparable harm to so many.  And it appears that, like most narcissists,  Elizabeth Holmes was completely unrepentant, seeing herself as the victim.

What is wonderful about this story is that it is told by the investigative reporter who broke the story for the Wall Street Journal, which gives both credibility and an insider’s perspective.  Careyou writes with vivid detail, laying out the gradual development of the background on Elizabeth Holmes, how she came to start the company, and how she ruled it, along with her henchman (and apparent lover) Sunny Balwani, with an iron fist, firing immediately anyone who disagreed with anything she said or did (even if they were looking out for her benefit and the welfare of the company).  He tracks her ascent to stardom, and it was nothing short of that.  People worshipped her – just as she worshipped Steve Jobs and took on much of his persona, even adopting his notorious black turtlenecks and deeper voice.  And because she had their attention, she was able to convince so many to invest in her dream.  Unfortunately, that is all it was.  She could not make it a reality, and because she could not face this, she faked it and lied to the world that it was.

This is a tragic story of how greed and ego took precedence over peoples’ health and welfare, and lawyers, Silicon Valley giants, politicians, and others bought right into it, swindled by a young, polished liar.  And, as Careyou acknowledges, the true heroes of the story are those who stood up to her and her pit bull lawyers and despite being tormented and hounded, told the public the truth. It is because of these brave people that these crackpot lab testing facilities were not expanded and put into more locations throughout the country and led to hurt even more individuals than they already did.

The details will just astound you!

 

 

 

Becoming by Michelle Obama

becoming

When Michelle Obama was quite young, she began to learn to play the piano, taught by her very strict aunt who lived downstairs.  The piano on which she studied and practiced had chips and imperfections that enabled her always to find the middle C, sort of grounding her and guiding her.  When she had her first formal recital, she suddenly found herself seated at a perfect, symmetric and distinctly un-chipped piano, and had to pause and figure out what to do to find her way.  With the help of her teacher/aunt, she managed to steady herself and to play her piece with great success.  This became a sort of metaphor for her life.  Michelle Obama has always worked hard, relied on important mentors to guide her, and whenever she encountered obstacles, she leaned on those she loved and who loved her to help her regain her center of gravity and succeed in a dramatic fashion.

Mrs. Obama’s story is a rags to riches story in some ways, but in many ways it is not.  It is true that she was raised in a poor neighborhood in Chicago and she may not have had much in the way of what money could buy.  On the other hand, however, she was rich in the ways that really mattered.  She had a loving family with mother, father and brother and many extended family members who were quite close and affectionate.  Her mother strongly advocated for her so that she was able to access an excellent education, which enabled her to attend Princeton and Harvard Law School, where she was able to raise her financial standing, in spite of where she came from.  She acquired an incredibly strong work ethic and was generous about helping others come along with her, rather than stepping on others to get ahead.  Her constant mission was to find mentors to assist her with moving forward, but also to then pay it forward and mentor others in return.  And each position that she held after her first job out of law school helped her to dive deeper and deeper into fields in which she could do good for others, which seemed to always be her driving force.

The discouraging part for me, of course, is the contrast between what was then and what is now.  The Obama’s were devoted to their country, both working so very hard to try to make things better for the people they were serving, both working to expand human rights, to give access to health care, to create jobs and improve the environment and to promote peace.  Barack Obama surrounded himself with wise advisers and listened to the advice of others and was thoughtful and respectful to others and read incessantly to learn as much as he could about an issue so that he could make the most informed decision.

Sadly, this is not what is happening in our White House now.

So while this book was inspiring, it was also quite sad, as it reminded me of what we’ve lost since 2016.

The Obamas were smart, dedicated to our country and to humanity, and were a class act.   I hope we find our way back to this again.

 

Black Girl/White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

black girl:white girl

Generva Meade has come from a family who assisted with the Underground Railroad and who is deeply entrenched in the Civil Rights movement, and she is currently assigned, her freshman year, to live with a conservative, religious black roommate at the prestigious Schuyler College where her family has donated founding money.  She is very excited to get to know her roommate, Minette, and is sorely disappointed when she sees that her roommate does not reciprocate this enthusiasm.  In fact, her roommate, she finds, is sullen, angry, and a fierce loner – scorning white and black girls in their dorm alike.  Generva is undaunted, however, and pursues the friendship in spite of the coldness with which every attempt at kindness is greeted.  When Minette becomes the target of hate pranks, Generva is her staunchest protector, even as Minette ignores her help.  And as the year progresses, and Minette’s situation worsens, Generva is also confronting her own family distress, with her mother’s unraveling as her father’s past transgressions are catching up to him (as is the FBI).  The final incident of Minette’s tragedy pushes Generva to face her own past as her family faces theirs.

I rarely listen to books on tape, but this was the result of a very long car ride – and I’m not sure if that tainted my view on this book or not.  It is a difficult story, both emotionally and technically.  There are many tangents, that are later significant but that are sometimes hard to follow.  The story is also steeped in history, shameful and bleak, and had many references to the attempts on the part of many whites who tried to help, but who expect more appreciation than they are deserving of.

The character of Minette is a tragic one.  She is trapped between the world of her conservative, Christian, independent and proud Black heritage and the more modern, socially-focused black girls in her dorm.  She refused to socialize with the other black girls just because they were black like she was, but this left her alone and deeply depressed.  She also refused any help with her studies, even as she was struggling academically, which further plummeted her self-esteem.  As she became the target of racial incidents, it became more and more heartbreaking to see how alone she was.  Generva could not comprehend why Minette would continue to repel her kindness.  It is not entirely clear if Minette’s ignoring of Generva is from a resentment of white privilege or just from her own self-absorption from depression – or perhaps both.

This story had the potential to be excellent, however, it feels like it tries a bit too hard.  The nagging earnestness on the part of Generva that is borne of her own family history and connections and her own wish to rid herself of that white guilt becomes cloying,  At least this reader/listener shouted more than once, “Just leave her alone!”  It is unclear why she would continue to try, when repelled so many times, when she would have had other friends in other groups.  Why did she need to befriend only this one girl?  Was it the challenge?  Was it because she was black?  Was it because her family was so disconnected from her as she was growing up and that gave her so little self-esteem? Was it her own sense of guilt from her family’s activities?

If you are psychologically inclined, you might be interested in reading this, as there is a lot of depth here.  But if you are looking for a quick, entertaining, light read, this is not the book for you!