Songs of the Humpback Whale by Jodi Picoult

Songs of the Humpback Whale: A Novel (Wsp Readers Club): Picoult, Jodi:  9780743431019: Amazon.com: Books

Shocking both herself and her husband, Jane has done something she cannot believe and she must get away. To her surprise, her teenage daughter, Rebecca, is ready for her, bags packed, in their car, ready to leave with her. They have no idea where they’re headed, but they get on the road and begin an adventure that will change them forever.

I love Jodi Picoult and have read, I believe, almost all of her books. She has a pattern – not exactly a formula, but a definite style. She meticulously builds a story from the perspective of more than one character, gradually reaching a crescendo that always has a fantastic twist of some kind.

This was not quite that book, however. While normally Picoult’s transitions are smooth and easy to follow, they were not so here. I found that characters were not “properly introduced” and I found myself wondering at times whom I was reading about. And the non-chronological telling of the story, which is normally ok with me, felt choppy here.

This not to say that the entire book was uninteresting. The underlying plot, while a bit far-fetched, was engaging, and as usual, the science was well-researched. The tidbits about whales were actually intriguing and even the details about apple farming was fun to read. Once we did get to know the characters, we did like them. It just took time to figure out who was who.

I’m still a fan, for sure. But this is not the best of the bunch…

 

More than Words by Jill Santopolo

Nina has known that while she was passionate about speechwriting for the mayoral campaign,  this could only be a temporary departure from what she has been destined to do.  She knew that at some point she’d need to take the helm of the family dynasty of NYC hotels, but she thought she had more time.  But as her life was changing faster than she’d expected, with her father’s illness rapidly progressing, it seemed that her usual supports were failing her.  The only one who seemed to truly understand her was the one least likely to and the one she could not let anyone else see her turn to.   Or could she?

This was a modestly entertaining read, but honestly, disappointing.    With characters that are entitled, stereotypical, and one-dimensional, a plot that was predictable, and a message that said, in my opinion that if you’re wealthy enough, you can get away with a crime.  Bottom line -in my opinion, it was a mediocre at best.

And that’s about all I have to say about that.

 

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

Lily, Ted’s 12 year old dachshund, has been the love of his life from that very first moment when she chose him, by tugging on his shoelace.  She may have been the runt of the litter, but she was brave and wise and she’s been perfect company ever since.   They’ve shared walks on the beach, Saturday night movies and pizza, and discussions about cutest guys – and Ted was very content to continue his life with her.  That is, until, the advent of the octopus, who invaded their lives and turned everything utterly upside down.

This is a very unusual story about love and loss, told as a medley of poetic license, imagination and great tenderness.  Anyone who has ever lived with a pet can relate to the deep bond that forms, and the dependence that runs in both directions.  It appears that Ted may have elevated this bond to a higher level, but the way it is depicted is engaging and endearing and we can all relate to some degree.  And loss is hard, no matter whether what kind of living creature it may be.

My only hesitation in fully recommending this book is that it is somewhat monochromatic.  It is missing a secondary plot line, a more layered approach.  It might have benefitted from a side story about his best friend, Trent, to make him more interesting?  Maybe more about Ted’s sister?  Something…

On the other hand, it was incredibly sweet, it had an ironic crescendo, and quite a bit of heart.  And you will definitely also fall in love with Lily.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Althea and Proctor are deeply troubled, and it is less about their being imprisoned than about how they got there and what this means now for their family.  On an impulse, and in revenge for longstanding resentment toward her mother, their daughter, Kim, has revealed illegal activity committed by her parents, and they are now all paying the price.   Will they be able to repair the damage that has been wrought, especially with the physical distance they now must endure?  Will Althea’s sisters, who have themselves experienced hardships in their youth, be able to rescue the situation?

This was an engaging narrative from page one.  Each character was a mosaic of her complex past and her present emotional strength, with the overlay of the complicated state of their family story.  No one was a cliche, and no one was a stereotype.  Everyone felt genuine and unique.

I personally appreciated the inclusion of characters of color with eating disorders.  While eating disorders are so common, it is rare that folks who suffer from them are depicted in novels – and rarer still, that people of color with eating disorders are represented.  I have worked with adolescents for almost 30 years and I can attest to the fact that these disorders do not discriminate by race, gender, sexual preference, religion, or socioeconomic strata, despite what the general public believes.  I also loved that this was not the focus of the story – it was just a side issue .  Nonetheless, it was described with tenderness, with sensitivity, and with a true grasp of the suffering that occurs with these conditions.

This was a quick read, it was engaging and honest.  I would definitely recommend it!

 

 

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Yesterday, I went on a long drive with my son to visit my parents, whom I’d not seen since the outbreak of the pandemic.  We’d planned to visit them outdoors, for a backyard hangout just for a couple of hours.  I knew my son would be up for it, as he loves going for long car rides – any excuse to hang out, relax and listen to music together, and he’s on board.  But I couldn’t help thinking throughout the ride about a personal experience shared by Ijeoma Oluo, here in this book, So You Want to Talk About Race.   She described, in vivid detail, the terror of having been targeted by a police officer for “speeding” – she was driving in a car with her 2 brothers (all are black) going ONE mile per hour – yes, ONE!- over the speed limit.  She described to the reader that she and other black drivers can never relax when driving, never fully experience pleasure when driving, on the highway or anywhere, because of the constant fear that hovers over them.  Lurking behind every corner, behind every tree, could be the next random police stop we all hear about, almost on a daily basis, that have notoriously ended up in unwarranted arrests, violence, and even death, without any repercussion to the police responsible.  I realized, yesterday, how I have taken that right to drive so for granted.

So You Want to Talk About Race is yet another outstanding guide which delves into the difficult topic of race and racism.  In this very accessible, well-thought-out book, Oluo neatly explains a wide variety of relevant and complicated topics such as the one described above. She covers many relevant areas, including intersectionality, the school-to-prison pipeline, cultural appropriation, and the model minority myth, to name a few.   Oluo very generously shares with the reader many deeply personal experiences of racism such as the one described above, which give those of us who don’t walk around in skin of color a window into what that is like.  And while I know I will never know exactly what it feels like, I will continue to try to understand, so that I can be as much of an ally as possible.

One topic that Oluo touches on that I have not seen covered in other books I’ve read is “tone policing.”  This refers to the criticism of the angry tone that folks may take when calling out racism and other acts of hate.  I am sure I have been guilty of this myself and am so appreciative of having been made aware of it.  Of course folks are angry!  Of course they are sick of dealing with this! I do not have the right to complain about my discomfort with that.

Again, I also appreciate that book ended on a positive note.  The final chapter is about what we can do to fight racism, what steps we can take to undermine the structures in our country that have supported white supremacy.  It is one thing to learn and to empathize, but  it is so much more to act.  We must do what we can, even in small steps, to help move society forward.

I thank Oluo for this iconic book.  I am sure it was painful to write, but it is a compelling springboard for deep discussion about this urgent topic.

Let’s all keep talking about race. So that hopefully we won’t have to.

 

 

 

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The library was a sacred place for Susan Orlean, having grown up visiting one regularly with her mother, and having treasured memories from these times.  So when she learned about the enormous fire that destroyed the Central Library in Los Angeles in 1986, it stirred something in her to investigate what happened, why someone might seek to destroy such a sanctified place.  In doing so, she also learns and then shares with us the history of this library and of its librarians.

This story had the potential to be interesting, and in some parts it was, but there were too many flaws in the writing, sadly – at least in my opinion. The story trajectory felt to me as if it was strapped onto a pool ball after someone yelled, “break.”  The timeline was erratic, skipping back and forth from one time period to another.  The topics switched in rapid fire from the librarians’ histories to the story of Harry Peal (the primary arson suspect), from the architectural details of the construction of the library to the function of libraries in general.  While each part did capture my attention – I love libraries too! —  the transitions were not smooth and it was hard to know what the purpose of the book actually was.  Even the most intriguing part of the story, the investigation into the setting of the fire, was, honestly, anticlimactic and unsatisfying.

That is not to say that I did not learn from this book.  The book exposed many sides of the library that may not be apparent to all – such as the broader functions that they have come to serve in many communities.  Most public libraries have evolved to become community centers and social service resources in many cities and towns throughout the United States, particularly as resources have dried up from other sources.  Librarians have had to become social workers, teachers, career counselors, and public health advocates in this age of limited resources and cutbacks – more a statement of bad government decisions than anything else – but librarians and public libraries have stepped up often to fill the voids in many communities.

Yet, while I did learn, it felt more like work, and I could not help wondering throughout the book what the purpose of the book was. Was it a book about a crime (arson)?  Was it a book about a library?  Was it a book about librarians?  Still not quite sure.

Curious to know what others think!

 

 

 

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Young-sook has no time for talking – she has always busied herself with diving and collecting food from the sea on her Korean island of Jeju, and today is no different.  She usually has no patience for the tourists, but this family who is approaching her is different.  This family appears familiar, somehow.  When they begin to question her and mention the name of a woman from her past, they wash her whole personal history back to her in a wave that crashes over everything she ever understood about herself.

Lisa See has a gift for depicting historical fiction and here, again, she paints vivid cultural details into the well-researched,  deeply emotional saga of Young-sook.   By going back through the history of this fictional character, See recounts the history of the island of Jeju, caught in the middle of the two world wars, the Korean War, and the division of the Koreas.  She recounts the impact of the colonialism of the Japanese and then, essentially,  of the Americans on Korea, and the massacres that occurred on the island of Jeju during the power disputes.   This is history about which I personally have been quite ignorant and I am thankful I have learned, painful as it was.

What was beautiful was the passion with which See imbues her characters, which gives the story its energy.  The women of the island are the breadwinners, who dive in the ocean for food – with no oxygen tanks, no equipment, just each other as their safety net.  They are the farmers, who toil the land for the food they grow to support the families as well.  While the women were not normally educated, they supported the family in a practical way, and made the fundamental decisions for the family, such as the matchmaking, and saw themselves as responsible for the survival of the families in every sense of the word.  They also have a fiery passion for each other, as in the love that Young-sook and her friend Mi-ja have for each other- not a lovers’ passion, but a pure and devoted friendship that may even surpass many lovers’ relationships in their depth and trust.

This is a beautiful story in every way – the story itself and the telling of it.  Give yourself this gift!

 

After I Do by Taylor Jenkins Reid

It comes as no surprise to either Lauren or Ryan that they are at a crossroads in their marriage.  In fact, if they are honest with themselves, they’ve been struggling, with resentment and anger cresting like a slow wave, for months now.  As they are finally forced to acknowledge their painful situation, they strike a condition — an unusual, creative test of a sort —  to try to determine their future together.  Will this work?  Will this test drive them further apart?  Or will it, as they hope, bring them back together?

After reading a few of Reid’s books, I have come to understand that her gift is writing about relationships.  She has the uncanny ability of being able to create warmth between characters so palpable that is seems to rise up from the pages of the book.  I think that’s why I enjoy her writing so much.  Present here also is her signature use of an alternative medium of writing, using emails between characters to serve as an inspired means of allowing the reader to dive deeper into their hearts.

In truth, this book is really a light, beach read-type book.  It’s a love story, with sunny, quirky characters, and a few entertaining subplots that push the story forward.  In fact, there are a few details missing that I find odd.  For example, we never learn what Ryan actually does for a living – and he’s a pretty significant character.  I don’t know why that is.  And when Lauren goes to work (we do know what she does), we rarely hear about the work that she does.  Just an interesting and strange thing.

But that said, it is a fun, light, summer read that is a good antidote to all that is surrounding us at the moment, so I say, go for it!  Good therapeutic distraction!

 

How to Be Less Stupid About Race by Crystal M Fleming

Although systemic racism has existed throughout our history, the COVID pandemic has unveiled a razor-sharp light on its ugly face for all to see.   The pandemic has unleashed an enormously disproportionate toll on black and brown communities, in terms of illness and of deaths, because of the underlying vulnerabilities in housing, healthcare, education, criminal justice, and economic resources — present because of decades of institutionally sanctioned denial of resources to these communities.   The good news is that it has thrust these issues to the forefront of our national conversation, and has inspired uprising and protest against the institutions that support and perpetuate the injustices,  particularly within the criminal justice system, which is the most urgent.  In support of this effort to undo racism, it is urgent for us to educate ourselves on this topic of racism, because especially we white folks really are particularly stupid when it comes to race.

Dr. Fleming, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stonybrook University, is probably one of the best authorities on race and racism.  She has studied this topic at Harvard and then additionally in France as she researched their history of colonialism and oppression.  More importantly, after returning to the US and exploring broader theories on racism, beyond the more patriarchal and, really, white perspective she’d received in the ivory tower, she learned how deeply rooted racism was in this country.  She learned how white supremacist ideas underlie every aspect of our nation, from the laws to the economy, and from education to the health care and housing systems.  And she has, so fortunately for us, translated her learning into this extremely accessible, heart-warmingly honest book.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may have noticed that I’ve been trying to do this work.  I’ve been trying to read as much as I can about racism and antiracism to try to open my brain to all that I’ve been oblivious to over most of my life.   It is hard and uncomfortable, but it is urgent and necessary and, in fact, vital if we even hope to move on and build an antiracist society.  And those with the power, those of us who are seen as white, are the ones who need to do this work.

Why do I like this book so much?  I love Fleming’s voice.  She deftly combines a deeply personal account of her own journey to becoming an active antiracist with frequent injections of scholarly notations and historical perspective.  She is unique in that she adds an entire chapter on black women’s and women of color’s issues, which differ further from those of just general people of color.   In addition, hearing her views on Barack Obama was quite interesting to me as well – but I will not give up any spoilers, by telling you what those views were.  Finally, I love that Fleming gives constructive suggestions on what to do, steps forward, on working on becoming more antiracist.  This work is ever-continuing and ever-evolving and not formulaic – it may be very different and very personal to each of us.  But her suggestions are topical and relevant and are informed by her research and experience.

I am on a mission to listen, to learn and hopefully to change.

I will continue to read other books on this topic, of course, but so far,  this is “the” book.  If you’re going to read only one – it might be this one.

A MUST-READ!

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Saeed and Nadia have met at a difficult time.  It is just as their city is being overrun by militants who gradually infiltrate their city.   As the violence worsens, they become more desperate to find a way out.  But do they leave without Saeed’s dear parents?  And how do they escape, when all the exit doors seem to be closed to them?  As they find their way together, they learn about how the world may open up doors, but that there may not be a welcome mat waiting for them at the other side.

I had very mixed feelings as I progressed through the pages of this book.  On one hand, it does open the reader to the very gritty, naked reality of the immigrant experience of these past few years. While we are not told where the couple is running from (and details are vague throughout this book), we can guess Afghanistan or Pakistan as most likely.  As the couple move to new lands, they experience some support, but mostly harsh conditions and resentment and prejudice by the “nativists” in each of the countries to which they flee.  At one point, Nadia even wonders if it was worth running from their oppressors, having only come to another country in which she is being oppressed.

On the other hand, because the writing is so sparse on details, it feels somewhat disconnected from the characters themselves, and I felt almost less invested in their story because of this.  We like them both, Saeed and Nadia, but we don’t get inside their heads.  We don’t feel what is deep in their hearts – they are a sort of neutral territory.  And when random characters are introduced, some from across the world, in random order, with tiny, yet interesting stories of their own with no connection whatsoever to the story at hand – I am just not sure where those come from or why they are included.  It is either strange editing or I am just not smart enough to get it.  (It is probably the latter, I admit.)

On the other hand, again, there are some details I like and think are creative.  I like that Saeed and Nadia are the only characters to be given names, while all the other characters are identified by their descriptions only.  It is a powerfully literary way to  further isolate them – and their experience is certainly isolating — as they travel through each “door” into each new country, into each new opportunity.

As you see, I am truly going back and forth on this one, as I did while I was reading it.  It is an interesting read, but I am still not sure whether I liked it or not. If nothing else, it has stimulated much thought – so that counts for a lot, right?

I’d love to know what others think about this one!