One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London

Bea has made a very full life for herself, with her plus-size fashion blog and the travel and networking that is required – or at least that is what she tells herself. That is, until she meets up with her long-term crush who utterly breaks her heart. After a public wise crack about a dating reality TV show where all the women have been impossibly thin, she attracts the attention of the producer, who invites Bea to be the newest “Main Squeeze.” Bea sees this as an opportunity to represent larger-bodied women, even as a business opportunity. But it may also be a chance for Bea herself to be convinced that she deserves love just as any other woman does…

If you’re looking for an easy, entertaining, but not entirely vacuous summer read – here it is! Written with great insight, warmth and sarcasm, the story carries us through Bea’s struggle and her growth. We learn about her difficulty with her size, how it has impacted her social interactions since her youth, and how a pivotal moment on her college study abroad has changed her course. The author occasionally intersperses comical internet conversations/texts/blog posts that comment on the plot, which add the social media dimension to the plot line and magnify the experience for us, just as it has been magnified for Bea herself. We live through Bea’s romantic ups and downs and feel deeply for her because we also love her – for her vulnerability, for her kindness, and for her gumption.

I was not expecting to like this book as much as I did – I highly recommend it – it’s great fun (especially for all you reality TV fans out there!) and carries an impactful message.

Say the Right Thing by Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow

There have been so many excellent (and some not-so-excellent) books written about racism, how to be an antiracist, and diversity and inclusion. Many of us have been in trainings, whether through work or community opportunities, to inspire and instill in us an understanding of structural racism and power dynamics. But even while we may have come to have a basic understanding of these concepts, few books lay out the tools of how to be an ally and/or to stay in a growth mindset in such a practical, non-judgmental and concrete way as Yoshino and Glasgow have done here in Say the Right Thing. In addition, the advice here is generalizable to all non-dominant groups – not just racial groups. And, as they point out, almost every one of us may find ourselves in a situation where we are the culprits engaging in non-inclusive behavior, and later be either at the receiving end of it or as an ally. Through vivid vignettes, humble stories about themselves, and relevant research concepts, we are given advice on how to handle each of these scenarios.

What I appreciate most about the writing here is the humility with which the authors share this essential information. While they are both highly qualified to be writing this book – both are attorneys, educators, and come from non-dominant communities – they also acknowledge their own privileges and that we all may fall into spaces of privilege relative to others. Their focus, therefore, is not how to understand the position of the “other” but rather to understand our own obligation to react appropriately when issues arise. We are obligated to check our own reaction if we are challenged by someone about an act we may commit – even unwittingly – and to keep ourselves open to learning how to do better always. They also acknowledge how hard this can be, as almost always our unwitting acts are not with evil intent. But of course, good intent does not preclude harm.

It is an easy read, full of concrete suggestions, and utterly important in this moment of divisiveness and fracture – when communication is essential and understanding is the key to bringing this country back together.

Another MUST READ, I believe.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Since her mother’s death years ago, Blue has been traveling around with her father, a professor of history and politics, measuring time in semesters, and in random locations throughout the US. While her father is certainly attentive — indoctrinating her with his philosophical theories, drilling her in vocabulary, and encouraging her reading of every book ever written (which she quotes throughout the narrative) – he also seems to attract women to himself as magnets attract shards of steel. When they actually commit to a single, fancier house in a small town in N Carolina and to a single school for the entirety of Blue’s senior year, Blue cannot believe her luck. And much to her surprise, she actually becomes visible to her peers after being invisible for most of her life, being chosen by one of the teachers, Hannah Schneider, to join a small, tightly knit clique of admiring, rebel students who spend Sunday afternoons with her in her home. This invitation will change Blue’s life path forever.

This is one of the most unique novels I’ve read in quite awhile. The writing is outstanding. Pessl creates characters who are simultaneously mean yet sympathetic, powerful yet vulnerable, familiar yet mysterious. The narrative is replete with sardonic humor and an encyclopedic breadth of cultural and political references, which Blue annotates as she relays her experience. There are also enough unexpected turns that even when you believe you know, you actually have no idea what is coming. It is also the kind of story that you continue to ponder and puzzle over long after the last page is turned (my favorite part…).

I could say so much more, but I don’t want to give anything away. I feel it would take away from your discovering these characters and this intricate plot for yourself. So I won’t.

I will only say it’s a MUST READ – just for the fun of it!!

 

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano

From early on, William has done everything he can do to make himself small. After tragedy befell his family shortly after his birth, his parents could barely hold on and he did what he could to make himself disappear. The only outlet he found to appease his loneliness was basketball, at which he found himself excelling. Meanwhile, Julia, nicknamed aptly by her father as the “rocket,” was a force to be reckoned with. She was the problem-solver, the arranger, the one in charge. She always had a plan, for herself and for anyone else in her tightly-knit family. Once her world collided with William’s, their lives would be changed forever – and in ways even Julia could never have predicted.

This is a powerful story about family – about how family can crush us, surround us, desert us and engulf us. Napolitano’s portrait of these two families (William’s and Julia’s) highlight family relationships at extremes. William’s parents emotionally abandon him at infancy, whereas Julia’s family is pathologically enmeshed such they have few relationships outside their nuclear family. While at first this seems to connect the two of them, perhaps fill a need for each of them, it may also create a blindness to what the other may be feeling, how it may impact each of them psychologically. They are both naive to the fact that our families are inside us, no matter how mightily we may try to rebel against it.

The writing in Hello Beautiful is interesting. While many authors will direct the readers in how to feel, in so many words, Napolitano seems to elicit our emotions by just telling the story outright, giving us a chance to form our own opinions, to have our own reactions. We are privy to the inner thoughts of each of the main characters- their frustrations, their demons – but we are also given the facts of their lives, the skeleton of their days in order to see the whole picture. It is not devoid of emotion – on the contrary – but what we feel in reaction to it is very much our own. What we feel is because we have formed genuine attachment to the characters and their fortunes and misfortunes. It is a unique and effective style of narrative.

I am still living with these characters – I feel that I will be living with them for quite awhile. I love when that happens.

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

Isra has the dreams typical of a young teenager, but hers, she finds, are thwarted time and again, by her mother’s insistence on her adhering to the strict rules of her people. Traditional Palestinian women do not have choices – they are born into the world as disappointments – disappointments first that they are not boys, and disappointments second that they must be groomed forever to be married off as soon as they can be readied. She has been told this ever since she can remember and even though she has dreams of romance, fostered by the books she sneaks into her home, she knows, deep down, that her fate is as her mother’s – she will be a wife, a mother, and no more.

Fast forward, we also follow her daughter, Deya, who is struggling with the same challenges. She is an avid reader, wants desperately to attend college rather than just to get married, but the grandmother who is raising her is insistent that she must marry. This is what traditional Palestinian women do and if she does not, the whole family is shamed. It would affect not only her but her younger sisters as well. And then where would they be? Is Deya trapped? Is Isra trapped? How is one woman’s fate tied to the other?

While I found this story a bit repetitive and almost as predictable, it was, at that same time, a powerful dive into the lives of women of this insular world. Just as with women in extreme Orthodox Jewish communities, women in these isolated Muslim communities are treated as if they have only one purpose – to serve the men in their lives and to procreate to produce, ideally, more men. They are not valued as individuals but rather for their ability to cook, clean, and to service the men. Worse, because they are not valued, they are also not treated with respect and the physical, verbal and psychological abuse they endure can be overwhelming, if not fatal. Of course, this does not represent all Palestinians – just as it does not represent all Jews – but there are communities of insular, extremely religious sects for which this does apply and it is important for these issues to be brought to light. Not just for the young women whose lives are at risk, but for society as a whole.

What I found so fascinating was how very similar the cultures are – Palestinians and Jews in their extreme, religious forms. While politically there are so many tensions between Palestinians and Israelis, religiously there are so many parallels. To those who hold on to the strictest interpretation of their religious texts, whether the Torah or the Quran, life remains as it was centuries ago. There is no value to educating women because they have a specific and limited role in the home and the community and must be guarded at all times. The purity of the woman is the ultimate value and if she stains that in any way (and any stain is her fault, even when it’s not)- even if it is by the pursuit of education alone – that brings a shame upon the family that is a black mark and taints her (and any further siblings’, of course) ability to marry, her ultimate purpose. Any adverse event is covered up in secrecy, denied, and buried so as to avoid any shame to the family – again, to maximize the marriageability of the children.

And escape is hard – because they are not given any opportunity to develop skills that they can use in the outside world.

I think this is an important read to expose this underbelly of a culture that can be colorful and beautiful and otherwise rich with historic value.

 

 

Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield

Olivia Pentland has been caught up in her old-world, New England, Puritanical family since marrying into it many years ago. While she has had financial security, she has given up all else – independence, originality, and most of all: love. She has been able to cope mainly with the support of her father-in-law, whom she perceives as a wise ally. But with the advent of her cousin by marriage, Sabine, who has been away in Europe for the past twenty years, her world is shaken to its core. Sabine, in her malevolent, selfish, and direct manner, bursts upon the family’s tautly held secrets and slices them wide open at their core. Can Olivia save at least her daughter, if not herself, from the chaos that will ensue?

This is another Pulitzer-prize-winning disappointment, I have to say. It begins with the creation of an atmospheric setting and mysterious characters that are colorful and captivating. We come to appreciate Olivia for her patience and her balance, even as she tolerates the weakness of her single-minded husband, the impudence of her husband’s intrusive aunt, and frustration of her own feelings of being trapped in a life of stagnation. But this also creates the expectation that something monumental is about to happen. And while there are things that do happen, the monumental thing we expect really doesn’t ever occur. I found that a let-down.

Maybe that was the point? Maybe Olivia’s expectation was that in her life she’d have opportunities, given her wealth and the prestige of her husband’s background. Maybe she thought she’d have the chance for romance, for excitement, for fulfillment. She was on the brink – but she had to pull back for her family’s sake and for her own. And maybe that is how life can just be sometimes and we have to accept that. Maybe that is the lesson we are to learn.

Lesson or not, though, to me it fell short and I felt, as the reader, short-changed.

I’d be curious to know if others had a similar reaction to this novel. Any opinions out there?

Windfall by Penny Vincenzi

Although she’d given up quite a bit for her family, Cassia had felt fairly content with her life. She has a lovely family, a husband who is a respected, community doctor, and she is even allowed to assist him once in awhile in his practice. What she doesn’t often acknowledge, even to herself, is how much she’s missed practicing medicine herself, after having trained at the same medical school as her husband. But now that she’s inherited quite a large sum of money from her beloved godmother, perhaps now she can make something of her education. Perhaps now she can realize some of the dreams she has had for herself. How this plays out seems to have a ripple effect, for her family and for the many people she cares about and who care about her.

In my opinion, this author, Penny Vincenzi, is a master craftswoman. She has a gift of being able to create an entire community of fully developed characters with whom we become intimately connected, interweave their stories so that they tie together but also function as engaging subplots, and all while keeping each character and story solidly lucid and memorable in and of themselves. It is not heavy descriptives or overwhelming detail that keep the characters clear and identifiable, but our own emotional commitment to each of them because of their deeply human feel. We are compelled to know what comes next because they feel as tactile as we do, we need to know because they become our family, our friends. We feel almost a part of the intricately woven plot, that we are almost a part of the fabric of their lives. We are vulnerable to the suspense, the sharp dialogue, the exotic scenes, and most poignantly, the human emotions the novel elicits.

There is also a theme of fighting convention by the many strong women herein. Women were just starting to battle against the norm of having to stay home and care for children as their only option – and at the same time they were also starting to rebel against the presumption that they, in fact, had to have children at all. Contraception was just then becoming a possibility, which liberated women from the burden of just being baby factories. At one point, Harry, a very complex character with whom Cassia has a very complicated relationship, laments that he is forever destined to be attracted to very strong women. As it happens, most of the women in this novel are strong, each in their own ways.

If you’re looking for a fun, substantive read – a truly healthy addiction because you will not be able to put this one down! – this is the novel for you!

 

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Anne has led a quiet life, since the breakup of her engagement 8 years ago. She has not questioned the wisdom of the advice her dear friend, Lady Russell had given her, knowing that it was only out of the best of intentions that her friend advised her so. But she has wondered just how her Captain Wentworth had been faring since that time. As it happens, she may now find out – because he is returning to them! Now that her father has outspent his fortune and has to rent out his estate to Captain Wentworth’s sister and brother-in-law, she may be seeing him once again. But it won’t be that simple to learn what his thoughts are – and to whom his heart belongs.

Every so often I love going back to the classics – especially ones I’ve never had the opportunity to read. While I found this one a bit confusing in that it was challenging to keep track of the characters and their connections – every male character was named either Charles or William and everyone was a cousin! – I did find it amusing and entertaining. So many of the classics are heart-wrenching and tragic and it is refreshing to know that at the time of Jane Austen – the later 1700’s/early 1800’s – it was permitted, even appreciated, to have a sense of humor!

So while this was not a deeply profound or moving novel, it was certainly a fun change of pace.

I wouldn’t call this a MUST READ but it is definitely on the list of classics to get to at some point…

 

Year Of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Anna can only imagine what it must be like to have the weight of the whole village upon his shoulders, as does Michael Mompellion, the village vicar. It is he who has carried the prayers, the hopes and dreams as well as the trauma of those who have lived – and died – among them. That is not to say that Anna has not been there as well. Anna, and Michael’s wife, Elinor, who as the time passed, became more of friend and less of an employer to Anna, have nursed so many of the villagers, caring for them and comforting them. But what they saw together, what they experienced, no one should ever have to. And so Anna understands his wrath toward the wealthy family the Bradfords, on their return, after deserting their village when so many relied upon them. What happened after that, however, she did not expect…

Here is another hard and yet utterly addictive novel by Geraldine Brooks. The time is the 1660’s, in a tiny village in the UK where the Plague has been carried into the town by a kindly and unwitting messenger. After he takes ill and gives warning to burn all of his possessions – a warning that goes unheeded – the disease creeps into the homes of those around him and ravages the village over time.

What we see, however, is all too familiar. We see it bring out the best in some and the worst in others. We see a 1600’s version of misinformation and we see people grasping at untruths because they are desperate and have a deep-seated need to blame someone or something for their misery and pain.

Many may feel that this is too soon after our own plague, but it does feel different. To me it highlights our privilege of scientific advancement and evidence-based medicine. It highlights the knowledge we’ve gained over these centuries and the ability to study a new pathogen with logic and with precision- to develop treatments and vaccines to protect ourselves and to prevent the worst outcomes at lightening speed. On the other hand, and most tragically, our most recent plague has also brought to light the continued distrust and misinformation that runs rampant in our communities as well. The cynical and damaging anti-vaccine misinformation that has been circulated by darker forces in our country via social media and Fox News has stirred just as much unrest and backlash toward legitimate science as did the believers in the witches and magical incantations of the 1600’s. (And just like in those times, the motivation is the same: money.)

This is a powerful and elegantly written novel, deeply researched and exquisitely presented. If you have the capacity to read it, it is absolutely worthwhile. I’d call it a MUST READ, if you are able.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Bennie and Byron are both devastated over the loss of their mother. Still, they cannot imagine why they are here, sitting with Mr. Mitch, their mother’s lawyer, just a day before her funeral. What could he possibly have to tell them that they do not already know – she’s their mother, after all. And just because Bennie has felt she’s had to separate herself from her home and family for the past several years after a hurtful Thanksgiving feud, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know her own mother. Or does it? As Benny and Byron listen to the recording their mother prepared for them just prior to her death, they learn about her real past and how this will impact their lives in the future.

I should have loved this novel. It was told from a 360 degree narrative that I love – the perspective of different voices, involving different time periods. It is enriched with sensory descriptions and with beautiful cultural imagery, particularly when describing Eleanor’s (their mom’s) Caribbean roots. There are messages of environmental and political importance that were worthy of being elevated.

But what was missing, at least for me, was a deep connection to the characters. Maybe it’s that we are told about a palpable anger and resentment between the siblings that permeates the tone of the story, but I feel we don’t really get to know those siblings all that well. We get quick peeks into their lives, brief snippets of their struggles.¬† Byron in his constant state of sullenness is the overachieving Black male, having to outrun his peers just to get ahead. Bennie is the opposite: trying to find herself because she doesn’t fit neatly into any box. But not only is the storytelling somewhat dispassionate, but it is also choppy. We don’t really get to feel their feelings, we don’t see their more tender sides. Little wonder we (or I at least) can’t connect.

What I find here is a great idea with such rich potential, but I do not believe it was as well-executed as it deserved. The story deserved characters served up with deep love, empathy and much more heart. I just didn’t feel that here.