Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ugwu feels quite privileged to have been chosen to work for Master.  Most people in his small village in Nigeria are not given the opportunity to work for someone who provides such fine quarters, good food, and an education as his Master is offering him.  He also has the opportunity to overhear Master’s exuberant  discussions with his regular guests, other professors and intellectuals discussing the political upheaval of their time. And as Ugwu helps Master prepare for the coming of Olanna, Master’s love, Ugwu watches change come not only to their household, but to Nigeria itself.

In some ways this is a monumental saga, portraying one family’s experience of the devastating Nigerian-Biafran war of the late 1960’s. The author is able to illustrate the complexity of the war – the tribalism, the massacres that preceded the war, the sheer indifference with which the world treated those who were starving to death.   In other ways, there is something missing, something somewhat detached in the writing that keeps the reader just this side of being fully invested in the story.  With the exception of Ugwu, who has a sweetness and a naivety to him, most of the characters have a chilliness that seem to keep not only the reader but even each other at bay.

This is not an easy book to read but I’m so glad I did.  I think you will be too.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

Jo and Bethie are so excited to move into their new home on Alhambra Street in Detroit in 1950.  It is a very big day for the family.  And once again,  Jo is unable to perform in a “ladylike” way and disappoints her mother.  Why can’t she be more like her sister, who seems to just know how to be the perfect little girl?  From Bethie’s point of view, however, being the pretty little girl may hold some power, but it also comes at some formidable peril.  As the two sisters grow and navigate the decades of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and so on, we have the privilege of following along with them on their turbulent, sometimes traumatic, and occasionally victorious journeys.

This is an epic novel for Jennifer Weiner, who has traced these decades of history with warmth and insight, from the perspective of these two sisters who struggle over these decades to find themselves.  Jo and Bethie, and the other characters woven around them, are so real that when they lose themselves, we feel lost as well, and when they hurt, we hurt.  They are flawed and vulnerable and often become collateral damage in each others’ sisterly wake.  But we find ourselves also moving on when they do and rejoicing at their successes as our own.

Herein Weiner is also giving voice to women, who have evolved over these decades and yet not evolved, whose roles have expanded and yet not expanded.  Weiner addresses the many ways in which women are expected to fulfill all roles – mother, homemaker, breadwinner, and wife, and yet find time for themselves, to feel fulfilled and to fall in line with society’s expectations.  She loops in race and prejudice,  primarily from the perspective of the Jewish experience of a people who have been targeted but who also have their own stereotypical racial biases.  In addition, she also gives voice to the women who have experienced sexual violence and sexual harassment over these decades and how it impacts and informs their entire life experience.  It is quite symbolic that Jell-O, the quintessential 1950’s, traditional Thanksgiving side dish associated with Jo’s worst adolescent evening is later in the novel thrown all over an emblem of her daughter’s supposed progress.  Jell-O becomes a symbolic fuck-you to all of the supposed progress, calling out the hypocrisy in the idea that things have changed enough.

At first glance, this novel might be written off as a simple story of two sisters, but it is in fact an articulate commentary on the struggle of women for power vs being overpowered and for status vs the status quo.  It also directs us to be hopeful for future generations, especially if we stick together and have each others’ backs.

 

 

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion

This is the third in this delightful series about the exploits of Don Tillman, who has found the love of his life – Rosie – married her, and is now raising their “result,” Hudson.  As Rosie has now been offered a position in their native Australia, they have uprooted 11-year-old Hudson and are trying to help him adjust to the transition.  Because Hudson is definitely a creature of habit, he is not very happy with the change and he is letting Don and Rosie know it.  And so are his teachers.  And the school principal.  As a professional crisis for Don leads him to change his work schedule and focus, he opts to spend more time with Hudson to support him with the adjustment.  This process leads both Don and Hudson down a road to self-discovery that is truly life-changing for both of them.

I love the writing for its voice.  The author creates the most endearing character in Don, even as Don verbalizes little directly of his own emotions.  Don’s utter honesty and kindness are reflected in the things he says and does for those around him and the reactions he elicits are often surprise and wonder., even as people see him as different.  He struggles to fit in with those who are “neurotypical” (not autistic) and wants his son to fit in as well in order to avoid the difficulties Don has had to contend with. In this and many other ways, he demonstrates that he deeply feels compassion and empathy, even if he misses other more subtle social cues.

Clearly, the author,  with the assistance of his wife (a psychologist), has made a statement here in this novel in support of those in the autism community.  Apparently there are differing opinions on how to approach children with autism –whether to teach them skills to integrate more into the neurotypical community or to allow them to be as they are (and obviously to reach out to the general public and educate us more on acceptance, which should be happening anyway).  I imagine this must be a painfully difficult decision for some parents, who want to spare a child’s suffering (these children are often bullied because they are different) but also allow a child to see that they are loved for who they are, no matter what.  I believe this book gives a lot of insight into both the challenges and the capabilities of those with autism and one turns the final pages feeling strongly allied with this community.

I also love the not-so-subtle shout out in support of vaccinations.  There is a very strong statement countering the absolutely unsubstantiated idea that vaccines cause autism.  This idea was started by an unethical researcher in England years ago who was later found to have fudged his data in order to be published.  But the damage was done.  He’s created a community of people who believe in conspiracy theories about vaccines that are just untrue.  Vaccines save lives.  Period.

I love all of the Rosie books – and this one is another great one!  Definitely read it!

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Mrs. Richardson thought she’d planned her life out quite well.  She had a beautiful home, a devoted husband, four healthy, intelligent teenage children and even a career, benign as it was.  And in Shaker Heights, a planned community just outside of Cleveland, that is what was expected of a well-to-do, educated woman of her stature. Sure, she’d had her moments of passion – she’d grown up in the 60’s after all –  but there was a reason why rules and laws existed.  Orderliness was necessary,  correct.  (Why couldn’t her youngest daughter, Izzy, appreciate that?  Was that so difficult?) And when Mia, an artist, and her daughter Pearl came to live in the apartment that Mrs. Richardson rented out, it was only the right thing to do, to support the arts in her own way, by renting to them.  However, as the two very different families became intertwined, lines became blurred and rules became fuzzy.  At least in the eyes of Elena Richardson.  Not so, to Izzy.

Thanks to my book club for encouraging me to read this one!  I was reluctant to try another Celeste Ng novel after the relentlessly depressing Everything I Never Told You.  This one, however, was entirely different.  It was so beautifully crafted, with the care and devotion and an eye to her art, much like that of Mia’s.  There are wonderful characters, who are messy and quite real, contrary to Mrs. Richardson’s ideal.  Some who seem superficial, but emerge with more depth, and vice versa, much like people in our real lives.  But the plot is what is most gorgeous, with its many sub-plots, taking the story in directions that are unforeseen, often tender, occasionally cringe-worthy, but always engrossing.  I could not put this book down!

And it is deeply meaningful. I will tread carefully because I do not want to spoil for anyone, but I believe the way that both white privilege and class privilege is illuminated is so carefully and poignantly done that it is digestible and accessible to the reader.  There is history and context and explanation, but there is also the story and what actually happens.  So we understand why, but we still understand that it is wrong.  This gives such power to the message.

I loved this book and believe that many of you will also.  This is a MUST READ, for sure!

 

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Frances was sick and tired…  not just sick with the cold that had lingered for the past many weeks, but really feeling as if life had caught up with her.  With her career suddenly seeming to be turning south and her love life at a mortifying halt, a 10-day “cleanse” at the Tranquillum House seems to be just what she needs to repair.  When she meets Masha, the stunning and passionate guru whose mission is to guide each of the nine newcomers to Tranquillum House through their individual transformations, Frances is a bit wary – but she’s trying her best to be open-minded.  Little does she – or any of them – know how they will, in spite of themselves, be completely transformed ultimately, but not at all in the way that they think.

Some books are plot-driven and some are character-driven.  This book is both.  There are endearing and tragic characters whose layers are gradually peeled off one by one as the story is told via rotating narrative perspectives.  Each has their vulnerability that is seen as something that might be remedied by a diet change, or with some counseling or some meditation. (Who can’t relate to that?)   But there is also a wild plot that is imaginative and suspenseful and runs beyond where at least I expected it to go.  And by the time it is completed, you feel that the nine are no longer strangers, but rather your dear friends.

Better read it before the movie comes out – it’s bound to be a movie!

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!

 

 

 

The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard

the atomic city girls

June  has just arrived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, circa 1944.  It is a town that has just been built, but does not exist on a map, and the job she’s been hired to do involves monitoring gauges on machines she is not even told the purpose of.  Her roommate, Cici, is more seasoned and while she could care less about the purpose of her job, her real purpose is to search for a husband among the many soldiers who are stationed right here in Oak Ridge.  Meanwhile, Joe, a Negro construction worker who has also come to the town looking for opportunity, misses his family deeply and just means to keep his head down and earn as much as he can in order to send his good wage home, while trying to keep his younger friend out of trouble.  Eventually, these lives converge as their mission in Oak Ridge comes to a crescendo, and they all become swept up in a historical moment in our dark history.

This is an effective historical fiction novel about a very bleak moment in the history of the world.  While it deals with this global issue, it tells the story through the lens of fictional but realistic individuals who were involved in the production of this most destructive weapon ever created – and used! – on our planet.  It relates the social and political class and racial issues that were on everyone’s minds at the time, whether it was finding a husband for the women who did not have access to higher paying jobs, or accessing decent housing because of one’s skin color.  It also reveals the attitudes towards the final product of Oak Ridge of each of the participants, which varied widely from pride to guilt.  The army’s secrecy throughout the whole project is stunningly creepy.

I’d recommend this book as a both an important piece of historical fiction, and as just an engrossing read.  I listened to it on CD and it held my attention the whole way through!

 

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!