A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

spark of light

Immediately on learning that both his daughter and his sister are inside the abortion clinic where a gunman is holding hostages, Hugh knows he should recuse himself from the situation and not be the hostage negotiator.  He knows he cannot be objective; but nor can he allow anyone else to do this job either.  And what are they doing in there anyway?  How did he not know they were there and why?  What did this say about his relationship with his daughter?

And inside there is a bloody scene.  The gunman has killed people but now he’s taking stock of his situation and wondering what comes next.  How did he get here?  It wasn’t supposed to be this messy.  Or this real.

The whole story is told over the course of a day, and actually told mostly in reverse.  We learn what happens, mostly, and then we hear the back stories, the histories of each of the characters who create the scene of what makes up this dramatic story of A Spark of Light.  The story is steeped in fact.  Characters who harass women entering the clinic (whether or not they are actually having an abortion or going there for a PAP smear)  but  who may have had abortions themselves, when it has suited them.  Single abortion clinics trying to survive to accommodate the needs of the women in an entire state, and trying to fulfill the rules imposed mostly by rich, white men on mostly impoverished women of color.  Characters like Dr. Louie Ward, depicted intentionally like the real-life hero, Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider who does so because of his Christian faith, not in spite of it.

In true Jodi Picoult fashion, this story is shared by many of the characters.  It is told from the eyes of each character, and built gradually by adding block by block, minute by minute, how each character perceives the passing of the day and of the experience.  We hear each opinion on abortion, religious and otherwise.  We hear each legal perspective and each is given credence, such that each perspective can be respected.  We also see that these women’s clinics serve as much more than abortion clinics as well. We also develop an appreciation for the various and desperate situations that lead women to require their procedures at a women’s health clinic.

This is an important book and serves as so much more than just a piece of fiction. Jodi Picoult never shies away from difficult subject matters and here conquers yet another.  In my opinion, she’s done another great job.

Another MUST READ!

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Nikki has been caught between feeling like she’d let her family down by walking out on her legal education and feeling resentful that they’d tried to control everything in her life.  She couldn’t imagine letting her family arrange and control as much as her sister did – even going to the extreme of seeking a possible arranged marriage! – but then again, here she was, working in and living above a bar.  Was this a better option?  When an opportunity arises to teach women in an Indian cultural center to write stories about their lives, Nikki applies and gets the position.  Little does she know that these women have stories to tell that will shock and amaze her.  And as she comes to know these women, she comes to also uncover the mystery surrounding a single voice that has been stifled forever…

This book was surprisingly engaging and ultimately suspenseful.  What started out quite innocent and almost superficial grew into a much more complicated plot and twisted and turned quite unexpectedly.  Characters that one would have guessed would have been staid and traditional showed not only a cheekier side, but actually true, deep-seeded bravery.  This made a book that I initially felt nonchalant about become much more meaningful to me.

I am still unsure if the sexually explicit scenes in this book are totally necessary.  I am not prudish and I do not shy away from this.  I know why they are here.  But I felt they were a bit too long.  (I almost got a little bored with the off -shooting they provided.)  I’d be interested to hear what others think about this.

A worthwhile read, in the end, though.  Please add comments –  I’d really be interested to hear what you all think about my issues with this book!

 

LETHAL WHITE BY ROBERT GALBRAITH

lethal white

After being thrust into the headlines by their prior notorious capture of a serial killer, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are struggling to regain their footing.  The fame has brought in much business but it has also strained their relationship.  Everyone is on edge, when an unwashed, terrified and possibly psychotic young man storms into their office twitching away and muttering loudly about a child having been murdered and buried, wrapped in a pink blanket many years ago.  Could this be connected to the new case of blackmail of the Minister of Culture, which they are being asked to investigate?  As Robin and Strike are thrown back into this case, their private lives become somewhat entwined and the suspense, as always, sustains you until the very last word.

What is truly magical about the writing of this novel is that while an incredibly intricate plot is unfolding, the characters who are acting in this story are vulnerable and human and so real the reader might reach out and touch them.  The pain of Cormoran Strike’s stump of his amputated leg is so palpable that each time he is forced by circumstance to go back out to follow another suspect, the reader can almost feel pain in their own leg in empathy.  And when Robin becomes angry at her new husband, who is quite the “arsehole” as is demonstrated in this story time and again, we want to slay him ourselves on her behalf.  Because they are so kind, we almost feel we have a personal stake in their success and that they are more than fictional characters from the mind of an author.

These are completely absorbing works of great suspense and highly recommend the whole series – and to read them in order is definitely worthwhile.  First, you’ll have the opportunity to read them all, and one is better than the next, but also they build on each other, with references to prior cases and prior history in their respective lives.

Highly, highly recommend these books!  You won’t regret them!

The Girl who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

girl who wrote in silk

In the late 1880’s, Washington territory, Mei Lien’s whole world revolved around her father and grandmother, both of whom she revered and loved with all her heart.  But with one unthinkable strike, both of them were torn from her and her entire life trajectory changed.

Fast forward to current day, and we find Inara, whose favorite aunt has died, with a wish that Inara take her estate and turn it into an island inn.  In her exploration of the estate, Inara stumbles upon the sleeve of a robe, embroidered with an elaborate scene that appears to be communicating an urgent message from long ago.

What is the connection?  And what will that connection mean for Inara’s family?  What did it mean, more importantly, for Mei Lien?

I feel this book, while powerful in its message and matter, just missed its mark in the telling.  The idea of the story is a brilliant one, based in a historical reality that needs to be told – and one that I, for one, was beforehand, ignorant of.  In the late 1800’s and well into the 1900’s, the Chinese who immigrated to the US and Canada were treated abominably, often with prejudice at best and with violence at worst.  This story brings that racism to a very personal level, highlighting the loneliness, despair, and abject terror that racism induces.

On the more literary side, the resolution of the story that is told is just too extreme to be believable.  The family connections are too improbable.  The way Inara finds a chef for her kitchen for her inn is too coincidental.  And the ending just slides into home plate for that grand slam in a way that almost trivializes the story.  I am not saying that the ending is not what anyone reading the story would have wanted, but I think it was too neat and tidy.  It’s not real life.

But maybe that is why it’s called fiction.

I am still glad I read this book and would recommend it to others as well.  If not for the literary sparkle, for the historical perspective it provides.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

handmaid's tale

After years of answering no to people asking me, “YOU haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale???” I can now, finally answer YES!  And now that it’s been both a movie and a Hulu original series, I can crawl out from under the proverbial rock I’ve apparently been living under and show my face.

Offred, who never reveals her true name but who is now called this, is a Handmaid.  Her role in the current social structure in the Republic of Gilead is to become pregnant and give birth to a baby in order to repopulate the Republic.  Gilead has taken over what was the United States and has established a religious order, under which women have the sole purpose of reproducing and watching over the household and men essentially have complete authority over them.  It’s a dystopia that actually heeds backwards and justifies itself in claims of protection of the woman and eliminating the need for competition among women for men’s attention.

What is horrifying is the timeliness of this dystopian novel.  So many comments from the “Aunts” or teachers who indoctrinate the Handmaids in the book sound frighteningly similar to conservative republican comments, with their anti-abortion rhetoric which ignores the woman and focuses on the gathering of cells that happen to be inside her.  Or the hypocrisy, when the Commander (quite like our Commander-in-Chief!) who has his status because of his piety then shows his true colors by taking the Handmaid to a good, old fashioned brothel. Worst, anyone who is different, dissents, or can’t be broken to follow the new order is tortured and killed – and publicly so.

I know this book is fiction.  I know the difference between fiction and reality.  But as our current president chips away at our constitution and all that we’ve accomplished over the years since the 1960’s, I fear the difference between this dystopia and our reality will become smaller and smaller.

 

And I apologize that this book blog so frequently becomes political – but in the current day, it cannot be helped.  Please bear with me!

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

female persuasion

This new, very popular novel centers around Greer Kadetsky, who begins as a young freshman at what she considers a mediocre college in western Massachusetts.  If her disappointing parents had filled out the financial aid forms appropriately, she would have been at Yale, where she was really meant to be.  But then she wouldn’t have met her best friend, Zee, who then wouldn’t have dragged her along to hear Faith Frank, the feminist, speak.  And then she wouldn’t have had that moment with Faith Frank that sparked, really, the trajectory for the rest of her life.

This novel encompasses two stories in one.  On one level, it tells the story of Greer, a smart, ambitious young woman who is seeking love and approval from others because she doesn’t feel  it from her nebulous parents.  She has it from her boyfriend, Cory, who is steadfast, but has his own life and stressors, and she has it from her friend, Zee, but she seeks it from an adult, in the form of Faith Frank.  And as she goes through her journey, she learns that no one is perfect, even those who appear to be.

On the second level, it is also a story of the women’s movement.  In the telling of the story of Faith Frank, the author essentially recounts the story of the fractions of women and the various perspectives, both forward and backward (at least in my opinion) as it is going these days, particularly with regard to availability of women’s choice and control over our bodies.  Faith Frank, in her early days, helps a friend through a life-threatening, almost-botched illegal abortion and it drives her friend in a totally opposite direction from Faith (which is very hard to believe, but I imagine is true of some women).  Faith is empowered by this experience to push hard for women’s access to safe, legal abortion.  In this, I think the author opens up the debate where we stand very precariously now – where women are arguing over the rights over our bodies.  (As an aside, I have to say that I believe that no woman likes the idea of abortion.  On the other hand, I believe that the majority of women in our country do believe that this should be a matter decided by the woman herself and perhaps her doctor, as it is a physical and medical and emotional decision for a woman – NOT a decision to be made by mostly MEN in a back room somewhere having nothing to do with the woman herself.  THIS is what “choice” means.)  And this depressing backlash that we are experiencing here in our country is discussed in the book and lamented.  It’s hard to see it in a book and not just in the news – it gives it so much more permanence, in a way.

What is somewhat disappointing about this book is how it sort of fizzles at the end.  Most of the book is engaging and there are a few twists and major events that turn the plot around on its head.  Most of it grabbed me.  But as it wound down, it really wound down and sort of fell.  Maybe even fell flat.

Otherwise, I think this is an interesting story of a woman’s struggle with finding her place and meaning in the world through the lens of the women’s movement.  An interesting read…

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

weight of ink

Aaron Levy cannot believe he will have to abide the sullen nature of his new mentor, just to be able to have a peek at the rabbinical documents and letters found under the stairs of an historic home outside London.  Helen Watts, this new professor he’s been asked to assist, seems not to have smiling nor social graces in her repertoire.   In truth, he realizes as time passes, that they both have issues to work out as they work together to uncover the secrets that have been buried under these stairs for centuries…  And centuries ago, in the 16oo’s, after taking 2 orphans to London with him as he fled the Spanish Inquisition, Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, blind, but trying to teach a few students, has compromised and allowed one of these orphans to be his scribe.  Ester, the bookish adolescent who dreams of nothing but to study and learn as much as she can as any boy might, has taken her seat at the writing table and begun to scribe the rabbi’s letters for him.  But as she grows older and reaches the age of marriage, this becomes more and more controversial and Ester devises a plan almost in spite of herself.

This is a magnificently crafted work of historical fiction.  The author weaves the plot by gracefully swinging back and forth between the modern day historians and the original characters, layering each of the characters’ stories on each others’ in order to build the connections — and the suspense as well.  And as the story builds, the characters deepen, and they each become much more sympathetic in their own ways.  As the scribe Ester becomes more and more real to the two historians, both Aaron and Helen become more and more human themselves and discover that each of them has used history as a way to escape their own humanness.

The writing in this book is brilliant.  It is beautiful, rich, and full.  The characters are complicated and imperfect and human and they are hard to leave when you finish the book.

You will also learn a lot of history from this book.  The time is the 1600’s, when there were many who had just fled the Inquisition.  People were terrified to speak their minds, fearing that if they said anything against any church, they’d be tortured and killed.  Women had one role in society and that was to marry and raise a family – and if they did not marry, their lot was to struggle and do housework for someone who was married and it was a hard life if you chose that route.  And then came the plague in London, which devastated much of the population.  It was a gruesome time.

But in spite of the ugliness of the time, the beauty lies in the resilience of the people living through it – and that is what is captured here in this story.

I loved this book – I am confident you will too!