Book report: The power of the book

51WSWSDYnKLThe People of the Book

Australian archivist Hannah Heath has come to Sarajevo to investigate and conserve a priceless text, an illustrated haggadah. The small book relates the story of the exodus from Egypt and is a common part of the ritual at a Passover Seder.

“…The hagaddah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.”

This particular hagaddah is special because of its detailed illustrations. It has been sought by warring factions and preserved at great risk by individuals over centuries of conflict. But who made this unique book and why? How far has it traveled and by what means? What stories can be told through the analysis of inks, parchment, and butterfly wings? Through stains of blood, wine and salt? The reader is transported to every place and time that the book has traveled. The surprising stories of each person connected to the book–its creation and its rescue over centuries—make for a compelling read.

“A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.”

Geraldine Brooks’ research of this hagaddah also resulted in a 2007 article in The New Yorker. So yes, this is fiction, but VERY historical fiction. In fact the story of the Jewish girl protected by a Muslim family is true as are other characters Brooks employs to tell this story. There were and are good and heroic people of all faiths, just as there were and are monsters and murderers.

Because the audio-book was available through my library and the book-book was not, I listened to this book. While Brook’s writing alone is rich and evocative, the vivid voices and accents provided by narrator Edwina Wren worked well to place the me in the scenes. Brava!

“I had to remind myself that Islam had once swept north as far as the gates of Vienna; that when the haggadah had been made, the Muslims’ vast empire was the bright light of the Dark Ages, the one place where science and poetry still flourished, where Jews, tortured and killed by Christians, could find a measure of peace.”

Trust me, this is a good, profound book illustrating man’s historic cruelty to and mistrust of anyone perceived as “other.” However, the very survival of the Sarajevo Hagaddah also demonstrates that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lived and worked together without fear and hate. Indeed, our shared humanity can and must outweigh the ideologies that divide us. Recommend.

81YqFa-kmKL._UX250_
Author Geraldine Brooks
Advertisements

Book report: The “good old days” weren’t all that great for women

51Ja3naWT8L._SY346_Frequently we hear folks of a certain age bemoaning progress and the passage of time. They wish for bygone days when life was simpler. Not me. Especially after reading  Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times  by Jennifer Worth.

The author first gives us a little history of maternal healthcare before 1948 and the advent of Britain’s National Health Service.

“It is hard to imagine today that until the last century no woman had any specialist obstetric care during pregnancy. The first time a woman would see a doctor or midwife was when she went into labour. Therefore, death and disaster, either for mother or child, or both, were commonplace. Such tragedies were looked upon as the will of God, whereas, in fact, they were the inevitable result of neglect and ignorance.”

“In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes was around 35-40 percent, and infant mortality was around 60 percent. Anything like eclampsia, hemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother.”

Worth graphically describes— in sometimes intimate and cringe-worthy detail—the conditions and very real life and death struggles of the residents of the London Docklands just after WWII.

“Children were everywhere, and the streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950s there were no cars in the back streets, because no one had a car.”

Many of those children were born into two-room tenements without a toilet–or even running water–where four or more other children were already present. Some lived in ruined buildings left standing after the Blitz. Domestic violence and mental illness were common and mostly untreated. A girl “in trouble” was ostracized and–after surrendering her child for adoption–was many times forced into a life of prostitution. And while races bumped into one another frequently and companionably in the streets and at work, a mixed-race baby was unthinkable.

Those were the “good old days.”

What difference did reliable birth control make?

“The Pill was introduced in the early 1960s and modern woman was born. Women were no longer to be tied to the cycle of endless babies… Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s, we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fans of the television series, Call the Midwife, will enjoy becoming acquainted with the real-life Jenny, Trixie, Chummy, and Cynthia, as well as Sisters Julienne, Monica Joan, Evangelina, Bernadette. Dr. Turner and Fred are here as well.

But mostly this book is a reminder that things have gotten better. We know that access to affordable healthcare—especially birth control—matters. And to the most vulnerable women and children among us–the poor and the sick–it is a matter of survival.

Book report: What mental illness looks like from the inside

61a2pUIojSL._SY346_If you or someone you love is living with depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things is a must read. Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) is seriously funny and honest about her struggles with mental illness. But rather than wallowing alone, she invites others in.

Why would anyone want to share what crazy feels like? Because by sharing her own struggles with mental illness Jenny has saved countless others who thought they were alone. Imagine how reassuring it is to read about pain that mirrors your own. “You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Jenny has chosen to be Furiously Happy.

 “We all get our share of tragedy or insanity or drama, but what we do with that horror is what makes all the difference.”

“I can’t think of another type of illness where the sufferer is made to feel guilty and question their self-care when their medications need to be changed.”

“’No one ever died from being sad.’ Except that they do. And when we see celebrities who fall victim to depression’s lies we think to ourselves, ‘How in the world could they have killed themselves? They had everything.’ But they didn’t. They didn’t have a cure for an illness that convinced them they were better off dead.”

“I remind myself that depression lies and that I can’t trust my own critical thinking when I’m sick.”

“I wish someone had told me this simple confusing truth: Even when everything’s going your way, you can still be sad. Or anxious. Or uncomfortably numb. Because you can’t always control your brain or your emotions even when things are perfect.”

Jenny mentions Christine Miserandino’s useful “Spoon Theory” as a way of explaining that dealing with chronic pain or illness—even though a person might not look sick—limits what a person can do. Each of us has only so many metaphorical spoons to spend on a given day. Dealing with pain or anxiety uses up a lot of your spoons. If you are ill you may not have enough spoons for a PTA meeting or even getting out of bed.  You try to save your spoons for what has to get done. You have to prioritize.

For those of us lucky enough not be be seeing crazy from the inside, this book helps us be a bit more compassionate to those who who are. And if you are on the inside, know this: you are not alone. Recommend.

Jenny Lawson“Jenny Lawson is a very strange girl who has friends in spite of herself. She is perpetually one cat away from being a crazy cat lady.”

 

 

 

 

Book report: If you could talk with the animals

9781250007810_p0_v3_s550x406The Elephant Whisperer

When South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony was asked to accept a small herd of traumatized elephants onto his private game reserve at Thula Thula in Zululand, his experience and common sense told him to refuse.  After all, a rogue elephant is a fearsome and dangerous creature. But Anthony possessed a gift that few of us have, a sort of sixth sense about what these distressed and distrustful animals needed and quickly went to work preparing to take them in.

Anthony’s goal was not to tame these rogue elephants. He wanted them to once again be wild and free, to live as they were intended. Not to trust humans—certainly not. They’d been betrayed by hunters and poachers—but to trust him. Only him.

He started slowly, very slowly, by merely observing them from a distance.

 “Previously traumatized wild elephants appeared to regain a degree of faith in new humans once the matriarch has established trust with just one new human. But it must be the matriarch.”

He cites evidence of the elephants’ profound intelligence. Early on they outsmarted the electrified fence by testing it and then downing trees to disable it. They also showed an uncanny ability to communicate over long distances–even with Anthony himself–by sensing when he would arrive home from a trip to greet him.

“Elephants transmit infra-sound vibrations through unique stomach rumblings that can be received over vast distances. These ultra-low frequencies, which cannot be detected by human ear, oscillate at similar wavelengths to those transmitted by whales; vibrations that some believe quaver across the globe.

Evolution is ruthless; anything not essential to survival withers on the gene-pool vine. Thus, it is only reasonable to postulate that elephants are using these advanced long-distance frequencies for a specific purpose—to communicate coherently, one to another and herd to herd.”

Anthony’s patience and passion saved these elephants from certain death and taught him lessons that would benefit us all.

 “They taught me that all life forms are important to each other in our common quest for happiness and survival. That there is more to life than just yourself, your own family, or your own kind.”

 “From Nana, the glorious matriarch, I learned how much family means. I learned just how much wise leadership, selfless discipline and tough unconditional love is at the core of the family unit. I learned how important one’s own flesh and blood actually is when the dice are loaded against you. [and]…that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those we put up ourselves, and that until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.

This book will give you not only a profound appreciation for elephants, but also for how all living things are connected in ways we’ve never thought of. Recommend.

thula-thula-logo-250-1

 

 

Book Report: Women in war

51jVzFgR9fL._SY346_The Alice Network

I told myself I wouldn’t go back to the dark and desperate world of WWII Europe’s deprivations. But it’s been awhile, and a friend recommended The Alice Network. Besides, this story takes place during WWI and just after WWII. I took the risk and was rewarded.

Quinn’s writing is intimate and compelling, alternating between the points of view of the two main characters. Eve is a young, intelligent British woman with a profound stammer who in 1915 longs to do something in the Britain’s war with Germany. She is thwarted by both her gender and disability. Charlie is a young, intelligent American woman of privilege in 1947 who finds herself pregnant and on her way to Switzerland for an appointment to relieve her of her “little problem.” Their stories connect when Charlie seeks Eve’s help in locating a beloved French cousin who went missing in France during WWII. Both Charlie and the reader need to know why Eve, now a cranky, damaged old drunk, refuses.

Thus begins the tale of Eve’s recruitment and service as part of a web female spies in France, “les fleurs du mal.” The flowers of evil.

“There are two kinds of flowers when it comes to women… The kind that is safe in a beautiful vase, or the kind that survive in any conditions…even in evil. Lili was the latter. Which are you?”

Lili was the head of this network. As such it was her “… job was to be anyone, to shift with a few tricks of posture or grammar from one persona to another, whether seamstress or laundress or cheese seller. And if Lili’s job was to be anyone, Eve’s was to be no one, to be unobserved and unnoticed at all times.” Eve’s assignment was to be a waitress and report on the conversations of the German officers who dined at the restaurant owned by the cruel collaborator, Rene’ Bordelon.

“Why did it matter if something scared you, when it simply had to be done anyway?”

71gdL1M-kbL._UX250_
Author Kate Quinn

As I read the author’s notes at the end of the book, I discovered that many of the vividly portrayed supporting characters, including the colorful Lili, and many of the incidents described were taken directly from true accounts of the time. This is why I read and enjoy historical fiction. I learn about lives and times outside of my own. They make me quesiton myself. In the same circumstances would I have been able to do what they did? This story of war is bloody and brutal. The bravery of both those who fought in the resistance deserve to be remembered. These were no shrinking violets.

 

Book Report: Tan on Tan

51fTaQ5dljL._SY346_It seems Amy Tan has been trying to write her story for years. The ghosts of her past inhabit all her novels and each one discloses a bit more of herself. Quite literally. In Where the Past Begins though, she gives readers the actual stories as she sifts through boxes of documents and photos—archives of her life and her parents’ emigration. Diplomas. Letters. Journals. A forbidden love story. The children and the cruel husband her mother left behind in China. The tragic deaths of her brother and father from brain tumors within six months of each other when Amy was a teenager.

Amy tries to understand the motives of her parents and where certain of her own personality traits originated—chief among them persistence and curiosity.

where-the-past-begins_pg-73_easter-1959---in-the-park-after-church-courtesy-of-amy-tan
Amy with her family in 1959.

The most enlightening chapter for me as a writer and longtime reader of her fiction is the one in which she shares emails exchanged with her editor as she was writing (and rewriting) The Valley of Amazement. She’d written a story that wasn’t holding together as it should.  That novel did contain a lot of detours and rabbit trails as I mentioned in this review a few years ago. Nevertheless, the fact that even Amy Tan needed help to turn this story into a novel made me feel better. Hopeful even.  Not to mention confirmation that writing is hard.

Here is a sampling of Amy’s eloquent and insightful prose.

On memory and the amygdala:

“Memory, in fact, gives you no choices over which moments you can erase, and it is annoyingly persistent in retaining the most painful ones. It is extraordinary faithful in recording the most hideous details, and it will recall them for you in the future with moments that are even only vaguely similar.”

“…without conscious choice on my part, my brain has let a lot of moments slide over the cliff.”

“I want to find those moments that my subconscious has hidden. I am more than curious—and it’s not because I’m a fiction writer who seeks a good story to write about. What’s in there is what made me a fiction writer, someone who has an insatiable need to know the reasons why things happened. In the amygdala are vast stores of disappointments and devastations, pain and wreckage. But I also want to know what the amygdala kept, because therein lies thousands of stories of how I became me.”

On the work of writing:

“But in writing fiction, the truth I seek is not a factual or scientific truth. It has to do with human nature. It is about those things that are not apparent on the surface. When I set out to write a story, I am feeling my way through a question, often a moral one, and attempting to find a way to capture all its facets and conundrums. I don’t want an absolute answer. When writing fiction, I am trying to put down what feels true.”

“The best metaphors appear unexpectedly out of the deep blue by means of intuition and my infatuation with nuance.”

“The actual writing will still be daunting. It gets harder with each novel. I will have to relearn my craft, overcome the same doubts, untangle the narrative from long detours, or take whichever detour is the story I should tell.”

On the fickleness of acclaim:

“Praise, I had learned, was temporary, what someone else controlled and doled out to you, and if you accepted it and depended on it for happiness, you would become an emotional beggar and suffer later when it was withdrawn.”

“The moon is more admired when it was full that when it was a sliver, and yet it is the same moon even when the perspective of others had changed.”

On her own fiction-writing mind:

“It is curious and open to anything. It is nonjudgmental and thus nothing it imagines is wrong. It is not bound to logic or facts. It is quick to follow any clues, but it can also be easily diverted to another direction, especially if it detects a secret or a contradiction.”

“If there is indeed a universal consciousness, it makes sense that mine would conjoin with it when the doors of imagination are flung wide open and all possibilities are allowed.”

Insight into the life and writing process of one of my favorite authors was enough to entice me to read this memoir. I’m more that glad I did and happily recommend it. Actually, I’d recommend anything written by Amy Tan. Probably even her shopping list.61qxtsbLAHL._UX250_

 

 

Book Report: Can you make room for hope, faith, and opportunity?

tiger drive

Three cheers for Carson City, Nevada author, Teri Case on her debut novel! I was lucky enough to receive it as a gift from a friend.

Teri gets deep and personal in this family drama set in a trailer park very similar to the one in which she and her siblings were raised. The voices of the mother, father, sister, and brother are both vibrant and heartbreaking. Each character demonstrates the damage that poverty, abuse, and addiction can wreak on human beings. To protect themselves, they inflict further damage by keeping secrets from one another. While readers may not like the characters, they will find it hard not to empathize.

“Do you ever think we all would just be happier if everyone worked together and supported each other? I feel like my parents…and my older siblings only take care of themselves. It’s like my family doesn’t think there is enough of a good thing to go around, so they all scrap for the best of the worst, climb over each other, fight over rations, and then boom…they vanish when someone needs them. And that leaves me no better than them and looking out for myself…”

The author successfully paints each character into a corner, where neither they nor the reader can see any way out. Could these characters ever find redemption? Each of them will need to find resilience and the fierce drive of a tiger if they are to survive much less succeed.

More importantly, I believe Tiger Drive reinforces one of the reasons I read–to experience lives outside my own. The characters’ desperate lives and blistering responses to the chaos swirling around them are so foreign to my own life, that I was at first taken aback. Their struggles caused me to reflect on the assumptions and judgments I may have made when I encountered troubled children and families not only in my teaching career, but also in my life. I hope I have at least been kind. As a human being, kindness and compassion should be my first response. My prime directive. It costs us nothing to “make room for hope, faith, and opportunity” in our hearts. Having one person believe in us can make all the difference.

Thanks for a compelling read and the lesson, Teri.

Teri case
Author, Teri Case

Book Report: Two friends, one survivor

51f58wzlTRL

Cat, now a young woman, remembers one difficult year and her friendship with the manic Marlena. With its troubled, reminiscent narrator, this tale goes deep and dark. Divorce, poverty, neglect, alcohol, meth, and the Oxy epidemic all get the “up close and personal” treatment. While the writing is beautiful and rich, the themes make for an emotional journey.

Acclaim (what drew me to this book):

A National Book Critics Circle Leonard Prize Finalist
Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Named a Best Book of the Year by Vogue, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, NPR, NYLON, Huffington Post, Kirkus Reviews, Barnes & Noble
Chosen for the Book of the Month Club, Nylon Book Club, and Belletrist Book Club
Named an Indie Next Pick and a Barnes and Noble Discover Pick

Just a few samples of the gorgeous, insightful writing because I can’t say it any better than the author, Julie Buntin.

On adolescence

“Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
At fifteen, I believed that I would grow up to be the exception to every rule.”
For a teenage girl, a beautiful mother is a uniquely painful curse.”
I loved her, as my mom and as a person, for everything, for being the one who stayed.”

On opioids

“Our universe was limited to each other, hemmed in by the perimeters of Silver Lake and the towns around it, where Oxy had already laid down roots, farmed out by doctors treating pain that most everyone seemed to have.”
There were kids like us all over rural America, I’d find out late; we were basically statistics, Marlena especially, members of a numb army, ranks growing by the day. Alone in our bedrooms, falling asleep in class, meeting in parking lots and the middle of the woods.”
Now it strikes me as a profoundly American thing—an epidemic that started as an abuse of the cure, a disease we made ourselves.”
…but I never tried Oxy, not after watching how it scraped at her with its long fingernails, leaving nothing but a body.”
I’ve never believed in the idea of an innocent bystander. The act of watching changes what happens. Just because you don’t touch anything doesn’t mean you are exempt.”

Like I said, it’s deep and dark, but worth it.

Book report: We’ve come a long way, baby

51ko3byryDL._SX260_Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is my hero. And if you’ve seen me in the last week or so, I’ve probably mentioned Notorious RBG as an enlightening, inspiring, and very readable book. The authors, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, made it a pleasure getting to know this intelligent, forthright, hardworking woman who has fought against stereotype and injustice for her entire career.

Young Ruth had doors slammed in her face. Repeatedly. She was once fired for being pregnant. While at Harvard Law School as a young wife and mother, she and the other female students had to repeatedly justify the slots that they’d “taken away” from males. Furthermore, there were “small” slights such as no women’s restrooms in the building and not being allowed into the library’s reading room. Nevertheless, she persisted.

After Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, she graduated tied for first in her class. Still, no firm would hire her. Again, she would be taking a job from a male who had a family to support. When she finally did get a job lecturing at Rutgers, she was paid less because she was a woman. Still, she persisted.

While working with the ACLU,  she won five out of six women’s rights cases she argued before the Supreme Court. Furthermore, she devised a careful, incremental plan for revolutionary goals, fighting against laws that were inherently gender-biased. Some of her earliest cases defended men against unfair regulations that didn’t acknowledge they too could be primary caregivers of their children or parents.  Or the pregnant woman in the military forced to choose between an abortion or a discharge, neither of which she wanted. Or the woman who wasn’t allowed to add her children to her employer-based health insurance because it was assumed only men had dependents. You see, fairness works both ways.

“I think gender discrimination is bad for everyone, it’s bad for men, it’s bad for children. Having the opportunity to be part of that change is tremendously satisfying. Think of how the Constitution begins. ‘We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union.’ But we’re still striving for that more perfect union. And one of the perfections is for the ‘we the people’ to include and ever enlarged group.”

“’We the people’” originally left out a lot of people. “’It would not include me,” RBG said, or enslaved people, or Native Americans.’”

Ginsburg established case-law that could then be cited as precedent in future cases.

Learning about Ginsburg’s early fights and her resolve to continue fighting, reminds us that we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Justice Ginsburg. We could do worse that to emulate her example.

RBG advises women to act like ladies:

“That meant to always conduct yourself civilly, don’t let emotions like anger or envy get in your way…Hold fast to your convictions and your self-respect, be a good teacher, but don’t snap back in anger. Anger, resentment, indulgence in recriminations waste time and sap energy.”

Further advice from the book’s Appendix:

How to Be Like RBG

  •  Work for what you believe in, but pick your battles and don’t burn your bridges.
  • Don’t be afraid to take charge.
  • Think about what you want, then do the work, but then enjoy what makes you happy.
  • Bring along your crew.
  • Have a sense of humor.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is now firmly fixed in my pantheon of cultural heroes. And it’s never too early to learn about this fabulous woman. A Young Readers’ version of this book is now available and I recently purchased one of several picture books about Justice Ginsburg for my granddaughter’s eighth birthday. I hope my Olivia will stand up against injustice when she sees it.

Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. Due in no small part the Notorious (not to mention Supreme) RBG.

ruth pic book - Copy

Book report: Better late than never

bistro 1The Little French Bistro begins with sixty-year-old German tourist, Marianne trying to end her life. She’s been belittled by her insensitive, bullying, and unappreciative husband, Lothar for over forty years. During that time, he’s repeatedly told her she’s weak, silly, and stupid. Worse, she’s believed him. She sees no way out other than to drown herself in the Seine.

While she is rescued, Lothar’s response is less than sympathetic. Marianne escapes, but on her way out of the hospital, she is intrigued by and steals a hand-painted tile of a scene at Kerdruc. That tile leads her to the village on the Brittany Coast where she intends to make good on her intention to end her life. Instead, she rediscovers herself. I guess this could be described as a “coming of age” story, except that Marianne comes of age a bit late.

Some womanly wisdom from author, Nina George.

 

“Every woman is a priestess if she loves life and can work magic on herself and those who are sacred to her. It’s time for women to remind themselves of the powers they have inside. The goddess hates to see abilities go to waste, and women waste their abilities far too often.”
“’People never change!” Marianne retorted. ‘We forget ourselves, and when we rediscover ourselves, we merely imagine that we have changed. That’s not true, though. You can’t change dreams; you can only kill them—and some of us are very good murderers.’”

On the risks of compliance and defiance:

“How many deviations, side roads and senseless detours a woman can take before she finds her own path, and all because she falls into line too early, takes too early the paths of custom and convention, defended by doddering old men and their henchwomen—the mothers who only want the most dutiful outcome for their daughters. And then she wastes an immense amount of time ensuring that she fits the mold! How little time than remains to correct her fate.”
 “Life wasn’t too short: it was too long to waste unduly on non-love, non-laughter and non-decisions. And it began when you first took a risk, failed and realized that you’d survived the failure. With that knowledge, you could risk anything.” “…life as an autonomous woman is not a song. It’s a scream, a war; it’s a daily struggle against the easy option of obeying.”
“Every second can mark a new beginning. Open your eyes and see: the world is out there and it wants you.”
 “She hoped intensely that the generations of women to come would manage better than she had, having been brought up by mothers who didn’t equate love with abnegation.”

On the power of love:

“…maybe friendship was the most patient form of love.”
 “Giving and seeing how a person flourishes and feeds off your love: the amount of power you possess, and the fact that that power makes someone the best they can be.”

I love the themes that it’s never to late to follow your heart and how important it is to show people who you really are, to live an authentic life. As I age, I find these tales of late-in-life transformation quite charming, not to mention hopeful.

While I had read and loved, this author’s Little Paris Bookshop, I had trouble following and getting invested in this book early on. With an entire village full of characters to keep track of, it was hard to know who to care about. Moreover, the omniscient narrator kept changing the point of view which made it challenging for me until I realized what was going on. Nevertheless, this was a Book Club choice, so I stuck with it and was rewarded.  I also learned a bit about the Brittany Coast and the Breton culture I knew nothing of. Recommend.