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.

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Author Geraldine Brooks
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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!”

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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: 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?”

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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: 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.

Book report: Are you ever too old to change?

britt-marieBritt-Marie was Here

Fredrik Backman

Once again, Swedish author, Fredrik Backman introduces us to a rather cranky, unlikable character and then proceeds to make us care for and empathize with said character. Long-suffering Britt-Marie was the sixty-something “nag-bag” neighbor in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. As her story begins, she has at long last left her unfaithful and unappreciative husband. She takes a job at a recreation center in the small, run-down village of Borg, and does what she always does. She cleans. And then cleans again.

Slowly and somewhat reluctantly she becomes acquainted with and invested in the villagers including the town’s cop, the ragged kids who play soccer on a makeshift field, and the wheelchair-bound operator of the town’s pizzeria/post-office/corner shop/garage. Oh, and she confides in the mouse she feeds Snickers and Nutella.

Some of Britt-Marie’s thoughts:

“At a certain age almost all the questions a person asks himself are about one thing: how should you live your life?”

“She wonders how much space a person has left in her soul to change herself, once she gets older. What people does she still have to meet, what will they see in her, and what will they make her see in herself?”

She is puzzled by, but learns to appreciate the passion those around her feel for soccer and what the teams they favor says about them. And she learns about the impact of circumstances and choices on lives, including her own.

“If a human being closes her eyes hard enough and long enough, she can remember all the times she has made a choice in life just for her own sake. And realize, perhaps, that it has never happened. …they have all been for the sake of someone else.”

As in Backman’s other books, there is plenty of food for thought here. It was a slow start for me, but had a very satisfying finish. Both the small Swedish village and Britt-Marie were changed by the end of the book. Perhaps you’d enjoy a few days in Borg yourself.

Book Report: Two books that matter

51XL0AHlIvL._SY346_The Book that Matters Most

If, like me, you belong to book club, this book will appeal to you. It centers on a year in which the club’s theme is “The Book that Matters Most.” The members contribute the titles that matter most to them. Although they realize “it’s impossible to pick such a book. When you read a book, and who you are when you read it, makes it matter or not,” they find ten such books. The author cheated; she got to pick ten books that matter to the ten members of the club. Our book club is asked to do the same. How can I choose just one?

Ava, the main character, is facing mid-life after her husband’s affair and their recent divorce.  Her friend Cate invites her to join her book club, she accepts.

“She needed most of all, the comfort of people who wanted nothing more than to sit together and talk about books.

Ava immediately knows which book mattered most to her. It’s one she read as a child, just after her mother died.  The trouble is, it’s been out of print for years. No one can find it. Moreover, Ava has promised an appearance by the author who has disappeared. Or perhaps she never even existed. Then Ava’s troubled twenty-something daughter, Maggie, goes missing in Europe.

Those two compelling mysteries pull the reader through the story.

Perhaps the plot relies a little too much on coincidence for its resolution, but it was certainly enjoyable and worth recommending, if only for the discussion of the books. I’ve read two others by Ann Hood, The Red Thread and The Knitting Circle. I loved both, so I’m adding Hood to my collection of favorite authors named Ann: Ann Patchett, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, and Anna Quindlen.

If you had to choose the book that matters most, what would it be? Please comment below.

51Q+SOKe+PL._SY346_My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

Aaah, where to start. I LOVED this one. Elsa, the seven (almost 8) year-old narrator is the very definition of precocious. And I think author, Fredrik Backman gets her voice just right. While Elsa is adept at looking things up on the Internet and has read a mountain of “quality literature,” her comprehension is still that of a seven-year-old.  For example, her mother is pregnant with a baby who will be Elsa’s half-brother or sister. Until it is explained to her, she believes the baby will be–somehow–half a person. When “gender roles” are mentioned, she thinks they mean “gender trolls.”

Elsa and her Granny live in an apartment house, along with Elsa’s pregnant mom, mom’s boyfriend, and a host of unique, colorful and well-drawn characters who each play a part in the unfolding of this tale. Granny weaves a world of stories to help Elsa navigate the real world. But some question Granny’s suitability as a companion. When we first meet Elsa and her Granny, they are being apprehended by police in the middle of the night after breaking into the zoo.  This happens after they have escaped the hospital where Granny is a patient.  Granny has also been known to deter unwanted visitors by shooting them with a paintball gun from her balcony while wearing only a dressing gown.

Nonetheless, Granny understands the power of stories and what they teach us about real life and real dangers. She tries to prepare Elsa for what is to come.

Some of Granny’s lessons:

“Only different people change the world,” Granny used to say. “No one normal has ever changed a crapping thing.”

“…not all monsters were monsters in the beginning. Some are monsters born of sorrow.”

 “…the real trick of life was that almost no one is entirely a shit and almost no one is entirely not a shit. The hard part of life is keeping as much of the not-a-shit side as one can.”

And what stories teach us:

 “…if there is a dragon at the beginning of the story, the dragon will turn up again before the story is done. She knows everything has to become darker and more horrible before everything works out just fine at the end. Because that is how all of the best stories go.”

“People have to tell their stories…Or they suffocate.”

And the power of chocolate:

“…you can be upset while you’re eating chocolate Santas. But it’s much, much more difficult.”

Since I’m the grandmother to a super-smart seven (almost eight) year-old girl, this one went right to my heart. It’s warm, funny, wisecrack-y, sad, a little dark and scary at times, but ultimately triumphant. I can’t recommend it enough.

If the author sounds familiar, he also wrote A Man Called Ove, which has been on my TBR (To Be read) shelf for months. It may have just moved up. There is a Swedish movie of the book and an American remake in the works starring Tom Hanks.51dQBC7HcaL._SY346_

Book report: Do you really want to know?

TruthOn its surface, this is a coming of age story. It’s told in the lively and distinct voices of three women–Willa and  Jottie Romeyn and Layla Beck–during the sultry summer of 1938 in the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia. Annie Barrows’ makes readers swelter and seek one cool spot in the days before air conditioning.  We sit on the screened porch in creaking wicker chairs in the evening.  We feel the relief offered by the tiniest breeze and sweating glasses of iced tea.

In other ways though, The Truth According to Us is the story of how we all come to terms with the stories we tell ourselves about our pasts. Sometimes the truth hurts, even when those we love try to protect us.

Young Willa Romeyn introduces the story, almost as Scout does in To Kill a Mockingbird.

 “Everything that was to heave itself free of its foundations over the course of the summer began to rattle lightly on the morning of the parade. That was when I first heard of Layla Beck, when I began to wonder about my father, and when I noticed I was being lied to and decided to leave my childhood behind.”

At twelve, Willa is a voracious reader and has grown suspicious of her mysterious father’s frequent absences and the secrets being kept from her.

“If you’re going to unearth hidden truths, keen observing is your shovel.”

“It seemed so hard that I had to work out the answers on my own, but that’s what I had to do. I had to keep at it, finding out, guessing what would happen next, fighting for the right ending, trying to save them all.”

Willa’s Aunt Jottie is her surrogate mother. Jottie knows—or thinks she knows–the secrets and tries to protect Willa and her little sister Bird from them.  She tries to instill in them the Macedonian virtues of “ferocity and devotion.”

“If only Willa could have what I had, Jottie mourned. If only she could be so certain and proud. It was an illusion every child should have. And Willa was losing it, right before her eyes.”

Pretty, spoiled Layla Beck, a  Senator’s daughter, is sent here to grow up and earn her keep during the WPA era. She is tasked with writing the history of Macedonia for its upcoming sesquicentennial. She is soon confronted with conflicting versions of events and comes to a conclusion about history in general.

“A successful history is one that captures the living heat of opinion and imagination and ancient grudge.”

Those short weeks in West Virginia reveal “truths” about the town’s founder, the Civil War, bootleggers, the tragic death of young man years ago, and the price of family loyalty. Some of those lessons take a toll, especially on young Willa.

“I didn’t want to know everything anymore; I didn’t want to know anything.”

Nonetheless, the truth is I’d love to have sat on the Romeyn’s front porch sipping iced tea with the colorful residents of Macedonia that summer. Even in the heat.  I was sorry to say good-bye.