Monday, July 31, 2017

"Small Great Things"

my take: Whew. Almost quit on this one. Some of the content was so disturbing I wasn't sure I wanted to read on. Ignorance is bliss.

The story is told by three narrators: a Black middle-aged Labor and Delivery nurse, a twenty something White supremacist, and a thirty-something public defender. Their lives come together when the nurse is assigned to care for the supremacist's newborn baby.

Great plot, well-developed characters, and an excellent behind the scenes look at the judicial system, the hard realities of racism in America, and the hidden world of hate groups. I was physically ill reading how such groups prey on and recruit people and how they're working to populate their movement. Truly scary stuff.

This is a thoughtful and deeply personal probing at racism for the author and her peeling back the veil for her readers:

     "Most of us think the word racism is synonymous with the word prejudice. But racism is more than just discrimination based on skin color. It's also about who has institutional power. Just as racism creates disadvantages for people of color that make success harder to achieve, it also gives advantages to white people that make success easier to achieve. It's hard to see those advantages, much less own up to them. And that, I realized, was why I had to write this book. When it comes to social justice, the role of the white ally is not to be a savior or a fixer. Instead, the role of the ally is to find other white people and talk to make them see that many of the benefits they've enjoyed in life are direct results of the fact that someone else did not have the same benefits."  (from the Author's Note)

Although I see some of the advantages I have, I have progress to make in ferreting out where White privilege is unseen in my life, and I appreciated this quote/knowledge that my role is to convince other Whites of their privileged position.

my source: Son's girlfriend, Hillary, loves all things Jodi Picoult and shared the hardcover copy with me.

my verdict: Uncomfortable, necessary read

Saturday, July 29, 2017

"August Snow"

my take: This was recommended by Nancy Pearl (Book Lust) recently. She mentioned that in these unsettling times in the U.S. she's having a hard time concentrating and requires books that are page-turners to keep her attention and make the world go away.

August Snow is a former marine, former Detroit police officer, and now as a private citizen drawn into investigating a high stakes financial scheme. August is also half Black and half Hispanic which gives him an interesting perspective on many things. A macho guy with a soft heart. And lots of foibles. A little like a cross between the PBS Sherlock and The Pacifier Vin Diesel. (Just so you know, I LOVE THE PACIFIER.)

This narrative has a higher body count than my usual read. And it was a page-turner. It took me till nearly the end to figure out whodunit.

We lived in the Detroit area for nine years: it was great to revisit the places I know and to discover much more. Makes me want to visit Mexicantown.

my source: Nancy Pearl on NPR ... was running errands and heard her segment. I drove directly to the library. It was out at that (main) branch but in at northside location. By the time I got there, it too was checked out. Waited for the e-book to become available. Dang! Too many NPR listeners in town.

my verdict: pretty good detective story especially if you know Detroit

Friday, July 21, 2017

"West of Sunset"

my take: Here's the tale of F. Scott Fitzgerald's last years, past the wild days with Zelda. He's hawked himself to the Hollywood movie machine.

Brilliantly told, a historical novel that brings to life glamorous, ruthless Hollywood with stars and directors and dancing and premieres.

Having caught glimpses of Fitzgerald in reading about Hemingway, I wasn't sure how much I would care for the man behind The Great Gatsby. He's portrayed here as a conflicted spouse, a guilt-ridden and proud father, a writer past his days of fame, an alcoholic, a man who needs to make a living to keep his life afloat.

I loved this behind the scenes look at the film industry in the 1930's. And I loved this depiction of this great writer.

my source: On my very tall TO READ stack ... can't even remember how it got there. Just that I love everything Stewart O'Nan. Also read Emily, Alone

my verdict: Great read

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"Baltasar and Bluminda"

my take: Walking through Portugal I was amazed at the scale of their oldest buildings and monuments. It put me in mind of the pyramids: as in slave labor. These things don't get built by the people who dream them/demand them/use them. They get built by captives and those vulnerable to the wealthy and powerful. Baltasar & Bluminda tells the story of the convent at Mafra (a bit north of Lisbon) from it's inception to (premature) consecration.

Oh, kids. This is brutal and beautiful. Baltasar is a maimed former soldier, Bluminda is a young woman orphaned by the Inquisition, the King is Joao IV who needs an heir, and the fellow who inspired the tale is remembered as the "Flying Priest".

The contrast between the wealthy and the poor couldn't be more pronounced. The contrast between the characters couldn't be harder to distinguish: no quotation marks and not even paragraph breaks to indicate a new speaker. This was slow reading. Which gave me time to ponder better. A very relevant book for our times of rich versus poor in the United States and world wide.

my source:While prepping for a trip to Portugal I found a suggestion to read El Convento... I downloaded a $5.99 copy to my kindle & opened it to read on the airplane. EN PORTUGUESE! Rats! I hunted down El Convento in Porto at a really great bookstore ... the salesgirl told me they didn't have it but they had this in English and it's her all-time favorite book, not just her favorite JosĂ© Saramago book. Well! Sign me up! A couple cities later at another bookstore I asked after El Convento and was handed Baltasar & Bluminda. Ta da! Same same.

my verdict: Slow-going excellent read for those going to or have been to Portugal.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

"Eligible"

my take: What looks like wealth and upper class in America? What would bring an upper-middle class family shame? Curtis Sittenfeld has done a marvelous job translating 19th century Pride and Prejudice mores into the 21st century. In fact, she interpreted the old-maidenness and bad manners so well it helped me understand the original better.

Mix the five Bennett girls with reality television, transgender discrimination, artificial insemination, feminism, CrossFit, yoga, and a decrepit Tudor ... throw in a couple eligible bachelors ... and add a misinterpreted text, the lure of fame, an act of racism at Stanford ... and violá! The current trappings that make P&P relevant and new.

The new comes with a bit more overt feminist language ... in this tale of marrying off the Bennett women, Ms. Sittenfeld suggests a defense of pairing off. As Liz interviews an aging feminist for the magazine Mascara, the grand dame says, "'There's a belief that to take care of someone else, or to let someone else take care of you--that both are inherently unfeminist. I don't agree. There's no shame in devoting yourself to another person, as long as he devotes himself to you in return.'" And maybe that's what we've always loved about Mr. Darcy: he does devote himself to Elizabeth.

The author points out that there's also no shame in remaining single. She gives Mary the last word/chapter. It's not about marriage or procreating ... it's about being who you are. She loves to be alone. End of story.

Is it terrible to say I'd love to watch this as a mini-series? Sigh. I never tire of P&P.

my source: Recommended and loaned (in hardcover, no less) by Daughter Anne. She lived in Cincinnati for five years and especially enjoyed all the references.

my verdict: Fun modern re-telling of P&P

Sunday, June 4, 2017

"Lincoln in the Bardo"

my take: Wow.

Legend has it that after President Lincoln's son Willie died, he went to the cemetery and took the boy's body out of the casket to hold one last time. This myth/event is the impetus for this graveyard tale.

The inhabitants of the bardo are those who seem to be keeping themselves in a state of purgatory, in the liminal space between life and what comes next. They are shocked and awed that Mr. Lincoln does what no one has done and this sets the entire crazy ghoulish community atwitter.

At time hilarious and at times utterly moving, I loved this conversation of the deceased and the journal/letter entries of Mr. Lincoln's contemporaries. After Team of Rivals I adored the 16th President; after this, well, I feel I've walked a mile in his shoes. I also wonder if Mr. Saunders has read C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce.

Daughter Anne reports that the audio version is a production, nearly a radio play, with all different voices: Author Saunders takes a role with 165 others joining him. The book is a bit confusing at first, so the audio definitely will be to start. And very worthwhile. I think this would make an amazing movie.

my source: Stephen Colbert interviewing George Saunders, my interest in Mr. Saunders having grown since I saw him at the Festival of Faith and writing last year. Loaned from bookie Bea - whose hubby gave her a book a month for Christmas (!) from their local St. Joseph, MI bookstore; she gets an email with suggestions and then saunters down there and makes her pick. I may have encouraged this one.

my verdict: excellent off-beat read

Friday, June 2, 2017

"The Jesus Cow"

my take: Literature can take you anywhere; I do love reading about all kinds of places. As a midwest girl born and bred, there's something particularly homey and wonderful about midwestern writing. Although not a farm girl (by any means) nor a small-town gal, I loved the farmer, Harley, and rural Swivel's inhabitants.

Harley has a few beefers and a milker on what's left of his father's farm. On Christmas Eve his milker gives birth to a calf with the face of Jesus on its hide. Enter a the wise veteran, a biker girl friend, and a blabber-mouth mail lady and his quiet solitary life is over.

The story is fun, low-key, easy and could be taken just as a nice beach read ... and the thoughts are deep and deserving of inspection and reflection if you've got the time and energy. Michael Perry brings us the intersection of religious belief with the practical, gritty real world.

           "What you have there is people assigning meaning to coincidence. Forcing theology into
             place between nature and chance. There is a mighty space between the known and
             the unknown, and a lot of folks use theology to spackle the gap." p 219

Deep thoughts, beautifully crafted language, and earthy characters in a wonderful conglomeration of Michael Perry's life and interests. Even though I could see how some of the plot was gonna play out and the last chapter was more of an epilogue, I loved this.

my source: Spotted this hardcover for $7 at the wonderfully fabulous Unabridged Bookstore on Broadway in north Chicago. If you are in the area: GO. Also, a huge Michael Perry fan. Also read: Population 485, Coop, Truck: A Love Story to get to know him.

my verdict: Very good feel good. And just what I needed.