Monday, January 23, 2017

Fiction Hodge-Podge

To say I am behind on reviewing books that I've read lately is an understatement, so my hope is to do a little round-up of fiction and non-fiction books each week so if anyone is following along here and looking for something to read, they can check out the post of the week and see if anything jumps out as potentially interesting.  For my sanity (and yours), I'll try to keep the reviews/descriptions short.  Here are a few fiction books for the week:

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier: My love of The Girl with the Pearl Earring will keep me coming back to Tracy Chevalier, and lucky for me she has a pretty well-stocked arsenal of novels to keep me reading.  Lady with the Unicorn takes place in Paris in 1490, and centers around a mysterious tapestry that appears to depict the seduction of a unicorn.  The tapestries are commissioned by a French nobleman and created by a talented womanizer who creates chaos at court by seducing everyone from the servants to the nobleman's own wife and daughter.  The book follows the development of the narrative within the tapestry, but also the various relationships and affairs that inform that tapestry.

The Ten Year Nap is the second novel I've read by Meg Wolitzer (The Interestings was the first).  In both, she writes about what I think of as the burden of privilege malaise - that is people who have it all but who are unhappy with their situations, mostly because of choices that they made, but of course also because of circumstance and expectation.  On the one hand, this has made me annoyed and groan at the self-centeredness of the characters.  On the other, the writing is fantastic and the people are basically like real life.  It doesn't necessarily mean you want to read about it, but the again, I kind of do.  The Ten Year Nap focuses on a group of female friends n New York - well educated professional women, who got married, had children, stepped out of the work force, watched their children grow, and then suddenly find themselves in a position of not knowing quite what they themselves actually wanted out of life, but knowing that what they have isn't that satisfying (kind of The Yellow Wallpaper problem all over again).  I think this book has evoked some strong reactions from female readers - we all have opinions about whether moms should work or stay at home, or when they should go back to work, or who should take care of their children if they do go back to work - it's a hot button issue and we all have regrets as well as grateful moments for the decisions we've made.  I think Wolitzer did a find job navigating all these varied perspectives, and still creating a couple characters that were funny and relate-able.  I didn't realize Wolitzer had written so many books - I'm going to try another one and see if it falls into the privilege malaise category...I can only take so much of that each year!

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See:  In the sequel to Shanghai Girls, Pearl's daughter Joy run off back to China in search of her birth father, the renowned artist, Z. G. Li.  Once there, she finds herself swept up in the New Society of Communist China.  While her father lives a life of relative comfort due to his celebrity, Joy becomes determined to be one of the people, living on a farm to provide for the masses.  Back home, Pearl is desperate to find her daughter - and finally chooses to return to China to face her past and save her daughter.  This was a captivating but very painful read - not just because of the strained relationships, filled with misunderstandings and missed opportunities, but because of the horrific treatment of the Chinese people by their government.  Of course so much of the book is about propaganda and how the government censored and shaped the information provided to the people - and certainly that made me question how accurate the depiction in this book was (though seemingly pretty accurate given other non-fiction accounts of the time that I read after this).  Lisa See is a brilliant writer and this was a wonderful story of friendships and family - just emotional and difficult to take at times.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Looking for some non-fiction?

I used to read about 99% fiction, and every once in awhile slip in a non-fiction book - like if Malcolm Gladwell came out with something new - but in past years, I'd say I've upped the non-fiction portion of my plate to about 40%, maybe even 50%.  Some of this is because I generally find news difficult to digest, but I know I need to be informed on certain topics - so a book is generally a good way for me to stay slightly educated.  I also really like memoirs, so those have increasingly become popular - both for me, and seemingly as a way for people to get published.  I also tend to read a lot of non-fiction that is relevant to the work I do professionally, so that means a lot about race and the criminal justice system.  Whatever the case, here are a few non-fiction books I've read recently:

Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor: Mr. Senghor grew up in Detroit and at a young age found himself abandoned by his family and selling drugs.  He ended up in prison, serving time for second degree murder.  Now, Mr. Senghor is a free man who speaks across the country about his transformation in prison, and works tirelessly to speak out against the evils of mass incarceration in this country.  This is a powerful and touching memoir that sheds light, not just on the incredible life on one individual, but on all of us and the criminalization of African-American youth that we've allowed to develop and persist in this country.  I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Senghor speak about his life and his book - and he is definitely a voice of change that I hope we will keep seeing more from.

Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?:  After a charged training session on implicit bias and race in the criminal justice system, a couple of us in my office decided to start a Diversity Book Club - a space for us to read books about race and to come together in a (hopefully) safe space to talk about them.  We stared with Dr. Tatum's book because it seemed to go back to the basics with respect to explaining race.  I really appreciate the basic message that we don't live in a color-blind society, and to pretend otherwise or to make comments such as, "I don't see race, I only see people" is to deny the very real reality of racism that is going on all around us.  Dr. Tatum is frank about the need to discuss issues of race early and often, and that by talking about race we aren't encouraging children to see differences, but acknowledging that they already see those differences, and helping to support an understanding around that.  This book is a great resource for starting discussions with friends and family, and includes many recommendations for further reading on the topics raised in the book.  I appreciate that Tatum also touched on multiculturalism in her discussions.

Waking up White: Debby Irving: This was another Diversity Book Club pick - a memoir by a well-intentioned white woman who has a racial "awakening" later in life and attempts through this book to stress the importance of having discussions about race, and the importance of white people reflecting on their own race and privilege.  I liked the basic premise of the book, and this author is nothing if not brave in exposing her complete ignorance about race relations.  Her willingness to put herself in awkward situations time after time and to make mistakes when it comes to talking about race is commendable - and probably the only way most people are going to make any head-way on this issue.  That being said, she also comes across as very irritating and tiresome.  She has questions at the end of each chapter for the reader to reflect on, and the general consensus at our book group was that these questions seemed to be for younger readers, and for the most part directed at white readers (perhaps her assumption being that mostly people from backgrounds similar to hers would read this book).  There is a lot to complain about with respect to this book, but at the same time, I can think of so many well-intentioned people who would really benefit from reading it.  Perfect for someone who believes in racial equality, but recognizes that they have their own biases with respect to races other than their own, and wants to figure out some way to bridge that gap and become a better ally and advocate in our ever-present fight against racism in this country.

The Girls - Emma Kline

This book is simply creepy.  I kept seeing it on all sorts of "Best of 2016" reading lists, so I thought I better read it.  The book follows the life of a 14-year old Evie (much older as the book opens), during the 1960s who gets caught up in a Charles Mason-esque cult.  We know when the book opens that a gruesome murder has occurred and that Evie is somehow knowledgeable about the murders but not directly involved.  I had a constant feeling of dread the entire time I was reading this book - obviously, I knew what was going to happen with respect to the cult (though there is a lot to be learned in terms of Evie's relationship with her family, what drew her to the group, and her interactions with the cult leader).  I would have liked to see more reflection from the older Evie on why she acted the way she did as a 14-year-old, though there is certainly context in terms of the descriptions of her parents' relationships and their treatment of Evie.  I was also curious about what more she had been doing in the intervening years.  But, overall this was a page-turner - and the fact that I still have so many questions is probably a reflection of the fact that I found Evie to be quite a fascinating character in a very strange time in even stranger circumstances.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Commonwealth - Ann Patchett

I've been a big Ann Patchett fan ever since I read Bel Canto back in 2009 - though I was surprised to just discover that it was published so recently - Patchett seems like an author I have loved for a lifetime!  So, whenever one of her new novels comes out, I am eager to find a quiet chunk of time to really delve into it.  Commonwealth is just the type of book that asks for that kind of uninterrupted time.  The story takes place over 50 years, and focuses on two separate families whose lives are intertwined as the result of an affair.  I'm a sucker in general for stories about families, told over generations, from different people's perspectives and from the present and the future looking back at the past.  Patchett is a wonderful story-teller with a real feel for people.  I can't say that I loved all the characters in this book - and one of the main ones is a young aimless woman who maintains a long-time affair with a much older writer - and I just couldn't really grasp onto the reality of their relationship.  But, that being said, I enjoyed the journey and the different relationships among the characters.  Another great one from an apparently not-that-old favorite!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Welcome to 2017

2016 was a disappointing reading year for me.  I didn't do a very good job at all keeping track of my books on this blog - though I plan to go back and re-create my list using Goodreads.  But, even when I went back over the titles I read, I found there weren't many that jumped out at me as noteworthy or ones I'd pass along as recommendations.  I hope to cure that in 2017.  I also want to set a few goals for myself.  I'd like to read - and keep track of on this blog - at least 2 books per month.  I have many other lofty goals in terms of the kinds of books I will read or the types of authors, but mostly I'm hoping to stumble upon a few page turners...we'll see how it goes.  Happy 2017 and Happy Reading!