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Books #38

I read some pretty heavy books lately, so I apologize I don’t really have any light and fluffy recommendations for this month!

1 ) White Oleander by Janet Fitch

A compelling, dark, sometimes heart-warming read about Astrid’s difficult childhood. It starts with her life with her eccentric, but clearly mentally ill, mother in LA.

“Always learn poems by heart,” she said. “They have to become the marrow in your bones. Like fluoride in the water, they’ll make your soul impervious to the world’s soft decay.”

The relationship between Ingrid and Astrid is both endearing and disturbing. Even at a young age, Astrid seemed older than her years.

“I tried not to make it worse by asking for things, pulling her down with my thoughts. I had seen girls clamor for new clothes and complain about what their mothers made for dinner. I was always mortified. Didn’t they know they were tying their mothers to the ground?”

Ingrid is a brilliant poet but ends up murdering her ex-boyfriend and goes to prison. This begins Astrid’s story of being bounced around foster homes. Each place she goes she learns something different about herself, survival, life, family and love.

“Honey, this is what happens when you fall in love. You’re looking at a natural disaster.” I vowed I would never fall in love.”

It’s not your typical book. The book is written beautifully, painting pictures for the reader that will not be forgotten.

Wherever Astrid goes, she finds solace in someone. In the first house, a trailer-trash type place, she befriends one of the young boys there. In the next place she befriends one of the neighbors who teaches her a lot about life and love.

“Isn’t it funny. I’m enjoying my hatred so much more than I ever enjoyed love. Love is temperamental. Tiring. It makes demands. Love uses you. Changes its mind.”

“When you started thinking it was easy, you were forgetting what it cost.”

There was one foster home where this wealthy interior designer had a beautiful home and had several foster kids, teenage girls. It seemed like it was a wonderful home. But looks were deceiving. As soon as the social worker left, Astrid found out the foster mom was basically starving all the teenagers. The kitchen was locked and they were allowed to eat dinner and that was it. Astrid began stealing food at school from the garbage because she was literally starving to death.

There were so many horrible things in the book, but it’s balanced by some glimpses of beauty and humanity. I loved this book!

2 ) If You Knew Her by Emily Elgar

What an interesting concept! Frank is in a coma in a hospital. Alice is the nurse in the coma wing. Cassie comes in to that wing in a coma as well and the mystery of what happened to put Cassie into that coma starts to unravel. It turns out that Frank is regaining his consciousness and is hearing everything that goes on around him. He’s hearing all the visitors that Cassie has, hearing the confessions, deducing who ran her down and put her into that coma. But will he be able to regain consciousness in time to warn everyone?

The way the story is told is really well done and I did not guess the ending or who had done it! I thought I had and was wrong. Very good! I could not put it down.

3 ) The Dead House by Billy O’Callaghan

This was a good, solid ghost story!

Maggie is an up-and-coming artist in London. Mike is her agent/dealer. After a horrible domestic violence event that puts Maggie in the hospital, she decides she needs to get away to clear her head and get some space and get away from her abusive ex-boyfriend. On her wandering road trip across Ireland, she decides to buy an abandoned, run-down cottage in a tiny seaside town. She hires some local contractors to fix it up and install electricity and plumbing, and once it’s inhabitable, she moves in.

She invites Mike and two other friends, Liz and Maggie, to her cottage for a weekend to celebrate her new abode. After spending a fun day exploring the tiny towns nearby, drinking in pubs and eating good food, they open up the whisky and someone brings out a ouija board. This is where the fun night takes a very creepy, dark turn.

The cottage is haunted by the original inhabitant. The four friends unknowingly invite an unfriendly spirit into their circle and Maggie becomes a changed person.

The book is short, and that’s the only flaw. I think it could have been made longer and really drawn out the suspense. But the book is rich in creepiness. I mean it’s Ireland, full of ghosts and spirits and druids and lush history. The cottage itself is creepy–out in the middle of nowhere. It all works! Great book!

4 ) Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin

“They say when an adult dies you bury the past; when a child dies you bury the future.”

I don’t even know where to start. Every time I try to write a review, or think about this book, I get choked up. It was beautifully written by Trayvon’s parents. They were eloquent and emotional, but direct and focused.

“I could never have imagined that my son would become, in death, a symbol for injustice.”

They perfectly described the events leading up to the death of their son, the blurry fog of disbelief after, the rage of injustice with the Florida’s justice system and the lack of humanity with the police who refused to arrest The Killer.

As a mother, I don’t know how I thought I could read this powerful book and not be a crying mess the entire time. I felt all the range of emotions Sybrina and Tracy felt. I read this book in short burst because it was so emotionally heavy I just couldn’t read it for long periods of time.

“When I became a parent, I would tell my sons, “Hey, racism is alive and well, and you have to watch out for it all of the time.”

“My mother always advised her kids, “If you see somebody coming at you with any kind of racism, run.”

“So just like my mother told me, I told my kids, including Trayvon: “If you see yourself about to get into a racial confrontation, eliminate yourself from the equation.”

“Run, because the confrontation isn’t worth it. Run, because the confrontation may escalate. Don’t stop to discuss it. This is NOT the time to have a conversation about race. If you have to protect yourself, do so. But if you can, just run.”

The most interesting part of the book was about the movement that began and spread all over the country, protesting the fact that the police refused to arrest George Zimmerman. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson got involved. There were marches and peaceful protests and speeches and rallies. All of that was really empowering to read (and frustrating). It was also encouraging how many celebrities got behind the movement.

” ‘If they can bear the pain to stand up for us, then we can take the pain to stand up with them. They have woke America up. And they have shown something that this world needs to see. And that is we love our children, like everyone else loves their children. We may not have as much as others have, but we have each other, and we are not going to let anyone take our children from us.’ ”

“You are risking going down as the Birmingham and Selma of the twenty-first century!” he said. “You are making the world know you as a place of racial intolerance and double standards. “For one man, would you risk the reputation of a whole city? Zimmerman is not worth the history of this city.”

It even went to the White House. I remember watching Obama make a statement about Trayvon.

“I felt he was speaking not only as a parent but as an African American parent of African American children in a country where black children are still so vulnerable to violence of all kinds. Our children can’t just be kids; they have to be so much more. Our children don’t always feel safe in their own communities.

Later, President Obama would speak again about Trayvon’s death, at another press conference: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago.”

The second half of the book was the inside details of the trial. This part was long and sometimes redundant, but I think also important because it showed just how absurd the trial was. The issue of racial profiling wasn’t even allowed to be discussed in the trial. I don’t even understand how the judge ruled on that. That goes to the heart of what happened.

I still can’t wrap my brain around how the killer could invoke Stand Your Ground Laws when he was FOLLOWING TRAYVON IN HIS CAR. If he was so “threatened” he could have just driven away. The entire trial was a travesty.

“The problem that I had with this was: If this was a Stand Your Ground case, if the killer was in true and immediate fear for his life, why did he follow my son? Why did he trail and confront the person who caused such fear?”

“Stevie Wonder announced he would not play another concert in Florida until the state government repealed its Stand Your Ground law. (Florida still hasn’t repealed the law.)”

But in the end, Trayvon’s parents found grace and healing with their strong faith and the support of their community. They created a foundation and with the help of celebrities and activists, are doing GOOD WORK to help other parents who lost children to gun violence and try and change the Stand Your Ground laws.

“Trayvon’s spirit was still with us, but not just us. His spirit was motivating a movement.”

It was an excellent book. But you should be emotionally prepared to be gutted.

5 ) We Hope for Better Things by Erin Bartels

This was a fascinating read!

It’s three stories in one, about several generations of a family. It starts with Elizabeth Balsam in current times. She’s a reporter in Detroit. She is approached by a local man and asked to deliver a box of photos and an old camera to a relative she didn’t know she had. She says no but then she loses her job after screws up an investigation and she decides she needs a change of scenery.

So she goes out into the country somewhere in between Detroit and Flint, and stays with her great aunt Nora Balsam in a 150 year old farmhouse. And that’s where Nora’s story picks up. Nora’s story takes place in the 1960’s in Detroit. Nora comes from money. She meets an African American photographer, William, and they fall in love but it’s during a time period when interracial marriages is not ok. Nora is disowned by her family. Faced with poverty and racism, Nora and William flee Detroit and live in this old farmhouse that has been her family for centuries.

It turns out, this farmhouse has a lot of history. Nora’s distant relative, Mary Balsam, was using that farmhouse as part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. She was taking in freed slaves that fled the South, giving them a home, jobs and basically a family.

It was a super fascinating, heartbreaking, honest story about race, racism, history and love.

Happy Reading!

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Books #36

New year! Last year I exceeded my goal of 120 books  and ended up reading 165 books. So for 2019 I am going to set my goal to 165! I mean, why not? Do you have any reading goals for 2019?

1 ) The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

What an excellent whodunit! I had no idea who the culprit was. I had my guesses and it changed several times as the story unfolded.

Celeste and Benji are an unlikely couple. Benji comes from money–a lot of it. His mom comes from money and is a best selling mystery writer. Celeste comes from a more modest background but they meet and fall in love. Benji proposes and they decide to get married at his family’s property on Nantucket. They even move up the date because Celeste’s mom is dying from an aggressive cancer that has spread.

Except the morning of the wedding, Celeste discovers the body of her maid of honor. How did she die? Was she murdered? Was it an accident? The way the story is told is pretty brilliant. The time frame shifts flawlessly and the story is woven in and out of each person’s involvement in the wedding, the crime, and the months leading up to the morning of the murder.

What the chief of police investigating this mystery discovers is that no one is innocent in this crime, each person has played even a small part in it and that everyone has secrets. No couple is perfect, as they may seem on the surface.

I absolutely loved this book and was sad when it ended! So well written!

2 ) Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris

This story takes place in 1931–the time of Prohibition, mobs, breadlines, and severe poverty. Ellis Reed is an up and coming reporter in Philly. Lily is a secretary at the newspaper who wants to be a writer as well. Ellis is out in the country chasing a story and comes across a sign that says “Kids for Sale” at a poor farmhouse. He takes the photo and back at the newsroom, develops the photo and Lily shows it to the boss, who wants the story and wants it published.

Except, a mishap happens and the photos is destroyed. Ellis is struggling to keep his job and make his mark, so he goes back out to the farmhouse to find the family gone. He decides to recreate the photo at a different farm with a different poor family. He thinks it’s an innocent photo reflecting on the poverty and aftermath of the Big Crash. Except…the story and photo get published and he finds out that that stand-in family ends up actually selling the two kids.

He realizes that can’t be right and he does some detective work and finds out the mistake and goes out to fix it because he realizes it was all his fault. I won’t give any more details than that.

I guess this book appealed to me because my grandfather was given up for adoption at an older age (I don’t know a lot of details but I am assuming poverty was the reason) around a similar time frame. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking idea–to be given up when you are old enough to understand it.

3 ) Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde

It started as a school assignment for 13 year old Trevor. He invented the “movement” Pay it Forward. Doing something good and nice for someone in need just because they need it, with the stipulation that they “pay it forward”. Trevor helped his elderly neighbor by fixing up her garden. She loved it and it made her happy to finally see her garden in it’s glory again. Sadly, she passed away but her “pay it forward” good deed was to split her life insurance money three ways between the woman at the cat shelter and the two cashiers at the local grocery store who always asked how she was and actually listened. And then those three people paid it forward. It caught on and suddenly it was spreading everywhere!

There was more to the story, but I don’t want to give it all away. I know this is an older book and a lot of people have already read it and have probably seen the movie based on the book, but the ending was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. I loved the book!

4 ) Becoming by Michelle Obama

What a beautiful, compelling, powerful read! This is an incredible book! The book is long, so be prepared, but it’s incredibly detailed and reflective. She writes about her childhood, growing up on the South Side of Chicago in a small upstairs apartment attached to her aunt and uncle’s house. Her aunt taught piano lessons to neighborhood kids. She came from hard working people around her who taught her values and life lessons that she carried the rest of her life.

“So far in my life, I’ve been a lawyer. I’ve been a vice president at a hospital and the director of a nonprofit that helps young people build meaningful careers. I’ve been a working-class black student at a fancy mostly white college. I’ve been the only woman, the only African American, in all sorts of rooms. I’ve been a bride, a stressed-out new mother, a daughter torn up by grief. And until recently, I was the First Lady of the United States of America—a job that’s not officially a job, but that nonetheless has given me a platform like nothing I could have imagined.”

She writes about all the people that came into her life and taught her lessons that helped her in some way. She wrote about taking bus rides for hours across Chicago to go to a better school, then going to college and law school. She was clearly driven and smart.

She also includes thoughts on racism and how racism and misogyny deeply effected her own life.

“…taken down as an “angry black woman.” I’ve wanted to ask my detractors which part of that phrase matters to them the most—is it “angry” or “black” or “woman”?”

Her love and respect for her parents was obvious throughout the book. Her parents sounded like pretty amazing people and amazing parents. I didn’t know that her dad had MS. And even in his worst condition, he masked it so his family wouldn’t see how far gone he was. It was more important for him to spend time with his family and pass on pearls of wisdom like this:

“Time, as far as my father was concerned, was a gift you gave to other people.”

“Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.”

And her mom was the family’s rock.

“…when I showed up at home, there’d be food in the fridge, not just for me, but for my friends. I knew that when my class was going on an excursion, my mother would almost always volunteer to chaperone, arriving in a nice dress and dark lipstick to ride the bus with us to the community college or the zoo. In our house, we lived on a budget but didn’t often discuss its limits. My mom found ways to compensate.

Her goal was to push us out into the world. ‘I’m not raising babies,’ she’d tell us. ‘I’m raising adults.’ “

She and my dad offered guidelines rather than rules. It meant that as teenagers we’d never have a curfew. Instead, they’d ask, “What’s a reasonable time for you to be home?” and then trust us to stick to our word… the quiet confidence that she’d raised us to be adults. Our decisions were on us. It was our life, not hers, and always would be.”

I just love that!

Michelle wrote about her experiences in college:

“Princeton was extremely white and very male. There was no avoiding the facts. Men on campus outnumbered women almost two to one. Black students made up less than 9 percent of my freshman class.”

She wrote about her early life as an attorney, how she met Barack Obama, their long-distance relationship while he finished law school and her struggles with how unfulfilling she found being a lawyer. She wanted more.

She also wrote about what it was like for their marriage and the early life of their children when Barack was in the senate and spending so much time away from them:

“I was too busy resenting Barack for managing to fit workouts into his schedule, for example, to even begin figuring out how to exercise regularly myself. I spent so much energy stewing over whether or not he’d make it home for dinner that dinners, with or without him, were no longer fun.”

She revealed that they went to marriage therapy, and it helped, and that she needed to change her way of thinking, too. She decided that she made a strict schedule for her and her daughters of dinner time, bath time and bedtime routines and if Barack didn’t make it back in time, too bad.

“…also unaccommodating to any form of old-school patriarchy: I didn’t want them ever to believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn’t wait for Dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.”

Of course, the most exciting part of the book was once they went to the White House. It was so fascinating reading the ins and outs and the little details of what life was like there!

“The truth was that Washington confused me, with its decorous traditions and sober self-regard, its whiteness and maleness, its ladies having lunch off to one side.”

“I was now Mrs. Obama in a way that could feel diminishing, a missus defined by her mister. I was the wife of Barack Obama, the political rock star, the only black person in the Senate—the man who’d spoken of hope and tolerance so poignantly and forcefully that he now had a hornet buzz of expectation following him.”

She went into detail about the Let’s Move! campaign she started and the White House vegetable garden, in addition to all the other wonderful things she started. It was so cool to read about and the challenges she faced.

“I knew the stereotype I was meant to inhabit, the immaculately groomed doll-wife with the painted-on smile, gazing bright-eyed at her husband, as if hanging on every word. This was not me and never would be. I could be supportive, but I couldn’t be a robot.”

Michelle was criticized for being outspoken, for her facial expressions, for being “too serious” etc etc etc. Basically–not “knowing her place”. She was “female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to “angry.””

“It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say. I understood already that I’d be measured by a different yardstick. As the only African American First Lady to set foot in the White House, I was “other” almost by default.”

It was infuriating to read the racism and roadblocks she was up against! But, she persevered.

This book was so damn good, so powerful to read and so engrossing. I could not put it down. It took me about a week to read. I was continually impressed as I read about the things Michelle Obama accomplished in her life, before and after becoming First Lady. Her ideas were inspiring and when I finished the book I really wanted to be a better person and do more good for people.

5 )  The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine

I am almost reluctant to recommend this book because there were parts of this book that were so repugnant…and yet…I could not put this book down.

Daphne Parrish has the perfect life. Married to the amazing and rich Jackson Parrish. Two daughters. Lives in a mansion with hired help and doesn’t have to work. She spends her time in the gym and on committees and running her own charity for Cystic Fibrosis in honor of her late sister.

Amber Patterson is a nobody. A mousy, invisible woman of no means who is determined to change that. She does her research–finds her mark–Jackson Parrish–and decides she will become the next Mrs. Parrish. In order to do this, she befriends Daphne at the gym, making up her own story of a sister who died of CF. She infiltrates their family with her sights set on stealing Daphne’s husband.

Daphne is such a sweet, nice person, and you feel really grossed out by the duplicity and lying of Amber but then all of a sudden the narrative changes and you find out what really happens behind closed doors. I don’t want to give too much away and spoil it. But I will say there could be some hard, triggering domestic violence themes in this book, but the ending was very satisfying!

Happy reading!

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