Book review

Books #37

2019 is off to a good start in my reading goals! How are your reading goals going?

1 ) The Shadow Wife by Diane Chamberlain

I enjoyed this book a lot.

There were two stories going on in it. The first was back in the 50’s and 60’s about twins Carlynn and Lisbeth Kling–born into money. Carlynn was also born with a gift of healing. She doesn’t understand that gift, but when she touches people, she can heal them. Carlynn ends up going into medicine and becoming a pediatrician and eventually word gets out that she’s also a healer and she ends up starting her own foundation/research clinic. The story about Carlynn and Lisbeth is interesting because of the relationship between the sisters and the social norms during that time period (sexism, racism, etc). I don’t want to give away too much because the way the story unravels is kind of a nice, slow surprise.

The other story takes place in present time and is about Joelle, Mara and Liam. When Joelle was born on a commune thirty-four years ago, she wasn’t breathing. But miraculously there was a doctor nearby that helped–Carlynn–who was also a mysterious healer. So that is how the stories intersect.

Mara, Liam and Joelle all work together in a San Francisco hospital and are best friends. When Mara gives birth to her son, she has an aneurysm and is basically brain dead but still alive. Her husband Liam can’t let go. For a year, Joelle and Liam visit Mara in the nursing home every day, wishing she would recover. They grow closer to each other and can’t deny their feelings for each other. Is it wrong to fall in love? When Mara will never be her old self?

The ending had a good twist I didn’t see coming. I liked it!

 

2 ) Give Me The Child by Mel McGrath

This turned out to be a pretty decent thriller. What a dysfunctional family! Especially considering the main character is a neuro/child psychiatrist.

Caitlin is a doctor does research and treats children who are the worst cases–psychopathic kids who are deep need of treatment. She’s married to what seems like a feckless loser who isn’t really pulling his weight in the marriage or the financial relationship while he’s creating some game that will make them “rich” (so many eye rolls). (I didn’t like the husband from the start.) They have an 11 year old daughter, Freya.

One night, the police arrive on their doorstep with another 11 year old girl. Apparently Caitlin’s husband cheated on her while she was pregnant and this child’s mother is now dead and they are now responsible for taking care of her. Except, there’s something not quite right about her.

The book reminded me a lot of the Girl on the Train with the themes of alcoholism, cheating/dirtbag husbands and gaslighting. It was decent read.

 

3 ) Pachinko by Min Jin Lee 

Fascinating, long read that spans multiple generations in Korea and Japan. It starts in the early 1900’s and details arranged marriage and extreme poverty and starvation. It focuses on the arranged marriage between Hoonie and Yangjin both considered “undesirable” and unable to find someone to marry. Hoonie has a cleft palate and Yangjin is very poor and has many sisters so there’s no dowry. But a matchmaker makes the deal and they find they grow to love each other. They marry and live in a house in a remote area of Busan, Korea that they turn into a boarding house so they could afford to pay the rent and buy food.

They have many children but only one survives: Sunja, a daughter. When Sunja is in her teens, Hoonie dies and Sunja and her mother take in more boarders and desperately try to survive on their own during the Depression. Sunja meets an older man and falls in love and ends up pregnant. Except it turns out he’s married and lives in Japan and has three daughters there. He can’t leave his wife and Sunja refuses to be a mistress in Korea, even though he offers to take care of her and the baby.

Sunja and her mother are rescued by one of their boarders, Isak, a Korean Christian minister who offers to marry her and take her to Japan with him where he has a job as a minister waiting for him. He will raise her child as his and give him a name.

The book is a beautiful, fascinating read that details many generations. Like many of the other reviewers, I loved the first 50-60% of the book. The love story, the struggles, the tragedies, the experiences they had in Japan during World War 2 were all really interesting to read! But the last 1/3 of the book dragged on a bit. I didn’t care as much about the newer generations of the family. I felt like that could have been left out or edited down more.

Despite that, I loved the book. The racism, the poverty, the way the Japanese looked down on the Koreans were all very interesting (and new to me) to read.

 

4 ) That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

This was an interesting, different book. The book takes place in the mid-80’s. Rebecca is a new mother. She’s probably suffering from PPD and feeling overwhelmed. Breastfeeding is difficult, her British husband works for the Embassy and is gone a lot. She’s a poet but after becoming a mother, feels lost.

“Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

“You need to try something. Talk therapy. SSRIs. Meditation. This isn’t helping anyone, or it’s helping them but not you. You can’t disappear into motherhood. It’s not good for you. And I can see that’s what you’re doing. You’ve vanished.”

They decide to hire a nanny, Priscilla, to help out. Priscilla is African American, a few years older than Rebecca, and works for La Leche League and used to be a nanny.

Rebecca is a wealthy white woman that lives in a bubble. She came across as very much oblivious about everything. Money. Race. Privilege. Everything. She just seemed to live in denial. Having Priscilla in her life seemed to help her with her undiagnosed PPD and Rebecca slowly opens her eyes to racism.

“A movie with only one black person, and she’s a servant. You don’t think Priscilla thinks of herself as our servant?”

Her mother-in-law makes this comment:

“I’ve noticed your girl sits with you. When you’re having your lunch.” Elizabeth’s smile was inscrutable. “That wouldn’t have been done, in my day.”

It was very uncomfortable. But Rebecca, even though she’s aware that it’s racist, doesn’t speak up. That’s the common theme in the book.

Then Priscilla announces that she’s pregnant. Rebecca is worried Priscilla will quit. Rebecca lives in denial again and is convinced that Priscilla will continue to be her nanny once she has her own child. When Priscilla unexpectedly dies in childbirth, Rebecca decides to adopt her son, Andrew. And now Rebecca has to figure out how to raise a black son when you are clueless and white.

“You can’t spend your life feeling guilty about your being white and his being black, about you being alive and her being dead.”

One of the most difficult parts of the book was towards the end, when Andrew was around 10 years old. Priscilla’s adult daughter, Cheryl, and her husband Ian, told oblivious Rebecca about how to protect Andrew because he’s almost a black teenage boy. Even though the story was taking place in the late 90’s at this point, it was very relevant to the police shootings that are happening now.

“Black kids don’t get to be kids much longer than twelve, really.”

Overall, it was a good book. I liked Priscilla. I liked that Rebecca adopted Andrew and I liked that the book tackled some of the topics of race. I felt like it just touched the tip of the iceberg of race, though, and I didn’t feel like Rebecca ever got a clue and understood her privilege. That was the only flaw for me.

5 ) My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan

I thought this was going to be another typical chick lit book. Charming but predictable. However, the book took an unexpected turn that I did not see coming and it changed the whole feel of the book.

Ella is a spending a year at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. Her career at home is politics and education but once she gets to England, her focus changes. She falls in love with poetry and literature and makes new friends. She also meets a man that will change the way she looks at her life and how she keeps everyone at arm’s length. It reminded me a bit of “Me Before You”.

‘Love well those who are dying, so that they may die in love.’

“The hardest thing is love, with no expiration date, no qualifiers, no safety net. Love that demands acceptance of all the things I cannot change. Love that doesn’t follow a plan.”

The writing was really good. I liked the style and the way the book read. I liked the supporting characters a lot. I went back and forth on whether I liked Ella, but the rest of the book was strong enough to make me overlook that.

6 ) Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott

This book is a collection of short stories, each chapter a different topic, about Anne’s life and the people in it. The common themes in the book are family, faith, cancer, death, grief and healing.

I’m not religious, and generally turned off by organized religion, but Anne doesn’t come across as pushy or self-righteous in her faith. Her book is enjoyable because she shares how she learns to be a better person, how to get perspective, how to forgive people, how to grow as a person and a mother and a friend.

“When my son was six or seven, and realized that he and I were not going to die at the exact same moment, he cried for a while, and then said that if he’d known this, he wouldn’t have agreed to be born.”

“Redefinition is a nightmare—we think we’ve arrived, in our nice Pottery Barn boxes, and that this or that is true. Then something happens that totally sucks, and we are in a new box, and it is like changing into clothes that don’t fit, that we hate. Yet the essence remains. Essence is malleable, fluid. Everything we lose is Buddhist truth—one more thing that you don’t have to grab with your death grip, and protect from theft or decay. It’s gone. We can mourn it, but we don’t have to get down in the grave with it.”

She had a lot of pearls of wisdom about growth that I enjoyed. The chapter about forgiveness was particularly interesting to me and I liked this realization she had:

“…that I was trying to get her to carry all this for me because it hurt too much to carry it myself.”

“Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

“Forgiving people doesn’t necessarily mean you want to meet them for lunch. It means you try to undo the Velcro hook. Lewis Smedes said it best: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

She also talked about being an alcoholic, getting sober, about dieting culture and how she tried to heal herself:

“I binged, dieted, and binged, like my mother, but never felt that simultaneous state of being full without being stuffed. And like my father, I began to drink a lot. Like both of them, I had the disease called “More!” and absolutely could not feel gently satisfied.”

“…when I feel like shoveling in food, a man, or expensive purchases, the emptiness can be filled only with love—a nap with the dogs, singing off-key with my church. Or maybe, perhaps, a fig.”

I could really relate to that one. I think a lot of addictions (alcohol, food, drugs, exercise, whatever your addiction is) are trying to fill a hole inside.

The book is funny. Her writing style is relatable and hilarious, thought-provoking and emotional. I teared up many times and could relate to a lot of the stuff she wrote about. Highly recommend!

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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