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Books #39

I’ve read some pretty good books lately. Here is the latest installment:

1 ) The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

The whole time I was reading this book, I wondered if it was made into a movie. It felt like it and after I finished I looked it up and apparently it was!. It reads so quick and beautifully and you are immediately transported to 1964 South Carolina. The racism, the segregation, the heat of the south, the taste of fresh honey, the bonds of friendship. The book is beautiful and emotional.

Lily is 14 years old, raised by her sort of abusive (verbally) and definitely distant and neglectful father and Rosaleen, her black sort of nanny/stand-in mother on a peach farm. When blacks get the right to vote, Lily goes with Rosaleen to the nearby town to register when they are harassed by racist assholes and both of the ladies end up in jail. Lily’s dad bails her out but leaves Rosaleen in jail (where she ends up getting beaten almost to death by the racist assholes). So Lily decides to run away from her father and the peach farm and the secrets surrounding her mother’s death, breaks Rosaleen out of the hospital and the two of them run away.

They find themselves finding refuge on a honey farm where they make friends with the African American ladies who live there and their lives are forever changed. The book is fantastic and I loved the story and all the characters!

2 )  The Hunger by Alma Katsu

What a CREEPY and good book! It was absolutely riveting. Maybe because I grew up in the 80s playing the Oregon Trail video game. Maybe because I grew up in the northwest, fascinated by the Oregon Trail? I don’t know, but this book was absolutely fascinating.

It was a “re-imagining” of the Donner Party story. Think the Donner Party/Oregon trail wagon story with a horror/supernatural twist. Something dark and evil is following the wagon trail. The pioneers don’t see it but they can sense it and as time is running out before they can cross over the pass before they run out of food, water and summer weather people on the wagon trail are dying. Or going insane. It was super creepy and well written and I read it one day!

 

3 ) Talk to Me by John Kenney

Ted Grayson is a 59 year old TV news anchor. He’s been popular for 20 years. Think Brokaw, Dan Rather, Brian Williams. But one night before his broadcast, he has a very public meltdown that someone records with their phone. It goes viral and that starts the downfall of Ted’s career. Suddenly the masses are out to get him. His fall from grace is fast, furious and painful.

The book is about a man’s fall from grace. But it’s also a commentary on the cancel culture of our current times. The blood-thirsty social media that is apparently more powerful than corporations. It doesn’t seem to matter that someone had a shining 20+ year career with high ratings and Emmy’s — the TV execs just care about the comments on social media. So Ted gets the ax. It really is a sad commentary on how gross our culture is now. No one has a path to redemption–one mistake and you are OUT.

 

4 ) Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Ginny Moon is 14 years old and autistic. When she was 9 years old she was taken away from her drug addicted, abusive and neglectful mother and put in foster care. She is now with her fourth family, her “Forever Family”. She’s in therapy and learning how to be attached. She’s in the Special Olympics and has friends at school. She has to eat exactly 9 grapes with breakfast. She’s obsessed with approximate time, takes everything literally and loves Michael Jackson.

But she’s obsessed with how she left her Baby Doll behind with her mother when she was taken away. No one can get her to let it go. She has a one-track mind about her Baby Doll. The story unfolds, told from Ginny’s child-like point of view. She is determined to escape from her Forever Family and return to her mother to rescue her Baby Doll.

Ginny has a lot of set backs in her journey of both learning how to manage her autism and her emotions and how to be reunited with her Baby Doll. But she definitely shows some growth by the end of the book. It’s a heartwarming, heartbreaking look at autism and the challenges the kids and parents face.

 

5 ) The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

This was an excellent, poignant, emotional book! I highly recommend it!

It’s a story about the Butler Family. Althea, the eldest of the Butler family, and her husband Proctor were pillars of the community. They raised money to help victims of a flood. They ran a local restaurant. But then it comes out that they were stealing the money they raised and stealing food stamps to help keep their restaurant afloat in the dying town. There’s a trial and they get sentenced to federal prison, leaving behind their teenage twin daughters.

Althea’s sister Lillian takes the twins. But the twins are struggling because they are pariahs in the town and subject to abuse by the townspeople. Lillian doesn’t know how to help them so she calls her other sister, Viola, to come help.

There are a lot of big issues in this book: what happens when family goes to prison, anorexia and bulimia, abuse, grief, how to break old cycles and healing. The author does an amazing job slowly revealing the story in layers and showing the humanity of this family.

6 ) The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis

After reading “The Hunger” (fictional story about the Donner Party), I was curious and had questions so I looked around at what non-fiction was out there and this new-ish book was highly rated.

“The entwining of religion with the ideology of Manifest Destiny served as a creation myth for the country. It soon became so ingrained in the national consciousness that many Americans still accept it to this day. The belief that God intended for the continent to be under the control of Christian European-Americans became official U.S. government policy.

“It helped to fuel incentive to take the land from those who were considered inferior to white Americans—indigenous tribal people characterized as savages and Mexicans…”

Why I liked the book: because I am forever fascinated by the history of the pioneers and Lewis & Clark and people making that journey out west. My ancestors made that journey from Minnesota to Oregon (my grandma’s family settled in Bend, Oregon and built a ranch in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s) and I love reading about the hardships, the pilgrimage, what they overcame to make a new life.

“The America they were leaving behind was a nation of some 20 million people, including Indians and others held in bondage as slaves.”

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was almost part of the Donner Party? He changed his mind at the last minute. But his wife’s nephew was part of a pilgrimage that went west right before the Donner Party.

The first 20% of the book was dry, slightly boring, and a lot of background–the details and history of all the people in the Donner-Reed Party. There were actually a lot of different families and hired hands on the trip in 1846 that made that journey to pursue the “American Dream.” So if you can get past the first part of the book that is a bit slow, it gets pretty good.

The story really gets enthralling once they leave Fort Bridger, Wyoming. This is where shit gets real and things start falling apart. There are illnesses, deaths, injuries, in-fighting, bad advice, running out of supplies, starvation, a war with Mexico, curious Native Americans…the list is endless.

“The Donner Party’s collective dream, however, tragically morphed into a collective nightmare. Poor timing, terrible advice, and even worse weather meant that only about half of those who started the journey reached their final destination.”

The guide they were supposed to meet up with (Hastings) turned out to be a con-artist. Trail tradition held that wagon trains had to reach Independence Rock by the Fourth of July if they wanted to arrive safely in California and Oregon before winter. This did not happen. They were behind schedule.

The Donner-Reed party eventually splintered. Some decided to go to Oregon, some decided to go to California. The short cut that they decided to take turned out to be a bad idea.

“It did take almost a week for all the members of the wagon train to reach Pilot Peak and partake of the refreshing water from a spring that would one day be renamed for the Donners. All the emigrants survived the hellish days and nights in the desert, including the newborn Keseberg baby, but many oxen, cattle, and horses were dead or missing. Reed lost eighteen animals, and other members of the company could not account for twenty more.”

The splintered groups both ended up getting stranded in the snow, maybe 6-10 miles apart from each other. Some found some shanty cabins that they hunkered down in. The Donner Party was forced to camp out in their wagons and tents in the horrific snow storms. After weeks of this weather, starving, some of the more able-bodied people decided to build snowshoes and try to hike out of the canyon to get help.

This is where I will end the descriptions. If you know even the littlest bit of the history, you know what happens next and it’s not easy to read about. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. And very real.

“The children of the Donner Party never forgot what it was like trying to survive in their prisons made of snow. They had no interest ever again in snowball fights, building snowmen, or riding in a horse-drawn sleigh beneath a winter moon. For them, freshly fallen snow was no longer beautiful.”

After you get through the first part of the book, the rest of the story is so enthralling, heart-breaking and shocking, you cannot put it down. The author does a very good job painting the picture of what it was like for those people that were stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, freezing and starving. He described in detail what happened to the body and the mind. It was truly sad.

I’m glad I read this historical book about what happened. I think reading the fictional story first was good and then reading the actual account (with letters, diaries and other things from the people in the parties) helped fill in the gaps.

Happy Reading!

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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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