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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 #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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