Life is Short but Wide by J California Cooper

life is short but wide

When Irene first laid eyes on Val, she wasn’t at all experienced in the ways of men, but she was careful to make it clear that he was to show her respect – and that he did.  As Val courted Irene, and then proposed marriage, he wanted to prove to her that he was worthy of her, so he bought her a large house on an impressive piece of land, which would serve her well over the years.  This is the story of how this house enabled not only her survival, but the survival of the generations after her as well.

I didn’t care for the voice of the storyteller, first and foremost.  I feel that vernacular is great for dialogue in a story, giving characters authenticity and enabling you to almost hear them speaking out loud when you read.  But when the whole story is told in a vernacular, and in as repetitive a way as was used in this particular novel, it diminishes the impact of the story.

I also was waiting for a huge crescendo to the plot, but unfortunately – I’m still waiting.  There are a few blips, for sure, but it is hard to discern what is major and what is minor because of the inconsistent way in which the story is told.  Some parts are brushed over and some are drawn out in unnecessary detail and they do not, at least in my mind, correlate with the magnitude of the events themselves.  Even the characters themselves might have been developed further – it seemed that most were either only good or bad – that is, rather flat.  In my opinion, no one is all good, nor all bad.

So as you can easily surmise, I was disappointed in this book.  I would not recommend this one…

 

 

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The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn

woman in the window

Anna has been watching the world from her windows for the past ten months.  A little ironic that a psychologist would develop agoraphobia, but this is the situation she finds herself in.  After she witnesses a probable murder through one of her windows, she tries to convince those around her that someone is in danger but somehow things get twisted and people are finding it hard to believe Anna, considering all that Anna has been through herself.  It’s even getting hard for Anna to believe it herself, but she knows what she saw… or does she?

This is a psychological thriller crisply written and immaculately spun.   There are twists and turns in the plot that would have Agatha Christie surprised and that had me exclaiming out loud to the pages of the book (ask my family – it’s true!).  Those pages had to keep turning or I could not sleep!  The characters are not all that fully developed, except for that of Anna’s, but it’s not that kind of a story.  It just works.

Let’s just say that if you start this book, be prepared to not be able to put it down until you finish it.

Got to give it a “Must Read!” Just for the fun of it!

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

orange-is-the-new-black-book-cover

I’m probably the only person on the planet who has not watched the series on Netflix – and, nerd that I am, I have read the book instead.  But actually, I’m really glad I did.

Piper Kerman had just graduated Smith College and was unsure of her next step.  As she drifted toward an older, cooler crowd, she found herself falling for Nora, an older woman who she perceived as quirky but sophisticated and who had set herself apart by making quite a bit of money – by coordinating drug runners.  When Nora invited Piper to join her in Indonesia, Piper jumped at the opportunity and indulged in the opulent lifestyle that Nora’s business afforded them. When Nora asked Piper to transport money back into the States, Piper felt obligated to say yes, never thinking that years later, she’d be served papers that would charge her with a federal crime.  After court appearances and delays, Piper was finally required to serve a 15 month sentence in federal prison.  This book is the true story of her experience of that prison sentence in Danbury, CT.

Kerman writes about her experience with honesty, sadness, humor, and heart.  She describes how she’s finally matured into a life –  a successful job which she loves, an engagement to a man whom she adores and who adores her – and how painful it is to leave this behind.  She writes of the guilt she has about the agony she knows she’s inflicting on her family because of what she’s done. And she writes about how even as horrific as this experience is for her, she is aware of how privileged she is as a well-to-do, educated, white woman with resources and a supportive family, which is vastly different from the experience of most of the women with whom she’s incarcerated.  She describes so eloquently the bond which develops between her and so many of these other women because, at the end of the day, they are all in the same boat.  They need each other to survive and those who understand this develop a mutual respect that underlies the kindnesses they show each other.  It is these small kindnesses and empathy toward each other that help them to survive with their dignity and their sanity intact.

While this story is a few years old, it is still painfully relevant.  Our penal system is woefully broken and unjust.  Because of mandatory sentences on non-violent, drug-related crime, there are way too many people who are incarcerated for way too many years and a disproportionate number of these people are African-American and Latino.  In addition, there is an inordinate emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation and education and this only perpetuates the problem.  Piper never feels that she should not have been punished, but she does feel that there are random, myriad abuses of an inadequate system that she was witness to and that that need remediation.

I would highly recommend this book to others – and maybe I’ll watch some of the series now just to compare it to the book!

 

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill

someone knows my name

Aminata was born free, in the heart of Africa and learned early how to “catch babies” with her mother, who was a midwife in her village.  On their way back from delivering a baby in a nearby village, Aminata was captured, dragged on a 3-month trek over land and then forced onto a slave ship, which she survived within an inch of her life.  She was to go on to become a slave in the south and, like others of her time, become a pawn caught between the colonists and the British.   All she wished for, her whole life, was to return home to Africa – and it seemed as if the Book of Negroes, the book in which she eventually was inscribed, just might be her ticket back.  During her whole ordeal, she fought for freedom for herself and for all Negroes everywhere.  Would she see it finally come to pass?

There are innumerable books about slaves and slavery during the time of the Civil War, but this takes the reader further back, to the time of the American Revolutionary War.  This was a time when both the colonists and the British were inflicting the indignities of slavery onto the Negroes of the time and these people were essentially pawns caught between the two warring factions.  It was unclear which side would deal more fairly with their race and who to trust, and each individual gambled with their life in choosing sides.  We learn, through this story, about the British offer to those Negroes who had worked for the British for at least a year prior to the end of the war the promise of freedom and a new life in Nova Scotia.  But were they really to be trusted? Would they really achieve the independence they were seeking?

This is a powerful story about the inescapability of slavery for Africans of that era, and how globally it was accepted.  This story gave much historical context of the British practices and laws and the involvement of Canada and Nova Scotia as well.  While it was fictionized, much of it was based in fact.  Telling it from Aminata’s perspective highlighted how truly evil it was and her frustration with how she could truly almost never escape it now matter where she fled.  She could not trust anyone and she could not know for sure she would not be taken away and sold back into slavery if she were freed.  How terrifying.

This is an excellent book that truly grips you from the first page and doesn’t let you go until the last.  Historical fiction at its best.

The Forever Letter by Elana Zaiman

forever letter

Rarely have I had the opportunity to review a book written by someone I know – what an intimidating responsibility this is.  Lucky for me, I found this book by Elana Zaiman – a woman I grew up with and whose path randomly crossed mine so many times over the years – very engaging and helpful.  So much so, that I’m contemplating writing a few Forever Letters of my own.

The “forever letter” is an outgrowth of the ethical will, a will or letter that expresses your thoughts, wishes, stories, or apologies to anyone of significance in your life.  Elana’s rationale is that when you put pen to paper,  you can pour out your heart, but at the same time think through exactly what you want to say to a special person in your life.  Many of us can write things we cannot say – whether they sound too corny or make us cry too much or feel too awkward – and sometimes we feel the other person may not be able to hear what we have to say directly from us without reading it in a letter.   In addition, having something written allows for someone to potentially keep it with them long after you are gone.

Elana has traveled around the country,  giving workshops on this subject and peppers each chapter with anecdotes about individuals grappling with the complex issues these letters raise.  How do I transmit to my children the values I hold dear without leaving too restrictive a “commandment” when I die?  How can I express anger at a parent for their absence but not sever a tie with them?  Is it too late to apologize to my sibling after all these years?  There is a lot of emotional baggage that is dragged out of storage when you are talking about these types of letters and writing them, actually putting these feelings into words that are permanent can have lasting effects.  This must be done very thoughtfully.  And each chapter is therefore written with this in mind, giving examples and prompts and guidelines to encourage the writer to be reflective and mindful, but also loving and honest in the writing of these letters.

Elana includes a lot of personal vignettes, her own forever letter that she received from her father that triggered her understanding of the impact of these letters, and her forever letter to her own son.  These are powerful and allow us into her life in a very intimate way.  She shares her own vulnerabilities – mistakes and successes – and allows us to see her not just as a rabbi, spiritual leader, and speaker, but as a human being with a deep emotional life and normal human frailties.  Likewise, she emphasizes that these are components of the best forever letters.

If you are contemplating such a letter – or if you’ve never heard of one! –  this is a compelling book for you to read!

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

an american marriage

Roy Othaniel Hamilton is a well-to-do Black man from the Louisiana, who now lives with his wife, Celestial in Atlanta.  They’ve come home to visit Roy’s parents, but because of a little friction between Celestial and Roy’s mom, they decide to stay in a little motel for the night.  After a benign encounter with a woman down the hall, they are suddenly accosted by police and Roy is eventually convicted of a crime he never committed.  As the story unfolds, we are drawn in to feel the painful ripple effect of how one (erroneous!) incarceration can devastate so many lives around the one, innocent, individual.

Tayari Jones is a masterful storyteller.  She changes voices with each chapter, a la Jodi Picoult, and this helps the reader to see inside the heart of each main character.   In addition, she utilizes letters written by the characters, which help the reader to feel the distance that the characters themselves feel when they are kept at a distance by prison walls.  The characters she creates are deeply human – they are all Black, and they are each beautiful and flawed and real in their own ways.  It is hard not to sympathize with each and every one of them.  And the story itself is extremely powerful, playing out slowly and rising to a dramatic crescendo.

According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated more than 5 times the rate of whites, and although African Americans and Hispanics make up only 32% of the U.S. population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015.  There is clearly a problem here.  And of course this problem is complex; with poverty and educational disparities and opportunities being at least part of this problem.  And I don’t profess to be able to solve things merely by reading a book.

But…  by reading books such as these, we begin to bring to light what the problem is and how deeply this affects so many people.  We begin to bring understanding and compassion to what people experience when this happens and it becomes more than just a statistic.  And hopefully it will help us to stand up for our fellow man and woman and to see it as a problem that affects us all and not just “the other.”

Reading books such as these – is a start.

This is a MUST READ, for sure.

 

The Myth of You & Me by Leah Stewart

myth of you and me

After having moved so many times, Cameron is finally feeling fairly at home in her routine with Oliver, caring for him as she would an elderly grandfather.  But when she suddenly receives a letter from her ex-best-friend, Sonia, it cuts into her world and forces her to remember their friendship, and it chisels at the wall she’s build around herself.  Oliver furthers that by sending Cameron on a mission to find Sonia in his own underhanded way, and it takes Cameron on an odyssey through her past as a way to pave her future.

It took a bit of time for this novel to capture my full attention and I believe it was because it took me awhile to like the main character, Cameron.  She is introduced as a bit aloof, unattached.  But as I read on, I came to understand why that was so.  She’s had to move many times, as a military child, and so she’s had to adjust so many times to new situations and social norms.  And then there were the disappointments and the pain, one after the other.  She has hardened herself, now, and she’s afraid to be vulnerable.  However, as she succumbs to the pressure of having to search for Sonia, her heart is gradually pried open by the memories that come rushing back to her and she finds her humanity – and softness – again.

One of the most striking characters is Sonia’s mother.  She is severely mentally ill and abusive of Sonia both psychologically and physically.  What I think is so well portrayed in this novel is not only the abuse itself, but how the abuse instills a sense of helplessness in not only the direct victims, but in those around the victims, so that they, in turn, become casualties of the abuse themselves.  There is a clear ripple effect that causes very tragic collateral damage.  It almost seems to have affected those around Sonia even more, perhaps, than Sonia herself.  I wonder if this might actually be more realistic than we know.

This is a tender story of friendship and trust, forgiveness and humanity that I ultimately enjoyed more than I thought I would.  I think you will too…