Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

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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!

 

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The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs

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Wow, this is a book you definitely have to prepare yourself for.   Written by an actual descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson, this memoir is a beautiful, almost poetic reflection on dying.   Not only does the author contend with the death of her mother from multiple myeloma (a form of cancer), but then she has to face her own impending mortality, as she battles her own aggressive form of metastatic breast cancer.  As we follow her through her musings and her fears, we glimpse into her very heart — sometimes full of self-deprecating humor, sometimes of abject sadness, and sometimes of sheer tranquility.

There is, of course, a lot of sadness here.  You cannot escape that when you’re talking about cancer.  But there is a lot of sweetness and humor as well.  Nina did not have a polyannish view of life at all – on the contrary, she was fairly sarcastic – but she did keep a faith and a hope for her future that was positive while still being realistic.  Her discussions with her 2 boys are honest and yet often comical, maintaining the innocence that young boys deserve.  She includes some details of her pain and suffering without dwelling on these.  She chooses to appreciate the days she has rather than lament those she has not.  This is something I think we can all learn from!

So while your heart will inevitably break from this book, it will also be touched in important ways, if you choose to read this one.

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

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This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story that is told with a clinical detachment that is utterly unfortunate.

Nicole, who begins her life as Wyatt, an identical twin to brother Jonas, feels from day one that she is a girl.  Already identifying with female characters in movies they’d watch, she, before even turning 3 years old, told her father that she “hated her penis.”  She consistently yearned to wear girls’ clothing and to play with girls’ toys and fortunately for her, her mother, Kelly, was sensitive to her yearnings and did what she could to support her.  Wayne, her father, had a much harder time accepting this side of her and while he loved her, he took many years to mourn the loss of the second son he thought he had.  Finally, though, he did come around and rallied to her support and both parents fought for her legal right to use the girls’ bathroom in her school (although it did not save her from being horribly bullied by a boy in her school throughout middle school, egged on by his nasty grandfather).   Nicole and her family bravely fought to set legal precedents to protect future trans children from prejudicial and ridiculous harassment because of gender identity, at least in certain states.  Hopefully, they will lead others to continue the fight for equality for these people who only want the freedom to be who they are inside.

The only benefit of the “clinical” aspect of the writing is that there are segments of the book devoted to the scientific evidence for brain differences in transgender individuals.  I think that in addition to being extremely interesting from a clinical point of view, it also fuels the argument that these people are not going through “phases,” nor are they “seeking attention” as they are often erroneously accused of doing.  It gives more objective data for those who cannot just support people for who they believe they are – rather it gives medical justification for those who require this.

On the other hand, it is a shame that the writing could not be as beautiful and as engaging as the story itself was.  There was certainly the material there to work with.  The characters were certainly heroic and beautiful, the setting was pure Americana, and the story was definitely dramatic, culminating with a huge and wonderful courtroom win.  The only tragedy was that the telling of this young woman’s triumph was so terribly dry.

I hope that Nicole and her family know how much we all admire their bravery and hope that she and they do not have to fight any further for her to be accepted for who she is.

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

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So as you can see by this blog, I am not a huge reader of self-help books.  Not because I am not in need of any help (!), but there are just too many other books that I’d rather read.  This one, however, captured my attention.  Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, experienced the tragic, sudden death of her husband, to whom she’d only been married for 10 years.  In trying to cope, she speaks with her psychologist friend, Adam Grant, who suggests that since she can’t have her husband back (Option A), she has to just kick the s–t out of Option B.  And there is the birth of this book and her finding her way out of her despair and learning the basic building blocks of resilience.

I think there are many useful and inspiring lessons here.  I love her 3 P’s, most of all.  She teaches that when we have a crisis, our first inclination is to assign it the 3 P’s:  Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence.  That is, everything is personal – ie. it’s our fault.  We might have been able to prevent the catastrophe that has occurred, even when rational thought would have us know that this isn’t true.  That the issue is pervasive – that everything is terrible and bad and that this will affect everything.  Most of the time, this, again, is not true.  And that the catastrophic event will have effects that will last forever.  Of course, if you are dealing with the death of a loved one, that is permanent; nevertheless, the affect of this on your life will evolve over time and your life goes on even if that of the loved one does not.  These are probably much easier to read about than incorporate into one’s life, but certainly they are important concepts and seemed to have been extraordinarily comforting to her as she was going through her crisis.

I found that the vignettes and stories that Sandberg uses to illustrate points are also useful to drive home her points.  She uses others’ stories as well as her own to generalize the concepts that she discusses, so that it is not all about her.  But she also bravely reveals a lot of herself in this book as well.  I am hoping it was somewhat cathartic for her to write about her experience – I’m sure it was extremely painful as well.

I think since life throwing curveballs is a universal experience, this book can universally be appreciated and utilized.  We can all learn how to catch those curveballs more gracefully and more resiliently!

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

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This memoir from JD Vance is an eye-opening, articulate depiction of the “hillbilly” culture of the Appalachian region.  As Vance shares with the reader about his upbringing – bouncing between Kentucky and Ohio – he opens our hearts to the plight of the poor, often uneducated, white population in this region.  As we learn about his experience with his traumatized and drug-addicted mom and his angry, foul-mouthed, sometimes violent, but unendingly loving and devoted grandparents, we see how entrenched the culture is and how difficult it is to dream in this world.  Fortunately, for him, he was able to find love and support enough to find his way to success – but his journey was complicated and chaotic and he never forgot from where he came.

The honesty and self-reflection with which this story is told brings the reader right into the author’s life.  We are right there with him when his mother takes him on a death-defying car ride.  We are right there when his older sister cares for him as a devoted mother would.  The love and appreciation that he feels for his grandparents who were his constants in a very tumultuous childhood is palpable.  And we can understand when he reflects on how to improve the lot of his fellow hillbilly peers and come up short.  The poverty, the distrust, and the violence that pervades this culture are so entrenched that it feels impossible to overcome.

I think this is an important book for people who are not from the South to read.  It really provides an understanding of a whole sub-culture of people that comprise  part of the fabric of our United States.

A very, very worthwhile read!

 

An Improbable Friendship by Anthony David

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This is a difficult book to write about, probably because I am still trying to digest it all for myself, let alone try to share it with anyone else.  The friendship that is chronicled in this book is that which existed for many years between Ruth Dayan, wife of Moshe Dayan, and Raymonda Tawil, Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law.  Although they were each related to men who were enemies, they themselves were able to strike a bond of friendship and respect because of their common goals and common ideals.  They each believed in the inherent good in all people and that peace could be achieved between Palestinians and Israelis if they were just brought together and allowed to live side by side.  Each worked relentlessly to try to bring this dream into a reality, Ruth by working directly with Palestinian women (helping them to earn money through their weaving) and Raymonda through the media.

What became difficult about this book is the details, which were, as the history of Israel is, quite bloody and controversial.  While I have always been aware of Israel’s displacement of Arabs from their homes during the formative years of the state, this book provides the gory details and describes it in real, human terms.  It is, to say the least disturbing.  It did truly open my eyes to some of Israel’s darkest moments.  On the other hand, I cannot help feeling as though there are some details that are not included, such as the fact that after the U.N. declaration of a 2-state situation in 1948, the Israelis were willing to abide by this but the Arabs were not.  And terrorism is terrorism, no matter what the root of it, and the only true way to solve a problem is to negotiate it through.  The story, as it is written, portrays Palestinians as the underdogs and I think the bias in the writing is a fault in the book.  It is so clearly slanted to the left that in the writing of the story of these 2 very brave women, the author actually alienates readers – and probably the very readers he wants to sway.

The book does highlight how the female perspective on the situation is often different from the male one.  Ruth and Raymonda were able to disagree about many things, but they always found common ground and started back from this.  Their priority was always to fall back onto humanism and love.  I firmly believe that if women were in charge, we’d be able to reconcile a solution to the Middle East and find a way to make peace.  I think leaving out testosterone and “honor” would do the world a service.

I definitely learned a lot about the history of Israel, the complexity of the political quagmire that remains there, but also how one can spin events in many ways to work to one’s purpose.  I think too much of the latter was done in this book and this may have caused what I understood to be the “mission” of this book to backfire.

 

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

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Rachel is a headstrong, fiercely independent young, Jewish woman living with her family on the island of St. Thomas in the early 1800’s.  Unfortunately, when her father’s business falters, it appears that the only solution is to marry Rachel off to an older man (with 3 young children), so that the two businesses can merge and hopefully prosper.  Rachel is devastated, as this certainly will delay the realization of her dream, which is to one day sail off to live in Paris.  Her best friend, and housemaid, Jestine, tries to convince her to resist, but she too is powerless in resisting the cultural pressures of her time and status as a woman.  The two of them experience many heartbreaks and successes together as the saga of their lives moves forward.  The one success that Rachel achieves, although this is one that causes her great pain as well, is that she ultimately becomes the mother of Camille Pissarro, the painter.

The writing of the tale is as lyrical as Pissarro’s paintings themselves.  The author paints both St. Thomas and Paris with words, filling in the hues, the aromas, the sensations of each world. There is also a great amount of magic and fantasy, as Rachel’s faith mixes with that of the native culture of St. Thomas, and conjures up many fictional, imaginative stories that Rachel records for herself and for her children.  And although there are a few paragraphs in which the author sort of meanders onto sidetracks, it is a story that keeps one glued because the characters are ones you don’t ever want to leave.

I admire Alice Hoffman for telling the story from Pissarro’s mother’s perspective.  It is not just a fictionized biography, but it is truly a story of a strong woman in a time when women weren’t allowed to be strong.  She shows how difficult the times were and how women’s powerlessness was analogous to that of the slaves at the time.   Neither could own property, could determine who they would marry, or truly had control over decisions that were made for them by the men in their lives.   This further deepened the emotional strength of the story.

Oh, how I’d love to go back to the Musee D’Orsay now!