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.

 

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Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo

seven days in may

This is a gorgeous work of historical fiction that is a new addition to my “Must Read” list.  Isabel is a woman hell-bent on reinventing herself as a decoder for the war effort for Britain during the second World War.  Across the ocean, Sydney begins as a headstrong suffragette, much to the chagrin of her sister, Brooke, who just needs Sydney to tone it down so as not to scare away Brooke’s fiancee Edward.  They are all entwined by the voyage of the Lusitania, which is to carry Brooke, Sydney and Edward to England where Brooke and Edward are to marry.  Will the Lusitania make it through war zone waters safely?

This is a beautifully orchestrated novel, with suspenseful subplots and many amusing and colorful characters that draw the reader in and keep the pages turning.  Both Isabel and Sydney are strong protagonists, each with complicated pasts but each also very forward-thinking.  The reader cannot help loving both of them for their idealism and their honesty.  I imagine some of the scenes as being beautiful, by the descriptions of the elegant rooms on the ship, the gowns that the sisters wear, the view from the ship – I can easily picture a filming of this book.

But the real beauty lies in the suspense that builds throughout the story, both in the various sub-plots as well as in the overall big story.  There is a battle between the sisters that must be overcome.  There is someone who might jeopardize all that Isabel has worked so hard to achieve.  And will the Lusitania actually defy the Germans and cross to Liverpool safely?  This is a page-turner that will bring tears to your eyes, that you will read late into the night, and that will stay with you after putting it down.

 

 

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD

why we sleep

After hearing Dr. Matthew Walker interviewed on NPR, I immediately bought it and read it cover to cover – and enjoyed it every bit as much as the interview itself.  Dr. Walker has devoted his career for the past 20+ years to the science of sleep and has amassed a great deal of knowledge on the structure of sleep, the benefits of sleep, the medical and psychological consequences of a lack of sleep, and societal costs of our communal lack of sleep.

What is most impressive about this book is its readability – it is science-based but not full of jargon.  Dr. Walker describes each study that supports each of his claims about sleep, but he does so in a very clear and concise way so that any lay person reading the book can understand how the study group compares to the control group in each experiment and how the conclusions were made.  He also intersperses stories and anecdotes that engage the reader so that it is not just a preachy lecture but rather a mind-opening presentation of scientific ideas based on fascinating data.

His conclusions are many and of utmost importance.  Sleep is critical to our health and our ability to learn and retain memory.  Even getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night can have a detrimental effect on our health, increasing our risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and infections.  It can have an affect on our memory and ability to learn – particularly in adolescents, whose school start times are early in the mornings (which doesn’t jive with their later circadian rhythms).  It can also increase risk of depression and anxiety – no wonder there is so much more of it now than there ever was before!

What causes us to sleep less?  We have electric lights that keep us awake longer into the evening/night.  We work earlier in the morning and then later into the night and then have activities and entertainment later into the evening/night.  We have electronic devices which have blue light/back lighting that send messages to our brains that inhibit melatonin that tells our brains that it is still daytime, so our brains don’t think it’s time to go to sleep yet.  All these contribute to later bedtimes.

So what to do?

I’ll suggest you read this book to find out.  There are great suggestions about sleep hygiene, treatment for insomnia (against medication, but supporting CBT), important lifestyle suggestions and some major public health recommendations.  The one suggestion emphasized the most?  To maintain a consistent sleep schedule throughout the week (including the weekend)!

 

Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn Wall

sweeping up glass

Olivia is determined to figure who is killing and disfiguring the wolves on her property and why.  She has her suspicions about it – the Phelps boys have always been evil, for example- but she cannot understand why.  Meanwhile, she has to go about her life, juggling her responsibilities of raising her grandson, caring for her insane mother whom she has always called Ida, running her grocery store, and maintaining her household, until her life gets completely turned around by her gradual discoveries from her wolf investigations.

The voice of the storyteller is Olivia’s and it is frank and raw and powerful.  Olivia lives in such frequently harsh conditions that her emotions usually must be kept tamed, but the heat of her seething anger sears the page.  She loves her father as fiercely as she hates her mother, and her world is build around this contrast.  She is smart but not educated and while she doesn’t give herself credit for having much, she manages to navigate complicated and even dangerous situations with strength and with heart.  She is a truly beautiful, strong woman character.

I think the way that racism and racial violence is woven into the story is extremely effective as well.  There is a building of very tender relationships between Olivia and some of her black friends, particularly of her best friend, Love Alice, as a preface to any of the tension.  When incidents do happen -or even threats of them-  then, it becomes all that much more personal and so incredibly disturbing.  It feels like my own family members have been affected when they are only fictional characters, because of this beautiful character development.  And the story builds into an incredibly suspenseful and somewhat complicated plot line – I literally could not put this book down!

This was a surprisingly excellent book – I very highly recommend it!  A new “must-read” for the blog!

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

turtles all the way downc

Here we have another intriguing novel by John Green, who seems to really get young adults at their very core.  He introduces Aza, a teenage girl with crippling OCD, still mourning the death of her father years prior, who learns that the father of her camp crush from years ago has gone missing.  Why is her best friend, Daisy obsessed with this?  Because there is a huge $$ reward and they are both trying to save for college.  So as they set out together to dig in for clues, they find more than they bargain for in the deal.

There is a lot to unpack about this book.  First of all, Green gives us a window into the mind of someone with true OCD and it is scary and debilitating.  Poor Aza cannot even kiss her young, hapless boyfriend because she is overwhelmed by fears of what germs she might contract by the exposure.  Her “invasive” thoughts bombard her brain and throw her into downward spirals of obsessions that last for hours, and she has no control over this.  She questions whether she is even her own self or whether she is just a product of the organisms that are inside of her and of the forces that act upon her rather than her own agency.  Aza is also called out by her best friend for her self absorption, for which she hates herself.  Again, she feels she cannot control this because she cannot control her thoughts – she feels they control her.  Through Aza, Green succeeds in giving the reader insight into how this lack of control actually feels.

It is interesting how Aza’s psychiatrist is depicted, which for most of the story, is fairly useless.  Although Aza is not exactly forthcoming with answers to the psychiatrist’s questions, she does answer truthfully for the most part and yet the psychiatrist does not give much in the way of concrete advice.  I would imagine that there are distraction techniques (she does use some breathing) that are incorporated into treatment that might have been used.  The point is likely that treatment is often difficult and feels futile.

Even the parts involving Aza’s new boyfriend are sweet and endearing, even as painful as many of the scenes are.  And the story line about the missing father keeps a mysterious thread running through the story to tie it together, giving it a purpose.

I actually think this is a beautiful, extremely readable, somewhat depressing but realistic novel that would appeal to adults every bit as much as teens.  I also think it’s extremely important for all to read as much as possible to increase our awareness and understanding of all types of mental illness, including OCD.

 

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

ladies detective agency

This is a book where writing is beautiful in its simplicity.  Mma Ramotswe is the first lady detective in Botswana, fulfilling both hers and her father’s dream of owning her own business successfully.  Although she is off to a precarious start, and has to take on occasionally less desirable cases (involving dogs, for example), she always uses her wise intuition and her cunning instincts to outsmart even the shadiest of characters.  And as we hear her cases unfold, we also get a taste of Africa, which is as rich an experience as the stories themselves.

Between the twists and turns of the story lines, the beautiful and colorful characters and the rich landscape in which the events unfold, this book is absolutely delightful.  I have seen it advertised for so many years and have not known what I’ve been missing all this time!  I now find myself wanting to read the other sequels to this to see what other adventures await.

I highly recommend this to all of you as well.  In this time of political distress, and when the news is so oppressively sad, this is a beautiful distraction.

 

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

becoming nicole

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.