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.

 

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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.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

the hate u give

Knowing she’d rather have stayed home watching reruns of Fresh Prince on her laptop, Starr isn’t even sure why she’s agreed to accompany Kenya to the party at which she’s found herself.  But while she is wandering around (Kenya of course has dumped her), she finds Khalil, her old best friend, whom she has not seen in months.  They slip into old comfortable conversation when suddenly gunshots ring out.  She and Khalil run for what she believes will be safety – not knowing that this moment will affect the rest of her life.

This story is a young adult novel, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, about the murder of a black boy by a white police officer.  The story invites the reader to step into the life of this friend of the victim, Starr, whose life is already complicated as she is grappling with having to straddle two different communities – the poor neighborhood in which she lives and the affluent school she attends.  Her two worlds require two different personae and this is a lot to juggle for a young woman of 16 years.

As the events unfold, it becomes clearer that Starr is the only witness to the murder that has occurred and it is up to her to come forward and testify.  And here is the difficulty: history has taught us that this is hard – and we’ve seen this again and again particularly in the past few years.  While police have incredibly difficult jobs to do and we owe them a debt of gratitude for what they do every day, there are always a few that take their power too far or have too low a threshold for fear of “other” and assume that the “other” is going to do something harmful to them first.  This is the case in this story, and this is often the narrative in these cases where there is a wrongful death.  There is a presumption of guilt based on race and circumstances when that is an unfair presumption.

There is a lot of humanity to this story.   There is circumstance and perspective on the drug dealing issue and how and why some people get involved – which some might feel is obvious but others might not appreciate.  There is also the recurrent theme of a person’s right to presumption of innocence, and right to life and liberty and so on even if he might be a drug dealer.  This is a serious point.  On the other hand, I do think that dehumanizing the cop that shot the victim by referring to him by only his badge number almost throughout does not serve a purpose.  I think that creates its own bias and one sided perspective and I think presenting the other side would have only made the story stronger.

In any case, I do think this is an important book for most people to read, but especially young readers.  Definitely a must read!

 

Life’s Work by Dr. Willie Parker

life's work

This is a modest but monumental work by one of my newest heroes, Dr. Willie Parker.  Dr. Parker was born and raised in the South, by his single, very poor black mother who instilled in him a strong value system, prioritizing family, love and God above all else.  He managed to find additional role models and mentors who encouraged him to climb to heights even he never imagined he’d achieve, cultivating his thirst for understanding science, even in the face of his religious fervor.  He found his calling in the field of medicine and further in the speciality of OB/GYN and practiced in many areas of the country, ultimately ending up in a beautiful area of Hawaii.  While he did find himself advocating for women in some areas, his religious convictions still held him back from performing abortions.  He was not against referring his patients to others to perform them, but he himself felt he could not do them.

Then he suddenly found the way to reconciling this within himself.  He suddenly recognized that, just as the Good Samaritan in the Bible helped the injured traveler out of concern about what would happen to the traveler (ignoring what would happen to himself), that he, Dr. Parker, should also be concerned with what would happen to his patients if he did not do abortions and not what would happen to him (or how he would be judged).  Taking this further, Dr. Parker saw in this a moral, – no a religious! – imperative to carry out his patients’ wishes, whether they be to carry a pregnancy to term or to terminate that pregnancy.  Furthermore, denying patients the choice of what to do with their bodies, denying them access to safe, healthy choices, denying them the right to choose to continue their educations or their jobs or whatever they needed to do without interruption to have a baby – he realized, went against everything his religion and God stood for.  Really, the “anti’s” as he calls them, had it backwards.

He is extremely articulate about a lot of the arguments that the anti’s give about why abortion might be perceived as being wrong – and they’re all mostly devious.  They are mostly about controlling women, and usually about controlling women of color and/or who are poor.  Women, and particularly women in the south and the midwest, now have such minimal access to safe, healthy abortions,  and it is being chipped away –  mostly by white men – day after day after day.  It is merely a power play.

Dr. Parker is one of those rare brave souls who do perform abortions in the south, making safe, healthy procedures available to those who need them.  Thank God for Dr. Parker.

In sum, here is a gorgeously articulated argument for all of you who feel that just because you are religious, you cannot support abortion.  On the contrary, if you are religious – in this light, you are morally obligated to honor the choice and the freedom of the already living, as Dr. Parker does.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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Little did Katey know that when she and her best friend, Evey, went out to ring in the new year of 1938 that she’d  be ringing in a new relationship that would introduce her to the moneyed Upper East Side social scene of New York City.  Meeting people with names like Tinker and Bitsy, Katey gets drawn into this scene, even as she continues to work her own way up the business ladder, using her wiles and wit.  But while Katey does hold onto her scruples – or her own rules of civility , if you will – she does become tangled in a web of love triangles that both highlight and transcend social class status.

There is so much to be said about this book.  Most importantly, the writing just downright beautiful.  This prose by Towles often verges on the poetic.  The phrasing and the images that are drawn with words are so vivid that I was forced to read some passages multiple times, just to really appreciate them fully.  The author has a true gift that he is generously sharing with us here.

The characters are also so gracefully drawn.  From their subtle tics to their happy or hapless (depending on the character) wit, you cannot help feeling compassion for each and every one of them.  And each and every one of them is neither all good or all bad – much like the real world.  And Katey is the kind, vulnerable, and yet steady heroine we all aspire to being.

What I appreciate most about this book is the underlying current of friction between money and honor.   As Katey mixes more with those of the upper class, she sees some who feel they should earn the money they have and others who feel they just deserve it.  And in this era of Trump and the Republican Party’s shameful and frightening abuse of both money and power, the statement of honor and kindness triumphing over greed in this story is particularly poignant.

A lyrical and delightful book – highly recommend!

 

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

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Wow.  I just finished this book and I’m still breathless…

Caroline is a young debutante who has given up her acting career to volunteer to help French families who have just come to resettle in NYC in the late 1930’s. Herta is an ambitious physician, one of the few women doctors, in fact, in Germany in 1939.  And Kasia is a teenager who, in 1939 decides she will join her crush, Pietrik, and deliver packages for the Polish underground, after the invasion of the Germans.  As you might expect, these very different women’s lives eventually intersect as the tragedies of the second World War drive them together.

What is most staggering is that this story is based on the lives of real people and real events.  Both Caroline and Herta were real women, individuals who exemplified the best and the worst that women could be.  And Ravensbruck, the Nazi concentration camp for women, was frighteningly real as well.  What fills in the connections between the two women is historical fiction based on years of research by the author to create a story that also illustrates the best and the worst that people can be.

The writing is excellent.  The way the plot is drawn, circling among the 3 major characters, is great not only in terms of fortifying the opposing narratives, but also in building up and then releasing tension as well.  When parts become almost too painful to read, the story switches back to a lighter mood to give the reader a much deserved break.  (What I always feel guilty about is that what I find too hard to read about – millions of people – literally, millions! – actually lived.)

What was most horrifying – and I hate to bring this up, but I feel compelled – is that sentences in this book that described Hitler were frighteningly identical to those describing our new president of the United Staes.  The ego, the destruction of anyone who disagreed with him, and the paranoia with which he reigned – it was all too familiar.  That is terrifying. But all the more reason to read books like this one:  ones that remind us how far people can really go.  It reminds us not to be complacent, because people in Germany thought that it could never happen there either.

This is a MUST READ, by any measure!

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

gentleman-in-moscow

We meet Count Alexander Rustov in June of 1922, as he is pronounced guilty of having written a poem that was felt to incite potential action against the Kremlin.  He is sentenced to house arrest, but as it happens, his “house” is the Metropol Hotel, one of Moscow’s finest international hotels.  As he is resettled into a much smaller room than the one to which he’s grown accustomed, he adjusts his life and his expectations to the confines of his restricted quarters.  When he very soon meets a young girl of 9 years named Nina, his life changes dramatically and he learns that life can lead you in very unexpected directions even when you cannot leave the very confines of your home.

The writing in this book is absolutely gorgeous.  While the story is related with the lofty verbiage to which a count of Rustov’s caliber and sophistication is accustomed, Amor Towles blends wit and warmth  with such mastery that the result has the reader smiling throughout the many pages of this book.  Here is an example of the imagery that is used so brilliantly:

“Like the wheeling of the stars…  That is how time passes when one is left waiting unaccountably.  The minutes relentless.  And the seconds?  Why, not only does every last one of them demand its moment in the stage, it insists upon making a soliloquy full of weighty pauses and artful hesitations and then leaps into an encore at the slightest hint of applause.” (P 353)

In addition, each of the characters adds much color to the palate of this book.  As Alexander insinuates himself into the inner workings of the hotel, he befriends staff and guests alike, and the reader has the pleasure of their company as well.  The setting inside the hotel also gives the reader an appreciation of the interplay between Russian international relations and the insular attitude of communism.

I don’t often categorize books as “Must Reads” because I feel this should be kept exclusive, but I’m doing it here.  A Gentleman in Moscow is absolutely a “MUST READ!”