State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

state of wonder

Marina is heartbroken by the news of the death of her co-worker, Anders, who had been sent to the Amazon to assess the progress of research being conducted down there.  But when she learned that she now was the one being sent after him to investigate his death, her feelings were, understandably, quite mixed.  Why would her boss, Mr. Fox, with whom she had an “un-bossly” relationship send her down into a perilous situation?  And what would she encounter with the strong-minded and controversial researcher with whom she’d trained and had a checkered past with herself?  After seeing Anders’ wife and 3 boys and their sadness and disbelief that their father could truly be dead, she felt it her duty, though, to go and to see for herself how he’d died and what she could do to bring back his effects to help them in their grief.  What she found was beyond what she could have ever imagined.

This novel was stunning in both beauty and its depth.  As Marina learns more and more about the Amazon —  its people, its natural habitat, its dangers and its wonders — so too, does the reader.  Because of the crispness of the writing, one can breathe in the heaviness of the air, hear the insects buzzing around ones ears, feel the murkiness of the water they bathe in, and see the filth on the clothing Marina is forced to wear because she’s lost all of her luggage on the very first day.

But there is also a layering to the story which gives it depth.  There is the search for how Anders became sick with his undiagnosed fevers and the tenderness of the relationship he’d developed with the boy raised by the head researcher, Dr. Swenson.  There is the research itself, looking into why the women in the local tribe maintained their fertility well into their sixties and seventies – and the ethical concerns surrounding this.  There is the controversial character of Dr. Swenson – her avoidance of oversight and reluctance to be beholden to those who are funding her research.  What is she hiding?

I will not say how this book ended – but I will admit to you that I cried as I read the last few pages.  There unexpected twists that tug at your heart and at least caught me quite off guard.  So well done!

I have to say, this is a must-read!

 

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The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

weight of ink

Aaron Levy cannot believe he will have to abide the sullen nature of his new mentor, just to be able to have a peek at the rabbinical documents and letters found under the stairs of an historic home outside London.  Helen Watts, this new professor he’s been asked to assist, seems not to have smiling nor social graces in her repertoire.   In truth, he realizes as time passes, that they both have issues to work out as they work together to uncover the secrets that have been buried under these stairs for centuries…  And centuries ago, in the 16oo’s, after taking 2 orphans to London with him as he fled the Spanish Inquisition, Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, blind, but trying to teach a few students, has compromised and allowed one of these orphans to be his scribe.  Ester, the bookish adolescent who dreams of nothing but to study and learn as much as she can as any boy might, has taken her seat at the writing table and begun to scribe the rabbi’s letters for him.  But as she grows older and reaches the age of marriage, this becomes more and more controversial and Ester devises a plan almost in spite of herself.

This is a magnificently crafted work of historical fiction.  The author weaves the plot by gracefully swinging back and forth between the modern day historians and the original characters, layering each of the characters’ stories on each others’ in order to build the connections — and the suspense as well.  And as the story builds, the characters deepen, and they each become much more sympathetic in their own ways.  As the scribe Ester becomes more and more real to the two historians, both Aaron and Helen become more and more human themselves and discover that each of them has used history as a way to escape their own humanness.

The writing in this book is brilliant.  It is beautiful, rich, and full.  The characters are complicated and imperfect and human and they are hard to leave when you finish the book.

You will also learn a lot of history from this book.  The time is the 1600’s, when there were many who had just fled the Inquisition.  People were terrified to speak their minds, fearing that if they said anything against any church, they’d be tortured and killed.  Women had one role in society and that was to marry and raise a family – and if they did not marry, their lot was to struggle and do housework for someone who was married and it was a hard life if you chose that route.  And then came the plague in London, which devastated much of the population.  It was a gruesome time.

But in spite of the ugliness of the time, the beauty lies in the resilience of the people living through it – and that is what is captured here in this story.

I loved this book – I am confident you will too!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

eleanor oliphant

The best perk of writing a book blog is that I’ve gotten some fantastic recommendations from fellow book lovers.  This may be one of my favorites — thank you, Larry and Jim!

Eleanor Oliphant starts out in this story actually believing herself to be completely fine.  She is very much self-sufficient – she has a job, she has keeps herself clean and nourished and has her very practical routine which gets her through each week.  When she suddenly sees the man of her dreams at a party, a rock singer who is very handsome and would likely satisfy her Mummy’s vision of who would be sophisticated enough for her, she decides to go on a mission to spruce herself up a bit so that when she actually meets this man, she’ll convince him that they are meant for each other.  In the course of her doing this, a sudden incident with a co-worker, becomes a distracting adventure that opens up Eleanor’s world and enables her to see how she can truly heal toward becoming completely “fine.”

The writing in this book is magical.  The author writes of pain with humor and raw honesty all at the same time.  There is no over-dramatization, there is no explosiveness.  It’s quiet and understated and because it is subtle, even awkward because it is from Eleanor’s voice, it sneaks straight into your heart.  It made me laugh out loud but it also revealed darkness and sadness that almost choked me.  Few authors can do this with such grace and tenderness.

Eleanor develops her first real friendship with a coworker, Raymond, whom she finds initially almost irritating, with his smoking, his unkempt scruffiness, and his difficulty with being punctual.  But she learns that what really matters is that he is also kind and generous, and loyal – and that he is there for her when she really needs someone to be there for her.  That this is actually what friends do.  She’s just never had this before.

This is a beautiful book from beginning to end – the kind that you don’t want to put down but that you don’t want to end either.  I am reluctant to start the next book because I just want to live with these characters for a bit.

You will too – I promise!

This is truly a MUST READ!

 

 

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

pachinko

At the opening of this novel, we meet Sunja, a young girl who toils away, helping her mother run a small boardinghouse on a small island in Korea.  When a young, handsome minister comes to stay with them and falls ill, he seems to be the answer to their predicament, as he is willing to marry her, even though she is pregnant with another man’s child.  As he carries her off to Japan, her life takes many unexpected twists and turns, and this poignant story follows her through the next generations.

Through the telling of Sunja’s life and the life of her mother and sons, the reader also learns of the experience of Koreans at the hands of the Japanese through much of the twentieth century.  Although many of Korean descent were born in Japan, they were not allowed to be Japanese citizens and were treated as foreigners in their own country, forced to obtain a Korean passport at the age of 14 and having to recertify this every 3 years, with the constant threat of deportation.  They were denied many educational and employment opportunities and often the only way to earn money was in businesses such as the “pachinko” halls, pachinko being a form of pinball or slot machine.  At the same time, anyone involved in these businesses were looked down upon and considered gangsters, whether or not they actually were.

What is apparent throughout the story is that this oppression casts a heavy shadow on each and every member of Sunja’s family and each comes to bear the burden in his or her own way.  There is some success and much heartbreak in the course of Sunja’s life as a consequence of this and it ranges from very outright to more subtle.

The more I think about this story and sit with it, the more I realize how much is here to think about and appreciate.

I think you will too.

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!

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.

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.