The Girl who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

girl who wrote in silk

In the late 1880’s, Washington territory, Mei Lien’s whole world revolved around her father and grandmother, both of whom she revered and loved with all her heart.  But with one unthinkable strike, both of them were torn from her and her entire life trajectory changed.

Fast forward to current day, and we find Inara, whose favorite aunt has died, with a wish that Inara take her estate and turn it into an island inn.  In her exploration of the estate, Inara stumbles upon the sleeve of a robe, embroidered with an elaborate scene that appears to be communicating an urgent message from long ago.

What is the connection?  And what will that connection mean for Inara’s family?  What did it mean, more importantly, for Mei Lien?

I feel this book, while powerful in its message and matter, just missed its mark in the telling.  The idea of the story is a brilliant one, based in a historical reality that needs to be told – and one that I, for one, was beforehand, ignorant of.  In the late 1800’s and well into the 1900’s, the Chinese who immigrated to the US and Canada were treated abominably, often with prejudice at best and with violence at worst.  This story brings that racism to a very personal level, highlighting the loneliness, despair, and abject terror that racism induces.

On the more literary side, the resolution of the story that is told is just too extreme to be believable.  The family connections are too improbable.  The way Inara finds a chef for her kitchen for her inn is too coincidental.  And the ending just slides into home plate for that grand slam in a way that almost trivializes the story.  I am not saying that the ending is not what anyone reading the story would have wanted, but I think it was too neat and tidy.  It’s not real life.

But maybe that is why it’s called fiction.

I am still glad I read this book and would recommend it to others as well.  If not for the literary sparkle, for the historical perspective it provides.

 

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The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

female persuasion

This new, very popular novel centers around Greer Kadetsky, who begins as a young freshman at what she considers a mediocre college in western Massachusetts.  If her disappointing parents had filled out the financial aid forms appropriately, she would have been at Yale, where she was really meant to be.  But then she wouldn’t have met her best friend, Zee, who then wouldn’t have dragged her along to hear Faith Frank, the feminist, speak.  And then she wouldn’t have had that moment with Faith Frank that sparked, really, the trajectory for the rest of her life.

This novel encompasses two stories in one.  On one level, it tells the story of Greer, a smart, ambitious young woman who is seeking love and approval from others because she doesn’t feel  it from her nebulous parents.  She has it from her boyfriend, Cory, who is steadfast, but has his own life and stressors, and she has it from her friend, Zee, but she seeks it from an adult, in the form of Faith Frank.  And as she goes through her journey, she learns that no one is perfect, even those who appear to be.

On the second level, it is also a story of the women’s movement.  In the telling of the story of Faith Frank, the author essentially recounts the story of the fractions of women and the various perspectives, both forward and backward (at least in my opinion) as it is going these days, particularly with regard to availability of women’s choice and control over our bodies.  Faith Frank, in her early days, helps a friend through a life-threatening, almost-botched illegal abortion and it drives her friend in a totally opposite direction from Faith (which is very hard to believe, but I imagine is true of some women).  Faith is empowered by this experience to push hard for women’s access to safe, legal abortion.  In this, I think the author opens up the debate where we stand very precariously now – where women are arguing over the rights over our bodies.  (As an aside, I have to say that I believe that no woman likes the idea of abortion.  On the other hand, I believe that the majority of women in our country do believe that this should be a matter decided by the woman herself and perhaps her doctor, as it is a physical and medical and emotional decision for a woman – NOT a decision to be made by mostly MEN in a back room somewhere having nothing to do with the woman herself.  THIS is what “choice” means.)  And this depressing backlash that we are experiencing here in our country is discussed in the book and lamented.  It’s hard to see it in a book and not just in the news – it gives it so much more permanence, in a way.

What is somewhat disappointing about this book is how it sort of fizzles at the end.  Most of the book is engaging and there are a few twists and major events that turn the plot around on its head.  Most of it grabbed me.  But as it wound down, it really wound down and sort of fell.  Maybe even fell flat.

Otherwise, I think this is an interesting story of a woman’s struggle with finding her place and meaning in the world through the lens of the women’s movement.  An interesting read…

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

the alchemist

I finally had the opportunity to read what so many high school juniors have been reading for decades now.  Unfortunately, I did not have the benefit of what must be wonderful philosophical discussions about it with young, curious minds.

This story is about a boy, a shepherd, who meets a king who inspires him to follow omens and signs that will direct him to a treasure.  The king gives him 2 stones that indicate yes or no and are to be used to guide him through his journey.  Almost immediately the boy encounters failure.  Rather than becoming despondent, though, he picks himself up and begins to work to compensate for his initial failure and as he does, he learns that failure can teach lessons and that the journey is part of what enables him to achieve his Personal Legend.  Because he is mindful and attentive during each moment of his journey, crossing rivers and desserts, he inherits wisdom from each person he encounters, no matter how simple or how obtuse they may be.

It is clear why this book has been translated into so many languages and has been read by literally millions of people.  It can be understood on so many levels and its meaning broadened to so much significance.  So much so, that I will not begin to pontificate on that here in this blog.

Suffice it to say, that as I go on my personal journey in life, I will consider the message of the boy for me to be that we must be mindful of each step – good or bad – all the while taking into account and appreciating what we have already.

If you’re inclined to the philosophical, this book is for you!

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…

Playing with Matches by Carolyn Wall

playing with matches

Clea is a smart, but smart-mouthed girl who seems to not be able to stop herself from saying things that get her into trouble.  And while Auntie (her adoptive mother) loves her dearly, she still craves attention and love from her Mama, who seems to show love only to the men who come to her each night from the prison up the road.  As Clea grows older and the hurt grows deeper, Clea learns to internalize this hurt and drive it inward, until she finally learns how to cope and ultimately to forgive.

This is a poignant coming-of-age story, that blends flavors of the deep, poverty-stricken South into a young woman’s struggle with trauma and development of empathy and forgiveness.  While Clea starts off as a bold, outspoken, actually crass and rude child, she learns quickly that her words can do terrible harm.  And they do.  But she clings to words in other ways, and words ultimately become what save her.

The character I find the most beautiful in this story, actually, is Auntie.  Auntie is the one who has taken Clea in, an hour after Clea’s Mama has given birth to her, with no blood relation (in fact, she’s black and Clea is white) but only because she’s a human child with no one to care for her.  And she raises the child as she would her own child and loves her unconditionally.  She does not give Clea everything she wants, but rather she gives her everything she needs.  She sets admirable limits with her and guides her with wisdom and tenderness.  She is so very kind.

My only reservation about this book is that toward the end, there is a little more forgiveness than I think is realistic.  There is one character, in particular, who is extraordinarily evil.  Forgiveness for her may be beyond realistic – but maybe that is because I am not kind enough.  I’d love to hear others’ opinions on this one!

I definitely recommend this book – but it is pretty serious, so prepare yourself!

 

Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

albertalli-becky-simon-vs-the-homo-sapiens-agenda

So because I truly am a book nerd (and because I am incredibly jealous of my daughter who is a new editorial assistant working with young adult literature and gets to read all the time), I like to keep up on some of the current popular YA novels that are out there also.  Here’s a new one that is very cute and timely…

Simon cannot believe the predicament he’s found himself in.  He’s been emailing with an intriguing but anonymous guy on Tumblr, but he’s been caught by Martin, who’s taken a screenshot of one of their conversations.  Will Martin seriously use this to blackmail Simon into fixing him up with Simon’s friend Abby?  And what if it doesn’t work out?  Simon is not sure he’s ready to come out to everyone just yet…

This is a great coming of age story – great because it is fraught with all the normal teen angst but it also has much in the way of understanding of what might be going on in the head of someone who might be considered “different.”  He repeats more than once that the “default” in our minds should not necessarily be heterosexual, and/or the default should not in our minds should not be white.  That we all make presumptions based on a default and that we as a society should be shaking that up.  That there should be no “default” and no presumptions.  People – myself included – make careless statements and random comments with these presumptions with disregard for how they may affect those around them.  We cannot presume how the comments will be heard.

But the story is told with humor and warmth and using great, engaging characters whom we easily like and feel attached to.  Even the worst of the characters has his reasons and while we still dislike him, there is some pity and sensitivity toward his position as well.

This is a well-written, entertaining and insightful book that many adults could benefit from reading.

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.