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!

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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.

Life is Short but Wide by J California Cooper

life is short but wide

When Irene first laid eyes on Val, she wasn’t at all experienced in the ways of men, but she was careful to make it clear that he was to show her respect – and that he did.  As Val courted Irene, and then proposed marriage, he wanted to prove to her that he was worthy of her, so he bought her a large house on an impressive piece of land, which would serve her well over the years.  This is the story of how this house enabled not only her survival, but the survival of the generations after her as well.

I didn’t care for the voice of the storyteller, first and foremost.  I feel that vernacular is great for dialogue in a story, giving characters authenticity and enabling you to almost hear them speaking out loud when you read.  But when the whole story is told in a vernacular, and in as repetitive a way as was used in this particular novel, it diminishes the impact of the story.

I also was waiting for a huge crescendo to the plot, but unfortunately – I’m still waiting.  There are a few blips, for sure, but it is hard to discern what is major and what is minor because of the inconsistent way in which the story is told.  Some parts are brushed over and some are drawn out in unnecessary detail and they do not, at least in my mind, correlate with the magnitude of the events themselves.  Even the characters themselves might have been developed further – it seemed that most were either only good or bad – that is, rather flat.  In my opinion, no one is all good, nor all bad.

So as you can easily surmise, I was disappointed in this book.  I would not recommend this one…

 

 

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.

The Forever Letter by Elana Zaiman

forever letter

Rarely have I had the opportunity to review a book written by someone I know – what an intimidating responsibility this is.  Lucky for me, I found this book by Elana Zaiman – a woman I grew up with and whose path randomly crossed mine so many times over the years – very engaging and helpful.  So much so, that I’m contemplating writing a few Forever Letters of my own.

The “forever letter” is an outgrowth of the ethical will, a will or letter that expresses your thoughts, wishes, stories, or apologies to anyone of significance in your life.  Elana’s rationale is that when you put pen to paper,  you can pour out your heart, but at the same time think through exactly what you want to say to a special person in your life.  Many of us can write things we cannot say – whether they sound too corny or make us cry too much or feel too awkward – and sometimes we feel the other person may not be able to hear what we have to say directly from us without reading it in a letter.   In addition, having something written allows for someone to potentially keep it with them long after you are gone.

Elana has traveled around the country,  giving workshops on this subject and peppers each chapter with anecdotes about individuals grappling with the complex issues these letters raise.  How do I transmit to my children the values I hold dear without leaving too restrictive a “commandment” when I die?  How can I express anger at a parent for their absence but not sever a tie with them?  Is it too late to apologize to my sibling after all these years?  There is a lot of emotional baggage that is dragged out of storage when you are talking about these types of letters and writing them, actually putting these feelings into words that are permanent can have lasting effects.  This must be done very thoughtfully.  And each chapter is therefore written with this in mind, giving examples and prompts and guidelines to encourage the writer to be reflective and mindful, but also loving and honest in the writing of these letters.

Elana includes a lot of personal vignettes, her own forever letter that she received from her father that triggered her understanding of the impact of these letters, and her forever letter to her own son.  These are powerful and allow us into her life in a very intimate way.  She shares her own vulnerabilities – mistakes and successes – and allows us to see her not just as a rabbi, spiritual leader, and speaker, but as a human being with a deep emotional life and normal human frailties.  Likewise, she emphasizes that these are components of the best forever letters.

If you are contemplating such a letter – or if you’ve never heard of one! –  this is a compelling book for you to read!

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.