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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Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

alone in berlin

This unusual story of the quiet insurgency of Otto and Anna Quangel against Hitler’s war begins with the various characters in their apartment building.  At the beginning of the story, each family has little to do with each other, but because the Gestapo has fostered a culture of paranoia and turning others against each other, each has an eye out for/against the other and their lives become unwittingly embroiled together.  Ironically, the most self-contained and private of all of them, reveal themselves to be the most truly dignified, even as they are ineffectual in their attempts at postcard propaganda.

Let’s just start with the statement that this is not the usual WWII novel, at all.  The quirky writing and the shift in focus from minor character to character keep it floating just a little bit above the usual depth of despair that one usually carries, although it is certainly not without its violence or death.   The focus, though, is really on what is going on in Germany proper and particularly in the ” criminal justice” system.  There are more than a few interlocking stories of how corrupt Nazi Party officials use their positions to gain from the losses of the masses and everyone tries to profit from informing on each other.   The overarching irony becomes who are the “criminals” and who are those who deliver “justice.”  The highlight of this is the actual trial scene, during which a judge essentially does the work of the prosecutor.  After this, when Otto’s “defense attorney” accuses Otto of being mad for what he’s done, Otto rightly asks him, “Do you think it’s mad to be willing to pay any price for remaining decent?”

The most dignified characters here are also the most common, ordinary ones.  Otto and Anna are not wealthy, and not well-educated.  They are hard-working, awkward, regimented people.  Otto is pretty OCD and shuns social interactions.  He is not the typical novel hero.  Which I think is what makes him all the more striking as a hero here.  He’s saying here that anyone can, in his own, small and dignified way, stand up for what he believes in – for what is right.

There is an obvious message here and relevance to what is going on today.  I apologize for my frequent references to political issues in this supposed literary blog, but I can’t help myself.  As I read this book, particular lines and issues jumped out from the pages as if coming fresh out of the newspaper headlines of 2018 as well.  Injustices done to people because of their race or religion, leaders getting away with abuse of power because people worshipped them valuing party over constituents, having a leader of a country who believes himself a deity deserving of unlimited power as if he is not in a democracy at all.  It’s all too familiar and if we do not stop this, it will be just as it was in 1933 at the beginning of all of that.

We have to circulate our own little postcards here and now.  This is mine…

 

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.

The Closers by Michael Connelly

the closers

Sometimes you just need to read a good murder mystery – and this one fits the bill.

Harry Bosch is just back on the job with the LAPD after being retired for a few years.  He’s assigned to the group of “closers,” who solve the unsolved cases, left open for years.  His first case is the murder of a 16 year old girl who had been murdered 17 years prior and new DNA evidence has just resurfaced that has given a new lead on the case.  Bosch is back with his old partner, Rider, and they are immediately set into motion.  But obstacles present themselves from both outside and inside the department – will he be able to see the case through?

I can’t say that this is a fun read, because the subject matter is quite tragic, but it is intriguing and challenging and engaging.  The writing is direct and crisp and the dialogue is brusque and realistic.  What is novel here to me is the use by the police of the press in their investigation, which is interesting (and as it happens, grossly unfortunate) – and I wonder how often that actually happens in “real life.”

I am also fascinated by the relationship that builds between police partners.  It becomes somewhat like a marriage of sorts.  There are signals, facial expressions, silent pauses that can be read by the partner that evolve into signals only the partner can pick up like tiny bits of morse code.  It is really like a spouse, because really and truly, survival is dependent on being able to read those glances and eyebrow raises in a split second.  This is referenced frequently in this story.

So while this is not an epic, “must read,” it is still a worthwhile novel if you’re looking for a murder mystery that will successfully capture your attention for a few days.

The Rector’s Wife by Joanna Trollope

the rector's wife

It is hard to live in a small town — but it is yet harder to be the wife of a Rector in a small town, as Anna has found to be the case.  When her husband is passed over for a promotion within the Church and he withdraws emotionally, she finds she has nowhere to turn.  The struggle for Anna is to find herself amidst the loss, even while upholding her responsibilities to the Church, her children, her husband, and ultimately, to herself.

This is a portrait of the struggle of women, particularly as seen historically within religious institutions.  They are typically only seen as instruments of support for the men who are doing the real work (the work of God in this case, but it can be applied to most any work, really); that is, the men are married to the church and the women are married to the men.  Anna, here, struggles to find who she is and what she can do herself.  She finds herself a part-time job – all she is doing is stacking jars at a local grocery store to make ends meet – and this is perceived as utterly rebellious by not only the parishioners but by her own husband.  Fortunately, she is strengthened by her experience and resists the pressures around her and when life suddenly turns around in an unexpected plot twist she sustains that strength and her dignity as well.

This happened to be a little paperback novel I picked up at a second hand book fair– I didn’t expect all that much and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the writing, the characters, and the story.  Although written in the 1990’s, it was not so dated that it wasn’t relevant, including themes of bullying (although not calling it out as that),   and harassment of women.  It also taught me a bit about the Protestant church and the hierarchy of its ministers, which I feel I can always learn more about.

There were some issues with believability.  It seemed that Anna was someone that every man fell in love with (or at least the most handsome and the richest ones!) and every woman was jealous of.  Her daughter seems to have difficulty relating to her peers but gradually makes friends magically.  And so on…  But for the most part, it’s a reasonable read.

So, it’s not a “must read” but it’s certainly a thumbs up!

 

 

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.