Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

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“Ike” Goldah seems to be finding his way to adjusting to life after the concentration camps of World War II.  He has come straight from the DP camp to live with his cousins in Savannah, Georgia.  His cousin has set him up with a room in their house, a job in his shoe store, and he is even looking into doing some writing on the side, which was his previous career before the war.  That is, until he has a surprise visitor who is like a ghost from his past – and seems to turn his world upside down.

I really like this book for its many plot threads and themes.  You can look at the Jewish Holocaust themes, but there are also comparisons between the Jew/non-Jew and Black/White race relations that are laid out so starkly here.  In addition, Goldah’s cousin is involved in illegal dealings with his shoe business that are a bit murky but that give the story another dimension.   Goldah’s love interests also create another side story, giving his “visitor” addition a real shock value.

I actually think the book could have been expanded upon.  It felt like it ended much too soon.  The characters were great and there was so much happening in it that it could have been broadened further.  I was left wanting much more.

I think this book was a good read, but probably edited down a bit too much.

My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

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This is an example of a great idea poorly executed.

Paul is a successful writer of food and wine books who has just been jilted by his girlfriend of 4 years.  In a bit of depression and in a rut, his agent (who of course, happens to be single, intelligent, and attracted to him) sends him to Italy to work on his next book.  In a bizarre set of circumstances, he ends up with a rented bulldozer as his means of rented transportation during his stay.  On his first foray to explore his new town, he happens upon a beautiful, intelligent woman who has run her car into a ditch and lo and behold (!) a bulldozer just might do the trick!

There are a few tiny plot strands that are started in this book that could make the book so interesting that unfortunately are never pursued.  There is the evil-looking man that Paul is jailed with on entering the country (yes, jailed!), there is the boyfriend of the beautiful woman who has a port wine stain, and there are other towns folk who might be more involved in a more interesting plot than they are.  But no, the author chooses to make his former girlfriend as truly shallow and predictable as she is (then why would he have spent the past 4 years with her??), and the ending as neat and predictable as it becomes.

There is so much potential here.  I did finish it, but I spent most of the book waiting for something of substance to happen.  I think I’m still waiting…

 

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

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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.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

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This is a sad but sweet, young adult novel that was recommended to me by my daughter.  It is the tale of Marin, named after the county in California from which she came, who is stranded, alone, in a dorm room in NY, during Christmas break.  As she anxiously awaits a visit from her friend, Mabel, the memories of her recent, tragic life events come back to her in waves, and she is forced to reconcile what she thought were the circumstances of her life with what was real.

This is a story in which sensuality is very striking.  The cold, stark setting really creates a mood for the whole book.  Descriptions of the freezing snow create a palpably silent backdrop for the awkwardness between the two old friends.  The cold blowing onto their faces as they trek through the snow freezes any attempt at conversation between them.  And when they finally break through, they start to feel the heat come back on – and warmth starts to emanate from one character to the other.  They are in a shop in which Mabel picks up bells, and the reader can almost hear the tinkling of those bells as if we are in that store with them.  Light is used also, contrasted with darkness, such as the stark darkness on a beach on a moonless night, when one’s eyes cannot adjust to the darkness and one has to give up trying to see.  It’s a beautiful way to pull the reader in to each scene.

What initially appears as a simply melancholic book ultimately reveals itself to be a complicated and intimate tale that leaves one thinking about it for days after closing its covers.

 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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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!

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

 

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This is the whimsical, weird, and sometimes wieldy love story of Tomas and Tereza, set mostly in Prague during the Russian invasion.  They meet while Tomas is visiting the small town where Tereza is working at a small inn, when she serves him his dinner.  After a bit of flirting, and circumstances that Tereza interprets as prescient, Tereza appears with her large suitcase at Tomas’s door and so they begin their lives together.

What is sometimes the charm of this story and sometimes the bane of the story is the perpetual tangent.  Most authors will backtrack to fill in context and background about the characters, and we see that here as well.  Occasionally, Kundera manages to create a lyrical lightness when he does this in this story.  Alternatively, while many authors will thread in an occasional plot line that seems disconnected but then ties in later unexpectedly, this book is plagued with so many tangents that do not tie in anywhere.  I feel as though this makes the book unnecessarily harder to read.

I will say that each of the characters is unique and colorfully drawn.  In choosing a third person narrator, Kundera provides almost a side door entrance into the minds of each of the characters and lets us know what each is thinking in his own, idiosyncratic way.  One fascinating character is Sabina, who is Tomas’s mistress.  She is an artist, very independent, and has her own lovers.  Through her, Kundera waxes very philosophical on what is light and what is heavy in life.   Through her we also see some of the consequences of the Communist regime changes, and she is the one character who manages to be free in her life choices and be free of the Communists ultimately.

I think this is another of those books I would have liked to read in an English class, during which I might’ve digested more of the symbolism with others who were smarter than I and who were more familiar with the historical context than I.  I might’ve benefitted from that and appreciated the book more.  As it was, I did enjoy some of the writing, the creativity, and philosophical musings of the author, even while I found it occasionally onerous and hard to get through.

 

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!