We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

we are okay

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

the hate u give

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

 

unbearable lightness

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

rules-of-civility

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!

 

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

lilac-book-jacket

Wow.  I just finished this book and I’m still breathless…

Caroline is a young debutante who has given up her acting career to volunteer to help French families who have just come to resettle in NYC in the late 1930’s. Herta is an ambitious physician, one of the few women doctors, in fact, in Germany in 1939.  And Kasia is a teenager who, in 1939 decides she will join her crush, Pietrik, and deliver packages for the Polish underground, after the invasion of the Germans.  As you might expect, these very different women’s lives eventually intersect as the tragedies of the second World War drive them together.

What is most staggering is that this story is based on the lives of real people and real events.  Both Caroline and Herta were real women, individuals who exemplified the best and the worst that women could be.  And Ravensbruck, the Nazi concentration camp for women, was frighteningly real as well.  What fills in the connections between the two women is historical fiction based on years of research by the author to create a story that also illustrates the best and the worst that people can be.

The writing is excellent.  The way the plot is drawn, circling among the 3 major characters, is great not only in terms of fortifying the opposing narratives, but also in building up and then releasing tension as well.  When parts become almost too painful to read, the story switches back to a lighter mood to give the reader a much deserved break.  (What I always feel guilty about is that what I find too hard to read about – millions of people – literally, millions! – actually lived.)

What was most horrifying – and I hate to bring this up, but I feel compelled – is that sentences in this book that described Hitler were frighteningly identical to those describing our new president of the United Staes.  The ego, the destruction of anyone who disagreed with him, and the paranoia with which he reigned – it was all too familiar.  That is terrifying. But all the more reason to read books like this one:  ones that remind us how far people can really go.  It reminds us not to be complacent, because people in Germany thought that it could never happen there either.

This is a MUST READ, by any measure!

Distant Shores by Kristin Hannah

distant-shores

After 24 years of marriage, Elizabeth has finally come to terms with the fact that her husband, Jack, and her 2 daughters have all taken center stage in her life, leaving her to cast aside her own dreams and aspirations.  When Jack was a famous football star, she cared for her young daughters mostly by herself.  When Jack later became a smaller time sports caster, moving from town to town where opportunities arose, she duly followed. But now that the girls are both out of the house, she realizes that it is time for her to attend to herself – she just has to figure out whether that plan will include Jack or not…

This is a story that will, sadly, strike a familiar chord with many readers, I believe.  When the nest empties, it is often a challenge for couples to fill the void – or it is the time when the void has to finally be acknowledged.  Hannah describes this conflict with sensitivity, honesty and warmth, presenting both Elizabeth’s and Jack’s sides to a complicated story.

I think it was not good that I knew before reading this book that the author had written The Nightingale.  That book was so outstanding that I had elevated expectations for this one.  For example, some subplots were hinted at but then left undone.  One character, Kim, who Elizabeth met in a support group, was a mysterious, moodier member of the group.  It appeared that she was going to be more of a presence in the book (and it was an interesting possibility), but she was just sort of abandoned in a more underdeveloped state.

I would still recommend this book – it was a nice read – but manage your expectations if you’ve read The Nightingale!