Sunday, April 30, 2017

May Books



Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
A beautifully written book that encompasses so much of what is happening in the Middle East, yet does not engulf itself in war, or murder, or terrorism, but instead sets the story within generations of a Palestinian family.  The story begins at a wedding where the dregs of coffee foretell of life filled with sorrow, displacement, and emotional attachments.  Thus the story begins on the newlywed life of Alia and Atef: the many cities in the Middle East that they learn to call 'home' following the 1967 war, the three children they have with all the troubles of parenting that come with them, the winds that blow their family to all parts of the world, the rebellion of the teenage years and the search for identity in adulthood, and the final realization of what it means to be 'Palestinian.' This book does not tell a story of great tension, or mystery, or passion; what it does do is tell the story of a family who survives.  It opened up a hitherto unforeseen part of the Middle East for me and furthered my understanding that every story has multiple perspectives.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Admittedly, this is not my typical genre. Also admittedly,  I am pretty sure I only understand a small percentage of the science. However, I was thoroughly awestruck by the concept of astrophysics, the study of the cosmos, and the hugeness of our universe and beyond.  I would find myself re-reading paragraphs, attempting to understand the ideas behind dark matter, supernovas, the big bang, etc., and eventually realizing that I did not need to comprehend every little detail; it was enough to use the topic to merely open my mind to the awesomeness of our existence. And yes, it was awesome.  Want to learn about where the components of the periodic table first came from or what all the black stuff is amongst the stars? Author Neil deGrasse Tyson, known for his ability to talk science in understandable language, inspired and educated me in a completely new topic.  This would be a pretty cool book for a book group; it would challenge the majority of readers, provoke conversation, and bring up some rather interesting topics.  Break out of that thriller/historical fiction/drama box you've been reading in and explore the cosmos!

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore
If you liked Henrietta Lacks, this is the book for you. It is one of those stories that shocks, inspires, and mesmerizes a reader throughout the entire unfolding of a piece of history that cried for a voice. A new industry began as the first world war was born, a company which made clocks with dials that lit up at night due to the radium-laced paint used to paint the numbers.  These dial-painters were all young women, drawn to the job by lucrative pay and the hyped up idea that radium was good for them, that it gave them rosy cheeks and healthy blood.  This was a common, highly publicized belief in America, with tinctures and tonics marketed with the expensive radium chemical additive.  However, within a few years, the insidious march of radiation poisoning decimated the ranks of these shining girls, who glowed at night, developed anemia and sarcomas, and suffered immeasurable pain thanks to the "Lick, Dip, Paint" regimine.  The book follows the lives of some incredibly heroic women and their fight for justice and reparations.  Just when you think the story is over, hang on...the company finds another way to screw them over.  This was a fascinating look back at how OSHA was created, the rise of labor laws, and the heroes who gave up everything, including their lives, to make sure that others did not suffer the same fate as they did.  Absolutely loved the book!

The Leavers byLisa Ko
I am in a bit of a quandary over this book.  On one hand, the plot premise is engaging and topical.  A young Chinese-American boy, Deming, is abandoned by his Chinese mother and adopted by an American couple who re-name him Daniel.  While loving and well-intentioned, these new parents construct a completely unfamiliar new path towards adulthood for Daniel, with unwieldy expectations, a lack of knowledge for his past, and yet a willingness to hang in there during difficult times.  The story flips back and forth in time and character, with both Deming and his mother telling the story of past and present.  The quandary comes in when I think about the characters, both leading and peripheral. None are particularly heroic or likable, yet perhaps that is the author's point? This is a story of immigrants who are poor, who are buffeted by laws, by racism, by economic deprivation, who are merely trying to survive.  The questions I am left with therefore...is it possible to be heroic in these circumstances?  Do we ask too much of our children and of ourselves? Are laws supposed to be retaliatory and punishing, or should laws contain compassion?  This book provokes thought, and that is the point of literature.  I do think this would be a provocative book club choice, as it is a book that does not choose to give answers, but requires us to look at our own selves and our beliefs.  Solid debut outing by Lisa Ko, as is shown by the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family's Quest to Bring Him Home by Sally Mott Freeman
If you like stories of familial love and loyalty, were gripped by Unbroken and/or Flags of Our Fathers, and are a passionate lover of WWII tales, then this book is for you.  The three Mott brothers, Bill, Benny, and Barton grow up on the Jersey shore with an 'interesting' mother, a deep love for the Navy, and equally challenging childhoods and youths.  When WWII hits, Benny's Naval years place him as head gunner on the storied Enterprise carrier, Bill becomes the head of the map room in FDR's White House, and Barton is encouraged to go to the Philippines with the Navy Supply Corps where he will be 'safe.' Yep, you know where this true story is headed.  Barton is taken prisoner right after Pearl Harbor, and his two older brothers who always protected and cared for him, are frantic to find him.  Interspersed amongst the three stories of the brothers, this narrative follows the many battles of the Pacific, learning details of the shocking human toll at the battles of Saipan and Okinawa, the horrific treatment and movements of the POWs, and the interchange amongst the big boys in the White House. At times a bit long with more specifics than I needed, I still read voraciously, feeling well-educated at the end and quite in awe of the bravery of not only the Mott brothers, but of their Naval brothers in arms.  A first book, well-researched and written by the niece of the Jersey brothers, I do hope this is not her last outing.

The House of Names by Colm Toibin
The author of Brooklyn and Nora Webster takes a turn away from Ireland, all the way back to Greek mythology and the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and their three children Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes. This ancient story is ripe for a real page-turner with themes of parental love and betrayal, power and dominance, and thirst for revenge.  However, with all of Toibin's past writing accolades (well-deserved, mind you), he completely misses this time out.  These characters cry out for rich, deep development, to understand the motivation to kill a husband, to revenge a father, to betray everything one knows is good and decent.  Yet, the voices of Clytemnestra and her children remain flat and unemotional. This is a book of telling, not showing; it should have pulled at my heartstrings, but it left me saying 'meh.' And this from a teacher who taught the Odyssey for years and drove her students crazy with Greek mythological connections throughout the school year?! Sorry, but this is a big 'PASS' for me.

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Debut author, legal machinations, death row dilemma...this book called out to me.  Marzano-Lesnevich tells a tale of her own childhood intertwined with her work as a summer associate on a death row case.  Ali grows up in a legal family, both parents as lawyers in New Jersey, in a home riddled with hidden secrets and family dysfunction in some pretty tragic ways.  Molested as a young girl by her grandfather, Ali's family remains silent, 'protecting' all parties and sowing seeds of great trauma as Ali grows into adulthood.  When faced with a young man found guilty of molesting and murdering a six year old boy, Ali feels the need to delve more deeply into the story, testing her long-held beliefs on the injustice and finality of the death penalty.  This story definitely reads more as a memoir than a legal thriller as Ali juxtaposes her own family life with that of Ricky, the convicted felon. It brings up some troubling issues, with scenes that are very difficult to read, yet exposes the need to talk about the aftermath of molestation.  At times, I felt the description waxed on for too long, and details were given that were not relevant to the story; I would have liked the editing to be a bit tighter, to create more tension at times, so that it read more like 'true crime' rather than 'memoir.'  Overall, it is a solid first outing from an author that should definitely continue to write.





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