Fictional Depiction of Race in America Hits the Target in "Small Great Things" by Jodi Picoult - Book Review

Small Great Things should be required reading for Americans.

The triumvirate of lead characters is: Kennedy, a white female criminal defense attorney; Ruth, a Yale educated, veteran black labor and delivery nurse; and, Turk, an early 20s male white supremacist.

Told from the three different voices of the main characters, the story revolves around the birth of Turk and Brittany’s first child, a son they named Davis (after the Confederate leader Jefferson Davis).

After Ruth is charged with a crime relating to the baby’s care in the hospital, Kennedy becomes her defense attorney. Having worked as a public defender for some years, Kennedy considers herself non-racist and without prejudice. Only through her relationship and representation of Ruth does she realize that her hyper-sensitivity to the race issue has never allowed her to actually see the differences that befall similarly situated people of different colors.

Ruth also struggles with the race issue. Chagrined by the fact that her mother still dons a uniform to work as a maid for a rich white family as she’s done Ruth’s entire life, Ruth moves into an upper-middle class, white neighborhood to make a ‘better’ life for her son. Meanwhile, Ruth’s sister, loud, black and proud in the ‘hood, never lets Ruth forget that she’s turned her back on her childhood and heritage.

And Turk? No struggling there. Reading his parts will set your teeth on edge. In the first line of his first chapter, he uses the N word. It is infuriating yet necessary in a book that goes to the heart of racism in this country.

For me, Kennedy’s character was the most eye opening. Her status in life and her views on race and prejudice mirror mine. But she’s forced to take a much harder look at her own prejudices that are just a part of her make up because of the color of her skin and the world into which she was born. She’s not racist, but she doesn’t fully grasp the true differences experienced by a black woman as educated and as accomplished as she until she’s thrust into Ruth’s daily existence.

Picoult, known for gut wrenching ironies at the end of her books, doesn’t disappoint in this one. And even though I saw it coming in Small Great Things, she writes it in a way that still hit like a knockout punch.

If there is a weakness here, it is the legal aspect. There were some pretty big holes relating to liability issues and crimes charged. But those can be overlooked. Racism and prejudice are the focus here, the crimes and the trial just a method of delivering the message.

Small Great Things doesn’t necessarily offer answers but it certainly raises thought-provoking questions about perceptions, white privilege and color blindness. The universal lesson that society could benefit from by reading this book is that, truly, you cannot understand someone else’s perspective unless you’ve actually made an effort to experience it. Not by just thinking about it, but by doing it. Have a friend with a different skin color? Go to a family dinner with him. Attend a church service at her church. Go shopping with them. Don’t have any friends of color? Ask yourself why not.  

Published: 2016
Publisher: Ballantine Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4.5 stars

"Between Breaths", A Story of Addiction and Recovery, by Elizabeth Vargas - Book Review

Her fantasy: “Sipping a golden elixir from a beautiful piece of stemware while a steady amber glow settles over your world.”

Her reality: “Staring in the bathroom mirror at the miserable woman in the glass, gulping down her wine from a plastic cup.”

Elizabeth Vargas was gripped by the illusion of many alcoholics that she could figure out a way to drink like a normal person despite clear, consistent evidence to the contrary. Eventually, finally, she realized she could not manage alcohol as a part of her existence. With it, her life was completely unmanageable. Without it, maybe she had a fighting chance.

Vargas was a game changer in the news world, becoming the second female anchor (Connie Chung was the first) of a network world nightly news program. She reported on the ground from the Iraq war, covered both Amanda Knox trials in Italy, reported on the Elian Gonzalez controversy and interviewed President Bush. She married successful singer-song writer, Marc Cohn, and they had two lovely boys together.

From outside looking in, she had it all. But Vargas speaks of her sometimes paralyzing anxiety in great detail. Starting early in her life, panic attacks gripped her and continued, even during her most successful and visible days as a leading woman in the news. Initially, she found that a glass of wine or two made her high stress life just a little more tolerable. Until it wasn’t just a glass or two but large quantities that she went to great pains to try and hide from those close to her.  

Vargas writes with sophistication and grace about her drinking history but her stories are no different than those of alcoholics with less education, stature, success and wealth. It took repeated rehab stays, destroying her family, and self-induced, life threatening experiences before she could come to terms with the fact that she was not “terminally unique”: neither in her drinking habits nor in her internal demons.

While she’s sometimes hard to relate to because of her success and notoriety, when she opens up about her inability to control her drinking and the roads it led her down, she’s just another drunk telling a story.

Her beauty, class and grace in looks and storytelling stand as a stark reminder that alcoholism is indiscriminate in its victims and that you don’t ever actually know what it is going on in someone’s life unless they tell you. Vargas didn’t have to tell this story, but she did so in order to share her experience, strength and hope (an AA mantra) with others.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars

Small Town Tumult in "Beartown", by Fredrik Backman - Book Review

If you pick up Beartown with the hopes of getting all the feels and goosebumps you got from A Man Called Ove, let me dispel you of that thought right now. What you will get is a beautifully written book that tackles a spate of complex issues.

While the thrust of the story centers around a sexual assault, author Fredrik Backman also addresses bullying, immigration, sexual orientation, the meaning of true friendship and what being honorable actually means. Seemingly about small-town living, Beartown, at its core, is about people and human survival, regardless of their locale.

Beartown: A Novel
By Fredrik Backman

Since Beartown was published, the Weinstein case and the #MeToo movement exploded into the forefront of the news and, with them, countless accusations of assaults against high powered males all across the country. Suddenly, women have felt safe coming forward and speaking about their stories of abuse. Hopefully, this global exposure will change the face of sexual harassment and abuse as we know it. 

But not in Beartown. A small, dying Swedish town where hockey is the biggest commodity, rapes simply do not occur. Especially by a star hockey player who is the only hope of leading the high school team to victory in its first-time appearance in the national championship game. Once the accusations are made by a teenage girl who was drunk at a party, the lines are drawn and drawn hard. Those who believe him, those who believe her. And those who are inclined to give the accused a pass for the 'better of the whole' because they see the outcome of the hockey game as the town’s only chance of survival.

It is infuriating yet all too similar to what is happening in our daily news. Backman writes with a deft touch about how a sexual assault can rock a community on micro and macro levels. He shows the fierce loyalty of parents who close ranks around their children and support them unwaveringly even though one of them has to be lying. He exposes how the importance of an event – in this case, a hockey championship – can be deemed vastly more important by people who should do better than a criminal investigation.

Even though the book is a couple of years old now, it is hard to imagine one more relevant in our current turbulent times. Not necessarily a feel-good read, but perhaps one that should be required.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Atria Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

 

When You're "Born a Crime", by Trevor Noah - Book Review

Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime is fierce and heartbreakingly hilarious, just like he is. The son of an unmarried South African black woman and a much older Swiss man, Noah was literally “born a crime” under South African law. His birth was not by accident; his mother purposefully conceived him knowing full well the difficulties to which it could lead. But Noah’s mother refused to be bound by rules, laws, and religious tenets that did not make sense to her. And she was the definitive architect of Noah’s upbringing and ultimate success.   

The entire book is really an homage to his mom. Even as he portrays her at her harshest, which will be hard for some to read, his reverence for her is ubiquitous. He gives all credit to her. She read to him, encouraged him to learn as many South African languages as he could (plus English, of course) and let him know that he was free to do WHATEVER he wanted in life. She also chased after him A LOT because, in his own words, he was naughty as shit. “We only moved forward and we always moved fast.”  

Trevor, by his own description was ugly and ridiculous looking, but he found a way to use that to his advantage. Being a clown can garner attention and he used that attention to develop industrious business opportunities in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the world. Despite his present polish, in his writing he occasionally reverts to slang, starting sentences with “me and him.” As annoying as this grammatical error is to me, somehow, it’s endearing from Noah. It reminds you of where he’s been and what he’s gone through to get to where he is now.

Through his own life story, Noah tells the more general story of apartheid and the plight of the truly poor in South Africa. Noah realized early on that having money gave you choices. “People don’t want to be rich. They want to be able to choose.” And, the “teach a man to fish” parable? Noah suggests that’s nice, but you need to give him a fishing rod too. He uses his own illegitimate birth to lay out the racial caste system in the country and to demonstrate how his mixed race secured him advantage in some circumstances and utter discrimination in others.   

Although his adolescence was an incredible struggle, Noah infuses humor and camaraderie into his story telling. He may have been the gawky clown, but he had friends and love and, even in the darkest of times, hope. Trevor Noah has been a force to be reckoned with since he was a boy. I expect he will continue to be for as long as he’s around.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Elizabeth's rating: 4 ½ stars

The Lengths Parents Will Go for Their Children in "Harmony", by Carolyn Parkhurst - Book Review

I recommend this book to any parent. Is it a parenting book? No. Is it a how-to or a self-help? No. It isn’t even non-fiction, it is a novel about a family. A mom and a dad with one daughter who is “neurotypical” (Read: normal) and one daughter who is ultimately diagnosed with “pervasive development disorder, not otherwise specified” (Read: somewhere on the autism spectrum with possibly some ADHD, Asperger’s, Tourette’s, we’re not really sure what else or how to treat her). 

Harmony alternates being told by the precocious, younger daughter, Iris, and the adoring but barely keeping it together mom, Alexandra. The family’s journey through diagnosis and figuring out how best to care for Tilly and her issues leads them to a rural locale outside of D.C. There, they are going to help a gregarious, somewhat mysterious leader, Scott Bean, set up Camp Harmony where they will live semi-off the grid and help other families with problem children. Sound like a cult? Yeah, it did to me too.

Harmony: A Novel
By Carolyn Parkhurst

And that is the major plot line. But, at its center, this book is about the lengths parents will and must go in order to care for those ‘not’ normal children. And about how raising such children is both incredibly painful and simultaneously joyous. Because while such a child “can’t do” and “doesn’t have”, that child might also possess exceptional skills and talents that are a true wonder to experience. About how, yes, the child may be wounded on many levels but also gifted on countless others.

But, for these parents, how do they walk that precarious tight rope of praising their child’s Mensa-level brain and cringing in mortification as that same child is compelled to lick every surface in each public place they go? Parkhurst’s addressing of these issues and writing of her characters made me certain she had specifically dealt with similar circumstances. After reading up on her, I learned that she, in fact, has a son with Asperger’s and a second ‘normal’ child.

I think Harmony is a love letter to both of her children. But she writes that letter around a tense story line that keeps you turning the pages. There is some ominous foreshadowing along the way about a time ‘after’ Camp Harmony and even some brief interludes written by Tilly herself about ‘what happened.’ As you read, you’re never quite sure if Scott Bean is a Billy Graham or a Jim Jones and if the story will end in the singing of Kumbaya around the camp fire or a Jamestown – which makes it impossible to put down.

Parkhurst weaves a captivating story around a desperate family’s need to find salvation. The result is an explosive novel with a deep well of emotions that is definitely worth your time.

Published:2016
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books

Elizabeth's rating 5 stars

"Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging", by Sebastian Junger - Book Review

If you didn’t read Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe when it came out last summer, read it now.  It will only take a few hours, but will leave a lasting impact. Tribe articulates the meaning of the word, its the historical and modern implication, and how a sense of tribe in our personal lives makes us more resilient, better human beings.

Junger’s book covers native American Indian tribes, soldiers returning home from war, citizens living through war, and contemporary civilization; and he examines why and how humans thrive in “tribes” and suffer in modern society. Small tribal communities promote caring and egalitarian values, while today’s culture advocates wealth and technology, fostering competition and isolation. This has vast implications on our mental and societal health.

As a journalist in combat zones, Junger has seen the horrors of war with both troops and citizens native to those war zones. It’s something he poignantly touches on in describing his own experiences. Most of us don’t experience extreme hardship and cannot relate to those returning from embattled zones - whether soldiers, journalists, or peace corps. Reentry into their homes where life has continued is a shock and struggle. The sense of community and common cause while away is gone, often replaced with loneliness and isolation. Aid organizations, including the Veterans Administration, put labels on those who have experienced trauma as victims. Junger’s research has exposed that the idea of victimhood is detrimental to the recovery process, and yet another way of alienating someone from the rest of society.

Junger also explores cultural hierarchy in modern society. He questions why construction workers, for example, have a higher perceived importance than stockbrokers. Construction workers after all, provide our shelter and are far more impactful to our everyday life. Calling this out, he points to a general lack of understanding and disconnectedness to many industries and jobs outside of our immediate purview, whether it is as a soldier, construction worker, farmer, or child caregiver. “This lack of connectedness allows people to act in trivial but incredibly selfish ways,” he says.

Tribe dives to the heart of societal issues - historically tribal cultures thrive mentally and emotionally. Generally, we may live in a financially prosperous world, however it has come at a significant cost to our psychological well-being. People benefit from companionship and a strong sense of belonging; especially to recover from trauma. Modern society does not support a high level of social support that helps to build resiliency.

“American life - for all its material good fortune - has lost some essential sense of unity”

Tribe is a thoughtful piece and has me contemplating my own tribe. Do I have one? How has it evolved from ancient tribes? Have I benefited or suffered? And how do you create a meaningful tribe while maintaining a life in the midst of a competitive environment. It’s sobering, and I highly recommend it.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Twelve

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

Surviving a Cult in the Memoir, "The Sound of Gravel", by Ruth Wariner - Book Review

The Sound of Gravel is a memoir from a surviving member of a polygamist Mormon cult and the author’s focus is on how the strain of the cult’s ‘religious’ tenets affected her family.

Set mostly in Mexico, Ruth Wariner recounts her family’s multi-generational membership in the Colonia LeBaron, which was originally founded by her grandfather in 1944. Though the colony started off hopeful and prosperous, by the time Ruth was born, it was in decline both in membership and sustainability.

Ruth was the fourth of her mom Kathy’s ten children. Ruth’s real dad died when Ruth was small so the only father figure in her life was Lane, her step-father. Lane had other wives with other children and despite very limited resources, Kathy and Lane continued having kids. True to her faith, Kathy believed women were on the earth to bear children for God’s kingdom and God would take care of them irrespective of the realities of their circumstances.

The tone of this cult memoir varies from others due to Ruth’s prescience and objectivity from a young age. Early on, Ruth decides she will not follow in the tradition of her mother’s faith once she has the power to make her own choices. As she virtually raises most of her siblings, she recognizes that her mom’s choices are jeopardizing all of their lives. About her mom, in the end she posits, “she wasn’t a monster, she was just another human who’d gone looking for her life and somehow ended up on the wrong path.”

For Wariner, her story ends on a positive note, but it was no thanks to the circumstances in which she grew up. She prevailed over excruciating hardship and terrible tragedy – all of which could have been avoided but for the presence of the cult in her family’s life.

As most all of these books tend to be, it is a renewed reminder that cults, under the definition of “religions that are unorthodox or spurious”, should be treated with disdain and intolerance. Because the detriment to the whole of group is vastly greater than the benefit to the few at the top.  

Published: 2016
Publisher: Flatiron Books

Elizabeth’s rating: 3 stars

Mini Book Reviews: Spring Break Edition

Spring break is upon us. Schedules are undone, and we're finding different pockets of time to sneak in some reading. Elizabeth's provided us with some great and fun suggestions to get us through the week.

The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware – Lo Blacklock finally gets the break she’s been waiting for in her stagnant career as a low-level journalist. Because of her boss’ unavailability, she’s asked to be her magazine’s representative on the maiden voyage of a five-star luxury cruise boat. Closer in size to a yacht than a cruise ship, this trip brings a whole new meaning to the idea of intimate quarters. Just as she did with the house in A Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware makes the location of the mystery, in this case the boat, a character in and of itself. You’re never really sure what is happening on board. Has there been foul play at sea, is the entire story a figment of Lo’s imagination, or does the truth fall somewhere in the middle? You’ll be turning pages quickly to find out.

 Published: 2016
                                              Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
                                              Elizabeth’s Rating: 4 stars

Under the Influence, by Joyce Maynard – Suffering the harshest of outcomes from a one-time drinking and driving incident, Helen finds herself desperately alone. Fortunately, or so she initially thinks, Ava and Swift Havilland come to her rescue. Believing them to be her saviors, she welcomes their generosity and credits them with the slow turnaround of her circumstances from bleak to hopeful. But as her life becomes more intimately intertwined with theirs, she starts to question their motives and their true characters. Are they trying to help her get back on her feet or are they using her to advance their own interests? When tragedy strikes, loyalties are laid out in unexpected ways.  

Published:  2016
Publisher:  William Morrow Paperbacks
Elizabeth’s Rating: 3 ½ stars

All the Missing Girls, by Megan Miranda – Nic ran away from her small home town Cooley Ridge, NC, after the disappearance of her best friend. A decade later, she returns on the heels of the disappearance of yet another girl with whom she’s connected. Having been the only one of her friends or family to leave town, she is walking back in time to her brother, her ailing dad, and her ex-boyfriend. The telling of the story begins after Nic has been back in town for two weeks. The author then backtracks through Nic’s previous fourteen days, one by one, to tell the entire story weaving in facts about Nic’s high school years and the first girl’s disappearance. While the literary device is novel, it’s confusing. At times, the reader has to sit back and recalculate where exactly the story is which breaks up otherwise effective tension. Disjointed story-telling, good mystery.

                                            Published:  2017
                                            Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
                                            Elizabeth’s Rating: 3 stars

The River at Night
By Erica Ferencik

The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik – This is Deliverance 2.0, 21st century style, with no rape (thankfully). Instead of four men on a camping trip in Georgia, this is four women on a white-water rafting trip in Maine. Instead of dueling banjos between strangers, the common denominator is sign language. A rollicking tale, the story keeps you riveted even though you don’t understand why Winifred, Sandra, and Rachel decided to go on this sketchy trip with their bossy, self-centered friend, Pia, in the first place. The trip should have never gotten off the ground but once you suspend reality to accept that it did, you won’t be able to put the book down until you know what happens. Ferencik also uses some beautiful language that almost seems out of place in this type of read. Good prose + good story telling = great ride. Pun intended.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
                                            Elizabeth’s Rating: 4 stars

Realization of an American Social Crisis in "Hillbilly Elegy", by J.D. Vance - Book Review

These are the people we really don’t talk about. We may drive through their towns on a road trip, but it’s never our destination. We may even roll up the windows as we do, and lock the doors. They live in broken down factory or mining towns, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot to hope for.

J.D. Vance is one of them - a hillbilly. He grew up in Ohio, spent time in Kentucky, but always with his people. There are vast numbers of them that stretch across Appalachia and migrated into other states, following the jobs. Vance’s autobiography and account of the mindset and perspectives of the people living in these regions is not only eye opening, but jarring. I know there are millions of poor and undereducated in the U.S., and sometimes see it on the news or come face to face with it on the street - for a fleeting moment.

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"The Done Thing", by Tracy Manaster - Book Review

A decades’ old murder. The killer on death row. The family he destroyed and left behind picks up the fractured pieces of their lives and moves forward.

The Done Thing
By Tracy Manaster

Now, his daughter Pam is grown and the family fault lines have shifted some. Aunt Lida may have raised Pam as her own but she wasn’t. And Pam may have loved Aunt Lida and Uncle Frank like her parents, but they weren’t. The frailty of these family relationships plays out blatantly in this story. When Pam and Lida’s secrets are revealed to one another, the harshness of the cause and effect on both of them threatens to tear apart their already tenuous relationship.

And while Clarence, the death row inmate, should be the only bad guy in the story, he isn’t always. The shock waves the murder sent through these people’s lives results in some unseemly behavior by characters who were initially victims.

But none of us is all bad and none all good, right? This includes the guy locked up and waiting for the needle. As much as you want the murder story to change, it doesn’t. But through the unfolding of the story, you see the weaknesses in all of the characters, not just the killer. And somehow it’s comforting. While this family’s messiness is greater than most, the familial struggles are all relatable. Love, jealousy, fear, pain. Manaster hits on all of them and tells a good yarn along the way.

No one would ever wish a similar horror on a family, but how far away are any of us, really, from taking things one step too far? A step from which there is no coming back?  

Published: 2016
Publisher: Tyrus Books

Elizabeth's rating: 3½ stars