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

A Lack of Depth in "First Comes Love", by Emily Giffin - Book Review

Having been a dedicated Emily Giffin reader since her first book, Something Borrowed, I anxiously awaited the arrival of her new one, First Comes Love. Despite reading it in only a few days, I was sorely disappointed in this one.

First Comes Love follows the Garland family after the loss of their eldest son, Daniel. This is not a giveaway since you learn about his death in the first chapter. The book primarily focuses on his two younger sisters, Josie and Meredith, and how they sort through their lives after he’s gone. While the book starts with a flashback to his death, the story is set fifteen years afterwards.

The problems with this book are numerous. First, neither Josie nor Meredith is particularly likable. Josie is a former theater actor turned high maintenance lawyer who hates her job and her life, for the most part, even though it is one to be envied. And this is not a case of deep seated clinical depression gone untreated. She’s just dissatisfied and ventures out to determine why.

Josie is a self-centered elementary school teacher wallowing over failed relationships and the fact that she is fast approaching forty with no baby of her own. So, taking matters into her own hands, she begins investigating insemination despite sorely lacking maturity to be a mother.

While Giffin usually excels at character development and ferreting out the good in her otherwise flawed characters, in this book, the development feels hurried and shallow. Even as she tries to have Josie and Meredith become more self-aware and less rigid respectively, she does so with such quick strokes it isn’t believable.

Also, though many of Giffin’s books have some things left unresolved at the end, in this one, it feels as though she just got tired of writing. She tries to wrap up major life issues for the characters with a few short chapters and it simply doesn’t ring true. If her intent was to leave it open for a sequel, she failed to present an Act I worthy of warranting an Act II.

To me, the book felt as though Giffin was under the gun to get something out. She may have accomplished her goal but she gave us a book that falls well short of the standard we have come to expect. 

Published: 2016
Publisher: Ballantine Books

Elizabeth's rating: 2 stars 

Having Fun with "Troublemaker", by Leah Remini - Book Review

Fully understanding the wrath that Scientology brings down on those who speak out against the “church”, Leah Remini comes out swinging in her new book, TroubleMaker, which chronicles her life in the church as well as her departure.

She admits right up front to being a liar, a cheater and a home wrecker. She even airs her family’s dirty laundry in an effort to cut the Church of Scientology off at the pass. In her words, she did it “to save them some money” by not having to undertake a smear campaign to discredit her.

Where Going Clear by Lawrence Wright should be the assigned text for anyone who wants a true look inside the history of L. Ron Hubbard and his “religion”, TroubleMaker is the salacious gossip side of the story. Remini does a fabulous job of describing in detailing the tenets of Scientology, how it works, and what happens when you step out of line in the eyes of the leadership.

She also dishes on what we want to hear about most: Tom Cruise, the most famous Scientologist, his star studded wedding, and, to a lesser degree, other A-listers who are members.

Remini writes like she acts. She’s noisy, a bit crass, and somewhat defensive and insecure. But she is more prophetic in print that I’ve ever considered her to be on screen. While she has very specific personal reasons for striking out at the church, the book isn’t just a rag session.  It digs pretty deep into the soul of Scientology and how it casts a net over its members that can be virtually impossible to escape. The sheer fact that she didn’t leave sooner evidences the vice-like grip the church exercises on its members.

TroubleMaker is a survivor’s story sprinkled with humor and the type of glimpses inside the life of a show biz star that we all relish reading. It is a page-turner if not a work of literary genius. She is brave for telling her story and while I used to actively not like her (probably in large part due to her Scientology beliefs), I came away from the book not only liking her but rooting for her.   

Published: 2015
Publisher:  Ballantine Books

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars