Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for May, 2016

Me Before You

Posted by nliakos on May 31, 2016

by Jojo Moyes (Penguin 2012; ISBN 978-0-14-310946-4)

Louisa Clark has just lost her job at a café in her English home town, and she’s desperate to find another. She finally lands a position as a companion/caregiver to a rich young quadriplegic, Will Traynor. At first, Will is sulky and rude, but over time, Louisa and Will’s relationship begins to develop into a kind of friendship. Inevitably, Louisa’s feelings for Will go beyond simple friendship. But Will is planning to end his life; in fact, hiring Louisa is a last-ditch effort by his parents to get him to change his mind. Louisa is so horrified that Will would contemplate such a thing and that his parents would let him do it that she quits the job, but is persuaded to return by Mrs. Traynor. Will Lou succeed in convincing Will that life is worth living? (I’m not telling.)

The right to die is central to this story, making it somewhat more thought-provoking than your average romance. Lou’s relationships with her parents, her sister, her boyfriend Patrick, Will, his parents, and his nurse, Nathan, are all explored in the novel (which is narrated mostly by Louisa, but occasionally by her sister, Will’s mother, and Nathan), as is the intellectual and personal growth Lou experiences through her relationship with Will. I could hardly put the book down, finishing it in 24 hours. I wonder if the movie is as riveting as the book! (It’s coming out this Friday. I just watched the trailer. Must see it!)

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The Secret Chord

Posted by nliakos on May 30, 2016

by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2015; ISBN 978-0-670-02577-0)

If only Geraldine Brooks could write her historical novels as fast as I read them! I have now run out of Brooks’ novels (but am looking forward to sampling her nonfiction, especially Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over, which was recently recommended by a librarian at my local library).

The Secret Chord is the story of David–of David & Goliath fame, yes, King David, the writer of psalms–narrated by Natan (Nathan),  who has divine visions of what will be (and sometimes what is or what has already been) and serves as an advisor and confidant to David. An aging David has authorized Natan to interview people from his past about his life and to record the story; Natan, having finished this task, refers to the securing of the manuscript in “the high, dry caves where [he] played as a child”–perhaps a reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the possibility that such a manuscript might someday be unearthed.

Brooks/Natan portray David as a gifted musician and poet, a charismatic leader, and  a military and political strategist, whose abundance of love for his sons leads him to spoil them outrageously, thus sowing the seeds of his downfall. His seduction (or rape?) of Batsheva, wife of the faithful general Uriah, ends in tragedy for all, but eventually Batsheva (now a favorite wife) will bear the child who will become David’s successor–Shlomo (Solomon).

It makes me want reread the story of David in the Bible, because I am curious as to how much Brooks fabricated and from what actual references. (I did the same after reading The Red Tent.) I also guess that the songs and poems quoted in the novel are actual psalms, although I did not recognize any of them.

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Spider Woman’s Daughter

Posted by nliakos on May 23, 2016

by Anne Hillerman (Harper 2013; ISBN 978-0-06-227049-8)

Tony Hillerman’s daughter Anne has taken up the mantle of continuing her father’s Leaphorn and Chee  mystery series. I have only read a few of these, but someone gave me this one, and I liked it well enough, although I am not so enamored of mysteries as I once was. Joe Leaphorn himself is out of action in a hospital CCU after being shot in the head by an unknown assailant. It’s up to Jim Chee and his wife Bernie Manuelito, Leaphorn’s former colleagues, to solve the mystery. Of course, there are some tense moments when it looks as though the assailant will succeed in getting rid of them, but I don’t think I will spoil anyone’s reading experience to say that the assailant’s evil plot does not succeed.

Lots of information about Navajo rugs, Chaco pots, and the Navajo way of thinking. There’s an interesting side story concerning Bernie’s relationships with her ailing mother and younger sister.

Posted in Fiction, Mystery, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

March

Posted by nliakos on May 21, 2016

by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2005; ISBN 0-670-03335-9)

I guess most American women have read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women at some point; I know I did, but it wasn’t a favorite that I reread over and over, and my memory of it is quite vague, despite having seen the 1994 movie based on it. Basically, I remembered that the main character was named Jo, and that was about it.

Jo had three sisters (Meg, Beth, and Amy), a mother named Marmee (which I took to be an odd spelling of Mommy, but according to this, it was her nickname), and a father who wasn’t there. It was set in Massachusetts during the Civil War, and he had gone away to minister to the Union troops fighting to end slavery. Master storyteller Geraldine Brooks tells Mr. March’s side of the story in this amazing historical novel.

In the fascinating afterword, Brooks explains that she based her Mr. March’s character on Alcott’s own father, Amos Bronson Alcott, who, like Mr. March and his wife, was a fervent abolitionist. Alcott was a teacher; Mr. March is a minister (albeit an unconventional one) who becomes a teacher to runaway slaves (so-called “contraband”) on a northern-run cotton plantation in Virginia while the war rages on in other parts. (One of his pupils will use the literacy skills he taught her to save his life later).

March is a strict vegan (again, Brooks based this trait on Alcott’s father, who founded a commune whose members eschewed not only meat but also wool, and who refused to fertilize their fields with animal manure or to kill agricultural pests that were ruining their crops) and very dedicated to pacifism and abolition. The horrors of the war sorely test his values, and during a horrific attack on the plantation by a rebel militia, his survival instinct will not allow him to sacrifice his life for his friends, leaving him a changed man, one who is overcome with guilt and self-hatred. March feels doubly guilty because the war has brought him back into the presence of Grace Clement, whom he had encountered as a young man when she was a slave on her father’s plantation, and with whom he had a dalliance.

Several chapters told from Marmee’s point of view, when March is hospitalized in Washington, DC and physically unable to write his own story, explore the shock and pain experienced by the wife as she realizes that her husband has not been completely faithful to her.

Like all of Brooks’ novels, this one pulls the reader into the hearts and minds of the characters and teaches about the period and the events they are living through in a fascinating way. (I feel inspired to reread Little Women.)

 

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A Woman of Substance (Harte Family Saga Book 1)

Posted by nliakos on May 21, 2016

by Barbara Taylor Bradford (RosettaBooks LLC, 1979, 1984)

The first in a series of books about the family of Emma Harte, A Woman of Substance tells the story of how Emma, born into poverty in a Yorkshire village on the estate of the Fairley family, rises to wealth and power due to her intelligence and stubbornness. Emma’s rise is driven partly by her desire to seek vengeance on the Fairleys, because she was abandoned, pregnant, by Edwin Fairley, son of the current lord. So she devotes her life to the Fairleys’ ruin, and she eventually achieves it, only to find that her cherished granddaughter Paula has fallen in love with a Fairley, who happens to be in her (Emma’s) employ. Along the way, there are several marriages and romances and lots of machinations.

I am not a romance reader, and although I found the story engaging, I also thought it was very over-written and unbelievable (all of the main characters are gorgeous; several [astonishingly handsome, muscular/masculine] men become so hopelessly enamored of Emma that they can no longer function; Emma reminds me of Ayla in The Clan of the Cave Bear–she is Proto-(Business)Woman, singlehandedly inventing the modern department store and more…). I read it with interest but am not tempted to read further books in the series.

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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Posted by nliakos on May 2, 2016

by Michelle Alexander (The New Press 2010; ISBN 978-1-59558-103-7)

This book is a shocking exposé of institutionalized racism in America. Alexander’s basic premise is that when slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy, it was replaced by Jim Crow (legal discrimination against people of color, primarily in the South); when Jim Crow was ended by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, it was replaced by the mass incarceration of African American and Latino people that we have today, due in large part to the War on Drugs begun under President Reagan but intensified by President Clinton and others–everyone wants to be seen as being “tough on crime”. As a result of mandatory sentencing laws, a very large proportion of African American adults (males in particular) are either in prison or are trying to reintegrate into a society that shuns them due to their status as felons. Their debt to society is eternal, as is their punishment. (White drug offenders typically manage to avoid incarceration.)

According to Alexander, all three cases–slavery, segregation, and incarceration–are instances of racial caste. She writes, “In this age of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination–employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service–are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” (p. 2)

Alexander makes a convincing case for her thesis (backed up by 30 pages of notes and citations). I felt that she could have made the case in fewer words; there is much repetition. In the six years since its publication, I have both heard and read about the scandal of mass incarceration in the U.S.; I wonder if this book played any role in that. In fact, just a few weeks ago there was a piece on 60 Minutes about German prisons, which are like a paradise compared to U.S. prisons. So we in America are beginning to rethink the system, because it doesn’t work to rehabilitate criminals. On the contrary, it works to cycle criminals in and out of prison, since once they are released they find themselves legally discriminated against in housing, employment, and education, and they often lose their right to serve on a jury or vote, yet we somehow expect them to function in society. When they turn to crime again (because it is often the only avenue open to them), we blame them, and re-incarcerate them.

What I never realized, however, is that our prison system, and the fact that so many poor African American men are in prison, is no accident, and it is not because black people use or sell more drugs than white people do but because the police and the courts deal with white crime differently. Following the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment (protection against unreasonable searches and seizures) and the militarization of the police, police forces around the country target poor African American communities with drug busts, SWAT teams and arrests. And the fact that some whites are incarcerated and some blacks are wildly successful (think: Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleeza Rice…) only serves to maintain the fiction that those who are incarcerated deserve their fate because they have chosen to break the law–they are not incarcerated because of their race. The fact that 90 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes are African American seems unfortunate but does not raise a red flag in our “colorblind” era.

Alexander points out in her final chapter that reforming the American criminal justice system is a huge challenge which cannot be overcome unless we end the War on Drugs and cast off the “colorblindness” we have adopted in the post-Jim Crow era.

This book is a must-read by all Americans.

 

 

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