August 20, 2018

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance


Hillbilly Elegy:A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

by J.D. Vance

Genres: Autobiography, Nonfiction, Politics
Publisher: Harper
Length: 257 pages
Published: June 28, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 2 out of 5 stars (did not finish)

Official Book Summary:

"From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country."

Quote:

"Psychologists call it 'learned helplessness' when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life."

Excerpt:

"Like most small children, I learned my home address so that if I got lost, I could tell a grown-up where to take me. In kindergarten, when the teacher asked me where I lived, I could recite the address without skipping a beat, even though my mother changed addresses frequently, for reasons I never understood as a child. Still, I always distinguished 'my address' from 'my home.' My address was where I spent most of my time with my mother and sister, wherever that might be. But my home never changed: my great-grandmother's house, in the holler, in Jackson, Kentucky."

My Book Review:

As a preface, I did not finish this book so take my review for what it is worth. The author, J. D. Vance, tells the story of his life growing up in "hillbilly" culture. Vance portrays hillbillies as a racist, violent, alcohol- and drug-addicted, lazy, and deadbeat culture (his descriptions, not mine).

I quickly felt that Hillbilly Elegy had a political agenda. As opposed to focusing on memoir with embedded arguments--something along the lines of The Glass Castle or Educated that tell experiences of growing up amid devastating poverty, each with their own moral implications--Vance tells his story in order to use it as a vehicle to build a platform for a career in politics. In so doing, he critiques the scapegoat failures of big business, the education system, and the government.

I picked up the book because it was marketed as a memoir, so I set did not finish it when politics too over. While many readers have enjoyed this book, it was not what I was looking to read at the time.



August 18, 2018

Book Review: My Life in France by Julia Child


My Life in France

by Julia Child and Alex Prud'Homme

Genres: Nonfiction, Autobiography, Biography, Food

Publisher: Anchor Books

Length: 353 pages

Published: republished June 23, 2009
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Note: This memoir is the inspiration for the popular film Julie & Julia.

My Goodreads Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"The bestselling story of Julia’s years in France—and the basis for Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams—in her own words.

Although she would later singlehandedly create a new approach to American cuisine with her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her television show The French Chef, Julia Child was not always a master chef.

Indeed, when she first arrived in France in 1948 with her husband, Paul, who was to work for the USIS, she spoke no French and knew nothing about the country itself. But as she dove into French culture, buying food at local markets and taking classes at the Cordon Bleu, her life changed forever with her newfound passion for cooking and teaching. Julia’s unforgettable story—struggles with the head of the Cordon Bleu, rejections from publishers to whom she sent her now-famous cookbook, a wonderful, nearly fifty-year long marriage that took the Childs across the globe—unfolds with the spirit so key to Julia’s success as a chef and a writer, brilliantly capturing one of America’s most endearing personalities. "

Quote:

"This is my invariable advice to people: learn how to cook--try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!"


Excerpt:

"As a girl I had zero interest in the stove. I’ve always had a healthy appetite, especially for the wonderful meat and the fresh produce of California, but I was never encouraged to cook and just didn’t see the point in it....

I would never have had my career without Paul Child.We’d first met in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) during the Second World War and were married in September 1946. In preparation for living with a new husband on a limited government income, I decided I’d better learn how to cook. Before our wedding, I took a bride-to-be’s cooking course from two Englishwomen in Los Angeles, who taught me to make things like pancakes. But the first meal I ever cooked for Paul was a bit more ambitious: brains simmered in red wine! I’m not quite sure why I picked that particular dish, other than that it sounded exotic and would be a fun way to impress my new husband. I skimmed over the recipe, and figured it wouldn’t be too hard to make. But the results, alas, were messy to look at and not very good to eat. In fact, the dinner was a disaster. Paul laughed it off, and we scrounged up something else that night. But deep down I was annoyed with myself, and I grew more determined than ever to learn how to cook well."

My Book Review:

Written with the help of her niece, My Life in France recounts Julia Child's journey to becoming the world's most famous chef of French cuisine. After having served in the military, met and married her husband, Paul Child, and relocated to France, Julia began taking French cooking courses, determined to learn the French language and improve her skills in the kitchen. Julia learned more than cooking as she learned about a new culture, met a new community, and developed a talent for using the art of cooking to expand horizons.

I listened to the audiobook and enjoyed listening to Julia's story while on vacation. One particular recipe for garlic soup that contains fifteen whole cloves of garlic is still stuck in my head. Julia's story is likable and she's far more personal than I expected, disclosing details about her inability to have children, her relationships with her family, and her sweet relationship with her husband.

The book is a light, quick read and definitely inspires audiences to get in the kitchen and try to cook something new.


August 17, 2018

Book Review: Never That Far by Carol Lynch Williams


Never That Far

by Carol Lynch Williams

Genres: Children's Literature, Middle Grade, Fiction, Fantasy 
Publisher: Shadow Mountain 
Length: 176 pages 
Published: April 3, 2018 
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Note: Among many other titles, Carol Lynch Williams is also the author of The True Colors of Caitlynne Jackson which I read years ago (4 out of 5 stars) and The Chosen One which I've not yet read but recently purchased. Williams once presented as a guest speaker in an undergraduate creative writing course I attended; I remember her being kind, funny, and genuine. 

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars 

Official Book Summary:

"Libby Lochewood is twelve years old when her grampa dies of a heart attack. She is devastated at losing her best friend. Now that he’s passed on, it’s just her and her father, and he is so overcome by grief that he can barely get out of bed in the morning. The night of the funeral, though, Grampa’s spirit appears in Libby’s bedroom and tells her three important things: first, that she isn’t alone or forgotten-“The dead ain’t never that far from the living,” he says; second, that she has “the Sight”-the ability to see family member who have died; and three, that there is something special just for her in the lake. Something that could help her and her father-if she can find it.

Libby begins her search along with her friends Bobby and Martha, but it’s hard to know if they’ve found what Grampa wanted her to find since they don’t really know what it is. As Libby’s father falls deeper and deeper into depression, Libby and Grampa work together to help her father believe that their loved ones who have died are much closer than he thinks. But it will take all of Libby’s courage and her gift of Sight to convince her father that the dead are never truly gone."

Quote:

"The dead ain't never that far from the living."

Other titles by Carol Lynch Williams

Excerpt:

"'What you doing, girl?' Daddy said when the burying was done.

I stood on the unpainted block fence and looked off East.

The Lake Mary Church of Christ preacher, Melinda Burls, had said the dead go East. Couldn't give me a reason when I asked her why.

'They just do, Libby,' she said, and with one finger, she touched the top of my head like she was baptizing me all over again. Then she tapped her stomach where a long string of fake pearl beads ended up. 'I know it right here.'

'In your belly?' I squinched my eyes.

The beads swung over her scrawny self. I felt a little sorry for her. But not too much.

'In my heart,' she said."

My Book Review: 

Very earnest (perhaps too much for some readers), but a beautiful story about family, death, grief, the afterlife, and families being united forever.

Williams' middle-grade, children's novel begins in medias res after the funeral of twelve-year-old Libby's best friend and grandfather. Now that life is just Libby and her father (her mother died years earlier), Libby feels lonelier than ever. Her father goes off to work during the day, occassionally the local preacher woman will stop by or do some cooking, but Libby's life is quiet and her grief feels overwhelming. One night after his death, Libby's grandfather appears to her in her bedroom. Grampa lets her know that he's there for her, that others in her family have had this ability to "see" beyond the grave, and that he left her something special in the lake. Though Libby tries to convince her father of the true of Grampa's otherworldy visit, her father remains stubborn and doesn't want to speak of the subject. Compelled by the mystery to discover what her grandfather left for her to find in the lake, the novel takes on a magical realism mode as Libby befriends a boy who's determined to help her in her search. More importantly, he believes what she said she saw.

The novel is very earnest (perhaps too sincere for some readers), but overall it is a beautiful story about family, death, coping with grief, and families being united forever through an afterlife. There were areas where I wish Williams had provided more backstory or detail; her descriptions are lovely and well-written, but I would have loved her to establish what life was like before Libby's grandfather died as well as to better transition between some of the scenes and moments of action.

That being said, I enjoyed the novel's sweetness and was motivated to look into more of her novels since it has been many years since I read The True Colors of Caitlynne Jackson. Her book, The Chosen One, looks interesting and tackles contemporary polygamy. If you have read other Carol Lynch Williams novels, I am interested to hear your recommendations.


August 15, 2018

Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


The Ghost Map:
The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--
And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

by Steven Johnson

Genres: British History, Science, Nonfiction, Heath & Medicine
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
Length: 299 pages
Published: October 19, 2006
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars 

Official Book Summary:

"From Steven Johnson, the dynamic thinker routinely compared to James Gleick, Dava Sobel, and Malcolm Gladwell, The Ghost Map is a riveting page-turner about a real-life historical hero, Dr. John Snow. It's the summer of 1854, and London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure -- garbage removal, clean water, sewers -- necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.

In a triumph of multidisciplinary thinking, Johnson illuminates the intertwined histories and interconnectedness of the spread of disease, contagion theory, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry, offering both a riveting history and a powerful explanation of how it has shaped the world we live in."


Quote:

“How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline: the sociology of error.”

Excerpt: (from Chapter One)

"It is August 1854, and London is a city of scavengers. Just the names alone read now like some kind of exotic zoological catalogue: bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, mud-larks, sewer-hunters, dustmen, night-soil men, bunters, toshers, shoremen. These were the London underclasses, at least a hundred thousand strong. So immense were their numbers that had the scavengers broken off and formed their own city, it would have been the fifth-largest in all of England. But the diversity and precision of their routines were more remarkable than their sheer number. Early risers strolling along the Thames would see the toshers wading through the muck of low tide, dressed almost comically in flowing velveteen coats, their oversized pockets filled with stray bits of copper recovered from the water's edge. The toshers walked with a lantern strapped to their chest to help them see in the predawn gloom, and carried an eight-foot-long pole that they used to test the ground in front of them, and to pull themselves out when they stumbled into a quagmire. The pole and the eerie glow of the lantern through the robes gave them the look of ragged wizards, scouring the foul river's edge for magic coins. Beside them fluttered the mud-larks, often children, dressed in tatters and content to scavenge all the waste that the toshers rejected as below their standards: lumps of coal, old wood, scraps of rope."


My Book Review:

A fascinating and gross look at the cesspools, sewers, smells, contaminated drinking water, and poop (so much poop!) involved in the 1854 cholera outbreak in London.

As a nineteenth-century scholar, the book provided everything for which I was looking: I learned much, cringed frequently, and was able to better understand just how quickly the cholera epidemic spread and why it was so difficult for contemporary experts to figure out how to stop the disease and save innumerable lives.

I would easily award the book four stars for its very interesting and in-depth research, but the conclusion and epilogue felt far too long. If you are interested in medical history, science and diseases, or just enjoy descriptions capable of making you gag, then this book for you.


August 13, 2018

Book Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate


Before We Were Yours

by Lisa Wingate

Genres: Historical Fiction 
Publisher: Ballantine Books 
Length: 342 pages 
Published: June 6, 2017 
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 or 4.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Two families, generations apart, are forever changed by a heartbreaking injustice in this poignant novel, inspired by a true story, for readers of Orphan Train and The Nightingale.

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize that the truth is much darker. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together—in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancĂ©, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions—and compels her to take a journey through her family's long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or redemption.

Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong."

From the book's dedication

Quote:

"People don't come into our lives by accident."

Excerpt:

"August 3, 1939

My story begins on a sweltering August night, in a place I will never set eyes upon. The room takes life only in my imaginings. It is large most days when I conjure it. The walls are white and clean, the bed linens crisp as a fallen leaf. The private suite has the very finest of everything. Outside, the breeze is weary, and the cicadas throb in the tall trees, their verdant hiding places just below the window frames. The screens sway inward as the attic fan rattles overhead, pulling at wet air that has no desire to be moved.

The scent of pine wafts in, and the woman’s screams press out as the nurses hold her fast to the bed. Sweat pools on her skin and rushes down her face and arms and legs. She’d be horrified if she were aware of this.

She is pretty. A gentle, fragile soul. Not the sort who would intentionally bring about the catastrophic unraveling that is only, this moment, beginning. In my multifold years of life, I have learned that most people get along as best they can. They don’t intend to hurt anyone. It is merely a terrible by-product of surviving.

It isn’t her fault, all that comes to pass after that one final, merciless push. She produces the very last thing she could possibly want. Silent flesh comes forth—a tiny, fair-haired girl as pretty as a doll, yet blue and still.

The woman has no way of knowing her child’s fate, or if she does know, the medications will cause the memory of it to be nothing but a blur by tomorrow. She ceases her thrashing and surrenders to the twilight sleep, lulled by the doses of morphine and scopolamine administered to help her defeat the pain.

To help her release everything, and she will."

From the book's dedication

My Book Review:

This historical fiction novel is based on the true story of a corrupt children's orphanage in Tennessee that secretly trafficked children. By kidnapping children from poor families or drugging new mothers after childhood, the so-called orphanage kept themselves in business. Its cruel leader, Georgia Tann, had corrupt police officers and mob-like connections who helped perpetuate her dealings. Knowing the story comes from truth really makes it a punch to the gut and even more relevant now as the horrors of human trafficking continue worldwide and must be stopped.

The novel has two alternating narrators: twelve-year-old Rill Foss narrates her life on the river with her four siblings and young parents during 1939, and Avery Stafford is a federal prosecutor who stumbles upon the secrets of the survivors of this orphanage when she meets an older woman in a nursing home.

I definitely liked the historical narrative much more than the present-day one. One of my friends called the modern-day storyline "Hallmark" and I would have to say she was pretty spot-on with that assessment. My aversion to Avery's narrative was the political backdrop which felt unneccessary and self-important. However, Rill's descriptions of her home on the Mississippi River and the abuse they undergo after they're kidnapped is powerful, well-written, and a compelling page-turner. I felt so immersed in the setting and wholly invested in seeing Rill reach some sort of safety, security, or justice. I really adore thoughtfully researched historical fiction and Lisa Wingate's novel was even better than I had hoped it would be. I definitely recommend it.


August 10, 2018

Book Spotlight: Relativity by Antonia Hayes

Australian cover (the version I received)

Relativity

by Antonia Hayes

Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Gallery Books
Length: 368 pages
Published: May 3, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Thank you to Gallery Books and Goodreads for sending me a copy of Relativity by Antonia Hayes!

Official Book Summary: 

"Twelve-year-old Ethan Forsythe, an exceptionally talented boy obsessed with physics and astronomy, has been raised alone by his mother in Sydney, Australia. Claire, a former professional ballerina, has been a wonderful parent to Ethan, but he’s becoming increasingly curious about his father’s absence in his life. Claire is fiercely protective of her talented, vulnerable son—and of her own feelings. But when Ethan falls ill, tied to a tragic event that occurred during his infancy, her tightly-held world is split open.

Thousands of miles away on the western coast of Australia, Mark is trying to forget about the events that tore his family apart, but an unexpected call forces him to confront his past and return home. When Ethan secretly intercepts a letter from Mark to Claire, he unleashes long-suppressed forces that—like gravity—pull the three together again, testing the limits of love and forgiveness.

Told from the alternating points of view of Ethan and each of his parents, Relativity is a poetic and soul-searing exploration of unbreakable bonds, irreversible acts, the limits of science, and the magnitude of love."

U.S. cover

Excerpt:

"Before you hear any words, you can hear the panic.

It surfaces as an irregularity of breath, a strain of vocal cords, a cry, a gasp. Panic exists on a frequency entirely its own. Air into air, particle by particle, panic vibrates through the elastic atmostphere faster than the speed of sound. It's the most sudden and terrible thing, piercing the calm and propelling us toward the worst places. Before the words come out the anxiety is there, roaring on the other side of silence. Before your brain can register what you're being told, you know that something is wrong. And before you can respond it's already too late. Because once you've heard those words, an event is set in motion and everything will change.

'Help,' he said. 'He's not breathing.'"

Book received from the publisher.


August 8, 2018

Book Review: Stitches by David Small


Stitches

by David Small

Genres: Graphic Nonfiction/Novel, Memoir, Young Adult Literature
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co.
Length: 329 pages
Published: September 8, 2009
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award and finalist for two 2010 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards: the prize-winning children’s author depicts a childhood from hell in this searing yet redemptive graphic memoir.

One day David Small awoke from a supposedly harmless operation to discover that he had been transformed into a virtual mute. A vocal cord removed, his throat slashed and stitched together like a bloody boot, the fourteen-year-old boy had not been told that he had cancer and was expected to die.

In Stitches, Small, the award-winning children’s illustrator and author, re-creates this terrifying event in a life story that might have been imagined by Kafka. As the images painfully tumble out, one by one, we gain a ringside seat at a gothic family drama where David—a highly anxious yet supremely talented child—all too often became the unwitting object of his parents’ buried frustration and rage.

Believing that they were trying to do their best, David’s parents did just the reverse. Edward Small, a Detroit physician, who vented his own anger by hitting a punching bag, was convinced that he could cure his young son’s respiratory problems with heavy doses of radiation, possibly causing David’s cancer. Elizabeth, David’s mother, tyrannically stingy and excessively scolding, ran the Small household under a cone of silence where emotions, especially her own, were hidden.

Depicting this coming-of-age story with dazzling, kaleidoscopic images that turn nightmare into fairy tale, Small tells us of his journey from sickly child to cancer patient, to the troubled teen whose risky decision to run away from home at sixteen—with nothing more than the dream of becoming an artist—will resonate as the ultimate survival statement.

A silent movie masquerading as a book, Stitches renders a broken world suddenly seamless and beautiful again. Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award (Young Adult); finalist for two 2010 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards (Best Writer/Artist: Nonfiction; Best Reality-Based Work)."



Quote:

"When you have no voice, you don't exist."

Alternate cover

My Book Review:

Without a doubt, the most depressing male-authored graphic memoir I have ever read. The life of sadness and abuse David Small endured is very upsetting.

Portrayed through a grayscale graphic nonfiction/novel format, Small recounts a childhood of ongoing neglect and abuse at the hands of his parents and his older brother. At first, Small story is very quiet--the audience can quickly tell he is often on his own, quietly entertaining himself with the help of his imagination until the next violent outburst by his parents. Small's father works as a radiologist and his stay-at-home mother is distant and cruel. Small is subjected to repeated x-rays as a child, a medical technology his father feels holds the cure and answer to every disease and ailment. When a neighbor notices a growth on Small's neck and asks his parents to attend to the issue, Small undergoes a surgery without any words of comfort or guidance from his family. He awakes with a jagged scar and the complete loss of his voice. It is only years later as Small continues to survive abuse that he learns he had cancer.

While the illustrations fit the dark tone of Small's memoir, his experiences are very painful to read and see sketched out on the page. The book is marketed for young adults, but due to its content, might be better suited to new adult audiences or at least prefaced with a trigger warning.


August 6, 2018

Book Review: Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson


Where Am I Now?
True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame

by Mara Wilson

Genre: Celebrity Memoir, Humor
Publisher: Penguin Books
Length: 259 pages
Published: September 13, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"For readers of Lena Dunham, Allie Brosh and Roxane Gay, this funny, poignant, daringly honest collection of personal essays introduces Mara Wilson—the former child actress best known for her starring roles in Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire—as a brilliant new chronicler of the experience that is growing up young and female.

Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of the cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set of Melrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. But they also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong. Exquisitely crafted, revelatory, and full of the crack comic timing that has made Mara Wilson a sought-after live storyteller and Twitter star, Where Am I Now? introduces a witty, perceptive, and refreshingly candid new literary voice."



Quote:

"If you can affect someone when they're young, you are in their hearts forever."

Excerpt:

My Book Review:

Mara Wilson's Where Am I Now? is most engaging when she is writing about her childhood celebrity and her relationships with both the actors and characters that informed her youth, but this makes up only about half of the text.

The memoir is saddest when Wilson writes a letter to the character Matilda to tell her how much she meant to her at the time her mother died.

The book is creepiest when Wilson talks about Hollywood's perverse sexualization of child stars. Wilson writes that this is part of the reason she stopped acting, because the acting industry did not consider her to be beautiful enough. I believe that in sharing these experiences, Wilson hopes this will stop happening to other child actors.

In her memoir, Wilson details how she has dealt with lifelong worries, fears, paranoias, and OCD as she has moved from child star to teenager to adult. The second half of the book feels like filler (there is an entire chapter on show choir), with the only exception being a small chapter on her love for Robin Williams and her feelings about his death which was undoubtedly upsetting. As audiences read the book, it is more interesting to hear Wilson talk about her childhood--the reason audiences are drawn to this title in the first place--than when she writes about her adulthood and dating life. In part this is due to the fact that those narratives do not match the representation Wilson has just provided: she describes herself as having a quirky sense of humor and liking to tell funny stories, but these later chapters are neither uniquely engaging nor humorous.

Overall, the book is okay, but a little disappointing.



August 4, 2018

Book Spotlight: The Great Nadar by Adam Begley


The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera

by Adam Begley

Genre: Biography, Art
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books

Length: 256 pages
Published: July 11, 2017
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Thank you to Goodreads and Tim Duggan Books for sending me an advanced copy of The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera.

Official Book Summary:

"A dazzling, stylish biography of a fabled Parisian photographer, adventurer, and pioneer.

A recent French biography begins, Who doesn't know Nadar? In France, that's a rhetorical question. Of all of the legendary figures who thrived in mid-19th-century Paris a cohort that includes Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Gustave Courbet, and Alexandre Dumas Nadar was perhaps the most innovative, the most restless, the most modern.

The first great portrait photographer, a pioneering balloonist, the first person to take an aerial photograph, and the prime mover behind the first airmail service, Nadar was one of the original celebrity artist-entrepreneurs. A kind of 19th-century Andy Warhol, he knew everyone worth knowing and photographed them all, conferring on posterity psychologically compelling portraits of Manet, Sarah Bernhardt, Delacroix, Daumier and countless others a priceless panorama of Parisian celebrity.

Born Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, he adopted the pseudonym Nadar as a young bohemian, when he was a budding writer and cartoonist. Later he affixed the name Nadar to the facade of his opulent photographic studio in giant script, the illuminated letters ten feet tall, the whole sign fifty feet long, a garish red beacon on the boulevard. Nadar became known to all of Europe and even across the Atlantic when he launched "The Giant," a gas balloon the size of a twelve-story building, the largest of its time. With his daring exploits aboard his humongous balloon (including a catastrophic crash that made headlines around the world), he gave his friend Jules Verne the model for one of his most dynamic heroes.

The Great Nadar is a brilliant, lavishly illustrated biography of a larger-than-life figure, a visionary whose outsized talent and canny self-promotion put him way ahead of his time."

Excerpt:

"The year is 1865, or possibly 1864. The place is a four-story building on the south side of the boulevard des Capucines, between Le Madeleine and the Opera, strolling distance from the epicenter of fashionable Paris. If you look up, you'll see near the top of the facade of number 35 a name in giant script: Nadar, signed with a flourish in red glass tubing, the letters ten feet high, the whole trademark fifty feet long. at night the sign is gaslight, a garish crimson beacon advertising the studio of the most famous photographer in France. Nadar is a celebrity, renowned not only for his portraits of eminent contemporaries but also for his caricatures, his writings, his radical politics, and his daredevil exploits as a balloonist. Today he will be calling upon several of his talents at once: his is at work on a portrait of himself as an aeronaut, a task that combines self-exposure with self-promotion and self-caricature. His motives, like almost all motives, are mixed. The photography will advertise his art, promote the cause of human flight--the cause closest to his heart (at the moment)--and serve a specific commercial purpose: generate publicity for a memoir of his most notorious ballooning adventure. But he's chronically incapable of suppressing the artistic ambition that has shaped his photographic career--that is, the urge to capture in every portrait an intimate and compelling psychological likeness. This photo will be a triumph."

Book received from the publisher.

August 3, 2018

Book Review: The Tudors by G. J. Meyer


The Tudors:
The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty

by G. J. Meyer

Genres: History, Nonfiction, Biography

Publisher: Delacorte Press

Length: 612 pages
Published: February 23, 2010

Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Note: If you're interested in Tudor history, be sure to also read Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, and Queens by Jane Dunn (4 out of 5 stars). 

My Goodreads Rating: 4.5 or 5 out of 5 stars 

Official Book Summary:

"For the first time in decades, here, in a single volume, is a fresh look at the fabled Tudor dynasty, comprising some of the most enigmatic figures ever to rule a country. Acclaimed historian G. J. Meyer reveals the flesh-and-bone reality in all its wild excess.

In 1485, young Henry Tudor, whose claim to the throne was so weak as to be almost laughable, crossed the English Channel from France at the head of a ragtag little army and took the crown from the family that had ruled England for almost four hundred years. Half a century later his son, Henry VIII, desperate to rid himself of his first wife in order to marry a second, launched a reign of terror aimed at taking powers no previous monarch had even dreamed of possessing. In the process he plunged his kingdom into generations of division and disorder, creating a legacy of blood and betrayal that would blight the lives of his children and the destiny of his country.

The boy king Edward VI, a fervent believer in reforming the English church, died before bringing to fruition his dream of a second English Reformation. Mary I, the disgraced daughter of Catherine of Aragon, tried and failed to reestablish the Catholic Church and produce an heir. And finally came Elizabeth I, who devoted her life to creating an image of herself as Gloriana the Virgin Queen but, behind that mask, sacrificed all chance of personal happiness in order to survive.

The Tudors weaves together all the sinners and saints, the tragedies and triumphs, the high dreams and dark crimes, that reveal the Tudor era to be, in its enthralling, notorious truth, as momentous and as fascinating as the fictions audiences have come to love." 

Quote:

"It matters also that both Henry and his daughter Elizabeth were not just rulers but consummate performers, masters of political propaganda and political theater."


Excerpt:

"None of the events that have made the second Henry Tudor the most famous king in history happened in 1534. Henry VIII divorced no one that year, married no one, killed no eminent person. But the year was a milestone all the same, arguably the great turning point in his stunningly eventful career. When it began he had deteriorated only enough to be the sort of person you would hate to be seated next to at a dinner party: arrogant, opinionated, a bully inclined to self- pity, invincibly confident of his own charm, and certain that he knew best about everything that mattered. Before the year ended he had become what he would remain for the rest of his life: a full-fledged tyrant in the strictest sense of the word, a homicidal monster, absurd, pathetic, mortally dangerous.

A person in Henry’s predicament, a man whose pride has walled him up in such impregnable isolation, becomes incapable of an emotion as healthy as gratitude. Certainly he cannot see himself as merely lucky. His fate, he thinks, is coterminous with divine will. Everything good that befalls him does so in fulfillment of God’s great plan for the universe. Every disappointment can be traced neither to God nor to some failure on his own part (that is impossible; he could never commit a serious error) but to something outside himself that is cosmically out of joint. Nonetheless, lucky is what Henry was—one of the luckiest human beings who ever lived."

My Book Review:

A wonderfully researched and thorough look at England's Tudor monarchy. An especially impressive and accessible study of the period's key figure, King Henry VIII, who serves as the star of the book. Ultimately, this is the most interesting and largest section of Meyer's account as it gets the most of attention, but I really wanted to hear more about Mary and Elizabeth and their adult reigns. While the sections on Henry VII, Edward VI, and the disputed reign of Lady Jane Grey are shorter, the brevity understandably matches their less dramatic eras. May and Elizabeth, however, do feel short-changed.

Both their bloodthirst and cruelty seem to reflect that of Henry VII's, but at the conclusion of the text I did not feel as well-acquainted with their personalities and motivations as I did with Henry's. For that reason, I immediately followed my reading of this book with a reading Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, and Queens by Jane Dunn (4 out of 5 stars) so I could get to understand these female monarchs better; I was not disappointed.

The details about the violent hangings and death-by-burnings committed by these royal figures is shocking, but Meyer does a fantastic job explaining the impact these monarchs had upon their kingdom. If you are at all interested in Tudor history, I highly recommend this book.


August 2, 2018

Book Review: Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger


Etiquette and Espionage
(Finishing School, Book #1)

by Gail Carriger

Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction/Fantasy
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Length: 307 pages
Published: February 5, 2013
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Note: Etiquette and Espionage is the first in a four-part series titled Finishing School and is followed by Curtsies and Conspiracies, Waistcoats and Weaponry, and Manners and Mutiny.

My Goodreads Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"It's one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It's quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners--and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. So she enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might have hoped. At Mademoiselle Geraldine's, young ladies learn to finish...everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage--in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year's education."

Quote: 

“If there is gossip to be garnered, garner it. If there are new dress styles to be imitated, imitate them. If there are hearts to be broken, break them. That's my girls.”



Excerpt: (from Chapter One)

"Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea. Mrs. Barnaclegoose had arrived with a stranger in tow. Meddling old battle-ax. With the hallways patrolled by siblings and household mechanicals, eavesdropping was out of the question. The only way of overhearing her mother, Mrs. Barnaclegoose, and the stranger was from inside the dumbwaiter. Mrs. Barnaclegoose had decided opinions on reforming other women's daughters. Sophronia did not want to be reformed. So she had pressed the dumbwaiter into the service of espionage." 

My Book Review: 

Not my taste for young adult literature. The story had some interesting ideas, but I felt too much was thrown into the plot's blender.

The story follows the pupils of an all-girl's espionage school during the Victorian era--this, in and of itself, sounded like a curious twist on the classic school story mode. I'm afraid that for me, however, this premise jumps the shark once readers learn the school is set in an airship ("OK," I thought, "Maybe this will be science-fiction like The Lunar Chronicles"), but then the plot throws in vampires, werewolves, and technological advances except all of the ones that would make sense to me given the time period.

The Finishing Academy sets out to teach girls to seduce and kill while adhering to 19th-century gender roles. This clash between a contemporary YA romance framework with a historical fiction background, set in both fantasy and science fiction realms that weren't fully realized, made the book a bit messy.

While I didn't particular enjoy the novel, I've heard one friend say she enjoys Carriger's books because the series is relatively clean compared to some other YA texts. Since I didn't read the whole series I cannot attest to that myself, but the books might appeal to some audiences, perhaps those who aren't bothered by blurred lines of genre, reality, historical, and scientific accuracy.


August 1, 2018

Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks


World War Z

by Max Brooks

Genres: Horror, Science Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic, Zombie
Publisher: Crown
Length: 342 pages
Published: September 12, 2006
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Audible

My Goodreads Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. "World War Z" is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing the often raw and vivid nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, 'By excluding the human factor, aren't we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn't the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as "the living dead"?'"



Quote: 

“Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they're used.”  

Excerpt: (from Chapter One)

"Greater Chongquing, The United Federation of China

[At its prewar height, this region boasted a population of over thirty-five million people. Now, there are barely fifty thousand. Reconstruction funds have been slow to arrive in this part of the country, the government choosing to concentrate on the more densely populated coast. There is no central power grid, no running water besides the Yangtze River. But the streets are clear of rubble and the local 'security council' has prevented any postwar outbreaks. The chairman of that council is Kwang Jingshu, a medical doctor who, despite his advanced age and wartime injuries, still manages to make house calls to all his patients.]

The first outbreak I saw was in a remote village that officially has no name. The residents called it 'New Dachang,' but this was more out of nostalgia than anything else. Their former home, 'Old Dachang,' had stood since the period of the Three Kingdoms, with farms and houses and even trees said to be centuries old. When the Three Gorges Dam was completed, and reservoir waters began to rise, much of Dachang had been dissassembled, brick by brick, then rebuilt on higher ground. This New Dachang, however, was not a town anymore, but a 'national historic museum.' It must have been a heartbreaking irony for those poor peasants, to see their town saved but then only being able to visit it as a tourist. Maybe that is why some of them chose to name their newly constructed hamlet 'New Dachang' to preserve some connection to their heritage, even if it was only in name. I personally didn't know that this other New Dachang existed, so you can imagine how confused I was when the call came in."


My Book Review: 

Gory, redundant, and a lot of cursing. While I really like the concept of a fictional, worldwide journalistic endeavor and the author created an interesting blend of voices, zombie literature is just not my thing. If you want something haunting and full of post-apocalyptic despair, read The Road by Cormac McCarthy instead.


March 13, 2018

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate


The One and Only Ivan

by Katherine Applegate

Genres: Middle Grade Fiction, Animal Stories
Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 307 pages
Published: January 17, 2012
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Audible
Note: The One and Only Ivan was a recipient of the John Newberry Medal. It is also available as an adapted picture book.

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.


Official Book Summary:

"Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

Katherine Applegate blends humor and poignancy to create Ivan’s unforgettable first-person narration in a story of friendship, art, and hope."


Quote: 

"Memories are precious...they help tell us who we are."

Excerpt:

"I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.

It's not as easy as it looks.

People call me the Freeway Gorilla. The Ape at Exit 8. The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback.

The names are mine, but they're not me. I am Ivan, just Ivan, only Ivan.

Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.

Everyone knows the peels are the best part."


My Book Review: 

Charlotte's Web meets Blackfish. Ivan is a gorilla in a private business zoo park. He sits in his small enclosure day after day with very little exposure to the outside world or the natural habitat of the world in which he should be living. Over the course of story, readers see Ivan make friends, sacrifice, find freedom and eventual happiness. The tale is very sweet and moving and a wonderful children's book for both child, teen, and adult readers. The illustrations are lovely, the story is easy to read, but the message and themes are moving and powerful.


October 26, 2017

Book Review: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer


Here I Am

by Jonathan Safran Foer

Genre: Contemporary Literary Fiction
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Length: 571 pages
Published: August 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Notes: Jonathan Safran Foer is the acclaimed author Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Everything is Illuminated, and Eating Animals. In my opinion Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a genius 5-star read and I've reread it several times.

My Goodreads Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"In the book of Genesis, when God calls out, 'Abraham!' to order him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham responds, 'Here I am.' Later, when Isaac calls out, 'My father!' to ask him why there is no animal to slaughter, Abraham responds, 'Here I am.'

How do we fulfill our conflicting duties as father, husband, and son; wife and mother; child and adult? Jew and American? How can we claim our own identities when our lives are linked so closely to others’? These are the questions at the heart of Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in eleven years--a work of extraordinary scope and heartbreaking intimacy.

Unfolding over four tumultuous weeks in present-day Washington D.C., Here I Am is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. As Jacob and Julia and their three sons are forced to confront the distances between the lives they think they want and the lives they are living, a catastrophic earthquake sets in motion a spiraling conflict in the Middle East. At stake is the very meaning of home–and the fundamental question of how much life one can bear.

Showcasing the same high-energy inventiveness, hilarious irreverence, and emotional urgency that readers and critics loved in his earlier work, Here I Am is Foer’s most searching, hard-hitting, and grandly entertaining novel yet. It not only confirms Foer’s stature as a dazzling literary talent but reveals a mature novelist who has fully come into his own as one of the most important writers of his generation. 


Quote: 

"You only get to keep what you refuse to let go of."

Excerpt: (from Part One, Chapter One)

"When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether or not to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home. He had lived in an apartment with books touching the ceilings, and rugs thick enough to hide dice; then in a room and a half with dirt floors; on forest floors, under unconcerned stars; under the floorboards of a Christian who, half a world and three-quarters of a century away, would have a tree planted to commemorate his righteousness; in a hole for so many days his knees would never wholly unbend; among Gypsies and partisans and half-decent Poles; in transit, refugee, and displaced persons camps; on a boat with a bottle with a boat that an insomniac agnostic had miraculously constructed inside it; on the other side of an ocean he would never wholly cross; above half a dozen grocery stores he killed himself fixing up and selling for small profits; beside a woman who rechecked the locks until she broke them, and died of old age at forty-two without a syllable of praise in her throat but the cells of her murdered mother still dividing in her brian; and finally, for the last quarter century, in a snow-globe-quiet Silver Spring split-level: ten pounds of Roman Vishniac bleaching on the coffee table; Enemies, A Love Story demagnetizing in the world's last functional VCR; egg salad becoming bird flu in a refrigerator mummified with photographs of gorgeous, genius, tumorless great-grandchildren.

German horticulturalists had pruned Isaac's family tree all the way back to the Galician soil. But with luck and intuition and no help from above, he had transplanted its roots into sidewalks of Washington, D.C., and lived to see it regrow limbs. And unless America turned on the Jews--until, his son, Irv, would correct--the tree would continue to branch and sprout. Of course, Isaac would be back in a hole by then. He would never unbend his knees, but at his unknown age, with unknown indignities however near, it was time to unball his Jewish fists and concede the beginning of the end. The difference between conceding and accepting is depression.

Even putting aside the destruction of Israel, the timing was unfortunate: it was only weeks before his eldest great-grandson's bar mitzvah, which Isaac had been marking as his life's finish line ever since he crossed the previous finish line of his youngest great-grandson's birth. But one can't control when an old Jew's soul will vacate his body and his body will vacate the coveted one-bedroom for the next body on the waiting list. One can't rush or defer manhood, either. Then again, the purchase of a dozen nonrefundable airplane tickets, the booking of a block of the Washington Hilton, and the payment of twenty-three thousand dollars in deposits for a bar mitzvah that has been on calendar since the last Winter Olympics are no guarantee that it's going to happen."


My Book Review: 

Trademark JSF-style, but dripping with marital bitterness and *extreme* crudity thrown in (seriously crass, even if you're a JSF fan it's unending).

The novel details the breakup of Jacob and Julia's marriage, their identity and faith crises, emotional detachment from their children, their children's pain, and a Middle Eastern earthquake and resulting war.

As usual, Foer excels in depicting coming-of-age and elderly male voices and his insights into Jewish identity are powerful. While both Jacob and Julia are greatly unlikable, Foer positions the guilty husband as the misunderstood, pained victim and his wife (the *only* female character of any substance in the novel) as nothing short of a cruel monster. This portrayal here of the sole depiction of womanhood as nothing short of a one-dimensional demon is annoyingly transparent given Foer's   recent divorce and makes for uncomfortable reading.

At times the writing of Here I Am is without a doubt four-star quality, but the crassness could sink this ship for many.

August 31, 2017

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini


A Thousand Splendid Suns

by Khaled Hosseini

Genres: Historical & Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Riverhead
Length: 372 pages
Published: May 22, 2007
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Audible
Note: Khaled Hosseini is also the best selling author of The Kite Runner, an equally amazing read. I have not yet read but look forward to reading his latest title, And the Mountains Echoed. If you've read that, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

My Goodreads Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Official Book Summary:

"Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them—in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation."

Quote: 

"I will follow you to the ends of the world."


Excerpt: (from Chapter One)

"Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami.

It happened on a Thursday. It must have, because Mariam remembered that she had been restless and preoccupied that day, the way she was only on Thursdays, the day when Jalil visited her at the kolba. To pass the time until the moment that she would see him at last, crossing the knee-high grass in the clearing and waving, Mariam had climbed a chair and taken down her mother's Chinese tea set. The tea set was the sole relic that Mariam's mother, Nana, had of her own mother, who had died when Nana was two. Nana cherished each blue-and-white porcelain piece, the graceful curve of the pot's spout, the hand-painted finches and chrysanthemums, the dragon on the sugar bowl, meant to ward off evil.

It was this last piece that slipped from Mariam's fingers, that fell to the wooden floorboards of the kolba and shattered."

My Book Review: 

A heartbreaking story of two generations of Afghanistan women whose lives become painfully intertwined.

Mariam is a character whose story you can't easily forget and without a doubt one of the most heartbreaking stories I've ever read. As a child she lives with her mother and is neglected by her father as her birth was the result of an affair. Though her father is a bigamist, her birth outside of a marriage relationship ostracizes both Mariam and her mother from the community. While she sees her father on rare occasions, Mariam feels desperate to spend more time with him and against her mother's wishes, travels to the city to his home. Her father refuses to allow her entrance and shuns her, leaving her alone overnight in the street. When one of her father's servants takes her home, Mariam discovers her mother has taken her life. Devastated and feeling a seeming burden to everyone around her, her father arranges a marriage to do away with her. Mariam's husband is not only a stranger, but much older and verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive.

A generation younger than Mariam, the novel next tells the tale of Laila, a young girl whose childhood is far happier as she's raised in a loving and warm home. When Mariam's husband takes a pregnant Laila as his second wife, the tension between the two women and the secrets they carry creates a dramatic, painful, and yet beautiful story of friendship between women fighting to survive.

Though the story is for a mature audience, I cannot recommend it enough. Its portrayal of the lives of women in Kabul is unforgettably powerful.


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