Category Archives: Book Reviews

Swing Time by Zadie Smith ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  453

Publication Date:  November 15, 2016

Format:  Audiobook

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2016), Europese Literatuurprijs Nominee (2017)

 

A sweeping multi-layered novel that reads like a dance through childhood into adulthood, across cultures, exploring race, class and gender issues.  At the heart of this novel is the friendship between two “brown girls” growing up in public housing estates but in school with a largely white community in London.   They see each other at dance class and are immediately drawn to each other, to the same tone of skin, similar but opposites.  They are opposites in that one has a white obese doting mother that lathers her daughter with praise and attention while the other has a black mother subsumed with leftist politics and educating herself seemingly hardly noticing her daughter.  The narrator feels like an accessory to her mother.  She feels barely noticed and out of place until her friendship with Tracey begins.

The narrator is unnamed throughout the novel and her childhood friend is Tracey, who is  boisterous, adventurous, fun loving and narcissistic.  The narrator seems to float through the novel on the energy of others.  First and foremost, there is Tracey’s energy that dictates their play and social lives.  Tracey is a brilliantly talented dancer and though the narrator loves dancing, she lacks Tracey’s talent.  They spend countless hours watching videos of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Michael Jackson to name a few.

The narrator’s Jamaican mother, a modern day Nefertiti, is a left wing feminist and activist studying politics and philosophy.  The father lacks motivation, but is loving and doting towards his family.  This is in sharp contrast to Tracey’s family, where there is an absent father.  Tracey creates stories to explain where he is and what he is doing, but it seems he left them and has a new family.  Though the narrator’s mother criticizes Tracey’s mother and her habits, the narrator enjoys the quiet of Tracey’s home compared to the anger in her own home where her mother no longer wishes to be married to her father.

Jealousies arise and tensions result.  The girls in childhood had written stories of “ballet dancers in peril.”  Tracey would create and dictate these stories while the narrator transcribed.  Always, just as it seemed the happy ending would arrive, disaster would result.  Thus, Tracey’s stories foreshadow the end of the beautiful friendship of Tracey and the narrator.  Tracey tells the narrator a story about her father, which may be fact or fiction, that causes them to cease speaking to each other for over a decade.

The narrator goes off to college and leaves behind Tracey and their friendship.   After a few gigs as a dancer, Tracey’s dancing career fades and she is a single mother to three children all by different fathers and is still living in the public housing estates, a fate the narrator’s mother warned against.  The narrator begins working for a big name singer/dancer named Aimee.  Aimee’s life is large.  She has many people who work for her, numerous boyfriends, children by various men, she travels widely, and becomes interested in opening a girls’ school in an un-named country West Africa.  The narrator again is living in the shadow of another large personality, not living a life of her own, running on the energy of another.  The narrator travels back and forth getting to know the inhabitants this West African country, watching the fall out of diaspora that occurs there as people (especially men) begin to leave.

The narrator is eventually drawn back to Tracey through her mother who has been working for Parliament.  The narrator’s mother reaches out to the narrator pleading with her to ask Tracey to stop harassing her with countless letters that initially ask for help, but then begin to criticize the government, and her mother, and the inability of anybody to help with her situation.  Her mother becomes consumed and tortured by these letters, unable to think of anything else.  She is guilt ridden and seemingly identifying Tracey rather than the narrator as her daughter as she is dying,

When the narrator confronts Tracey, Tracey asks her who she is trying to be.  The narrator’s voice has changed, her life has changed.  After leaking the childhood video, Tracey sends it to the narrator with a note saying, “now everyone knows who you really are.”  Are we our childhood selves?  Is who we are defined by who we connect and interact with?  Is that identity forever changing?  How much of that identity is tied to gender, class and race?  How much of our childhood identity, our moral core, do we keep with us?

This novel is beautifully written, incredibly expansive and brings up awesome philosophical questions.  There are so many layers to this novel, that one could go on dissecting this for a very long time.  I highly recommend this book to everyone.  It would make a superb book club book.  My one wish for this novel is that the narrator had more presence, but I think that is part of the point of this book.  She floats on the energy of others, she is visible in the shadows of her relationship with others.  Class, race and gender issues are often seen in reaction to the narrator.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the narrator remains un-named for the duration of this novel?  What effect does this have on the reader?
  2. Compare and contrast the fathers of Tracey and the narrator.   Discuss how Tracey’s story about the narrator’s  father drew a wedge in their friendship.  Do you believe Tracey’s story?
  3. Compare and contrast Tracey and the narrator’s mothers.
  4. The narrator’s mother compares the narrator’s life to slavery.  She is working for Amy and not living a life of her own.  What do you think the narrator really wants from life?
  5. Tracey’s father talks about how there is distinct separation of races inside prison, where on the outside there is mixing.  How much mixing do Tracey and the narrator experience?  Are they fundamentally drawn to like as well?
  6. Discuss the experience of being of mixed race, not being fully white or black as experienced by the narrator and Tracey.
  7. Discuss the complexities of girlhood friendships and how this might change as girls mature into adults?
  8. The narrator’s mother tells the narrator that she is nothing if she uses her body for work rather than her mind.  The narrator tells her mother that she is nothing.  How is this a coming of age moment?
  9. Discuss the relationship the narrator has and the warmth she feels from her father as compared to her mother.
  10. Why does our obsession with celebrities allow for a certain amount of chaos?
  11. Discuss the video made of Tracey and the narrator dancing.  What effect does it have at the time and how does this come back to haunt the narrator?
  12. When the narrator goes to West Africa she is told repeatedly “things are difficult here,” when she tries to go somewhere or do something on her own.  Why?  Why do they treat her with “kid gloves”?
  13. Compare the fates of the women in the West African village to Tracey’s fate.
  14. Discuss the culture and community that the narrator experiences in West Africa.  How does Amy’s presence and the wealth that flows in change things?  Discuss the diaspora that is happening.
  15. The narrator’s mother becomes part of Parliament, but is beaten down and tormented by the letters that Tracey sends.  Why do you think these letters affect her so deeply?
  16. Why does the narrator go to visit Tracey and her children as the novel ends?  What is her intent?

 

 

New York Times Review by Holly Bass

Review in The Atlantic by Dayna Tortorici

Review by Annalisa Quinn for NPR

Interview with Zadie Smith on NPR

 

 

 

The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so their Children can Succeed by Jessica Lahey ~ Book Review

Pages:  243

Publication Date:  August  5, 2014

Format:  Softcover book

 

 

 

 

“Children whose parents don’t allow them to fail are less engaged, less enthusiastic about their education, less motivated and ultimately less successful than children whose parents support their autonomy.”

The bottom line of this book written by parent and educator, Jessica Lahey, is don’t bail your children out.  They need to learn from their mistakes.  They need to learn how to organize themselves, regulate themselves and deal with mishaps in the world they live in now so that they can become high functioning adults.  Jessica Lahey, being an educator talks at length about maintaining good relationships with teachers.  She incorporates much history of parenting and various theories and research from many other sources.  Anyone reading this will come come away with their own take-away points depending on their children’s ages, family dynamics and unique family stressors.  Below I am outlining ten take-away points that I felt were important as regards my own family and parenting philosophy.

  1.  Grit = ability to attend to a task and stick to long-term goals –> greatest predicted of success.
  2. If parents back of pressure and anxiety over grades and achievement & focus on the bigger picture, grades will improve and test scores will go up.
  3. Intrinsic motivation happens when kids feel autonomous, competent, and connected to the people and world around them.
  4.  People can be divided into 2 mindsets:  fixed & growth.  A fixed mindset believes that intelligence, talent and ability are innate and remain the same through life, no matter what one does.  A person with a growth mindset believes that these qualities are simply a starting point, and that more is always possible through effort and personal development.  These people thrive on challenge and understand that failure and trying again is part of becoming smarter, better or faster.
  5. Praise for effort, not inherent qualities to foster the growth mindset.
  6. The more independent you allow your children to be the more independent they will become.  However, children also need rules, behavioral guidelines and structure.  Limits make kids feel safe and cared for.
  7. Communicate family participation (rather than chores) and avoid nagging or pestering.
  8. Free play is undervalued in our children’s social and emotional growth.  Peer play is significantly more predictive of academic success than standardized achievement tests, by 40%.  Avoid intervening in conflict resolution between children’s friends and siblings.
  9. As kids get older, we need to trust them more, and when they live up to our trust, catch them doing things right and praise them.  Keep an eye out for good judgement, character and resilience, and let them know that’s what you value above all else.
  10. Practical guidelines to help your child manage transitions: create predictability in the household, keep a family calendar, kids should keep their own schedule as soon as they are able, a regular sleep schedule and model calm.

 

 

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  320

Expected Publication Date:  August 22, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

This book felt like just what I needed!  Funny, warm, and engaging, Young Jane Young captures what it’s like to be a woman at various stages of life.  It highlights the stereotypes and cultural biases that we have not moved much beyond since the days of the Puritans and the writing of The Scarlet Letter.  It characterizes several generations of women within the same family and their varied responses and attitudes toward similar situations.   It is told from multiple perspectives and there is even a section from Jane Young’s perspective that puts the reader in the driver seat in a choose your own adventure format.

Young Jane Young is a twenty-something female who was born Aviva Grossman.  Aviva Grossman works as a summer intern for Congressman Levin, who also happened to be a neighbor of hers when she was a child.  They begin an affair despite the fact that he is much older, married and her employer.  When they are found out, there is huge backlash against Aviva, but very little towards the Congressman.  Aviva is unable to even get a job, which is incredibly disheartening as she was hoping to go into politics and had been doing an excellent job during the internship.  The internet serves as her “scarlet letter” ruining her social life and any chances for a career.  She feels there is nothing left to do except change her name and move out of state.

I don’t want to give too much away, but this book comes full circle with redemption, fulfillment, forgiveness and understanding all coming into play towards the end after a bit of a rollercoaster ride.  Aviva is able to triumph over her past, first by escaping it, and later, by facing it head on at a time when she is much stronger and more self assured.   This book is a huge slap in the face to the slut shaming that goes on in situations like these!  This writing is powerfully feminist exposing gender inequalities and casual misogyny in today’s society.  The women have their flaws, no doubt, however, they feel incredibly real and relatable.  Even if the reader may not have made the same choices as these women, I think the reader can empathize with their choices through the context of the writing.  The writing is wonderful, fun and enjoyable.  This is a book out to prove a bit point, but does so with much humor and warmth along the way.  I highly recommend this book to all women, young and old.  It would make an excellent book club book, as there is so much to discuss as well as cheer for!

 

Monica Lewinsky & Bill Clinton, the couple who seemed to be the inspiration for this novel

 

 

Monica Lewinsky, from NBC, where she discusses “the culture of humiliation”

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Compare and contrast Aviva Grossman to Hester from The Scarlet Letter.  In what ways has society and gender bias changed since the writing of that book in 1850  to present day?  How, in effect, does the internet become Aviva’s scarlet letter?
  2. Discuss the fallout of the affair between Aviva and Congressman Levin.    What consequences do each face?
  3. Why do you think Embeth stays by her husband?  Why do you think so many wives in politics stand by their husbands after public outing of affairs?
  4. Compare and contrast the situation of Aviva Grossman and Monica Lewinsky.
  5. Rachel’s husband was cheating on her throughout her marriage.  Why did she put up with it for so long?  Do you think this had an effect on Aviva in her decision to carry on with an affair with the Congressman?
  6. Embeth appears ready to die and even hopeful for it.  She compares her predicament to being a victim of human trafficking at one point.  Do you feel that this is a fair comparison?  Why or why not?
  7. Why do you think that Embeth was never interested in becoming friends with Rachel, when clearly Rachel felt that she had tried?
  8. Why do you think Roz puts her husband’s version of the story (that Rachel kissed him) above Rachel’s version?  Do you think their friendship is mendable?
  9. Do you think Jorge is the father of Jane’s daughter?  Do you think they will ever tell him?
  10. What do you think Wes West’s wife’s secret is?  Why do you think Wes West is such a bully?
  11. Discuss the figure and beliefs of Mrs. Morgan.  How is she pivotal in turning Jane’s life around?
  12. Discuss the meaning of the title.  By the end of the novel, when Jane Young is running for mayor, do you think that Mrs. Morgan would still refer to her as Young Jane Young?  How has she changed or matured?
  13. Did you enjoy the choose your own adventure component to this book?  What do you think it added?
  14. There are so many examples of casual misogyny within this book, such as “douchebag,” and “old wives tales.”  Which other ones can you name from this book and from life?
  15. Aviva and her professor discuss the meaning of feminism.  What is your definition of feminism?

 

Kirkus Review of Young Jane Young

Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk

Gabrielle Zevin’s website

Review by Bookspoils, a fellow book blogger

The Legend of Wonder Woman Vol.1: Origins by Renae DeLiz and Ray Dillon~ Graphic Novel Review

Pages:  288

Published: December 16, 2016

Format:  Hardcover book

 

 

 

 

If I had ever known the origin story for Wonder Woman as a child, I had completely forgotten it in adulthood.  It is a marvelous story and one that is well told in this beautiful rendering by Renae DeLiz and Ray Dillon.  I love that Diana (Wonder Woman) is the daughter of the immortal god, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, given life out of clay by Gaea.  She is born on Themyscira, a planet for the immortals, where her mother hopes she can live an immortal peaceful life.  However, Diana senses she has another purpose in life and begins warrior training in secret with Alcippe.  A mortal, a fighter pilot named Steve Trevor, lands on Themyscira as part of a plot by Ares to overthrow Hippolyta.  His plan is foiled when Diana wins the tournament and is named champion.  Diana accompanies Steve Trevor by boat to the boundary between Themyscira and Earth, but ends up being pushed out of Themyscira to Earth herself by Poseiden.

On Earth, Diana is befriended by singer, Etta Candy, who takes Diana under her wing acclimating her to life on Earth.   Etta follows Diana to France to aid in the war effort during WW2, where Etta will sing and Diana will work as a nurse.  Diana goes there in pursuit of an evildoer that is raising the dead Axis forces that are told to destroy the remaining Allied forces.  The man in command of the destruction wears the baetylus, which Diana immediately recognizes as a sacred item of her mother’s.

Diana becomes a WW2 heroine as both a civilian and Wonder Woman.  She is a fighter for truth, more often than not, impairing her enemies by showing them the truth with her lasso than actual physical harm.  She is willing to give up a normal life to protect life on Earth.  This is a coming of age story for the young Diana Prince, who must discover who she is, where she came from, and what her purpose must be.

This is not my usual genre, so I thank Book Riot Read Harder 2017 Challenge for pushing me outside of my usual comfort zone.  This was a stunning book, one I had a hard time putting down.  I have renewed respect and love for the heroine, Wonder Woman, and am so glad I was able to get to know her better through this graphic novel.  I highly recommend this everyone!  The combination of Greek God background and WW2 hero made this entirely compelling.

The movie Wonder Woman was released in the United States on June 2, 2017.  Did you see it?  I have not yet seen the movie, but I plan to watch it and write a follow-up post in reaction to it.  An interesting fun fact is that, in October 2016, the United Nations named Wonder Woman a “UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls.”  Two months later she was dropped from her role, following a petition.

 

 

 

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  320

Expected Publication Date:  August 1, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

An intense collection of stories, each one told from the perspective of a young girl living in NYC in the 1990s with parents who had immigrated from Shanghai.  The stories demonstrate the manifestations and aftermath of the trauma experienced by the parents in Mao era China and the varying coping mechanisms they utilize.  Some parents drink excessively, others work such long hours such that they almost never see their children, while others cannot get enough of their children and are by their sides at all times.  One father is physically abusive to his wife while another has an endless string of girlfriends.  There is a grandmother who feels the only worthy thing in life is being a mother, so attempts to become the mother to her grandchildren, confabulating about the days when she breastfed them.  She demands that they love her to an extreme.  These are stories that show how the horrors of a generation (the Chinese in 1960’s China) affect future generations of children (American-Chinese growing up in NYC in the 1990s.)

It is about the children of immigrants in a country where English is not their primary language.  It is about the interaction of these girls with both their families and the outside world.  One girl is made to go back to ESL classes with each move and new school district, even though she has placed out them them repeatedly.  There is an intensity to childhood friendships, a pushing and pulling, a competition that feels far more negative than positive.  The stories delve into the girls’ exploration of their bodies and developing understanding of sex.  It is often vulgar and disturbing.  The emotional aspect of keeping up with peers about sex and foul language is a weight on some of these girls.  The language the children use, both in conversation with each other and with their parents,  is often angry and vulgar.  There is desperation and depression felt through these characters.  These girls are coming of age, learning about themselves and their bodies, learning about their place in the world.  It is all at once confusing, disastrous and exciting for them.

In addition to portraying 1990’s NYC, the author offers glimpses of the year 1966 in China, when schools were out and children ran wild.  The children were given the freedom and power to turn on any adult, accuse them of being counterrevolutionary, and proceed to torture and even kill them.  One disturbing scene had a teacher tortured while tied to a tree by her students out of revenge for shaming one of the students in school.   Anyone could be named counterrevolutionary.  Particularly, anyone who wore their hair long and loose, anyone thought to be an intellectual, a member of the bourgeois class… or simply as a personal vendetta.

The writing is marvelous.  Jenny Zhang is a masterful storyteller.  However, the content is graphic.  It is often horrifying, disturbing and seemingly distasteful. There is no sugar coating on these stories.  These stories are full of grit, grime and dirt.  There is anger, depression, sadness and sometimes joy.  For me, Zhang was a unique original voice.   I am glad I read these stories, but I caution others who might be sensitive to foul language or graphic subject matter.  Sour Heart is the first book to be published with the LENNY imprint, a new imprint, in partnership with Random House, led by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner.

 

Jenny Zhang, the author, her twitter image

Discussion Guide:

  1.  Do the characters in this book face discrimination?  In what forms did it manifest?  Who feels self hatred because of race  and why?
  2. Explain the title of the novel.  Which character is referred to as sour?  Why do you think she is this way?
  3. Many of the characters in this novel are searching for ways to be love or people to love them.  Why is this such a strong theme within this book?
  4. How do you think most of the characters felt? What was their emotional state of mind?
  5. These stories are all told from the female perspective.  Would you describe the writing as feminist?  Why or why not?
  6. Zhang does an excellent job illustrating various experiences of Chinese American families in NYC in the 1990s.  How does she portray/sterotype other races (Dominican, Caucasian, Taiwanese, Hispanics, Blacks) within her stories?
  7. Did you feel that the vulgarity within this book was over the top or genuine to the experience?
  8. What is the motivation for Lucy’s mother to take Frangie in?  How does Lucy retaliate?
  9. In many of these stories there is a competition to be loved most.  Why do you think Annie’s mother needs to be the center of attention and feel the most loved?  Why is this also true for Stacy’s grandmother?
  10. Discuss the evolution of Jenny’s relationship with her brother and how this changes with age.
  11. Mande’s parents have a physically abusive relationship.  Mande and Fanpin become friends because of their mothers.  Why do you think Fanpin becomes domineering over Mande?
  12. What do you suppose happens after Mande’s mother gets pushed out of the car?  Do they go back for her?  Does she survive?
  13. Discuss some of the self destructive behaviors exhibited by the characters in these stories.  Why are these characters becoming self destructive?
  14. We know that the author was born in Shanghai and grew up in Queens.  In one story the protagonist is Jenny.  In another, the family name is Zhang.  How autobiographical do you think these stories or any one story might be for the author?

 

Jenny Zhang’s website

Interview with Jenny Zhang by Charlotte Shane in Medium

Kirkus Review of Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  462

Published:  September 6, 2016

Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2016)

Format:  Audiobook

 

 

This was a gorgeously written book reminiscent All the Light We Cannot See in the beauty of its writing and the descriptiveness of its prose.  Count Alexander Rostov has come before a tribunal in the year 1922 because of a controversial piece of poetry written back in 1905.  If found guilty of inciting action against the current Bolshevik regime through the writing and distribution of this poem, which he is,  he could be killed or sent to Siberia.  However, instead, he is  placed under house arrest.  As he had been living in the Hotel Metropol, this is where he will remain.  Upon receiving his sentence he is moved up to a small room in the attic and out of his luxurious suite.  He must  choose among his belongings which to take with him.

After the tribunal, the Count seems to shrink himself away and even contemplates suicide briefly,  However, very soon he returns to life again and the reader begins to know the real Count.  The Count is first and foremost a gentleman.  He is a man of intellect, with exquisite manners and refined tastes, a loyal friend, and a man who believes in doing things the right way.  He is charming and charismatic.  He is a man to love throughout this novel.  When he takes on a task, he does it to his utmost ability.  Once he has come to terms with life within the confines of the hotel, it becomes a mini city for him.  Young Nina, the Eloise of the hotel, becomes his tour guide creating a playground of the landscape.  Willowy Anna Urbanova becomes his lover.  He begins to work in the Boyarski, one of the hotel’s restaurants.  He develops close relationships with Emil the chef, Andrey the matre’ d, and Vasily the concierge and they begin to have nightly meetings together.

It is within the confines of the hotel, that the Count must view Russia, the war and it’s changing political landscape.  His friend Mishka from school visits off and on, and seems to suffer from the changing times.  Nina, an idealist and thinker, grows up and marries.  She returns asking the Count to care for her daughter, Sofia,  while she seeks out her husband who has been taken away.  These are just a couple of the Count’s visitors through whose eyes the Count must view the outside world.  The Count while under house arrest for these 30 years, actually seems to be the  one who has been privileged.  He has escaped World War II.  He has escaped the replacement of a Tsarist aristocracy with Bolchevism.  Within the Hotel, the Count gains privilege as the head waiter of the Boyarsky.  He sets table arrangements for members of the Communist party and gains access to their conversations.  At the same time he is secretly councils one of the high ranking Soviet apparatchik in American and European language and culture.

There are many developments and twists as the story evolves, so I will say no more. It is an excellent book with well developed characters and interesting historical backdrop.  I listened to this, however, I would have much preferred to have read it.  Given the lengthy descriptions, I found myself tuning out at times and thinking of other things.  This is a novel that demands a lot of attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the Count was ordered to house arrest rather than a more severe punishment?
  2. What does Nina teach the Count?
  3. How do you think the Count was able to get away with meeting all the various people that he did?
  4. Who wrote the poem for which the Count is arrested?  Why do you think the Count protects his friend?  Why does he feel that by protecting his friend, he was actually the more protected?
  5. Describe life for Mishka during the Count’s 30 years in the hotel.  Compare and contrast this with the Count’s life.
  6. Why are the wine labels removed?
  7. Why do you think the Count is allowed as much autonomy as he does under house arrest?  Do you think this is realistic?
  8. What qualities make the Count a gentleman?  How do society’s negative connotations of aristocracy compare to the positive qualities of a gentleman?
  9. Why do you think Casablanca the Count’s favorite movie?  What does it suggest about the Count’s perception of his situation?
  10. Discuss the Count’s role as a father.
  11. At one point, the Count is accused of keeping all of his eggs in separate baskets.  Explain this.
  12. Discuss the scene on the rooftop with the beekeeper.
  13. Why is the reader asked to remember Prince Petrov?  How is his role important towards the end of the book?
  14. Discuss the ending of the book.  Where do you think Sofia and the Count will end up living?

 

Craig Taylor’s New York Times Review

Amor Towles Website

LitLovers Discussion Questions

Penguin Random House Discussion Guide

 

milk and honey by Rupi Kaur ~ Book Review

Pages: 204

Published: November 4, 2014

Format:  Paperback Book

 

 

 

 

this is the journey of 

surviving through poetry 

this is the blood sweat tears 

of twenty-one years 

this is my heart 

in your hands 

this is 

the hurting 

the loving 

the breaking 

the healing 

– rupi kaur

What a lovely collection of poetry that contains so much depth, beauty, love, pain, insight, wisdom and kindness!  It was amazing to me how much emotion, feeling and wisdom could be contained in so few words.  There is so much empowerment contained within this collection:  of women, femininity, and race.  While reading this, I wanted to be absolutely alone with the book without fear of interruption, so I could fully focus, digest and enjoy these poems.  The poem above is featured on the back of the book and is a brief synopsis of the book.

The poetry in this collection is divided into 4 segments.  The first labelled “the hurting” touches on topics of rape, sexual abuse, and abusive parenting.  It describes feelings of emptiness and suppression, however, also the ability to transcend the hurt with kindness.  It describes the fractured relationship left as a result of abuse.  “The loving” portion is about hope, qualities of a lover, love making, women’s bodies and sex.  “The breaking” is about heartbreak, games young lovers play, the bitter aspects of relationships, and relationships that break you down or want you to be someone you aren’t.  Rupi Kaur speaks of intense extremes of feelings and emotions.  Finally, “the healing” is about loving yourself, the strength within oneself, being contented with being alone.  It is about loving one’s own female body in it’s most natural form and all of the way it functions.  It’s about the power of vulnerability, openness and kindness.  It’s about celebrating and supporting other women’s successes rather than their failures.  It is about celebrating feminine beauty in all its different colors, shapes and sizes.

Beautiful, kind, loving!  The sketches throughout this book are perfect and add to the poetry, almost seeming to be poetry in and of themselves.  I highly recommend this to every woman, especially the late teen and twenty-something set.  I recommend buying the actual book, to enjoy the words, the sketches and probable re-readings.

Rupi Kaur is a Canadian who has created a lot of attention for herself through the use of social media (#poetryisnotdead).  She was born in Punjab, India and moved to Canada at the age of 4.  Not speaking any English, she was inspired by her mother to draw and paint.  In 2014, Kaur self published milk and honey,  however it was so popular that a publishing company picked it up and republished it in 2015.  Kaur posted a picture on Instagram in March 2015 of herself in bed with a menstrual stain on her sweatpants as part of a project aimed at destigmatizing menstruation.  Instagram removed the photo and others in the series, which Kaur argued proved her point.  Instagram later restored the picture, saying it had been removed by mistake.

 

 

Rupi Kaur’s website

 

The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan-American Highway by Teresa Bruce ~ Book Review

Pages:  320

Published:  June 13, 2017

Format:  E-book care of Netgalley

 

 

 

 

“It isn’t practical, my quest to find my rolling childhood home and say a thirty-years-too-late goodbye to a four-year-old-boy.”

This is a memoir of Teresa Bruce who travels the Pan-American Highway in an avion camper with her husband Gary shortly after marriage.  This trip mirrors the trip that Teresa went on as a young girl in 1974 with her parents and her sister 2 years after the death of her younger brother.  The ultimate goal of the trip is to find the camper that her family had travelled in and eventually sold before heading home.   Ulterior motives include recollecting memories, exploring South America, reconnecting with people whose paths they crossed 30 years prior, understanding her parents better, and coming to terms with her brother’s death.  She seems particularly interested in learning about her parents’ motives and grieving process during this journey.  She does not recollect her parents talking about the death of her brother or even mentioning his name.  It is obvious when meeting people along this journey that her mother spoke to others very much about her dead brother, a realization that surprises the author.

To me, this journey felt very foolish.  Both trips contained near death experiences.  The travelers were pitted against corrupt police demanding bribes.  The travelers made poor choices.  For instance, Teresa brings a gun along, which haunts her the entire trip. They are continuously embarrassed by their apparent flaunting of wealth in their Avion with American plates as they drive through poverty stricken regions.  The writing is disjointed, the characters are coming undone…  So, for me, it was a tedious unenjoyable read.

The journey begins after a visit to Teresa’s home and parents.  What I couldn’t understand was why Teresa never engaged her parents in conversation about the past rather than decide to relive this journey, that for her, didn’t seem enjoyable the first time.  I took a chance on this book from netgalley knowing that I needed to read a travel memoir as part of the BookRiot 2017 reading challenge.  I almost gave up so many times.  I’m surprised that I actually read to the end.  The writing felt disjointed.  It read like diary entries that had been slightly reworked with some facts and tidbits thrown in about the history & geography of the area that didn’t necessary fit with the driving themes of the book.


Map of the Pan-American Highway from Brilliant Maps

 

 

 

 

 

Photo of Teresa Bruce, her husband Gary, and her dog, Wipeout, who accompanies them on the trip until her death in front of the Avion.  Picture taken from the Facebook page for “The Drive.”

 

We Shall Not All Sleep by Estep Nagy ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  288

Expected Publication Date:  July 4, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

I thought this book was quite brilliant, very literary, and highly intriguing.  It takes place over a few days, however, there are flashbacks to earlier times such that the reader gets a much longer and larger view into the lives of the characters.

The setting is July 1964 during the era of McCarthyism on Seven Island in northern Maine.  Seven is a fictional island home to two very wealthy families whose history is interconnected dating back to  the 1700s.  In present day, each family owns a beautiful house on the island, one yellow and one white.  There is a barn for the animals and outbuildings for the staff, all in bright red.  The Hillsingers are in one house and the Quicks are in the other.  Interestingly, although their histories are connected and the men of these houses married two sisters, their lives have been very separate until these 3 days spent on the island where past and present collide.  There is a huge cast of characters which includes  Billy Quick, Jim Hillsinger, their immediate families, their guests, and the staff.  Within each chapter past and present are described  and the narration jumps from one situation to another.  At first I found this confusing and difficult to track, but fairly quickly on, I had figured out who was who and reading this book was like watching a movie unfold.  It really had a cinematic quality of switching from one scene to another as in a movie.  I can’t compare this quality of the book to another like it, it seemed quite unique.  The effect was tantalizing and compelling, making this a very quick read.  The storyline builds and compounds as the novel progresses reaching the crescendo point by the end.

I won’t say much more as I don’t want to give too much away.  I would definitely recommend this book.  It would make a great beach read as well as a great book club choice.  It contains many historical elements without feeling like it is beating you over the head with them.  They simply exist in the book only because they are important to explaining the characters and their situation.    There are no wasted words in this novel.  It is written succinctly, beautifully and intentionally.   However, the reader, needs to pay close attention, or will miss something.  In short, well written, well researched and well worth the read!

Discussion Questions:

  1.  John Wilkie says “Seven Island is impossible.”  What does he mean by this?  Why does lila enjoy this comment?
  2. In the ARC version, lila’s name is not capitalized while the other characters names are.  Why do you think this is?  What effect does it have on the reader?
  3. “We shall not all sleep” is part of 1 Corinthians “Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.”  which is also part of the dedication of this novel.  Explain the title and it’s meaning in the context of this novel.
  4. Jim Hillsinger’s father is referred to only as “Old Man.”  Why do you think this is?  Does this have the effect of building him up or diminishing him?
  5. Catta dreams of an eagle dropping out of the sky hunting a rabbit.  Why do you think this it?
  6. Why was it important to Catta to know whether or not the eagles’ nest was a lie or not?
  7. Why was it important for the Old Man to have Catta spend the night on Baffin?
  8. Why does lila find herself now in love with Billy Quick when previously she had merely tolerated him?   What has changed?
  9. In the final conversation between Jim and Billy, Billy is left with the impression that Jim had traded his wife for a list of names.  What do you think the future holds for Billy, Jim and Lila?  Where will there relationships go from here?
  10. Describe the character of James.  Why does he get away with his violent schemes?

Practicing Normal by Cara Sue Achterberg ~ Book Review

Pages:  336

Expected Publication:  June 6, 2017

Format: E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

As with most ‘women’s literature’ I found things to love and things to hate within this novel.  I think the title is brilliant.  What family isn’t practicing normal?  Every family has it’s own struggles and issues that it is dealing with.  Society expects certain behaviors from people and many families struggle to live up to expectations, both expectations they hold for themselves and those they perceive others to hold of them.

This novel is told from three perspectives:  that of the Dad, Everett;  that of the mother, Kate; and that of the daughter, Jenna.  Within this family unit, there is also an autistic brother, who does not serve as a narrator.

One of my biggest struggles with “women’s literature” is this theme of putting up with an awful male partner for the sake of the family.  This book is a prime example of this.  Kate, the mother, has given up a nursing career she very much enjoyed in order to be there for her family and care for her mother who lives down the street.  She has no friends or outside interests that she pursues.  Her whole life revolves around her family.  However, her husband is absent and deceitful.   One of her his mistresses has already shown up on the doorstep introducing herself and she’s very suspicious he’s cheating again.  He is “working” all hours and constantly checking his phone.  Kate’s mother thinks he’s a louse, but Kate would rather continue putting up with it all, denying the obvious.  Maybe this is to keep up appearances, maybe to prove something to herself, maybe to prove something to her mother.. maybe she is practicing some kind of normal she had hoped for.  The thing that made me most angry about the relationship between Kate and Everett is when she relates a story where Everett raped her.  Since then she is more submissive  to his sexual advances, not wanting a repeat incident.  Kate’s son requires a lot of attention due to Asperger’s and only she and her daughter Jenna seem to know how to relate to him.  Kate’s mother also is increasingly relying on her, refusing to leave her home down the street and refusing to cook for herself.

Everett is an egomaniacal child in an adult’s body.  He is always putting himself first.  He has no real relationship with his children.  He has been caught in one affair and is currently in the midst of another.  He is constantly exchanging text messages while at home with the other woman, Veronica.  He is continually visiting his mistress under the guise of woking late or needing to run out of the house at all hours for something that just came up at work.  He is also attempting to understand Kate and her sister’s blood relationship to their parents through DNA evidence, without first consulting Kate in this matter.

Jenna seems to be the most self-honest and most relatable character to me.  As she is capable of taking care of herself, she is largely left to her own devices.  She is fully aware of her father’s infidelity.  She avoids him and refers to him by first name.  She is angry, dresses in black, has short spiky hair, multiple piercings and spends her days breaking into neighbor’s houses.  She doesn’t break in to steal per se, but to check things out, spend time with cats, experience someone else’s domain.   She gets caught breaking into the neighbor’s house across the street around the same time that their son, the high school football star, is taking a break from football because of his grades.  She begins spending time with this unlikely friend, Wells. The woman with the cats, Cassie, also aware of Jenna’s presence in her home, begins paying Jenna for her time spent playing and feeding her cats.  Wells and Jenna spend time with each other in Cassie’s home, which becomes a refuge for them and their developing closeness.  Jenna, who had seemed such a misfit starts to come of age, grow and become happy with herself.

In the end, Kate does finally awake from her self-delusion.  It is interesting how Kate’s life and her mother’s were similar in their solitary confinement as they tried to practice normal and hide from the glaring problems their family was built on.  If you enjoy “women’s literature,” you will probably love this book.  It is well written and there is a nice metamorphosis of the characters as they are developed within the novel.

 

Cara Sue Achterberg’s Blog

Review by Olga, author, translator, forensic psychiatrist