Quick Thoughts: Books You Need to Read

All three of these books earned 5 star ratings from this picky reader.

Alias Grace
Margaret Atwood

Let’s start with the one I read back in January (eep!): Alias Grace. Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite living writers, fictionalizes the tale of Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant to Canada who is convicted of murdering her employer. I love Grace, the unreliable narrator, the “alienist” doctor intent on finding out the truth about her crime, and the Canadian frontier setting.

I wish I’d written my thoughts when the book was fresher in my mind, but it was not to be 😉 It was very good, that I clearly remember!

Anne Of Green Gables
Lucy Maud Montgomery


I absolutely loved the Anne series when I was growing up. That Anne girl, with her endless, exhausting supply of energy, her determination to make the best of whatever life threw at her, her fiery red hair, worked her way into my heart. I’d been wanting to re-read Anne of Green Gables for some time, hoping it would provide a much-needed comfort read. Happily, it did not disappoint. Anne and the other characters were just as charming as they were fifteen years ago when I first met them. Montgomery’s descriptions of Prince Edward Island have lodged themselves deep in my imagination, making me ever hopeful that I’ll one day get to see the White Way of Delight for myself.


Brother, I’m Dying 
Edwidge Danticat

This is Danticat’s story of her two fathers, who were also two brothers. As perhaps you would expect from a writer, there is a theme focusing on the importance of words running throughout this memoir. Her uncle depends on his words as an orator and preacher, then loses them completely when surgery removes his voicebox. He relies on compulsively jotted notes to detail the activities around him. Danticat listens to the stories of the elder women in the family and is taught about life, and about death. She struggles to find the words to communicate with her parents, who have left her and her brother in Haiti as they try to prepare a place in New York.

The end, of course, is heartbreaking. What else would you expect with a title like Brother, I’m Dying? There is hope though, and life, and beauty.

Okay, which one are you going to read first? 

Unbearable Lightness

Unbearable Lightness

Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain
Portia de Rossi

Here’s the thing. I kinda liked this book. No, the writing isn’t going to win any awards. Still, three stars. But while writing this review, I seemed to focus more on the negative. I don’t want to give the wrong impression, so I’m putting this upfront 🙂

You may recognize Portia de Rossi from Ally McBeal or Arrested Development or some other show, or from being married to Ellen Degeneres. I always thought she was incredibly beautiful and poised. In Unbearable Lightness, she lets the public into her very private, very scary struggle with an eating disorder and her dehabilitating self doubt. She is revealed as that girl that may come across cool and standoffish, but it’s really because she’s terrified that if people see her true self that her reputation and career will be destroyed.

As this is a book about a woman with an eating disorder, there are some very graphic passages. I felt physically ill at certain points, imagining the suffering that de Rossi was going through, denying her body the fuel it needed to exist.

It is so shocking to realize how far we’ve come in a relatively short time when it comes to LGBTQ acceptance. Of course, there is still a long way to go. De Rossi is very matter of fact about her career being stopped before it really would have started should anyone have found out she was gay. I am sure this still happens, probably pretty often, but it does seem like less of a big deal when a star comes out. Of course, there’s a big difference between coming out on your own terms after building a successful career and being forcefully outed as a young Hollywood hopeful. Maybe that’s changing?

The most powerful part of the book is when she juxtaposes her health diagnosis with pictures of herself when she was at her most sick. And truly, in most of them, she looks like any typical starlet. It’s a shock to realize how many people must be starving themselves like she was.

I do wish there had been more focus on the “gain” part of the subtitle. De Rossi rather glosses over her struggle to recovery, and the stability and happiness she’s found. It’s clear there was a struggle, but it’s only hinted at. She was so forthright in sharing her experience in the depths of her condition, I was surprised that she didn’t detail how she got better. I feel it would have been a better aid to those that she says she wants to help. It was a bit simplistic – I found out I was sick, so I got better. I had an eating disorder because I was afraid of not being accepted as gay. I don’t know – it just was a bit too pat.

Additionally, there were things in the “recovery” section that made me uncomfortable. She makes some rather judgmental pronouncements on eating habits in general, and she still seems to think that there is an acceptable weight range, or an acceptable way for weight to be distributed on one’s body. There’s a comment about people on treadmills vs. people who are “naturally” active, focusing on doing things like walking their dogs. While it seems that she’s made progress, there are still some pretty damaging. For some thoughts bout what it’s truly like to accept bodies, including fat bodies, I recommend checking out the Shapely Prose archives or Shakesville’s Fatsronauts series. Also, for a great (and quick) summary about how not to talk about food and bodies around people with eating disorders, check out this post from a human story. It would be awesome to eliminate discussions about “good” and “bad” foods – you never know who’s around to be hurt by these well accepted, seemingly harmless words.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Marya Hornbacher, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. A non-celebrity take on the topic. Very interesting to see the similarities and the differences in how the eating disorders were manifested in the two women. 
  • Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth. I haven’t read this one yet, but I do have a copy (thanks to the lovely Marilyn). De Rossi mentions this book frequently as opening her eyes to the impossible standards of beauty that women are expected to meet. Warning: Although this book is supposedly excellent, Naomi Wolf has been advancing more troublesome ideas in recent years.
  • Jessica Yee, Feminism, for REAL. To further the idea of accepting ourselves and those around us, regardless of appearance or anything else! This book is awesome, btw. Everyone should read it.

New York, New York

In honor of being back in New York, I’m bringing you some books that feature the city in some significant way. Not all of these are books I’ve loved, but they are ones that revealed at least one slice of life in this amazing city. I apologize ahead of time for the over-emphasis on Brooklyn and Manhattan. If you have suggestions for more dealing with the other boroughs, suggest them in the comments!
Here is New York

Here is New York, E.B. White. What, you thought he only wrote children’s stories? First published in 1949, this is a love letter to the city that seems just as current today as when it was first written.

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe. This is gritty, 80’s New York, showing the class divisions between the monied elite of Manhattan and those struggling to live in the Bronx. It’s not my favorite book, as it tends to sum everything up with a pat “See, everyone is just as bad, so why bother changing” attitude, which I find aggravating. Still, it manages to capture segments of the city, which is what this list is about.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann. Multiple narrators reveal their portions of New York, including how they’re connected in unexpected ways. One key event is Philippe Petit’s 1974 unauthorized tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. I’d never heard of this, and had to watch the documentary Man on Wire afterwards to learn more. I’m not as much of a fan of this book as a lot of other people were, but it’s still pretty good. It won some big prizes, including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the National Book Award.

Anna Wintour. Credit

The Devil Wears Prada, Lauren Weisberger. What’s New York without fashion? This thinly veiled critique of Vogue’s Anna Wintour is not exactly a flattering portrait, but it does show what kind of power she yields in certain circles. For those who’ve seen the movie, Meryl Street and Anne Hathaway do wonderful jobs, but really, there’s no comparison to the book.

Assata, Assata Shakur. I read and reviewed this last year. In addition to being an all around awesome book, there some some great New York scenes, like when Assata is in her wig disguise, riding on the subway with similarly dressed women.

Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese. This is another book I liked, but didn’t love. Still, one of my favorite scenes was when Marion, the narrator, arrives from Addis Ababa. He’s struck by the particular cultural force that is New York from his very first steps in the airport.

Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Letham. A detective story featuring a main character with Tourette syndrome. The action takes place in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, and it’s fun to see the differences between the neighborhoods.

Wait ‘Till Next Year, Doris Kearns Goodwin. I think this may be the only book my grandfather ever read – at least as an adult. He insisted that I read this, and I’m so glad he did. This memoir of a young girl growing up with an all consuming love of the Brooklyn Dodgers, bonding with her father over their home team, brings New York in the 1950s to life.

And a few I’m looking forward to reading in the future:

Moses with model of proposed project. Credit

The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro. Ever since I watched the HBO documentary The Ghosts of Flatbush, about the Brooklyn Dodgers, I’ve wanted to learn more about Robert Moses. This thousand-plus page 1974 biography won the Pulitzer, so I figure it can’t be a bad place to turn.

The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto. Manhattan back when it was New Amsterdam. Yay history!

Sleepers, Lorenzo Carcaterra. I’ve seen the movie, but haven’t read the book. This one isn’t for the faint of heart. Four boys grow up in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, where they begin to get into some trouble. They are sent to a home for boys, where they suffer awful abuse. Years later, they take revenge on the guards that tortured them.

Measure of a Man Doesn’t Measure Up

cover of The Measure of a Man Audiobook
The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man
Sidney Poitier

I listened to this on audio book last month, and have been hesitating to write the review ever since. I just really, really, disliked it – and I was hoping to enjoy it. I mean, it’s Sidney Poitier! Who doesn’t like Sidney Poitier?

I spent half the book wondering if I didn’t like it simply because it was an audio book. It was only the second audio book I’ve listened to, so I thought “well, maybe the format just isn’t my thing.” Nope. I’ve since listened to another audio book and loved it. Not the format.

Okay, so what was it that bothered me about this book? It starts off strong. Poitier is talking about how he doesn’t believe that we should look to other, less developed societies to find ways to be strong, upright people. That basically, your kid isn’t going to grow up to be a screw-up because zie has access to television. Makes sense. THEN he spends the rest of the book extolling the benefits of growing up on an undeveloped island in the Bahamas where there was no electricity, running water, etc. He comes back to this theme all the time. I guess that you could say he’s just explaining where he personally came from, but the impression is that this is the way all children should be raised and if they aren’t – if they’re raised in say, Miami, they’re going to be morally bankrupt by 16.

There’s also a lot of self congratulating going on. Poitier takes nearly all the credit for the success of the play A Raisin in the Sun. It was painful to listen to. His vision of the play may have been a better one – I’ll concede that – but wow, the ego involved was staggering. Of course, it takes quite a bit of ego to write a book about your life and be sure that many people would want to read it, and I’m sure most people in Hollywood probably have enormous egos, too.

I was interested in Poitier’s interactions with civil rights activists. He talks about how studios wanted to to sign contracts that he wouldn’t associate with certain people who were considered agitators, and he refused to do that. Again, this part of the book fell short. I don’t know if he had his reasons for not talking about these encounters in more detail – was he protecting someone? – but I wanted to know more.

I do want to read Harry Belafonte’s new memoir, My Song. He and Poitier were friends, and I heard him interviewed on NPR about the two of them splitting a theater ticket, one watching the first half of a play and the other going in to watch the end. Something about how Belafonte told the story was more engaging than anything that I heard from Poitier.

Have you read this? Did you like it? What am I missing?

Persepolis

Persepolis

Persepolis
Written & Illustrated by Marjane Satrapi

Yes, I know I am quite late to the Persepolis party. Oops. But I suspect not a few readers haven’t gotten around to this famous graphic novel yet, so take this post a a reminder to go track it down.

Persepolis is the memoir of Marjane Satrapi’s growing up in the Iranian Revolution. Her parents are Communists who supplement her school education with books like a comic edition of “Dialectic Materialism,” which contains arguments between Rene Descartes and Karl Marx. Marjane is intrigued that Karl Marx resembles her God:

Marx and God facing each other. Caption reads It was funny to see how much Marx and God looked like each other, Though Marx's hair was a bit curlier.

Marjane is a willful, stubborn child growing up in a violent, confusing world. Her parents attempt to walk a fine line between keeping her safe and protected from knowledge that may hurt her and telling her information that’s necessary for her to have an idea what’s going on.

When it seems that they can no longer keep her safe in Iran, Marjane’s parents send her to school in Europe. That’s where Persepolis ends and where Persepolis II begins.

I am really happy that I finally read this. Satrapi did a wonderful job telling the story of the revolution from a child’s perspective, while still writing a sophisticated, adult book. The emotions of all the characters are perfectly communicated through a combination of dialogue and illustration. If you haven’t gotten your hands on this yet – Go!

(You can buy this title through  this affiliate link)

Assata: An Autobiography

Assata: An Autobiography

Assata: An Autobiography
Assata Shakur

Back in September, I finally got to read Assata by Assata Skakur. Ms. Skakur was a member of the Black Panther Party in the 1970s. She was active in the struggle against the institutional racism that existed – and still exists – here in the United States. Because of her political activities, she was arrested and accused of involvement in many crimes, including kidnapping, bank robbery, and the murder of a New Jersey state trooper.

Her book opens just after she’s been shot by a police office on the New Jersey Turnpike. She describes being abused and threatened as she’s lying in a hospital bed, fighting for her life. She’s cut off from her friends and family, and has no idea what is happening to her. She’s terriffied, with good reason. She’s been targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program (although no one will know the details of that for some time).

After this violent introduction, the chapters alternate between the past and present. Ms. Shakur recalls her childhood, spent in the American South and then in New York. We see how she experienced racism and oppression throughout her life, and how she was led to be a political activist, working to radically change the system.

Bobby Seale, bound and gagged

I have to admit that my white privilege was severely checked while reading this book. There were times that I’d read her words describing her prison conditions and I’d think “Really? C’mon, she must be exaggerating.” And then she’d tell how the UN came in and confirmed what she said. Why would I only believe it after some “established” body came in and confirmed what she herself experienced and described? Why weren’t her own words good enough for me? And I’m someone who knows that Bobby Seale was bound and gagged in an American courtroom during his trial.

So yeah, you should read this. Fascinating life story from an activist woman of color. A look at the lows our government will stoop to.

Here she is in her own words, which are better than any I have (it is cut off at the end, but hey – that will just make you want to read the whole story in her book):

Things Said, and Unsaid

The Grace of Silence
Michele Norris

According to the introduction, Michele Norris (of NPR’s All Things Considered) began the book in 2009 after becoming convinced that a conversation about race was happening, but that things were being unsaid. She wanted to get at the real issues, not just dance around them. What did people really think about race in America when we were about to inaugurate our first black President?

The cover has a quote from Toni Morrison. She says “An insightful, elegant rendering of how the history of an American family illuminates the history of our country.” That strikes me as inconvertibly true. Norris does a wonderful job intertwining her family’s history with the brutal events in America during the twentieth century.

This is a personal story. You can see Norris struggling with learning her own family history, and trying to reconcile it with the parents and family members she grew up with. Her family, especially her father, did not talk about certain things. In fact, she never knew that her father had once been shot by a policeman in Alabama shortly after he was discharged from the Navy. When she finds this out she is flabbergasted.  Her mother, who had divorced her father many years before the revelation, said that had she known, it would have explained a lot.

Her quest to find out what happened during this shooting forms a good portion of the book. Norris is desperate for details, but they are hard to come by. Court and police records have not been retained. Some have been deliberately lost. The major (white) newspapers did not report when a white police officer shot a young black man.

Norris finally interviews a family neighbor who was around during the time of the shooting. He tells her what he remembers. As he talks to her, he “wonders whether my father might have been killed” had things gone slightly differently. Norris immediately states

“This seem far-fetched to me. More likely than not, the police intended only to put some black men in their place, not six feet under.”

However, only fifteen pages later, Norris talks about how the six week period around her father’s shooting, six young black veterans were shot and killed by the police. One of those men, Timothy Hood, was sitting in the back of a police car when he was shot in the head by the chief of police. The shooting was almost instantaneously ruled a justifiable killing. Somehow, it doesn’t seem as farfetched as one might like to think that Norris’s father could have been killed, rather than wounded, in his shooting.

Norris may have intended to get at the unsaid, and she certainly revealed some of it. But what this book shows most of all is how much is still left unspoken.  I do not fault her for this. I do not fault her family for choosing silence as a coping mechanism. I do not want to diminish their struggle, or imply that they should have done it differently. Absolutely not. What this revealed to me was the tremendous, crushing burden borne by people of color in this country.

As for me, I expect more from those who walk around wearing their white privilege completely unaware. It is not the same when a black mother tells her son to be wary of white police officers and when a white mother tells her daughter to lock her doors when driving through a black neighborhood. It’s just not. The white mother has a whole institutionalized power structure that backs up her implication that black people are poor, that they are thieves, that they are a danger to white women. The black mother? Not so much.  To imply that it is the same is to let the white power structure off the hook much too easily.

We must do better. We have so much farther to go before we even come close to living in Dr. King’s society where we truly value people not for the color of their skin, but the content of their character.

I encourage everyone to read this book, and to expect more.

FYI: “The Grace of Silence” is being released in paperback September 6th.

A Memoir of Food and Family

A Tiger in the Kitchen
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

I love food. Like, really, really love it. So when I saw that this title would help me in my quest to read more authors present at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, I decided to pick it up.

Tan was born and raised in Singapore, where she inherited a deep, abiding love for eating good food. Her love never transferred into an interest in cooking it, though. Only after moving to the US for college, getting married, and starting a career, did she yearn to be able to cook the foods from her childhood.

I certainly empathize. Growing up, I loved my grandmother’s food. Chicken parmesan, cavatelli with sausage and meatballs, fettucine alfredo – oh my goodness. Delicious. To this day, I wrinkle my nose at going out for Italian food – I’ll just want till I go home, thankyouverymuch. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I spent time with her in the kitchen, trying to learn her secrets. I certainly identified with the author’s experiences, especially learning how to agak-agak (guesstimate).

One thing that struck me while reading was all of the texting and tweeting and blogging going on. This was the first time I noticed this in a book, and it just seemed a bit…odd. Which is ironic, since, um, this is my blog. And as indicated in the upper right corner, I do the twitter thing. These mentions, more than specific dates, seem to anchor the book in a very specific time period. I can’t help but wonder if this will seem awfully quaint ten years from now.

That said, I kinda want to try the Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge she and some fellow bloggers attempted. I do think I’ll skip anything that takes a 5-day starter, though.

My biggest frustration with this book was the outrageous amount of privilege evident. There aren’t too many people who get laid off from their job, and immediately commence a yearlong, round the world travel and cooking adventure. When she visits a friend’s house, who lives in “a government-created housing estate” she’s quick to reassure you that she’s not visiting anything like a New York housing project. “An estimated 80 percent of Singaporeans live in comfortable, affordable apartments built by the government.” (pg. 175). I’m glad that the author was able to travel, live in nice places, and be with her family, but especially in the current economic climate, well, it’s a bit much.

It is clear that there is lots of love in the Tan family. Ultimately, this book is about more than food – it’s about spending time with your loved ones while you have the opportunity. If you can’t travel to be with them, as Tan’s father said they’re only “a telephone away.”

Feeling Woefully Under-read

The past two years I’ve wanted to attend the Brooklyn Book Festival, but life got in the way. This September, it’s going to happen. I recently checked the list of authors and participants. Know how many authors I’ve read?

Five.*

That seems to be an incredibly paltry number. In preparation for the September event, I will read, um, more. How many more? I’d like to at least double my number. I’ve got a month and a half, so that is definitely doable.

Some possibilities:

Half-Lit Houses, Tina Chang, who apparently is Brooklyn’s poet laureate. I didn’t know that such a post existed! Her New York Times profile makes her seem irresistible, and I love the title of her first collection.

A Tiger in the Kitchen, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. I like food. I (often) like memoirs. I’m not crazy about the cover (and yes, I often judge a book that way) but her blog is beautiful, so I’m willing to give it a try.

Vaclav & Lena, Haley Tanner. I like Brooklyn. I’m a bit trepidatious about this one, as the Times review says that it’s overly dramatic in places. I usually like reserved writing. 

I think I’ll print the list of authors and stick it in my wallet to have handy next time I’m wandering the library or bookstore.

Oooooh! After printing the list, I realized that my good friend’s brother, David Ezra Stein, is on it! He’s a children’s book writer and illustrator. I wasn’t paying too much attention to that section, as I don’t typically read children’s books. Maybe it’s cheating, but I’m going to make sure to read one of his books (Interrupting Chicken, maybe?) to count towards my five to be read.


*For the record: Johnathan Safran Foer, Chuck Klosterman, Nicole Krauss, Joyce Carol Oates, Téa Obreht.