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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Being the Best Fit   Leave a comment

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Becoming, by Michelle Obama, loitered on my nightstand for months; I’d pick it up, read a little and abandon it again. Despite rave reviews from friends who’d read the book, I was initially underwhelmed. I wasn’t interested in her piano lessons and other accounts of her childhood. Yet, I stuck with it and was rewarded with what proved to be an engaging memoir.

During Obama’s time in the spotlight, I was impressed with her friendly, accessible demeanor and forthrightness. I came to appreciate these same attributes in her book. She truly came from humble beginnings. Her close-knit family, personal drive and obvious intellect helped propel her to the popularity she enjoyed as First Lady.

Obama shares her life story moving from those early years (piano lessons included) to her teens, from college to a high-powered legal career, from meeting Barack to becoming a mother. Each of the book’s sections highlights a specific period: “Becoming Me,” “Becoming Us” and “Becoming More.” The latter focuses on her life in the public eye as the wife of the first African American president, her efforts to exceed expectations because of a sense that many wanted the Obamas to fail and her determination to create some semblance of a normal family life for her daughters.

Through an easy-going, almost conversational tone, Obama’s narrative evokes emotion, pride and, at times, dismay. This is about someone you’d like to meet. She’s already invited you into her life through her deeds. The book simply adds an exclamation point.

Becoming
Four-and-a-half Book marks
Crown Books, 2018
426 pages

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Against the Odds   Leave a comment

 

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Fans of Trevor Noah will hear his voice when reading Trevor Noah: Born a Crime. His humor, sensitivity and ability to engage his audience are evident from the first chapter.

Noah recounts his experiences growing up in South Africa. He is the son of black South African woman and a white German father. Interracial relationships were forbidden.

Interspersed with his personal accounts of his childhood and adolescence are explanations of Apartheid. Consequently, Born a Crime not only entertains, but also educates. Hypocrisy and racial discrimination are dominant themes.

Yet, Noah learns to rely on his street smarts. He discovers early that language is a great equalizer. Thanks to his mother, English was the first language he learned. He picked up several others as a child he saw the ways his mother used language to “cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world.”

This was not the only important lesson from his mother. She instilled in him the importance of an education even if it took years for him to appreciate its value.

Religion, poverty and domestic violence also are addressed in Noah’s memoir. His mother was religious, to the extreme. His attempts to avoid going to church, which would be an all-day activity on Sundays, were thwarted by his mother’s deep faith.

Noah doesn’t sugarcoat his past, neither as the biracial son born out of wedlock, nor some poor decisions made in an effort to overcome economic injustice. His mother always has his back and her faith in God never wavers.

Trevor Noah: Born a Crime
Stories from a South African Childhood
Four Bookmarks
Speigel & Grau, 2016
304 pages

Love and Sacrifice   1 comment

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An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma is creatively written drawing on Nigerian folklore to tell a modern story of love, personal freedom and expectations.

Chinonso, a chicken farmer, meets Ndali, a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He convinces her not to leap, and they go their separate ways. His parents are deceased, his sister estranged. Ndali is in pharmacy school and is the daughter of a wealthy family. She tracks him down, they fall in love, and happily ever should come next.

Of course, her parents disapprove not just because he is a chicken farmer, but because he isn’t well-educated. He decides to pursue a college education knowing it will be a long process. An old friend arrives boasting of life in Cyprus where it’s easy to find a good-paying job and finish college in less time than in Nigeria. The friend makes the necessary arrangements; Chinonso sells his flock, his house, gives his friend money and leaves Ndali to become a better man.

Chinonso’s chi, inner spirit, narrates Chinonso’s story to the Igbo deities, of which there are several. Most paragraphs, directed to one or more in particular, are full of lengthy details foretelling of something ruinous to come motivated by Chinonso’s deep love for Ndali.

Chinonso believes in his decision; Ndali is less sure. His journey is a roller coaster of hope and despair, which the reader shares with Chinonso. This is far from uplifting, yet the narrative lingers long after the last page.

An Orchestra of Minorities
Four Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Co., 2019
448 pages

Ann Tyler’s Clock Dance   1 comment

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Clock Dance is distinguished from Anne Tyler’s other works because of its setting. Yes, Baltimore does figure into the plot, but not immediately. Other locales provide the initial settings. The story doesn’t come alive, though, until the main character arrives in Charm City.

Three phases of Willa Drake’s life ultimately influence her character: as a child when her mother randomly, and temporarily, leaves the family; as a college coed considering whether or not to accept a marriage proposal without finishing her degree; finally, in her sixties when she receives a call to come to Baltimore from Arizona to care for Cheryl, the 9-year-old daughter of her grown son’s injured ex-girlfriend, Denise. Yes, that’s a tenuous connection.

Before Baltimore, Willa is widowed when her boys are teenagers. They grow up, she remarries and has little communication with them. The surprise request is from Denise’s neighbor who sees Willa’s number on a list of emergency contacts. It takes some persuasion, but Willa agrees to help people about whom she knows nothing. In the process of caring for others who need her, Willa discovers a sense of belonging she hasn’t experienced.

Tyler’s characters are vulnerable, real and endearing. Cheryl is a no-nonsense kid whose strong sense of independence comes from being the daughter of a single mother. The author brings Baltimore to life through descriptions of Denise and Cheryl’s neighborhood and its quirky residents, of which there are many.

Although somewhat predictable, Clock Dance is a charming tale of the need to belong.

Clock Dance
Four+ Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
292 pages

Brains Beyond Beauty   Leave a comment

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Marie Benedict has a knack for fictionalizing life stories of impressive, impactful women. The Only Woman in the Room is her latest endeavor. Hedy Lamarr, screen star of the 1940s and 50s, isn’t the first person who comes to mind as a significant World War II figure. Further, as an inventor she deserves more credit than many realize.

Hedweg Kiesler was born in Vienna into a wealthy, Jewish family and considered a stunning beauty. Initially, Benedict’s account of Kiesler/Lamarr is focused on her early stage career leading to her marriage to Friedrich Mandl, a munitions manufacturer.

Mandl is older, wealthy and powerful. Hedy’s father fears any rejection on Hedy’s part toward Mandl’s romantic interest could put the family in danger. Initially, Hedy is not impressed by the riches (and roses) he dispenses so freely to woo her. Eventually they marry after she succumbs to his charms.

The novel’s title is an apt description of Hedy’s presence which is dismissed as one of no consequence. She’s considered no more than a beautiful woman. What she learns, however, are plans for Austria to first join forces with Mussolini; and later Hitler. She knows she needs to escape, not only the fate of her country, but the abusive relationship with Mandl, who simply wanted a trophy wife.

Danger and intrigue are tangible elements in Keisler’s life; fame and romance comprise Lamarr’s. Yet, Benedict shows something deeper by chronicling the transition from refugee to film siren to wireless communications inventor.

The Only Woman in the Room
Four Bookmarks
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019
254 pages

Major Creep Factor   Leave a comment

The Hiding Place by C. J. Tudor

Creepy is the best way to describe The Hiding Place by C.J. Tudor. The setting, the characters and the story itself are all disturbing. It’s difficult to appreciate a book with no likeable characters; yet the author successfully creates an unsettling story that goes beyond masses of beetles crawling out of walls.

Narrator Joe Thorne returns to his hometown, a run-down former mining town in rural England. It was never a thriving community, but its position at the edge of economic ruin makes the old days not look so bad in Joe’s eyes. It’s clear he’s returned to settle a score. Yet, there are so many twists and characters lacking empathy, interest or both, that the obvious question of why hangs too heavy over the narrative.

Joe is a teacher, a liar, a gambling addict and also, somehow, a victim. He left his previous job under suspicious circumstances but is able to con his way into a teaching position at the school he attended as a youth. Many of Joe’s old pals are still in town, but it’s clear these are no longer friendly relationships. Another unfriendly sort is Gloria, a thug hired by the Fatman to collect the gambling debts Joe has amassed.

Before Joe’s arrival, a murder/suicide has occurred in the very cottage he knowingly chooses to rent. A mother has killed her son before turning a gun on herself. This strikes Joe as hauntingly familiar even though nothing in his past suggests something similar. Until it does.

The Hiding Place
Three-and-half Bookmarks
Crown Books, 2018
278 pages

Samba, Memories and Regrets   1 comment

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The Air You Breathe by Frances De Pontes Peebles gifts readers with an expansive, beautifully-written view of the ebbs and flows of deep friendships.

Dores, whose existence is shaped by her role as an orphan on a Brazilian sugar plantation, narrates the story. Her life changes when Graca, the spoiled, young daughter of the sugar cane baron, arrives. The two are opposites in every way. It is no surprise that their attraction is the impetus for their future endeavors.

Since there are no other children her age, Graca’s parents enlist Dores as playmate and study companion for their daughter. Despite spending much of her life up to this point working in the kitchen, Dores is a good student, much better than her friend.  Yet, Garca possesses all of the advantages that will contribute to her success: beauty, a mesmerizing voice, a strong will and privilege.

The narrative begins with Dores looking back on her past, specifically the success of Graca, who becomes legendary Samba singer Sofia Salvador. The trajectory from rural Brazil to Rio de Janeiro to Hollywood is more than a rags-to-riches story. Each chapter begins, or ends depending on perspective, with the lyrics Dores has written and made famous by Sofia/Graca.

The characters are lively, the street scenes vibrant and the pulse of the 1930s and ‘40s sets the rhythm. The connection between the two women is full of joy and anguish, frustration and pride. Dores and Graca need each other, despite often wishing this was not the case.

The Air You Breathe
Five Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
449 pages