Archive for the ‘perceptions’ Tag

Getting Past Racism   Leave a comment

Book Review: 'The Sum of Us,' by Heather McGhee - The New York Times

Heather McGhee is an economist and social policy advocate. As former president of Demos, a think tank, she helped draft legislation, was a regular on news programs, has a law degree and chairs the board of Color of Change, an online racial justice organization. To say she was the right person to write The Sum of Us is an understatement.

McGhee’s premise is racism doesn’t only impact people of color, but also affects (financially and emotionally) whites. She traveled across the country interviewing people who have lost their homes, opportunities for better jobs, health care and been denied better education. Not everyone she interviewed was Black.

The issues are rooted in politics, greed and perception. She writes of a once-booming mill town in Maine, where Somali and other African nation immigrants now live. Local politicians claim their arrival accounts for lost jobs; yet, this occurred long before. Rather, they contribute to the economy and culture of the community. Through their experiences, McGhee tells of individuals of different races reaching out to one another and benefitting from the effort.

The chapters address a range of topics: Racism Drained the Pool; The Same Sky and The Solidarity Dividend, among others. The latter is an example of one of the many beauties of this work; McGhee not only identifies the issues; she offers solutions. If only people were willing to apply them. Her strong belief is based on people working together rather than at odds. Of course, she acknowledges this can’t/won’t happen overnight.

The Sum of Us: What Racism costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

One World, 2021

415 pages (includes Notes and Index)

Family Ties That Bind and Blind   Leave a comment

THE LAST ROMANTICS

The Last Romantics begins in 2079 when Fiona Skinner, a poet and climate awareness advocate, has finished giving a talk and opens the floor for questions. At 102, Fiona is taken aback when asked about the inspiration for one of her best-known poems. Her memory takes readers to 1981, the year her father died.

Fiona is the youngest of the four Skinner siblings: Renee, Joe and Caroline. Joe, the boy wonder, is idolized by the entire family.

Their father dies when Fiona is 4. His death affects each family member differently, but all recall their mother being emotionally absent. Fiona is too young to remember much about her father.  The siblings are close, protective and blind to each other’s faults, especially Joe’s until they can no longer be ignored.

Tara Conklin has created an epic in the sense the story spans nearly a century. The siblings relationships with each other, their mother, friends and love interests (some fleeting, others less so) are a combination of airing dirty laundry as much as highlights in a family holiday newsletter, but is more enjoyable to read.

The gripping narrative moves from childhood’s halcyon days to the heartbreak of unrealized dreams. Even at its most depressing moments (and, spoiler alert, there are several) the Skinner kids are ones you wish you knew. As with most families, their lives are full of joy and tragedy, humor and tears. Fiona’s account of her youth, like most memories is cloudy at times, but beautifully vivid at others.

The Last Romantics

Four+ Bookmarks

William Morrow, 2019

352 pages

Expectations and Perceptions   Leave a comment

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In Trust Exercise Susan Choi raises the question of perspective; everyone has their own version of a situation. Here it isn’t immediately clear whose is who’s.

David and Sarah are students at an elite performing arts high school; they have a summer romance between their freshman and sophomore years. They, their peers and Mr. Kingsley, the theatre instructor, do little to acknowledge the relationship once school resumes in the fall.

The novel’s three sections are all entitled “Trust Exercise.” This is clever since it not only relates to the classroom experiences designed by Mr. Kingsley to teach the students to depend on each other; it also admonishes the reader to have faith in the narrative.

The first section focuses on David and Sarah’s relationship with supporting roles provided by their classmates, teacher, parents and exchange students from England.

The second “Trust Exercise” re-introduces Karen, a character previously, albeit briefly, mentioned. The switch takes some adjustment since the storyline is now more hers than Sarah or David’s. It’s as if the roles have been switched from supporting player to star. Additionally, a switch from the omniscient narrator to Karen’s voice regularly occurs.

Asides to the reader create a theatrical ambiance, as if to remind of the ties to the performing arts. Drama, in all its forms –onstage and beyond the proscenium arch – is ever present. 

Choi has crafted believable characters in credible settings with the challenge of considering different points of view regarding relationships, commitment and loyalty.

Trust Exercise

Four bookmarks

Henry Holt and Co., 2019

257 pages

Looks, Lies and Life   Leave a comment

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The Lying Life of Adults is Elena Ferrante’s new novel. Although it has similarities to her Neapolitan Quartet, notably the setting and a young female protagonist, it’s more introspective and a little less engaging.

Giovanna is a young teenager who overhears a conversation between her parents in which her father describes her as ugly. In fact, he says, she looks as bad as his estranged sister, Vittoria. Until this point, Giovanna has admired both her parents, felt secure in her family, and was completely unaware of any relatives, let alone her aunt.

The eavesdropping leads Giovanna to find Vittoria and discover not only a part of Naples she never knew, but also family secrets ultimately leading to a transformation of looking beyond the obvious. It’s not necessarily an engrossing narrative, but it is Ferrante. Adolescence is a difficult time; the author deftly illustrates this with the self-absorbed, manipulative youth and adults.

The author is at her best describing the class structure within Italy, in particular Naples. It’s easy to visualize how education plays a role in the lives of the residents of this southern Italian coastal city. References to dialect and coarse behavior further emphasize the line dividing social classes.

It is problematic Giovanna is not a particularly inspiring character. Yes, her independence does eventually surface, but her relationships with others are one-dimensional. Frankly, she’s a wimp. Granted, Vittoria is odd and her parents lose their bearings. Nonetheless, her efforts to find herself in their world of deceptions and accusations really should be more interesting.

The Lying Life of Adults

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Europa Editions, 2020

322 pages

Disconnecting the Dots   Leave a comment

 

A Separation

The narrator in Katie Kitamura’s novel, A Separation, is never named. Nonetheless, we learn other, more intimate details about her.

The title has multiple implications beginning with the fact that the narrator is separated from her husband, Christopher, and has been for six months. The couple has not announced the split; in fact, the pair has promised vowed to continue waiting before going public with the news.

Kitamura is terse in her descriptions. Yet her characters are well-developed, even the ones we never actually meet. Christopher, for example, has gone missing in Greece. Still, he is seen through the narrator’s eyes and experience.

In London, his mother Isabella, who is unaware of any change in Christopher’s marital status, contacts the narrator since messages to her son have gone unheeded. In just a few sentences, Kitamura deftly portrays the uncomfortable relationship the women share. Isabella is incredulous that her daughter-in-law has no idea of Christopher’s exact whereabouts. Both know he is in Greece and the resort hotel he checked into, but nothing beyond that.

What ensues is the narrator’s trip to Greece in search of the man from whom she is no longer in love. He’s not been seen at the hotel for several days, although all of his belongings are still there.  She’s curious,  but her heart isn’t in it. Her voice is stoic, matter-of-fact, with occasional flashes of anger or disappointment as she discovers new secrets and is placed in the awkward position of being presumed a devoted wife.

A Separation
(Barely) Four Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2017
229 pages

Exclusion by Design   3 comments

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Hate crimes, altruistic youth, deception and not fitting in are themes driving James Klise’s The Art of Secrets. Although this falls into the young adult genre, there’s no age limit to the ideas behind his novel.

Fifteen-year-old Saba Kahn is a first generation American of Pakistani descent. Her family’s two-bedroom apartment and all its contents are lost in a fire, believed to be a hate crime. Saba is a scholarship student at a Chicago private school, where the student body rallies behind two fellow students who conceive of a fundraiser to help the Kahns.

Klise is masterful in the way the story unfolds. His characters are vivid, thanks to each sharing his or her perspective and unique voice. Each chapter is told either through the use of a diary, emails or in separate one-sided conversations with a reporter, the police and an insurance adjustor. It’s clever and effective. Beginning with Saba’s diary entry a few weeks after the fire, the story follows the fundraising efforts, with asides from school administration and their not-so-subtle efforts to appear open-minded. Saba, a bright, gifted student, is suddenly the center of attention. Those who had previously walked past her in the hall suddenly see her. She’s somebody. Meanwhile, Javier, an exchange student from Spain, is nearly invisible to those around him, including his host family who insist on calling him “Savior.”

This poignant story, with a twist, is filled with humor as Klise demonstrates the ease of believing something we want very much to believe.

The Art of Secrets
Four Bookmarks
Algonquin, 2014
255 pages

 

Midlife Journeys — A Memoir   Leave a comment

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Living Out Answers – Twelve Trips of a Lifetime by Dave Jackson, is one of two indie books I recently read for pleasure (others I read for one of my few paid writing gigs). In the interest of full disclosure: I almost know the author. We’ve never met, but Jackson’s the father of a good friend who gave me the book as a gift.

This is a memoir based on trips, yup 12 of them, that he began taking when he turned 50 in 1979. He kept journals of the adventures which are the book’s foundation supplemented by recent afterthoughts. The trips include finding a way to spend time on the Mississippi River, to working for a circus, to learning about coal mines in West Virginia, along with nine others. He hitchhiked, hopped trains, hiked, rode in the cabs of big rigs and developed sea legs on boats.

Nearly as interesting is how the book evolved: Jackson’s granddaughter was prompted by a photo which led to discussions about the travels. Others entered the picture offering advice and encouragement. Although the book became a family endeavor of sorts, the stories are Jackson’s.

Jackson embraced the new opportunities and experiences no matter how exciting, frustrating or unpleasant, but there was always the safety net of a comfortable lifestyle awaiting him after each exploit. What’s most impressive is that Jackson made these journeys at a point in his life where many think self-reflection is either unnecessary or inconvenient. He demonstrates neither is the case.


Living Out Answers – Twelve Trips of a Lifetime

Three and a half bookmarks
Brokey’s, 2012
281 pages

Perceptions vs. Beliefs   4 comments

faith

When I first picked up Faith by Jennifer Haigh, I almost immediately put it down. I was afraid it was going to further magnify the bull’s eye on the back on the Catholic church, which is already too easy a target for many. Yes, Haigh’s book is framed by the possibility of a priest molesting a young boy, but it’s much more than that. It is, indeed, about faith in its many manifestations: belief, conviction, trust, reliance and loyalty.

Old school Catholics, priests, families and perceptions are all deftly portrayed by Haigh as she tells the story of Father Art Breen, a quiet, unassuming parish priest whose primary vice is that he smokes like a steam engine. Father Art’s story is told through his sister’s eyes. Sheila begins with her step-brother’s progression through school, details his seminary years, his parish assignments and how he came to be accused of molesting a second-grader. Sheila also shares details about her family background: her mother who is a staunch Catholic unable to find fault with her church; her younger brother, Mike, who immediately believes Art is guilty; and her own conflicted thoughts as she discovers she is unsure who and what to believe.

The setting is Boston in the spring of 2002, just as the news of numerous molestation cases begin to emerge. The reader is asked to consider Art’s innocence or guilt just as his family struggles with this question. It seems so unlikely, and that is exactly what makes the possibility real.

Faith
Four Bookmarks
Harper, 2011
318 pages

Not How A Book Should Be   3 comments

How Should

Any number of factors figure into how I, or anyone for that matter, respond to a book. Experience, age, education, even mood, come quickly to mind. I was struck by these considerations as I read Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? because the novel makes me feel that whatever I bring to this particular reading experience is a negative: my experience, my age, and yes, my mood.

Sheila is the narrator, a young writer in Toronto struggling to finish a long-overdue play; she is easily distracted by life, specifically people in her life. She is so caught up with what others think and do that she lacks focus. Sheila stretched my patience as a reader. She has a wonderful friend in Margaux, an unhealthy but lively sex relationship with a man named Israel, and an undiguised inability to recognize or accept what is good and positive in her life. She is not quite a loser, but teeters awfully close to becoming one.

Perhaps the issue lies in Heti’s attempt to fictionalize her autobiography, for she is clearly the narrator and there is little reason not to believe that the other characters comprise her circle of friends. Frankly, Sheila is not that interesting. That honor goes to Margaux who comes across as honest, talented and a good friend, but it’s hard to explain what she sees in Sheila. Israel is depicted as a depraved man who uses Sheila to fulfill his debased sexual fantasies. Unfortunately, it’s too easy to see he’s attracted to her.

How Should A Person Be?
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Henry Holt and Co., 2012
306 pages

Awkward and Awesome   Leave a comment

Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World is the cumbersome and complex title of Sabina Berman’s debut novel. Yet, it turns out to be just about perfect. The me refers to the first word narrator Karen Nieto learns. She is 10 years old when her mother dies and her aunt moves into the family home in Mazatlan. It’s her aunt who teaches her to speak, loves her and later defers to her in business matters. Her aunt also identifies Karen as an autistic savant.

The family operates a tuna fishery, which has a profound impact on Karen’s education and sensitivities. If this is beginning to sound vaguely similar to Temple Grandlin’s story, it should. It’s about overcoming perceptions and obstacles. It’s about the ability to be so focused, to the exclusion of everything else including social norms, that success can’t help but surface. Karen evolves from a gangly girl with matted hair to a gangly woman with a buzzcut; along the way she develops a humane fishery.

The story spans 32 years including Karen’s schooling, business developments and interactions with others. After being tested, and self-identifying as “Different Abilities,” Karen learns “… in 90% of standard measures of intelligence (she is) somewhere between imbecile and idiot, but in 10% (she is) on top of the world.”

The most poignant moments are those between Karen and her aunt. Although Karen goes on to do great things, the most moving and inspirational are the leaps she makes in this relationship.

Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World
Four Bookmarks
Henry Holt and Co., 2012
242 pages