Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas


I am in awe of Angie Thomas’s accomplishment with this book. It has a moral without being moralistic and a message that creeps into your consciousness through believable, likable, and courageous characters, a complex and compelling storyline, and a city you can almost hear and smell, even though we have no idea where it actually is. 

This is a book about the importance of speaking out, despite the very real risks it presents. It’s also about community, with interconnected themes of belonging and loyalty woven with race, police brutality, and black identity.

That’s a lot to pack in, but Thomas does it so elegantly the reader falls in love with these amazing people facing a decision: Can they go on as usual or is it time to challenge the power structure? In this case, that structure includes the police department and district attorney on the one hand and a drug lord and his minions on the other. Caught between these two, which do you align with? What happens when the answer is “neither”?

At the center of the story is Starr, a smart and perceptive Black teenager who sees her childhood friend Khalil killed by a police officer after a traffic stop for a bad brake light. She struggles with her responsibility to Khalil, her community, family, and ultimately to herself. She’s terrified of telling the truth, which implicates both the officer and the drug kings, but she finally realizes she has no choice.

Starr straddles two different communities with different cultures and language. In the neighborhood, she is the grocer’s daughter, who sometimes works in his store. At her school in a ritzy white neighborhood, she is only as cool as she needs to be. She’s in that school because her parents know she will not get the education and opportunities she needs and deserves if she stays in the local school. She’s not a total fit in either place.

She has to leave parts of her behind when she goes to school—her language, her stories, and certainly the fact that she was in the car when Khalil was killed. If the white kids know too much, she fears, they’ll see her as a ghetto kid and dismiss her. Eventually, loyalty to her community and trust from her white friends help her speak out.

Thomas began this book when she was an undergraduate in creative writing at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. She says she chose to write it as a young adult novel to make it more accessible and relatable—and she succeeded.

The book was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the title comes from rapper Tupac Shakir’s THUG LIFE philosophy (and tatoo), an acronym for The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everybody. Shakir says, "What you feed us as seeds, grows and blows up in your face." When you force kids to live in a community that offers few opportunities besides drug dealing, you allow children to grow up broken and angry.  But those are our kids, even if they don't look or act like us—or we like them—and their world is connected to ours. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Ideally, we would be motivated to help black children get the same benefits as white because that is simply part of a just society. But THUG LIFE reminds us that, no matter our motivation, our inaction will come back to hurt us all.—Pat Prijatel




Near the Exit, by Lori Erickson


Being shown the world through the eyes of thoughtful people who are keen travelers and also engaging writers is a big treat to someone who doesn’t travel (me). Near the Exit: Travels with the Not So-Grim Reaper is a wonderful read and a thought-provoking discussion of death and death rituals. 

As a huge fan of the movie Coco, I really enjoyed visiting the largest annual Day of the Dead celebration in Chicago with Erickson. Likewise, ancient Egyptian sites; nursing homes; the New Zealand Maori; Aztecs and Mayan ruins; funeral homes; the spiritual center in Crestone, Colorado; Assisi; and the Sacred Stone Circle at Harvest Preserve in Iowa City were each, in their way, fascinating destinations for conversations about death. After reading this book, I think I may be able to react to nursing homes with more peace and grace.

My favorite section of book is near the end, when Erickson describes what she saw at Eremo delle Carceri (a hermitage overlooking Assisi): 

Just outside the building is a statue of Francis that’s the happiest depiction of a saint I’ve ever seen. It shows him lying on the ground, his hands behind his head, his sandals kicked off and ankles crossed, a contented smile on his face. Christianity might produce more saints if we pictured them like this, rather than carrying the tools of their martyrdom.

Erickson goes on to say:

When it came time for him to die, he wanted them (his brothers) to place his naked body on the ground, not long, just about the length of time it took someone to walk a mile.  . . . maybe he knew that after his death his bones—and his message—would become the property of the church, which would inevitably try to corral and domesticate the wild spirit he’d unleashed. Before that happened, he would have one last moment of communion with the earth he loved so much. It is said when Francis died, a chorus of larks wheeled and swooped above him for a long time, singing him home.

I’m not sure why that passage is so appealing. Maybe because it shows such a vibrant, living membrane between the spiritual and the physical–which is, indeed, something I sometimes, in lucky moments, feel. 

Humans are apparently the only one of God’s creatures who grapple with their own mortality. In Near the Exit, Erickson shows us a way to circle closely to the inevitable and look at it without too much unease.—Sharelle Moranville

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

In a nutshell, Becoming is a remarkable and inspirational story of an extraordinary woman. The book is a coming-of-age story; a love story of a pair of opposites; and a political saga by a woman who was skeptical, if not downright scornful of politics, but who became one of the most popular first ladies in American history.
In telling her story, Michelle takes readers by the hand on an intimate tour of everyday African-American life and ambition, while recounting her rise from modest origins to the closest America has to nobility.
Gracefully written and at times laugh-out-loud funny, she invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her from her childhood to the White House. 
I particularly liked the titles of the three sections of the book. The first third (Becoming Me), covers her childhood, growing up in lower middle class in southside Chicago, with parents who made their high expectations clear. Despite her family’s challenges and her ‘female blackness’, she managed to go to Princeton, then Harvard Law, and then to work at a prestigious law firm where she met Barack, fell for him and his wanderlust, while Barack was grounded by her traditionalism.
In the second section (Becoming Us), she covers their marriage, marriage counseling, raising two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare, winning the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and making it to the White House. But she never takes any of it for granted. On the contrary, her tone is one of wonderment as to how this all happened. Over and over again, from high school to the White House, she asks, “Am I good enough?”
She closes the last third of the book (Becoming More), talking about the stress of being in the spotlight, her desire to make an impact as First Lady, and the opportunity to offer her vision.  She knew that she would be held to a different standard, her every gesture scrutinized. 
Her story is not full of Washington gossip and political score-settling, though she does lay bare her contempt for Trump, who she believes put her family’s safety at risk with his false birther conspiracy theory. 
Becomingis a warm, wise, revelatory and intimate, deeply personal coming-of-age story of a strong-minded girl who grew up to become one of the most powerful and influential black women in America. Her memoir sold more than 1.4 million copies in its first week and quickly became the best-selling book of the year. 
Through it all, her outlook is optimistic, her voice clear, witty, candid and insightful. She talks straight, with an openness and honesty rarely seen. She is gifted in her ability to express her emotions with meticulous attention to details, writing with tremendous insight and sensitivity from beginning to end. I loved it.— Kenn Johnson


Saturday, September 7, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens This

This is an intriguing murder mystery, woven through the painfully beautiful story of
Kya, a young girl abandoned and left to survive on her own in the marshes of North
Carolina.

Kya is no stranger to the beautiful but treacherous marshes. Deserted when she
was just six years old, eventually “Marsh Girl” learns to survive, thrive and find
solace in the beauty of the nature all around her.

Kya, lives in a shack with her dirt-poor family “squeezed together like penned
rabbits”: a caring but worn down and helpless mother, a cruel, abusive father and
four older siblings. One by one they desert Kya, saving themselves from the
frequent, vicious beatings of their father, who is the last to desert her. Her mothers’
leaving is the most heart-breaking and frightening for Kya. “Ma” leaves, letting the
door slam with finality behind her. No good-by. Not even a wave to her 6-year-old
daughter. Finally, Kya is truly alone, except for the beautiful sea gulls who swoop
and dive in to eat the grits she tosses to them each evening.

She becomes a wild child, living completely on her own in the marshes with the
seagulls, snow geese, doves and crows as her only companions. She takes herself
to school, but stays for just one day because of the cruel mocking from her
classmates. So most of what she knows she learned from the creatures with
whom she shares the swap. Nature nurtured, tutored, fed and protected her when
no one else would.

She grew up navigating the family’s motorboat through the marshes and is able to
dock near the small general store where she can buy simple supplies, mostly grits,
which she cooks with scrambled eggs, cornbread, biscuits and sometimes beans
just like her mother fixed.

Kya grows older and develops into a tall, skinny, tanned teenager with hair as black
and “thick as crow wings.” She begins to long for companionship, and thinks “If
anyone would understand loneliness the moon would.” She becomes increasingly
aware of the older boys she sees in town. And they begin to notice her, especially
Chase Andrews, the handsome only son of wealthy parents. She also becomes
good friends with another young man,Tate. Tate loves and becomes protective of
her, especially as he sees the questionable attention Chase pays to Kya. Tate tells
Kya that his father taught him that “A real man is one who cries without shame,
reads poetry with his heart, feels opera in his soul and does what is necessary to
defend a woman.” Kya opens herself to Chase and Tate and to a new life.

And then...the story develops into a murder mystery and a very unpredictable
ending. As my fellow St. Timothy’s Book Club readers and I discussed this book
(which we all loved) - we agreed NOT to discuss the ending until all members had
finished the book. It’s that unpredictable and that well done. So I certainly can’t
disclose, or even hint at it, to you, Blog readers. I’ll just say it’s definitely worth the
wait.

Crawdads is a wonderful, very well-told story with beautiful language and gentle
descriptions of nature woven throughout. And there is wonderful poetry that
appears, often when least expectedly. You might want to pay attention to it. It’s
beautiful, well-written and more important than you might expect.

A word about the author, Delia Owens. She is a wildlife scientist who has coauthored
three international best-selling, award-winning nonfiction books about her
life as a wildlife scientist in Africa. She is much admired and respected for her
extensive writing about nature. She holds a BS in Zoology from the University of
Georgia and a PhD in Animal Behavior for the University of California at Davis. This
is her first fiction book. We hope it is not her last.

About the title “Where the Crawdads Sing”- Kya said her Ma used to encourage
her to explore the marsh. “Go as far as you can, way out yonder where the
crawdads sing.” Google couldn’t help me learn if crawdads really do sing. But I
did learn that they are like small, very tasty lobsters. Maybe it’s better if they don’t
sing. Could ruin our appetite for lobsters—Gail Stilwill

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Next Books

Next Books
Non-Fiction
Books with 1 or more votes (number of votes)
Becoming, by Michelle Obama(3)
Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek, by Annie Dillard (3)
All the President's Men, by Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein (2)
Near the Exit, by Lori Erickson (2)
Sunday Mornings in Plains, by Jimmy Carter (2)
The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2)
The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben (2)
Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino, by Joyce Rupp (2)
The Last Lectureby Randy Pausch (1)
The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman (1)


Fiction
Books with 1 or more votes (number of votes)
1984, by George Orwell (4)
Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens(4)
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather (3)
Sky Bridgeby Laura Pritchett (2)
The Bean Treesby Barbara Kingsolver (2)
Circe, by Madeline Miller (1)
Music for Chameleons, by Truman Capote (1)
The Devotedby Blair Hurley (1)
The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah (1)
The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin (1)
Idaho, by Emily Ruskovich 

Books Added
Fiction
A Better Man, by Louise Penny
Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin
Lockdown, by Laurie R. King
The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout
The Hate You Give, by Angie Thomas
The Overstory, by Richard Powers

Non-Fiction
Profiles of Courage, by John F. Kennedy
Songs of America, by Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw 


Monday, August 12, 2019

1984, by George Orwell

Among the influential texts of the 20thcentury, Nineteen Eighty-Fouris an exceptional work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. After political satirist George Orwell watched as the Soviets created an authoritarian state much like Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany,  in 1949 he published his nightmarish vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world in the future, and together with Animal Farm, they have sold more than any two books by any other 20thcentury author.
1984 describes a Dystopia, the antithesis of a Utopia, where Big Brother makes Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini look like sissies. His world is divided into three states, originated from the ashes of World War II: Oceania (the Americas, British Isles, and Australia), Eurasia (the rest of Europe and Russia), and Eastasia (the rest of the world). Continuous war between those three is required to keep the society’s order and peace. WAR IS PEACE
I first read this book when I was in the eighth grade, but I’m not sure why we were required to read it at that age.  I wish I could recall the substance of the discussions by my group of hormonally-challenged teens, but now think that this is a book that is better understood and appreciated long after your first pimple. So, I decided to re-read the book as an adult, hoping I could gain a better appreciation of the classic. Well, it did more than that – it absolutely floored me.  “We shall meet in a place where there is no darkness” sent chills up my spine.
The book is in three parts. The first describes Winston Smith’s predictable life as an unimportant party member.  The second is his life with Julia involving courage, love/lust, and betrayal. And, the final part is about the consequences of those actions, and the methodology of converting political prisoners to embrace Big Brother before disposing of them.  
In the end, Smith is broken, not only physically, but mentally, and after torture of unimaginable dimensions, he completely surrenders, body and soul, to Big Brother. But, in the end, they fix him and he’s happy again – or something -- an idea I don’t believe I was able to fully appreciate in middle school.
The brilliance of the novel is Orwell’s prescience of modern life – the ubiquity of television and cameras, the distortion of language, and his ability to construct the possible nightmare and danger of a society without civil liberties and a government with complete control. His idea that truth can be arranged through media (fake news, e.g.) is perhaps the most relevant idea for us today. The part of the  horror of 1984 is that his future is recognizable in 2019, where our President Trump attempts, through manipulation and propaganda, to maintain control simply for satiating his own power hunger. Truly, in this era of “alternative facts’ and an increasing racial intolerance take on society, today’s reality has caught up with 1984.
But, the book is far from perfect. Orwell is a much better theorist than he is a writer. While not a particularly good novel, 1984 is a very good essay, and its ideas are greater than any book. It is bleak, grim, dreary, frightening and upsetting. His characters lack depth, the rhetoric is sometimes didactic, and I believe most writers would have avoided including the lengthy Goldstein treatise, snappily titled “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivisim”, which alters the novel like a scar disfigures a face.
But all that doesn’t matter, because he got it right.  Simply put, 1984 is unquestionably the most memorable and disturbing novel ever. I have always thought that one of the most important qualities of science fiction is that it frees the author to take controversial, politically charged issues, and create a possible future, and in doing so is able to present a compelling and critical argument for change.  With apologies to Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke, no one has ever done a better job than Orwell.
It was a hard read, but a MUST read. But, remember – Big Brother is watching!!! — Kenn Johnson

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid


What if our borders weren't physical? What if migrants could just suddenly show up in your living room or city park or backyard? Or in the church hall? No long lines, no showing papers, just displaced people popping up in your life after their own lives had disintegrated where they were?  

In this intriguing book, Mohsin Hamid explores this question and, along the way, demonstrates what it looks like to become a refugee, to have your own world slowly fall apart as you try to live a normal life that becomes less possible every day. 

Two sweethearts, Nadia and Saeed, are young professionals in an unnamed Middle-Eastern country, typical middle-class citizens—she’s in insurance and he’s in marketing and they met at a seminar. But terrorists have taken over the city and it becomes increasingly unsafe. Hamid shows us the day-to-day changes, how the couple’s world gets smaller and smaller as terrorists gain strength. After Saeed’s mother is killed by a stray bullet, the couple decides to leave.

Their unique method of escape is through magical horizontal doors that take people from one country to another. It’s a difficult process—getting access to the doors is mysterious and entails knowing the right people and being able to pay the right fee. Going through them is turbulent and painful, looking a bit like being born, and in a way it is: Those who go through the doors become new people in lands new to them.

The idea for the doors, Hamid said in an interview with the PBS News Hour, was inspired by smart phone screens.

[R]ight now, most of us have a little black rectangle in our pocket or our backpack or our purse. And when we look at it, our consciousness goes far, far away from our bodies, like magically appearing somewhere else, looking at your phone, and suddenly you're reading about the moon or Mars or Antarctica. And I thought, what would happen if your body could move as easily as your mind can move? I think technology is obliterating geographic distance. And so the doors in a way give life to that. 

Hamid considers himself a lifelong migrant—from Pakistan to California, then back, then to London and back. He knows the migrant experience can be terrifying and, at times, deadly, because we do not focus on the fact that people who want to enter our countries are just that: people. But when migrants literally show up on our doorsteps we have to stop dealing with them as abstractions, as legal arguments and look them in the eye instead. Again, talking to the News Hour he says:

[W]e have become so focused on the story of how somebody crosses the border, how did you cross the Mediterranean in a small boat, or how did you cross the U.S.-Mexico border, crawl underneath the barbed wire?And we think that people who have done that are different from us. It makes us imagine that that's all their life consisted of, and that's very different from us.  
But once you take away that part of their story, you're left with people who are just like us, actually, that any of us can have this experience. And so hopefully taking away that part of the story doesn't minimize the importance in the real world that that happens, but reminds us that that is not what makes these people who they are. They are people just like us. 

Hamid also shows that we are all migrants in one way or another. In one of the many vignettes that pop up throughout the book he introduces us to a woman who has stayed in the San Francisco area her entire life, while the world has radically changed around her. His conclusion:

“We are all migrants through time.”

Nadia and Saeed migrate through time and through space, facing anti-migrant attitudes in the Greek Island of Mykonos, London, and Marin County, California. Ultimately, the refugees are accepted, if not always welcomed, sometimes after riots, usually after chaos. Eventually the different cultures learn to live alongside one another, creating a new culture, which is a mash of the old. The initial acceptance comes, as usual, through foods.

The book is not for those who want a literal and linear progression of plot and a clear sense of time and place. Hamid’s writing style can take a while to get accustomed to—most paragraphs are one sentence long, and the sentences can be a bit rambling. Yet this style matches the storytelling sense of the book and makes it more real. And the doors are shown before they are actually explained, so there are a few moments early in the book when the reader is not entirely sure what is going on. And the vignettes of unrelated people can be confusing. 

Hamid creates characters whose struggle is believable, relatable, and scary as hell. Every person who says migrants should go back to where they came from should have to read this book. — Pat Prijatel