Friday, April 20, 2018

In Defense of Difficult Reading: Marilynne Robinson's What Are We Doing Here

Reading something fun and light can bring us joy as readers. There are some days when we just need to sink into another world and read something that my father would refer to as "fluffy." Sometimes the security of knowing that the chef will solve the mystery will making a perfect souffle is enough to make us feel a little better about life.

But I think there's another side, too. Reading can and should be fun and entertaining but it also has the capability to make us think. It can teach us about the science and history of the world we live in. Books can compel us to ask hard questions about ourselves and the choices we make individually and collectively.

I like to read for fun, but I also enjoy being challenged. I recently read What Are We Doing Here?, which is Marilynne Robinson's newest collection. The book mostly contains speeches that she has given over the past few years. They are not easy reading--the speeches consider our history as Americans, what it means to be a person of faith in the 21st century, and the place of both humanities and science. I so appreciated that both Robinson and her publisher saw the opportunity for readers to do some hard reading and think about big questions, even if they only knew her as the author of novels.

After graduating from high school or college, there is not a requirement for most of us to continue learning. We don't have to learn a new language, or learn how to write code for our website, or read hard books. But what are we missing if we don't?

Reading doesn't have to always be complicated or always be carefree. How wonderful it is to live in a world where we can read a cozy romance with the knowledge that they will get their happy ending and then turn to a book that explains the complexities of space or physics. Readers have the unique joy and privilege of experiencing all worlds, both real and imagined, and I intend to try to read about all of them.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review: My Dear Hamilton

Like many of us, Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie adored a certain popular musical about the life of one of our nation's founders. But they found that they couldn't stop thinking about Hamilton's wife Eliza. She was the one who ensured that Alexander Hamilton was remembered and the two authors decided to find out who she was and make sure that she was remembered as well.

My Dear Hamilton strikes the perfect balance of being familiar to readers who know a little about Alexander Hamilton while giving added depth to Eliza. They bookend the story with President James Monroe appearing to an elderly Eliza, hoping that the two can reconcile. From this point, Eliza thinks back through her life and readers witness a young woman in war time, a mother trying to provide for everyone in her family, and a wife wounded by her husband's betrayal.

Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie have done a wonderful job in making Eliza a fully realized character, in spite of her leaving so few of her own letters and documents behind. I love that Eliza begins her story by telling readers "I was someone before I met Alexander Hamilton. Not someone famous or important or with a learned philosophical understanding of all that was at stake in our revolution. Not a warrior or a philosopher or statesman. But I was a patriot. I was no unformed skein of wool for Hamilton to weave together into any tapestry he wished. That's important for me to remember now, when every thread of my life has become tangled with everything he was...I was, long before he came into my life, a young woman struggling to understand her place in a changing world."

The book is a long one, but it's intriguing to see Eliza grow and change over several decades. It's clear from the note in the beginning to the last page of this story that Dray and Kamoie are rightly fascinated by this turbulent time in American history and the brave women and men who defined it. If you are a reader who loves historical fiction or a a person who weeps every time you hear them sing "Who tells your story? Eliza" in the Hamilton finale, you need to read this book.

My Dear Hamilton
A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton
By Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
William Morrow Paperbacks April 2018
672 pages
Received from the publisher for TLC Book Tours

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Mini-Reviews: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon and The Living Infinite

Three brothers eat breakfast together in a small town in Pakistan. Instead of observing Eid together, they carefully decide which mosque each brother will attend. Then they leave to go about their days--Aman Erum takes a taxi to a meeting, Sikander goes to pick up his wife Mina before work at the hospital, and Hayat rides his  motorbike to an abandoned university to meet other young people who are dedicated to freeing their home. By the end of the morning, their carefully constructed existences will be changed forever.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is one of those books where very little happens. The book only covers three hours in the lives of one family, but each of them think back through their history so the reader comes to understand who these people are and the events that have made them this way. This story is framed through the eyes of the three brothers, but the characters who really shine are Samarra, a radical young woman with ties to both Aman and Hayat, and Mina, Sikander's wife who is grieving war and loss in a very peculiar way. Author Fatima Bhutto makes it seem like there are good people and bad people but, as pieces are slowly revealed, we learn that these are just people trying to save themselves and the ones they hold dear. By the end of the book, you may want to turn back to the beginning and read it all again to see which seemingly mundane moments were actually the ones to change everything.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon
By Fatima Bhutto
Penguin Press March 2015
240 pages
From the library


In 1893, a Spanish princess stunned the rebellious citizens of Cuba before becoming a sensation at the Chicago World's Fair. The Infant Eulalia impressed people with her style, her confidence, and her willingness to speak the truth about the limitations of royalty. Accompanying her is Tomas Aragon, her secretary and the son of her wet nurse. What do they owe to each other? How will their adult lives intersect? Is it possible to move beyond the choices of their parents?

Every time that Chantel Acevedo changed perspective, I grieved for a few pages to lose the motherly insight of Amalia or the childhood memories of a princess. But she has created such unforgettable characters in a princess, a wet nurse, and her son that I would happily read hundreds more pages about any of them. Eulalia really was a Spanish princess who visited Cuba and the World's Fair in 1839. She did have a wet nurse from a poor village, but the life and character of Tomas are invented by the author. If, like me, you don't know much about this time period in Spain, The Living Infinite will give you an excellent primer on the late 1800s. But more than that, Chantel Acevedo has written a truly beautiful story about creating your own life, even under the shadow of bad choices or a royal title.

The Living Infinite
By Chantel Acevedo
Europa Editions September 2017
305 pages
From the library

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review: Eternal Life

Rachel is a typical modern woman in many ways: her children sometimes drive her crazy, she dotes on her grandchildren, and she has some big decisions to make about the family business. But there is one thing that makes Rachel very unique--she can't die. Two thousand years ago, she made an incredible bargain to save the life of her son. He would live and become a crucial figure in Jewish history, but she would be unable to die. All these years later, she has lived many lives all over the world. She has fallen in love, she has had children and careers, and then she leaves them all behind before her descendants can see that she outlives them. Her granddaughter Hannah is a scientist with a grant to try to prevent death and Rachel worries that she will figure out the truth about her grandmother. Is it finally time for Rachel to die? Is it even possible?

The story itself is a really engaging one. We see Rachel in the present as she tries to make good decisions, realizing that the decisions that make her a good mother are not always the ones that will keep her safe and happy. Horn also takes us into Rachel's past at several different points, but we spend the most time at the beginning with the son whose life she saved. We also meet Elazar, the boy's father, who made a similar sacrifice and follows Rachel through time. They spend some lives together, taking solace in the face that one other person knows what it is like to be immortal. In others, Rachel runs as far away as possible from the man who knows too much about her and has hurt her too many times. It is the highest of compliments that I would have followed Rachel through all of her lives, because Horn gives her characters so much of the nuance and contradiction that makes them seem to come alive right on the page.

Dara Horn writes fascinating novels that grapple with complex questions of faith and morality. In Eternal Life, the question at hand is what it means for us to be human. Would immortality render us more human as we live through life after life of mistakes and joys or would the ability to have another chance make us something other than human? If there is no end, do the moments that make life meaningful become more precious or do they mean nothing at all?

Also by Dara Horn: A Guide for the Perplexed

Eternal Life
By Dara Horn
W.W. Norton Company January 2018
256 pages
From the library

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Review: Bury What We Cannot Take

San San and her brother Ah Liam return home from school one day, expecting a normal afternoon with a snack and time with their grandmother. Instead, they find that their grandmother has smashed a portrait of Chairman Mao with a hammer. Ah-Liam is conflicted, but ultimately decides to confess his grandmother's crime to the Communist Party. Soon the family has no choice but to try to flee the country to Hong Kong, lying that their father is ill. But the government will only grant three visas--one to mother Seok Koon, one to grandmother Bee Kim, and one for just one of the children. Seok's impossible choice will lead each of them to situations they never imagined.

Bury What We Cannot Take maintains a level of tension rarely seen in books other than thrillers. From the first pages when the children make their discovery, there is a very real possibility that someone will be imprisoned, killed, or lost to their family forever. This powerful book looks at the process of making difficult decisions and the repercussions that we never imagined. Everyone in this tale makes choices--Bee Kim made the choice to destroy the picture, Seok Koon decided which child to take to Hong Kong, Ah Zhai left his family to pursue another life in Hong Kong, and Ah Liam chose to put party ahead of his family. The only one who doesn't make a definitive choice is San San, but she is the one who must deal with the consequences.

Kirstin Chen is a writer who is careful and precise with her words. Beautiful writing and a tense and powerful story of the uncertainty of living in Communist China make Bury What We Cannot Take a book you don't want to miss.

Bury What We Cannot Take
By Kirstin Chen
Little A March 2018
275 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Review: 1001 Ways to Be Creative

We all know creativity is a good thing. We believe in arts education in our children's schools, listen to new music, and attend local theatre productions. Some of us spend too much time gazing via social media at the beautiful pie or cozy sweaters created by our friends. In spite of this, it's hard to know where to begin. If you don't consider yourself an artist or a musician or a chef (or even if you do), how do you include creativity in your daily life? Barbara Ann Kipfer has a solution for you with her book 1,001 Ways To Be Creative. 

This tiny book contains a very large list with two kinds of entries. There are suggestions on ways to start a creative life, like taking a pottery class, designing a roller coaster, or inventing a new cocktail. Some of the points are thoughts about what it means to live a creative life. Kipfer encourages readers to remember that there is no such thing as the "right" starting place, that you will need breaks and rest, and that your creativity will grow as you continue to work on it. There are also quotes from famous creative people throughout and pages of inspiration, where the author challenges her readers to ask "what if?" or go on a creativity field trip.

This is a charming book. I think the best place for it is close to your piano or sewing corner or on the kitchen counter, nestled in with your favorite cookbooks. I'm planning to leave it on my son's bookshelf for the next time he's tempted to tell me that he's bored. While I wouldn't recommend reading straight through, I can certainly see myself flipping through its pages when I need to try something new or find a bit of inspiration.

1,001 Ways to Be Creative
By Barbara Ann Kipfer
National Geographic March 2018
320 pages
Received from the publisher for TLC Book Tours