An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

There are too many loose ends in the world, in need of knots. You can’t attend to all of them, but you have to try.

This was a raw glimpse into a marriage under extreme outside pressure. I found myself continually thinking, ‘This is exactly how I would probably react.’ It was an exposed view into the upended lives involved in an otherwise all-American marriage. We often go into marriage thinking it is an agreement between two people, when actually it includes more people than just two spouses.

It was difficult to mentally assign a protagonist and an antagonist to the cast of characters. The reader can easily identify with and feel empathy for many of the characters and their sorted reactions to love and heartache and the burden of life’s circumstances that are dealt differently to each one of us.

Tamari Jones unknowingly laid open our souls before us to voyeuristically nod our head in agreement and cringe in recognized moments of selfishness. Many readers will not identify with the exact storyline, but will nod their heads in enigmatic acknowledgement. Jones turns us around to the mirror and asks her readers to answer some timely questions about race and class in America.

May was a good month for reading. I enjoyed all the books I read:

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Don’t Let Go. (And ironically, I didn’t.)

Going to the doctor when I’m sick is always my last ditch effort. After putting things off until way past the last minute, I recently went to a nearby walk-in clinic at CVS Pharmacy to see if they could give me any relief from these *&%$#! allergies. The ‘Minute Clinic’ – as it’s called – actually lasted exactly 170 minutes from the time I walked in to the time that I finally walked out: 2 hours and 50 minutes. UGH! Actually I didn’t really care because my energy level was nil. So I sat patiently and waited.

After it became obvious it was going to be a bit of a wait, I walked over to the magazine/book aisle and picked up this book: Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben. According to the inside jacket, Coben has written exactly 7.gillion books, of which I had read none. But (as always, when in doubt…) the cover looked good so I picked it up and walked back over to my chair in the waiting room area and opened it up to read this mystery/suspense thriller and pass my sniffling waiting time.

He looked at our faces and knew. They often do. Some claim that the first step in the grieving process is denial. Having delivered my share of life-shattering news, I have found the opposite to be true: the first step is complete and immediate comprehension. You hear the news and immediately you realize how absolutely devastating it is, how there will be no reprieve, how death is final, how your world is shattered and that you will never, ever be the same. You realize all that in seconds, no more. The realization floods into your veins and overwhelms you. Your heart breaks. Your knees buckle. Every part of you wants to give way and collapse and surrender. You want to curl up into a ball. You want to plummet down the mineshaft and never stop.

That’s when denial kicks in. Denial saves you. Denial throws up a protective fence. Denial grabs hold of you before you leap off that ledge. Your hand rests on a hot stove. Denial pulls your hand back.

Coben is a quick, leave-’em-hanging-at-the-end-of-each-chapter kind of writer which is great for times when you want to just casually read something entertaining. He hooked me right off the bat and grounded my feet firmly in the have-to-know-how-this-ends quicksand every novelist hopes for.

I had it completely read by the next day. Abandoned military bases, waterboarding, high school friends crossing paths decades later……what’s not to love?! I tried to pass it on to Scott to read who immediately said the curve of the tracks on the front cover is completely unrealistic – a train could never make a drastic curve like that. *face palm*

Sidenote: The title of the book is ‘Don’t Let Go’ and well, ……I didn’t let it go. I was well into the book when the nurse called me back and after our very arduous exam and explanations of meds, etc., I walked right out of that CVS with this book in my hands without paying for it! I am currently on the lam. I’ve been running and hiding for days – never staying in the same place more than two days at a time. I feel certain they are tracking this IP address as I write this review.

Yes, yes. I will go back to CVS, admit to my accidental theft and buy the book for good. (But after reading a suspense novel, it felt only right to type up this book review while still running from the feds myself.)

Need a swimming pool read this summer? This is your book. I think I’ll grab a couple of his other books too and see if I like them as well. Easy. Somewhat mindless. A read that keeps you moving along.

Childhood Fiction: Adult Realizations

…one felt like one was listening, not reading…

I finished a book this week that left me a little distraught. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award and named one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year – even more than that, it absorbed so much of my childhood, leaving me with very happy memories and contributing to my lifelong love of reading.

I was excited to read the biography of the life of a childhood ‘friend’ – Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilderby Caroline Fraser. I absolutely loved my copies of each of her children’s books, in particular ‘Little House on Plum Creek’ which seemed to capture every inch of my imagination with the devastating prairie fires and the onslaught cloud of locusts. Living in a home underground set my mind on fire as a child, wondering what it must be like to live that way.

What I never considered was the real-life devastation locusts and prairie fires would have on a farming family…

I honestly don’t know if I can recommend this biography to a fan of the Little House books or tv series. It was difficult to read the true events that happened behind these childlike books of fiction. Prairie Fire covers the entirety of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, so it is exhaustive in its details taken from her diaries as well as city and state records. It is bookended by the real Charles Ingalls at the beginning of the book and Michael Landon in the end. (In fact, Landon’s….end…is discussed. His backside was so popular on the tv series ‘Bonanza’ that he decided to wear no underwear in the ‘Little House’ series. Is this something we really need to know?!)

BECAUSE I was such a fan of the books and later the tv series, I found this book fascinating. But fascinating in a car-wreck-I-can’t-look-away kind of way. There are parts of Laura’s life that I now wish I didn’t know. I will not be able to look at the books with the same innocence I always have in the past. As a fellow Missourian, Laura and Almanzo’s home in Mansfield, Missouri, is that of lore around here. Reading Prairie Fire gave me a different perspective into her life and that of her childhood.

I mean – of COURSE her life was not as idyllic as the books and tv show led us to believe. Her books were carefully categorized as fiction for that very reason.

As a history student in college I thought a study of pioneer women would be enticing to study someday. I suppose that’s because it is a time period that I do not believe I could have endured very successfully. The arduous trek across untamed America toward uncharted land…no calling ahead for hotel reservations! So it was interesting to read ‘behind the veil’ of the hardships the Ingalls and later the Wilders endured to settle land and build their dreams.

The books are not the truth but the truth about our history is in them.

Yes, I recommend this book because it holds valuable insight into the trials and hardships of building America. (Only slightly touching on the Native American aspect of ‘building America’.)

No, I don’t recommend this book because it will taint your bucolic image of freckled-faced Laura and her adoring family.

Have you read it yet? Tell me your thoughts…

EDUCATED by Tara Westover

S U M M A R Y   +   P E R S O N A L   T H O U G H T S :

I casually started reading this book but it quickly took over my life, completely captivating me. 

I am an easy fan of memoirs. I love a good story. Hearing how other people have lived is a reminder to me that we are all so very different – and in many ways, very much the same.

Tara was the youngest of six siblings, born to survivalist parents on a mountainside in Idaho. Her father was a fundamentalist Mormon who lived in fear that the ‘Feds’ were going to come surround their home in gunfire. He instilled a disturbing amount of fear into each of his children. Westover’s mother was an herbalist healer that concocted tinctures in the kitchen of their home (and sold them as an alternative to Obamacare.) The father didn’t want to register anything with the government so none of the children went to school or had birth certificates until much later in life. Their cars weren’t registered or insured for fear of having documentation filed with The Government. Tara explains many horrific accidents when her father refused to take any of them to the hospital, believing God would heal them with the help of their mother. They buried rifles around their property and had years and years of food supply in their basement should they need to survive inside their home for an extended amount of time. Should they have to run, each child had a Run For The Hills backpack at the ready.

The mind manipulation in this book is profound. As a reader I found myself wanting to reach inside the book and grab the shoulders of so many of the Westover family members: ‘Can’t you see what’s happening?! How can you believe what you’re being told?!’

Eventually Tara stepped out of that world in order to attend college. She studied to take the ACT test and was admitted to Brigham-Young University which eventually led to fellowships at Cambridge University and Harvard. She stepped into a world previously unknown to her…

The tables were set with more knives, forks and goblets than I’d ever seen; the paintings on the wall seemed ghostly in the candlelight. I felt exposed by the elegance and yet somehow made invisible by it.

Her educational journey was stunning. In one of her first classes in college she asked a question about a word she didn’t know. The teacher and her fellow students shunned her disapprovingly believing she was making an insensitive joke. After later looking up the word in the library she couldn’t stop reading about the ‘holocaust’ – an event she knew nothing about.

Admittedly, the extremes in this book made me question their validity at times. Many experiences seem so completely out of the ‘norm’ that it was difficult to believe people actually live this way. It’s not a story about decades ago but a story that has played out in the past few years. As with any memoir, this is primarily a one-sided story. I am certain Tara’s parents and siblings would have their own story that would most likely greatly differ from hers.

I finished the book within just a few days. The characters lived with me the entire time. I thought about them as if they were people I actually knew, Tara’s writing so deeply entrenched them in my life. I highly recommend this book. It is a wonderful reminder that we each live within a reality that might be different than those around us. It is not until we learn about others’ lives that we are able to more fully understand and empathize with our fellow humans. We all need a greater education.

M Y  R A T I N G : 4.5/5

A U T H O R : Tara Westover

P U B L I C A T I O N  D A T E : February 2018

P U B L I S H E R : Penguin Random House

PLENTY LADYLIKE by Claire McCaskill

S U M M A R Y   +   P E R S O N A L   T H O U G H T S :

One of my favorite apps on my phone is the Hoopla app through the Kansas City Public Library. At any given time I am usually reading one physical book and listening to one audio book through either Audible or Hoopla. I just finished a book that I have listened to in the car, while working around our home or at any open opportunity where I can multi-task by listening while also doing something mundane with my hands. I was a late comer to audio books, but I’ve become a big fan of them for some genres – memoirs being my favorite audio book.

Claire McCaskill is a state senator for Missouri. aka: a home girl. Her influence in the Senate has been one of strength as a moderate voice. In particular she has worked hard to eliminate earmarks and financial waste spending due to her previous role as state auditor.

Admittedly, this was particularly interesting to someone from Claire’s homestate of Missouri. She spent a significant amount of time in Kansas City, so it was fun to read of places she mentioned and to know exactly where she was talking about. But overall, it was thrilling to read of the rise and success of a woman. I like to refer to myself as a feminist who also enjoys letting her husband put the gas in her car. That’s to say that I believe there is a balance between feminism and femininity – of which we should not need to apologize for either. So the title ‘Plenty Ladylike’ piqued my interest. I do not believe men and women are ‘equal’ in the most crude definition of the word. But I strongly believe the combination of men and women on any project makes for the most successful and well-rounded outcome.

You can’t use your clout to change the things you’re passionate about unless you have the clout.

In other words, there is no need to feel apologetic about rising to a powerful position when you are working for a greater voice to accomplish the things for which you feel a strong pull. This is how things get done. Whether it’s a local election, a local school position or a community committee – position yourself to do the most good and have the most effective voice for your cause.

I enjoyed reading about the relationship between the female members of the Senate. They regularly meet for dinner – no press or staff allowed. Just a safe place to discuss the unique position they find themselves in: as mothers, wives, senators and all the competing forces that surround those roles. Periodically, the female Supreme Court justices also meet with them. Oh to be a fly on the wall…

While women in high offices is becoming more and more acceptable, and blatant gender bias aren’t as prevalent, there are still passively used phrases that are unique to women in the political arena. McCaskill has been accused from male opponents as not being ladylike enough or that her actions were unbecoming of a woman. While less abrasive than the time in her early political career when a male legislator asked her if she brought her knee pads (?!!!?), these passive phrases are still a way to keep a woman in her place.

Other obstacles women are in the unique position to combat: what their hair looks like, whether they have bags under their eyes or how well their clothes fit. Claire talked of a female colleague who the press pointed out she had worn the same dress in the same month. (Yes, there were times when I also shrieked out-loud in my car at the craziness of our society!Would we even know if a man had re-worn a navy suit twice in one month?! ugh.

McCaskill wrapped up her book with a somewhat new challenge to women, an area where women have not been historically known to participate in. McCaskill wrote of the bargains and security nets women build for themselves and for their future. However, women also need to look at the ways in which we invest in our future by donating our money to charities and political campaigns. This is also a way in which we can make our voices known about the areas in which our souls are stirred and our compassion is awoken.

The term ‘ladylike’ is not a label we need to shirk off or eliminate, but rather to redefine. Standing strong in adversity, being brave enough to speak against a wrong way of thinking, and maintaining the core of who we are (be it in 2″ heels or manure-laden boots) – THAT is what it’s like to be a lady.

I recommend this book to all persons interested in the political trajectory of any candidate – the local elections that lead to national elections, with a few failures and mistakes along the way. In particular, I recommend this book to my local Missourians as they will find even more tidbits of interest throughout the book.

I’ve never met a political candidate I agree with 100%. Such is the case with Claire McCaskill. But I am proud she is representing Missouri and our moderate political ideals. As with McCaskill, Missourians are often more willing to cross party lines when it means coming to an equitable solution.

M Y  R A T I N G : 4.5/5

A U T H O R : Claire McCaskill

P U B L I C A T I O N  D A T E : August 2016

P U B L I S H E R : Simon & Schuster

THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett

 

I was in a bad temper and talking ill of folk and she turns around to me and says ‘Thou doesn’t like this one and thou doesn’t like that one. How does thou like thyself?’

S U M M A R Y   +   P E R S O N A L   T H O U G H T S :

A part of my reading goals for 2018 is to read more classics. When I find myself thinking, ‘Have I read this already? I can’t remember.’ Those are the books I want to intermix with my other readings this year.

The weather has been unusually warm here in Kansas City these past few days. Spring is teasing us. Taunting us into believing that perhaps winter might be over. (Our experience tells us we still have much more winter to go.) These days are what turn my mind to garden planning. Maybe that’s why I gravitated to this classic of English children’s literature. What I did not expect is that it would speak to some of my deepest fears.

[sidenote: There are many English and Scottish phrasings in this book. If that makes it more difficult to read, I highly suggest getting an audio recording of this book. It was the perfect way to listen to this classic.]

*image below found online without authorship

My initial (modern day) reflex to this book was that there was some very sketchy parenting going on! Children being forgotten or left to fend for themselves. If I were a child reading this, however, I’m sure I would think that was super cool!!

Mary Lennox is a sickly, unwanted 10-year-old that is left orphaned after both her wealthy parents died from cholera. Even before their death, however, her parents didn’t want to mess with her, so they left her to be raised by servants who did whatever she asked – leaving her a very spoiled and unlovable child.

Mary is sent to live with her wealthy uncle who is, himself, grieving the loss of his beloved wife. Archibald Craven travels frequently, leaving Mary on her own once again. Living in Yorkshire, England now, Mary wanders the property – initially hating the moor near which her uncle’s grand home was built. In the process of looking at the gardens (and hearing of a secret garden that no one knows how to get into!), she befriends a robin who daringly follows her on her walks and quickly becomes her first friend ever.

Mary’s world begins to drastically change as spring begins to show in the gardens – and especially after the robin leads her to the buried key that unlocks the secret garden.

One of the characters of this book is a weak and ill-tempered hypochondriac little boy named Colin who has overheard all his life that he was going to die soon. He lies in bed, afraid to walk, afraid to be seen by others, afraid to go outside his room – until he meets Mary and her secret garden. Just as being out in nature made a dramatic difference to Mary, Colin also begins to trust in others and believe in his own future of health.

I don’t know that I am a hypochondriac (does one ever know when they’re a hypochondriac??), but after a lifetime of good health, I have encountered some discouraging years of illness lately. After a VERY surprising heart attack and surgeries in my 40’s, l often struggle with the idea that my heart could give out at any moment. This isn’t something I talk about to anyone; it’s something I ruminate over in the dark places of my mind. Catching the flu scares me. Strange aches and pains scare me. Exercising scares me and not exercising scares me. I definitely overthink health now – something I took for granted for so long.

Colin frustrated me and encouraged me at the same time. Initially I thought: HOW could anyone lie in bed worrying about dying just because they overheard someone talking about the possibility someday? But my oh my what a metaphor that was for me. I don’t physically lie in bed worrying, but I am certainly ‘laid up‘ in my mind when the fears overcome the day. Anyone who has struggled with any level of anxiety can understand that. All the ‘logical talk’ only makes sense in the daylight of rational thinking. When the clouds settle in, reasoning doesn’t always make sense.

Amazingly descriptive detail was given to the garden and surrounding English countryside. The temper tantrums and kids-as-bosses added lots of flair in creating the images of the central children of the story. Once these initially spoiled children began thinking about others and how to bring their secret garden back to life, their minds were filled with things other than their own fears and wants. What a beautiful book for a child to read.

But truly, what an important book for an adult to revisit. Are you living your fullest life? Are you being brave when others around you are doubting your strength? Even more difficult, are you being brave when you doubt your own endurance? What treasures are out there, waiting for us to discover if we’d only step outside our self-built boxes and walk into the fresh air of new possibilities.

Give this book a try, friends. You might be searching for A Secret Garden in this stage of your life. A garden you didn’t even know you needed.

M Y  R A T I N G : 5/5

A U T H O R : Frances Hodgson Burnett

P U B L I C A T I O N  D A T E : 1911

P U B L I S H E R : Barnes and Noble Classics Series