MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout

In Washington, DC for a conference this week, I of course made a pilgrimage to one of my favorite spots on the planet, Kramerbooks, where they display most of the books with the covers facing up or out. There’s nothing better than a delicious buffet of books. So many tempting choices! I didn’t really need a book. I had brought one along for the train ride, and—let’s face it—left a dozen piled on my bedside table, awaiting my return. So I limited myself to just one.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of OLIVE KITTERIDGE (which I also loved), calls to mind the first sentence of MOBY DICK. In a deceptively simple way, it both echoes “Call me Ishmael” and reinterprets the line through the voice of a woman who is somewhat timid, somewhat brave, and somewhat matter-of-fact. The narrator’s voice is clean, spare, and factual. One chapter begins, for example, “Until I was eleven years old, we lived in a garage.” The older Lucy recalls both her childhood and a time when, as an adult, she spent an extended time in a hospital and her estranged mother came and stayed at her side for a few days.

As you read it, see if you feel the same way I did: like you are being confided in by someone who can’t say everything, but says enough.

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ELIGIBLE by Curtis Sittenfeld

I held off on reading ELIGIBLE for a few years because I adore Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and I was afraid that this book, a modernization of that classic novel, could not possibly compare. So why bother?

I was wrong. In fact, I love Curtis Sittenfeld’s adaptation so much that it has made me want to re-read the original. And I hope someone is making a movie out of this.

I don’t want to spoil it, but here are a few tidbits: it’s 2013; the Bennets live in Cincinnati; Mr. Darcy is Dr. Darcy, a neurosurgeon; and Chip Bingley is a doctor/star of Eligible, a reality-TV show suspiciously similar to The Bachelor. And the banter among Liz and Jane and the rest of the siblings is priceless.

I think Ms. Austen would be delighted.

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AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

In the opening scene of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s AMERICANAH, the main character has to travel from Princeton to Trenton because no one in Princeton knows how to braid her hair. And it goes on from there. Following Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who falls in love, moves to America, then moves back, this book uses the perspective of a highly observant outsider, a “non-American born” African, to shed light on what it is like to be black in America (and in Great Britain and Nigeria), and it does so with insight, humor, and attitude.

Though focused on race relations, this book is also more broadly about finding your place in the world. On some level, all of the characters struggle with this issue.

As we all do.

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OLD FRIEND FROM FAR AWAY by Natalie Goldberg

Ten minutes. That’s all you need. So many friends say, “I would love to write, but I don’t have time.” Let me save you some time by keeping this review short. All you need is this book. Subtitled The Practice of Writing Memoir, it offers page after page of writing prompts that require only ten minutes. Here’s page 14, titled “Die”: “Tell me what you will miss when you die.” Prefer something more mundane? Try page 94: “Write everything you know about mashed potatoes.” Not all of the entries are this sprinkly-short; Natalie Goldberg mixes in thoughtful explanations along the way.

Trust me. You can do this. Natalie Goldberg shows the way.

PS: Many thanks to Sandy Gingras, a great writer and an even greater friend, for this inspiring recommendation!

Bonus note: Two other books in this genre have been helpful companions over the years: Natalie Goldberg’s classic WRITING DOWN THE BONES: Freeing the Writer Within and WHAT IF?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

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BORN A CRIME by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah’s memoir BORN A CRIME (subtitled Stories from a South African Childhood) is actually three books in one: an insider’s account of what it was like for a mixed-race person to grow up in South Africa during apartheid, a memoir of his impoverished childhood (PS, as I write this, he is still young: only 33), and a biography of his mother, who is a force of nature.

Noah begins each chapter with an overview of some aspect of South Africa. For instance, he points out in Chapter 1 that black South Africans outnumbered white South Africans nearly five to one, “yet we were divided into different tribes with different languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Sotho, Venda, Ndebele, Tsonga, Pedi, and more.” The whites capitalized on tribal animosity and divided and conquered. In this book, Noah sheds light on how he used his capacity to learn different languages as a way to navigate challenging social situations. If you could speak someone’s language, he would see you as “one of us.” He learned this—among many other lessons—from his headstrong mother.

Noah’s mother, a black woman who chose to ask a white man to help her have a child even though he told her he didn’t want one and wouldn’t marry her, left her family to work in the city. Because of apartheid, she had to hide and sleep in public restrooms until she learned the ropes from other black women who had figured out how to live there. They were prostitutes. She was not. She bought maid’s overalls to pretend to be a cleaner so that she would not be noticed. She went out, but it was difficult to know whom to trust. As Noah observes, “As far as her white neighbors knew, my mom could have been a spy posing as a prostitute posing as a maid, sent into Hillbrow to inform on whites who were breaking the law. That’s how a police state works—everyone thinks everyone else is the police.” That police state also made it impossible for Noah to walk in the park with his father; as a “colored” person, he could not be seen as the son of a white man.

I won’t give away all of the stunning stories that Noah shares about his experiences. He is unflinchingly honest and a remarkably resilient young man. While he might be known now for being the current host of The Daily Show, he also deserves to be applauded for producing this insightful, revealing book.

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LOVE WARRIOR by Glennon Doyle Melton

The first thing you need to know is that I read this book, which is 272 pages long, in one sitting. That should tell you something.

LOVE WARRIOR, Glennon Doyle Melton’s memoir, is ostensibly about what she did after she learned about her husband’s infidelities, but really it is more about so many other things: how people struggle with body image and societal expectations; how men and women feel pressured—in different ways—not to be their authentic selves and how they hurt one another as a result; how people deal with or avoid pain; and how we can heal ourselves, to name just a few.

Melton’s early story of a young woman who engages in binging and purging is not unfamiliar. If you’re a woman, either you’ve been this woman or you’ve known someone—or several someones—who lived this way or maybe still does. Lest the men reading this review think, Oh, it’s a book for women, then, never mind: think again. What Melton reveals is the other side of the coin, how men are shamed into withholding their feelings and they swallow this pain with alcohol, drugs, and various unhealthy behaviors. We are all in this together. And we’ve all got to figure it out together.

This book reveals many important truths. Possibly my favorite is this:

“You are not supposed to be happy all the time. Life hurts and it’s hard. Not because you’re doing it wrong, but because it hurts for everybody. Don’t avoid the pain. You need it. It’s meant for you. Be still with it, let it come, let it go, let it leave you with the fuel you’ll burn to get your work done on this earth.”

For those of us in pain—that is, all of us—this insight can be surprisingly helpful. Denial does not make pain disappear. As Melton shows us, what often happens is simply that we pass the pain on to those we love. So to solve this problem, she says, we must become more fully the warriors we truly are.

Amen.

(PS, many thanks to Kayla Wickes for this recommendation!)

Posted in For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Inspirational, Memoir, Mental illness, Nonfiction, Relationships, Self-help | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DARK MONEY by Jane Mayer

Even though I knew Jane Mayer’s DARK MONEY (subtitled The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right) would be impeccably written and assiduously fact-checked (she writes for The New Yorker, and they are known for their that), I avoided this book for several months because I expected it would depress me. I knew generally what it was about—how the Koch brothers, two conservative multibillionaires, have spent millions to infiltrate the Republican Party and reshape our democracy—and the thought of reading their story filled me with dread.

I finally took the plunge a few weeks ago. I considered it part of my civic duty.

If you want to be an informed citizen, no matter which way you might lean politically, you really should read this book. Having a vague sense of what the Koch brothers and their ultra-rich cronies have been up to is not enough. You need to read the fine print. You need to know what has happened to our political infrastructure and how they have donated millions not just to political campaigns on the state and local level but also to think tanks, nonprofits, and universities to advance their political agenda.

They have outmaneuvered the Republican Party and essentially built their own political party. For decades, they have outspent millions of Americans to achieve their desired political outcomes. For example, Mayer notes, “the 100 biggest known donors in 2014 spent nearly as much money on behalf of their candidates as the 4.75 million people who contributed $200 or less.” Those 100 donors gave $323 million. Let that sink in. Mayer adds, “And this was only the disclosed money.” Her book explains in detail how they exploited the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, circumvented laws governing charitable organizations, and tapped into various other mechanisms to extend their reach and influence political power on every level in ways that are largely hidden to the general public.

We might think we all have a voice in this country, but how can we compete with what seems to be an oligarchy?

I guess the only correct answer is this: We have to. I don’t know what it will take. But I do know that the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that it exists. Reading this book seems like a good place to start.

Posted in Biography, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, History, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

OUTLINE by Rachel Cusk

outlineReading Rachel Cusk’s luminous novel OUTLINE, I was reminded of how much I love stories that involve travelers. Probably because the notion of boarding a plane or train implies adventure and the prospect of meeting new people and learning something, I become engrossed and hopeful, even if the travelers are not, strictly speaking, happy themselves. I also love that this metaphor calls our attention to the idea that we are all on a journey of some sort. Which is true. Even if sometimes we feel stuck.

Although slim and seemingly uncomplicated, OUTLINE captures many truths and insights. The narrator, a woman who has been hired to teach a writing class in Athens, is going through something—a difficult divorce, we can infer—and although the particulars are not explicitly addressed, it becomes increasingly clear that her conversations with her fellow travelers and students are serving to outline her situation. Their autobiographical stories—with just a hint of dialogue on her part—create what artists would call a “negative space” portrait of her. They sketch the space around her life, if you will, instead of trying to draw it directly.

This is a writer’s book—not only because it’s about writing but also because it will make you think about how amazingly it’s written.

PS: Rachel Cusk has written a follow-up, TRANSIT, and the New York Times Book Review reports that she intends to make this a trilogy. Stay tuned!

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ALL THE SINGLE LADIES by Rebecca Traister

all-the-single-ladiesWhen I was a senior in college in 1986, Newsweek published a cover story proclaiming that college-educated women who failed to marry in their 20s faced abysmal odds of marrying at all. At the time, I had two reactions: 1) That’s unfair and ridiculous and 2) That won’t happen to me. The article also claimed that a 40-year-old single woman was “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than find a mate. I couldn’t believe it. However, as the years flew by, the phrase reverberated in my head.

I’m now 51 and still single. At this point, I would say I’m ambivalent about marriage. I’ve had some close calls. And when I see couples who get along well, I feel twinges of envy. I would love that companionship and intimacy. Yes. But I’ve also witnessed the misery that ensues when partners feel like hostages. And—probably most importantly—I really like my life the way it is. I love my work, I have a great network of friends, and I have the freedom to do whatever I choose with my free time.

So I picked up Rebecca Traister’s ALL THE SINGLE LADIES (subtitled Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation) with curiosity. And I found it highly affirming. Things that I’ve felt guilty about—mainly, not “getting with the program” and “settling” down with someone—are apparently things other women have struggled with, too. I mean, I suspected that, but I hadn’t given much thought to the history of women, how they have been treated in America, and how much organizing and protesting they’ve had to do to try to level the playing field. I am also embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know that birth control was illegal for married couples until 1965 and for unmarried people until 1972. Although I knew about the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, I did not know that it took another full year for Congress to pass the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which made it easier for women to secure credit cards, bank loans, and mortgages. What???

This book is eye-opening. And it makes me so grateful for all of the women who marched before me.

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BORN TO RUN by Bruce Springsteen

born-to-runTo some degree or another, we all inherit our parents’ pain. They inherited their parents’ pain, and their parents inherited their parents’ pain, and so on. It’s our emotional DNA. The question is what we do with it. We might do any number of things. If we are lucky enough to find something we’re passionate about, we might design buildings or create stunning artwork. We might spend long hours supporting a family or trying to help students write more coherently. In his memoir BORN TO RUN, Bruce Springsteen lays bare what he did. Music has been his passion and his salvation.

For anyone contemplating a career as a rock star, Springsteen’s life story makes clear that such a path is not something you pursue lightly. His difficult relationship with his father turned his fascination with music into an obsession, and once he realized that writing songs and performing gave him an outlet and a way to make sense of his life, nothing could stop him. He might be a multimillionaire now, but for many years he barely scraped by. At various points, he slept on other people’s floors or on the beach. He was never going to have an ordinary day job. From the beginning, he was all in.

Springsteen’s 500-plus page memoir reveals not only the back story of his musicianship—what it’s like trying to produce an album, what certain concerts felt like, where specific songs came from, how he and the E Street Band came together and broke up and came together—but also his long and still-ongoing journey toward personal growth. The son of a man who suffered from mental illness, drank, and took his anger out on his family, Springsteen writes openly of how he came to a point in his life when he fell apart and sought help from a therapist to figure out how to put himself back together. He spent decades in therapy, and while he still suffers from bouts of depression, the wisdom he derived from that work is apparent in the insights he shares about his relationships with his parents, his wife (and ex-wife), and his children.

This book is about Bruce Springsteen, of course. But it’s also more universal than that. It’s about what we all do with the hands we’re dealt. Bruce has played an amazing hand. And with this book, he invites us to reflect on our own.

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