I read a lot of books this week, thanks to my stupid sprained ankle.
A House in the Sky: A Memoir
Brief disclaimer: When I read things like this, there is a tiny little mom voice inside of me that says, "But you shouldn't have been in Somalia in the first place. You're not Anderson Cooper!" Mom voice aside, this memoir was stark, brilliant and another in a long line of absolutely must-read memoirs that have come out this year. Amanda Lindhout spent her somewhat discombobulated childhood living through National Geographic magazines. As an adult, she travels through the countries she only saw glimpses of in magazines, though some of them are not safe, especially for women. Emboldened by visits to Pakistan, Syria, India, where she's denied hotel rooms on account of traveling without a husband, she travels further and further off the beaten path, writing small stories about what she sees. After a visit to Iraq and subsequent articles written there, she convinces an old boyfriend to travel to Somalia with her, thinking she'll write stories of the war-torn country.
And she does--but her story came later, after the two of them were kidnapped and imprisoned for an unfathomable 460 days. Although the ending was obvious since she clearly lived to tell the story, I was gripped. She managed to humanize her captors, even at points where they were dehumanizing her. I cannot imagine surviving what she did and making anything good of it, but somehow she has. Whether or not she should've been there in the first place, that's admirable in itself.
This book starts out as the story of two brothers: one who decides to leave India and find college and career in America, the other who stays and becomes part of a militant movement. As the story unfolds, it becomes about more than just the two brothers and about a generation of families, about loud heroes and quiet heroes and heroes who really aren't. This was, at its surface, not a happy book, but it was moving, in a very quiet way with themes about the choices we make and how deep those choices go.
Those Across the River
I read this book in one sitting because I have a sprained ankle and what else am I supposed to do with my time? I didn't realize that it was a horror story, but as far as horror goes, it was pretty good. Frank Nichols and his wife (but not really, they're only pretending to be married because it's 1935 and to do otherwise would be scandalous) return to his inherited family home in Whitbrow, Georgia, after he lost his professorial job for having an affair with a student (Eudora, obviously). His dying aunt warned him in a slight incoherent letter to not take the house, but he ignored her and moved in, planning on writing a book about his great-grandfather Lucien, a slave owner who made killing his slaves a sport. As Frank and Eudora settle in, they slowly notice that Whitbrow has its nuances... the locals seem afraid to go into the forest, making it hard for Frank to find Lucien's abandoned plantation. Once a month, two pigs are sent in the forest--for who? Or what? This was one of those books that slowly unfolded and kept me hooked because I wanted to know what was going on until the very end and to be honest, I wasn't quite sure where it was going to go.
The Invisible Ones
This was one of those dual perspective books that was confusing at first because it was not only switching characters, but it was also subtly moving ahead a few weeks. Once I got the gist of what was going on, though, I really fell into the story. The narrators are a young Gypsy boy, JJ, and a middle-aged, somewhat self-loathing private investigator (who happens to be half-Gypsy). Both are, at times, equally as clueless to the bigger picture of what is going on, but both become intertwined in each other's lives. The PI, Ray, is hired to search for a Gypsy woman who has been missing for seven years. It's a frustrating search because the non-gypsies seem to not notice the gypsies at all (hence the title of the story) and the Gypsy community in which she lived is clearly harboring a secret. As Ray digs deeper into the community, it becomes clear that everyone will go to great lengths to cover up what truly happened--which is far more complicated than Ray and JJ realize. There were parts of the book that I found a little unbelievable, but overall, I enjoyed the storyline and format and read my way through it pretty quickly, eager for the conclusion.
The Maid's Version: A Novel
I was really looking forward to this book because the premise sounded so great: Alma, a maid for a prominent family, loses her sister Ruby to an explosion in a dance hall that kills 41 others. No one knows what causes the explosion, except Alma thinks she knows the answer. It sounded so good, but I could not follow the book. It started out good. Alma working as a maid, serving the family, making a second dinner for kids who refused to eat the first time, thinking of her own children at home hungry, leaving to find her sister waiting in the trees. And then, it just fell apart for me. I could not follow it. At times, I wasn't sure who was narrating it. It would talk about the explosion, then flip to someone else, then back to the explosion with very little character development. To be honest, if it was a longer book, I probably wouldn't have finished it--and I rarely leave books unfinished.
Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools
It's no secret or surprise that I'm a fan of public education. While I believe that everyone should school their children the way they see fit, the public education bashing that I see on a regular basis drives me crazy for a few reasons. One, I don't bash these same people for choosing to educate their children in other ways, so step off the way I educate children. Two, I strongly believe in public education as a whole. I don't actually believe the system is broken. Are there ways it could be fixed? Yes, but I also believe that public education "reformers" are doing more harm than good. While I could go on and on, I believe that you're either going to be interested in this book or you're not, but I do want to share one interesting statistic on a fact that's often lobbied around as proof that the public education system in the US is failing, the statistic that children in other countries are outperforming ours. Finland has a child poverty rate of 5.3% (I mention Finland because it's the country that commonly comes up in education reform conversations), compared to the child poverty rate in the US: 23.1%. If you look at US schools with a low poverty rate (less than 10%), those students' test scores are equal to students' test scores in Shanghai and *significantly better than* Finland, Republic of Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia. With a child poverty rate second only to Romania, an overall comparison to these high-performing countries is not accurate. But, looking only at low-poverty schools shows that we are doing well. Child poverty is an uphill battle, one that sets children behind before they even enter schools, which means that teachers are trying to make up for an achievement gap that starts before children step foot in classrooms. I took six pages of notes while reading this book and found it fascinating and frustrating all at once.
What are you reading?