Brown Girl Dreaming
Every now and then, I read a book that is so fabulous and strikes me in such a way that I wish I could immediately teach it to my students (I can't, by the way, to quell any questions of why don't I--I do not have that sort of power, alas). This is one of those books. Told entirely in free verse, this book is a memoir of the author's childhood years. And although I usually wish for memoirs to entail something fabulous and amazing, her early years were just enough. Torn between the North and the South, the still very segregated South, Woodson is trying to find her voice and her place as a child, while balancing a torn family and a sometimes unpopular religion. It is a beautiful story and although I couldn't relate to it or even begin to put myself in her shoes, it struck me how very real her story is and how much it needed to be told.
The Empathy Exams: Essays
Told in a series of essays, Leslie Jamison explores what lies beneath all basic human connections: empathy. What makes us feel for and understand one another? I struggled somewhat to relate to her personal essays because she struck an over-priveleged tone (oops, I wasn't empathetic), but the essays where she simply explored the ideas of empathy resonated. In one, she explores a disease that may be real or that may be psychosomatic and reading that definitely made me feel for the people who believe they have this disease and the doctors who say they do not. In another, she talked about the West Memphis Three and how when she first watched it as a teen, she was struck with outrage at these falsely accused boys. Then as an adult, she realized she couldn't say whether or not the boys were guilty… and why doesn't anyone talk about the three boys who died that day? And as this is honestly reflective of my opinions on the case, it struck me how our empathy changes. How we gain a bigger worldview and it shifts. I definitely enjoyed these.
An Unnecessary Woman
If I had to describe this novel, it would be: slow moving with a brilliant voice. The voice! This story is told entirely from a 70 year old Lebanese woman, Aaliya, who spends her days virtually alone, translating her beloved books into other languages. She doesn't work. She is a widow with no children. With each finished book, she seals them in a box in her apartment where they will never see the light of day. She is, for all purposes, an unnecessary woman with no contribution to her society. This book is like sitting down to a cup of coffee with a good friend and letting the conversation meander between past and present. There is no stunning plot twist, but I fell in love with Aaliya and the wit and intelligence she carried with her.
This was classified as a mystery book, but I found the general storyline much more intriguing than the actual mystery. Adam Diehl, a rare books collector, is savagely attacked inside his home, his hands severed and disposed of. Adam's sister Meghan and her boyfriend (the narrator of the story, named Will) are shocked. As the story continues, the reader learns that the narrator is also involved in rare books. Namely, that he was shamed from the rare books community when it was discovered that he was in the habit of forging to enhance the worth and interest of various rare books. Eventually Will begins to receive threatening letters from dead authors (a sort of rare books forgery version of "I know what you did last summer") insinuating that Will killed Adam and that Will must pay. Although Will maintains his innocence, he pays off the blackmailer simply to keep him from Meghan who is still grieving over the loss of her brother. If you're looking for an actual murder mystery with a stunning twist at the end, this probably isn't it. If you're looking for a book that makes you step back and examine the narrator, this is definitely it.
Lila: A Novel
I haven't read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by this same author, but it is definitely on my list. Lila was born into a family who didn't love her before being rescued at the age of four by a woman named Doll who did odd jobs around the house. It is Doll who names Lila and Doll who saves Lila from a negligent family. Life is not easy with Doll, though, and they must constantly be on the move to avoid being recognized. Eventually, Lila ends up in a shack outside of a small town, where she finds comfort and safety with an old preacher. It's difficult to discuss much beyond this, but I have a lot of thoughts about some of the ambiguity within the novel. Certain things the writer left for the reader to wonder, but I will say that I loved this story. It reminded me very much of the writing style of Kent Haruf (who, by the way, died last month--do his genius a favor and pick up one of his books today).
What are you reading?