Books

Books: Stern Men

I enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoirs Eat, Pray, Love and Committed when I read them several years ago. I have never picked up one of her novels until recently when I stumbled upon Stern Men, Gilbert’s first novel, published 20 years ago. Her writing style is intriguing in her fiction as well as her non-fiction.

Stern Men tells the tale of two small islands off the coast of Maine and a centuries-old lobster fishing war. The inhabitants of the two islands grapple with each other while they experience both success and hardship in their way of life. Lobster fishing is dangerous, difficult, and anything but glamorous.

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The novel’s protagonist, Ruth Thomas, is a smart young woman with a foul mouth and a desire to someday run her own lobster fishing operation. The characters are engaging and the dialogue seems real. Many of the men on the island discourage Ruth from following that dream, pushing her instead to attend a mainland college.

Ruth’s relationships with the people of the island as she uncovers secrets of her family’s past are what make the book such a fun read. Ruth navigates relationships with her parents, a woman who is like a mother to her, and a variety of other island residents, and the quirks of real people shine through Gilbert’s writing. It is a reminder that sometimes the small towns and communities that shape our young lives are worth revisiting. Sometimes we cling to our roots, be it good, bad, or otherwise.

Books

Books: The Good Neighbor: The Life and Works of Fred Rogers

I finished The Good Neighbor: the Life and Works of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King some time ago, but am just now getting around to posting about it. The timing seems right, though, because I think now more than ever we need to be reminded to like each other just the way we are. King spent a great deal of time researching Rogers’ life, interviewing many people close to him, including many of the people who helped create and produce Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The book was published in 2018.

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Through his work in children’s programming, Mister Rogers has impacted generations of kids. I loved to watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and my daughters love Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. As a parent, I like the way the programming helps young children deal with their feelings in a positive way. I realize that, even though I didn’t know it at the time, that is what I loved about Mister Roger’s Neighborhood when I was only a few years old. The show made it OK to feel your feelings.

Rogers refused to advertise to children. He also had a disdain for anything that didn’t seem honest or straightforward. King’s interviews reveal that the soft-spoken cardigan-wearing guy wasn’t an act. It was truly how Rogers lived his life.

Rogers died in 2003 of stomach cancer at age 74. He left a legacy of promoting kindness and acceptance. What I enjoyed the most about the book was some of the quotes Fred Rogers made over the years.

I’ll leave you with this one: “When I was a boy I used to think that strong meant having big muscles, great physical power; but the longer I live, the more I realize that real strength has much more to do with what is not seen. Real strength has to do with helping others.”

Books

Books: Unfollow

“Can two walk together, even if they disagree? Of course we could. Not exactly revolutionary, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was.”

That is a line from Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Fred Phelps, leader of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Westboro is well-known for its cruel and hateful protests of military funerals, the LGBTQ community, and many other groups. They are known for forming picket lines claiming they do God’s work, but are rooted in deep hatred of anyone different from them.

Unfollow, published in 2019, is Phelps-Roper’s account of her upbringing in Westboro and her decision to leave the church. She writes accounts of picketing as a young child, holding signs with offensive language meant to belittle whichever group Westboro was pointing its finger at on any given day.

While leaving Westboro was a straightforward decision in theory, it also meant leaving the world she knew. It was a world in which she felt loved. Her grandfather, however evil he could be to the outside world, was often just a regular, loving grandfather to Phelps-Roper herself. Because of Westboro’s strict rules, leaving meant she wouldn’t see these people again. She would no longer see her parents or many of her siblings.

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Unfollow is also the One Book South Dakota for 2020. You can visit One Book South Dakota for more information on hosting a virtual discussion of the book. Phelps-Roper lives in South Dakota now with her husband and young daughter.

Although I was rooting for Phelps-Roper as she mustered the courage to leave such a hateful environment, I found it a bit sad that, in the end, she found herself faithless and still missing the people she loved. She writes that she no longer prays.

She does, however, dedicate her time to promoting meaningful dialogue between people from different walks of life. After leaving Westboro, Phelps-Roper has built deep friendships with many of the very people she picketed as a teenager and young adult. She now believes if we are open to learning and understanding one another, we can cause real and positive change. That is a message of love, acceptance, and respect that we all can use right now.

 

 

Books

Books: Year of Wonders

I just posted a book review a few days ago, but I finished Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks over Memorial Day weekend and it was so amazing I could not wait to share. The book is nearly 20 years old, but I had not heard of it until recently when I was listening to an NPR interview with three authors who wrote fiction based on times of plague and pandemic. I was blown away by this book.

In the past month, I have tried to be more intentional about the amount of time I spend reading, watching, or listening to news of COVID-19. I seek to stay informed through reputable sources without falling down a rabbit hole of continual negative speculation. It is a difficult balance.

So it might seem strange that I chose to read this work of fiction, based on an English village in the 1660s, ravaged by the bubonic plague. However, it was just so interesting I could not put it down. There was just enough hope and gloriously written dialogue to keep the grim subject matter from becoming too much.

Brooks wrote Year of Wonders after hiking in rural England and coming upon an old sign that said “plague village.” She was intrigued and her research lead her to the true story of a small village not far from London, where villagers made a pact, lead by their local clergyman, to isolate in their village for a length of time to contain the plague. The characters were richly developed.

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Anna, the main character, is modest, resourceful, and extremely hard-working. She undergoes epic hardship, yet still seeks to help others. The social aspect of this book hits home in this time of precaution, fear, and loss, and how people in the village cope with those topics over the course of a year.

Human reaction is an interesting thing, and Brooks writes of it so well. So much of the villagers’ reaction to the plague and the quarantine nearly mirrors what is happening in our society today. There are people who immediately jump in to take care of others. Then there are people who judge, demean, and condemn one another.

In one scene, several customers of an ill tailor refuse to burn the garments they purchased despite certainty that the items are infected with bubonic plague. Only Anna throws her beautiful dress into the fire to avoid spreading the plague in her home. It is not a cheerful read, but it does show how Anna comes to appreciate the minute details in life. In the end, Brooks does leave us with some hope for humankind.

Custer friends, this book is available at our local library in E-book and Audio Book forms.

Books

Books: The Most Fun We Ever Had

I really loved The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. The story spans several decades in the lives of David and Marilyn, a happily married couple with four daughters, each with strong personalities and as different as can be. I am fascinated by relationships of sisters, partly because I do not have a sister of my own, and also because I am raising two young daughters.

Lombardo, who is only 30, is a former social worker, and that experience is evident in her riveting description of her characters’ emotions and responses. From the arrival of a teenage son one of the daughters gave up for adoption at birth, to the tragic death of one of their husbands, there is no shortage of family drama. Lombardo tells these stories with a realness that reminds the reader that no one is perfect, even if they seem that way on the surface.

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David and Claire are nearly perfect parents. They are loving and kind, yet their children, though successful in many ways, are also kind of messes. It is a somewhat painful reminder that even if it was possible to do everything right as a parent, a child is her own person in the end. Still, love and kindness always matter most, especially when parenting.

Overall, it is just a really good read about family dynamics and unconditional love. The characters are flawed in relatable ways and Lombardo is a gifted storyteller. This is her debut novel and I look forward to reading more from her.

Books

Books: The Female Persuasion

Women who hate women are the worst women of all. That’s the theory of Greer, the main character of Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion. It isn’t as simple as that, though, as Greer finds out as she navigates life newly out of college.

She eventually encounters feminist icon Faith Frank, a fictional sort of Gloria Steinem, and goes to work at Faith’s feminist publication and supporting organization. We follow Greer as she finds love, struggles financially, loses love, betrays a friend, finds career success, and repeats the cycle again. She seeks to find her voice, and that journey is somewhat interesting, and at least relatable.

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Through Greer’s struggles and decisions, I pondered that question again and again. I like the theme of the book and the writing was good, yet The Female Persuasion was not as riveting as I had hoped it would be. In fact, I kind of struggled through it. The characters were interesting and the feminist themes inspiring, but the plot kind of went all over the place. There were too many story lines without clear connections to one another.

The over-arching theme of the book is “what really makes a feminist?” Can you be a feminist and still betray your best female friend? Or does that make you a woman hating women, thus the worst kind of woman of all?

Books

Books: Becoming

Michelle Obama describes herself as an “ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey.” I enjoyed her book Becoming, because it was really about her with just a small amount of politics thrown in to add context. Michelle is an ambitious person, but not necessarily in the political realm.

She was a reluctant first lady, but was, and continues to be a fierce promoter of women’s rights, education for girls throughout the world, and childhood nutrition. I related to her stories of being a working mom of two young daughters, trying to balance career and motherhood. Whether you’re a former first lady or not, we all just want safety, love, and opportunity for our children.

She had a simple childhood in a lower class Chicago neighborhood with hardworking parents who did everything they could for Michelle and her older brother. She was a good student who worked hard and got into Princeton with a scholarship. She writes of her childhood “I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.”

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In Becoming, Michelle does not shy away from the challenges of being married to a politician who eventually would be president. There were many missed dinners while she was alone at home with two young children. She was thrown into being publicly criticized about superficial topics like a sleeveless dress she once wore. There was exhaustion to the point of tears.

She writes of trying to give her daughters some level of normalcy during their time in the White House. She shares stories of stressing out about finding a warm hat for Sasha before the inaugural address, and of her and Barack (both barefooted) greeting Malia’s prom date in the White House with Malia begging her dad not to embarrass her. She writes of the Secret Service accompanying her to Target.

At the end of the day, we all face our various challenges. Becoming does not seem like a cry for pity or political support, but rather a heartfelt reminder that we are all works in progress. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.

Books

Books: The Moment of Lift

Before I read The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates, I knew two facts about the author: She is married to Microsoft legend and billionaire Bill Gates, and she is extremely wealthy.

What I did not know, but would soon find out, is that Gates is a compassionate, kind, and strong woman. She is a hard-worker, who, like her husband, has had a great deal of success. Probably most meaningful to me is that she goes to the far ends of the world to use that success to help others.

The Moment of Lift is about what happens when women are empowered throughout the world. Gates writes that empowering women is not only beneficial to women, but to everyone. The Gates Foundation works with underprivileged women in many countries. Gates is passionate about making vaccines and contraceptives accessible, and breaking down barriers to gender equality.

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Gates also writes about the failure of economists to acknowledge unpaid work, especially by women. Statistically speaking, in no country do men contribute the same amount of household (unpaid) work as women. She also writes about even more troubling topics like laws allowing women to be abused and misogynistic practices like female genital mutilation, still widely practiced throughout the world.

Gates tells about her own experiences with sexism, especially within her first few years at Microsoft. She was fresh out of college, a 22-year-old woman in a male-dominated company. Yet, she also acknowledges how fortunate she has been.

She writes “Some of you might be thinking “Oh no, the privileged lady is tired of being the last one in the kitchen all by herself. But she doesn’t have to get up before the sun. Her kids don’t have to take the bus. Her childcare support is reliable. She has a partner who is willing to help with the kids and do the dishes. I know. I know. I’m describing my scene not because it’s a problem but because it’s my vantage point on the problem.

The Moment of Lift brings to light the fact that women are still second-class citizens in much of our world. Yet, there is a great deal of hope for improvement when people seek to empower one another. That’s not something we need to be billionaires to do.

Books

Books: The Testaments

How about a little feminist dystopian literature to kick off the holiday season? I am ashamed to say I only just read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time a few months ago. It rocked my world in a way only the genius of Margaret Atwood can. I have read some of her other work, and the woman is just downright amazing.

I haven’t watched any of the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale (and likely won’t) so this review is strictly based on the two books. Despite being late to the game to read Atwood’s classic novel, published in 1985, it did prepare me to read The Testaments, the follow-up novel published this summer.

The Testaments places the reader back in the dystopian world of Gilead (formerly the United States) and alternates between the points of view of three different women. You might think from the beginning that one of them is Offred, the main character of The Handmaid’s Tale, but that would be wrong. Gilead is a place where women are regarded as objects merely for reproductive purposes. They are executed regularly and abused on a daily basis.

Atwood creates this place and the characters in it with dark artistry. Her dialogue is clever, like one narrator saying: “Torture is like dancing. I’m too old for it.” After finishing The Handmaid’s Tale, most of us were left wondering what happened to Offred and if she was ever reunited with her family.

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Mild spoiler alert:

Just when Atwood has us thinking there’s no hope, she has an evil character do good, and reunites a mother with her two children in some of the most beautiful writing I have ever encountered.

“She smelled right. It was like an echo of a voice you can’t quite hear.”

In true Atwood style, much is left up to the reader’s interpretation, but I finished the book certain that Offred’s fate was a relatively happy one and that Gilead would surely fall.

 

 

Books

Books: Three Women

I wasn’t far into Three Women by journalist Lisa Taddeo when I knew I was reading something very important in the world of women’s studies and feminist literature. I felt it immediately belonged on my shelf next to The Feminine Mystique and Fear of Flying. The book was published this summer and I grabbed a copy as soon as it hit shelves.

Three Women tells the stories of three real women in various stages of life, navigating relationships in three different parts of the country. There is Maggie, a 20-something recovering from the trauma of having an affair with her teacher while she was in high school. Then there is Lina, a housewife whose husband refuses to kiss her. Finally there is Sloane, a successful restaurant owner whose husband suggests they bring other people into their bedroom.

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Taddeo followed these women and interviewed them extensively over several years. This immersion into their lives made the narrative very relatable and descriptive. I found myself really rooting for these three women, even with their flaws. After all, it is our flaws that make us real.

There is a great deal of sexual content in the book as told through the three women’s points of view, so be forewarned if you’re offended by that kind of thing. I found it critical to understanding the point Taddeo makes in the book when it comes to sexism in the world of male and female desire. Although all three of these women’s stories seem a bit extreme, there are pieces I believe any of us can relate to as human beings. We want to be loved. We want to be important to someone.