An American Marriage

51DVSda0kWL.jpgAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones is a powerful and complex novel about a married couple (Roy and Celestial), whose world is turned upside down when Roy is put in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. It explores the complexities of marriage and many other issues as well, such as, racial injustice, fatherhood, mass incarceration and love. It is told in alternating narratives from Roy, Celestial, and their mutual friend, Andre.

Will Roy and Celestial’s marriage survive so many years of separation? Can love survive such a horrible twist of fate? Will they be able to pick up their marriage when Roy is released from prison?

We get an inside look at what each character has to endure over the years. Besides marriage, I think Jones did a wonderful job of writing about fatherhood. Each character has a different type of father and the relationships they have with their fathers influence their feelings and actions. Some people don’t like to read books that are labeled “Oprah’s Book Club,” but I am telling you if Oprah recommends it, I am going to read it and I am going to love it!!!

From Amazon: “This stirring love story is a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward–with hope and pain–into the future.”

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Please Look after Mom

51EbTG+6vMLPlease Look after Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin is the story of a family left bereft after the disappearance of their wife/mother. Each section of the book is told from a different family member’s point of view. Mom’s disappearance triggers forgotten memories and feelings of guilt as they all begin to wonder how well they really knew their mother/wife. None of them had ever really considered their mother’s thoughts, dreams, happiness or feelings before her disappearance. They all took her for granted and regret not knowing her better. They blame themselves for her disappearance, naming the things they should have done differently.
Her husband feels completely isolated and alone in his home without his wife. He is angry with himself because all he did was ask her to do things for him or blame her for everything or ignore her completely.

He surprisingly finds that, “Your wife, who you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart. Only after she disappeared did she come to you tangibly, as if you could reach out and touch her.” “Why didn’t you know you had a peaceful and lucky life? How could you have taken what your wife did for granted?” He doesn’t’ know how to do anything because she waited on him his whole life and took care of everything herself. He is lost.
The family had ignored their mother’s declining health condition for years. She had trouble remembering, was plagued with crippling headaches and sometimes couldn’t find her way home. None of them realized just how serious it had become.
“Mom did things that one person couldn’t do by herself. She didn’t have the opportunity to pursue her dreams and, all by herself, faced everything the era dealt her, poverty and sadness, and she couldn’t do anything about her very bad lot in life other than suffer through it and get beyond it and live her life to the best of her ability, giving her body and her heart to it so completely.”
The book is a little confusing at first because the narrator refers to herself as “you,” but once you get passed that, it’s a very moving book. I felt so bad for the characters and desperately wanted them to find their lost mom. The book brings up some great life advice… Don’t take your loved ones for granted. Tell them you love them. Apologize when you can. Spend time with them while they are here. One day they will be gone.

the leavers

31318368_10156592377218392_8885773605795790848_nThe Leavers by Lisa Ko is about a mother and her son and what brings them together and tears them apart.

When Deming Guo was 11, his Chinese immigrant mother, left for work at a nail salon and never returned home. In alternating narratives, this heart-wrenching literary novel tells both sides of their stories.

This novel is also about immigration, belonging in a foreign place, figuring out who you are and who you want to be and what it means to have a family.

After his mother’s disappearance, Deming Guo is adopted by a white family, Peter and Kay Wilkerson, and given the new identity of Daniel Wilkerson. Daniel struggles with the loss of his mother and the other people he considered his family. He had lost so much and he was lost himself and could never bring himself to fully accept the love his adoptive parents tried to give him. He kept everyone at arm’s length because he was scared they would disappear. He felt like a stranger and was always fearful and on edge, never feeling like he belonged anywhere.

Daniel really struggles with himself. He goes to school for a while and quits, goes back, quits again. He joins a band and quits. He drifts around from place to place torn between his two identities (Daniel and Deming), never knowing who he really is or who he should be.

Later in the book we learn what happened to his mother. Will he be able to forgive her for abandoning him? My book club didn’t care for this book. It has won a lot of literary awards, but I also felt like it just wasn’t as good as it could have been. Still, it provides a heart-breaking look into the world of immigrants and the battles they must face.

the Great Alone

29633314_10156514822493392_1585173720_oThe Great Alone by Kristin Hannah is the story of the Allbright family: Cora, Leni and Ernt. Ernt receives a letter that he has inherited a home and piece of land in Alaska, from a fellow soldier he was friends with during the Vietnam War. Cora and Leni reluctantly agree to go, in hopes for a new beginning. Ernt has some serious PTSD issues and is often abusive and angry and unable to keep a job. They are all hopeful Alaska will be a good change.

When the family arrives in Alaska they are immediately warned by the locals how hard it can be. Most people that move to Alaska don’t make it through the first winter. Fear is common sense. “If you’re tough enough, it’s heaven on earth. You have to know how to survive.”

Cora is warned by the other Alaskan women, “A woman has to be tough as steel up here. You can’t count on anyone to save you and your children. You have to willing to save yourselves. And you have to learn fast. In Alaska you can make one mistake. One. The second one will kill you.”

“They lived on a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, a peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you. There was no police station, no telephone service, no one to hear you scream.” Winter was a big deal. Survival, could hinge on the smallest thing.” You have to be self-sufficient. You either belong here or you don’t.

Leni soon discovers that despite all the bad things, she belongs more in Alaska than she ever has anywhere else. She felt a great opening in her soul. She felt fully herself. She finally belonged.

Pretty soon, the cruel Alaskan winter arrives and Leni’s father gradually gets angrier and more abusive. Every day is darker and colder. “As winter pared their life away, the Allbrights were left with only each other. Every evening was spent together, hours and hours of night, huddled around the woodstove. They were all on edge. Arguments erupted over nothing. Worse than the weather was the confinement it caused.”

Leni’s father “looked ruined, tired, but present; in his eyes, she saw more love and sadness than should be able to exist in one human being. Something was tearing him up inside. It was the other man, the bad man, who lived inside of him and tried to break out in the darkness.”

For a while, Leni, like her mother, believed that her dad really was just sick and sorry. They thought that if they loved him enough, he would get better and it would be like before the war. It wasn’t long before Leni stopped believing that.

“The darkness and the cold and the isolation got inside my father in a terrible way, turned him into one of the many wild animals.” The war broke Ernt and no one could help him. “With no local police and no one to call for help. All this time, Dad had taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.”

Leni and her mother stick together to get through her father’s episodes. They are very close, strong for each other when they have to be, each other’s reason for living. Leni, “Whatever happened, she wasn’t ever really alone. She had her mama. Her childhood would always smell like sea air and cigarette smoke and her mother’s rose-scented perfume.”

As for Cora, she loved Ernt way too much to leave him. She felt like she couldn’t breathe without him. She longed for the man he was before the war. The book says a lot about the durability and lunacy of love and how it stays against all odds.

“In the vast expanse of this unpredictable wilderness, you will either become your best self and flourish, or you will run away, screaming, from the dark and the cold and the hardship. There is no middle ground, no safe place; not here, in the Great Alone.”

“Wild. That’s how I describe it all. My love. My life. Alaska. Truthfully, it’s all the same to me. Alaska doesn’t attract many; most are too tame to handle life up here. But when she gets her hooks in you, she digs deep and holds on, and you become hers. Wild. A lover of cruel beauty and splendid isolation. And God help you, you can’t live anywhere else.”

I loved this book. Do not expect another “Nightingale.” This book is very different, but just as powerful and lovely.

We Are Called to Rise

29387175_10156496573133392_516812701763108864_oWe Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

Each chapter of this book is told from a different point of view. Each character lives in Las Vegas and as the book unfolds, we learn how they all become connected.

Avis has spent her whole life in constant fear that something would happen to her beloved son, Nate. She lost daughter, Emily, at a very young age and it has a huge effect on the rest of her life.  When the book opens, Avis is standing naked in front of her husband thinking of ways she can spice up their marriage when he tells her that he is in love with someone else. Avis is faced with the heartbreak of losing her house and her husband.

Avis had a rough childhood, living with a drunk mother who moved from one abusive relationship to another and moved into one run down hotel to another, sometimes even living in the back of a car. She has spent her whole life trying to not be anything like her mother.

Nate is Avis’s son. He recently came back from serving time in Iraq and has just begun his career as a police officer. His mother notices he isn’t quite right when he returns home from the war and his PTSD gets worse and worse until something tragic happens.

Bashkim is a young Albanian boy in Las Vegas. His father was put in an Albanian prison for protesting an act of the government. He applied for political asylum with the United States and his family was sent to live in Vegas. Bashkim’s mother is lonely in US. She misses her family and their homeland.

Bashkim’s father is often violent and angry. Bashkim worries a lot. He lives in a state of fear that he will get in trouble at school, which will get him into trouble with his father. As a school project, Bashkim begins writing letters to a soldier in Iraq.

Luis is Bashkim’s pen pal. After three years in Iraq (or hell as he called it) he shoots his own self in the head and winds up in the hospital instead of dead. He wanted more than anything to be a good soldier and make his grandmother, who raised him, proud of him. Luis blames himself for everything. He is full of anger and guilt and self-loathing.  He lays in bed and wonders, “Will I ever be a man again? Will I always be this crippled fuck?” At 22 years old, Luis feels he has nothing left to hope for, he doesn’t know what to do with so much pain and failure and he has no idea what to do with his life if he’s not a soldier.

The letters he receives and writes to Bashkim begin to wake him up and bring him back around. They make him want to do something right. Bashkim really gives Luis the will to live again.

Roberta is a court appointed Special Advocate who takes her job very seriously. She puts all her heart in soul into her job and wants to make recommendations for the children she helps that she would make if the child were her own.  She learns everything she can about each child so she can make the best decision possible for the future.

Las Vegas, in my opinion, is also a character in the book. “It’s not a small town anymore. For decades, people have been streaming in from all over the world, from every country on the planet; stateless people, desperate people, eager people, ambitious people. They came for easy work, the ability to pay someone off, for the chance to start over.  They come because they are rich, they come because they are poor, and someday soon, all these hundreds of thousands, millions, of newcomers may even wipe clean the slate drawn by Vegas’s earliest dreamers.”

These three quotes sum up everything the book was about:

“Coincidences can be powerful. The strangest coincidences are opportunities.”

“Things happen to us that are more than we can take. And we break. We break for a moment, for a while. But that break is not who we are. It’s not the sum total of who we are.”

“One small thing changes everything. The tiniest act, the smallest space of time, the most inconsequential of decisions, changes a life. Whole lives are born out of the most fragile of happenstance.”

 

Everything Here is Beautiful

29133480_10156474900708392_825751391581503488_oEverything Here is Beautiful-Mira T. Lee                        Everything about this book is beautiful. It’s heart-wrenching, unforgettable and moving. It’s about the complex relationships between two sisters. It’s about love. It’s about mental illness.

Lucia suffers from schizophrenia. She goes through long periods of time living a pretty normal life and then the disease resurfaces with no warning causing turmoil. Lucia often has trouble figuring out what is real and what isn’t. At age 26 she was diagnosed and told she had a 20% chance of maintaining a full time job, a 25% chance of living independently, a 40% chance of attempting suicide, a 10 % change of succeeding.” She fights against this diagnosis her whole life. She never gives up and always keeps trying.

Her sister, Miranda, who she calls Jia, has been there for Lucia her whole life. The two sisters were brought to America from China by their mother who thought they could only truly be free in the US. When their mother died from cancer, all they had was each other. Lucia always steps in to get her sister help when she has manic episodes and is always there when the phone calls come in that Lucia has been admitted to a hospital somewhere. Miranda struggles with finding her own well-being and happiness and taking care of her sister. How much can one person sacrifice for another?

Lucia is very unpredictable. “One minute she’s sweet, the next she’s snide. She’s not stable. It’s like she’s fighting some demon inside.” Lucia marries Yonah, leaves him behind, has a baby with another man (Manny) and then moves to Ecadour with him. Manny feels a duty toward Lucia that he confuses with love and will do anything for his daughter Essy (Esperanza). He is a kind and decent man who promises to stick with Lucia and the baby. Lucia is always wanting to pick up and move somewhere new to get a clean slate, but she never does because her mental illness always interferes with her plans.

The miles put a greater distance between the two sisters. Lucia feels that Miranda tries to control her and only sees her illness. Miranda is trying to live her own life. Manny and Lucia struggle with their relationship for years as well. Lucia feels the need to get away again but can’t leave her daughter behind.

I was really torn up at the end of this book and could not stop thinking about it. It’s a truly beautiful book.

“Oh, golden summer! Each day sharp and transformative, glowing and singular, each moment a glittery embrace.”

“It was impossible to know the truth of another’s interior life.”

“Love is everything.”

Lilac Girls

28951636_10156462871663392_5700336640279445504_oMartha Hall Kelly does an outstanding job with this detailed and heartbreaking account of the tragic events that happened during World War II in, Lilac Girls. The book is told from the point of view of three different women that come from different backgrounds and were affected in different ways by the war.

Caroline volunteers at the French Consulate and is quite the philanthropist for the French, especially the orphans. She goes as far as to sell her own family’s china so that she can send the orphans in France the things they need. She crosses paths with the other women at the end of the book and helps so many people along the way, making a real difference in their lives. Caroline’s romance with a married actor is also a big part of the story.

Kasia is a young Polish woman that becomes involved in an underground operation that ends in her being captured and sent away to a concentration camp with her family. She feels very guilty for getting her family involved, “It was one thing to suffer myself on account of my own stupidity and quite another to bring everyone I loved down with me.” Some pretty awful things happen to her and all the women that have to endure life at Ravensbruck. Survival is something that they have to fight hard for and many of them didn’t survive the camp. “Sadness was often a more potent killer than disease. Some gave up, stopped eating, and died.” Kasia, fueled by her anger, says, “The hate grew in my chest. How could I live without revenge?”

The third narrator is German woman named Herta, who is the only female doctor at the camp. She takes the job to fulfill her dreams of being a surgeon and has no idea of the horrors that await her there.

There are some pretty graphic, horrific and heart-breaking moments in this book. The author actually based this novel on a true story and did a lot of research to make her story as accurate as possible. This book was very well written and will surely touch the heart of everyone who reads it.

They May Not Mean To, But They Do

28312641_10156416298193392_2096433629_oThey May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Shcine

At the beginning of this novel, Joy Bergman is the caregiver to her husband Aaron, whose health is failing quickly. It isn’t long before Joy begins having some issues with aging herself. Much to her dismay, her two children, Molly and Daniel are full of ideas and solutions to deal with Joy’s aging and loneliness. She loses sleep worrying that they may send her to a nursing home.

Joy has begun to feel “out of date, obsolete, and left-behind,” and useless to anyone. She wants to take care of everything herself, but is beginning to realize that she may not be able to do that anymore. “She mourned her husband. She mourned her life. She longed for her children and husband. She didn’t seem to belong anywhere anymore.”

The title of Cathleen Schine’s novel comes from a poem by Philip Larkin which begins “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.” Later in the book, Joy says,” They meant well. They did. But they fuck you up, your son and daugther. They may not mean to but they do.”  She says this about her children interfering in her life, making decisions for her and trying to control what she does.

This book will be very true to life to anyone that has dealt aging or caring for an aging parent. The book is set in New York and I really enjoyed reading about the city as well. At times it was heart-breaking, but at the same time, the author lightened up the book a little bit with scattered dry humor. I laughed out loud many times reading Joy’s observations and thoughts about family and life. This book is an emotional exploration about aging, grief and dysfunctional families. The author really hit the nail on the head.

Mrs. Fletcher

22251436_10155998166083392_1225992379_oThis is my first book my Tom Perrotta, but I look forward to reading the rest of his books that have been sitting on my shelf for a long time. Mrs. Fletcher (Eve) is a forty-six year old divorcee who just dropped her son off for college and returns home to an empty nest. Eve is witty and funny and I liked her immediately.  She is lonely and seeking ways to fill the void so she begins watching porn at night and that leads to a sexual awakening of sorts.  “She wanted something else-something different-though what that something was remained to be seen.  All she really knew was that it was a big world out there, and she’d only been scratching the surface.” She decides to take a class at the community college and quickly develops friendships with the others in her class. “The important thing was that she was here, trying something different, meeting new people, making her world bigger instead of hunkering down, disappearing into her own solitude.”

The class she takes introduces us to a whole assortment of other troubled individuals. Margo is the instructor of the class. She is a transgender who is struggling with acceptance from the world and confidence within herself.  “She didn’t really feel middle-aged. In her heart, she was a teenager, still learning the ins and outs of her new body.  Still hoping for her share of love and happiness and fun, all those good things that the world sometimes provided.” “She was there to show the world what happiness and freedom looked like.  You glowed with it. You did exactly what you wanted to.  And whatever costume you wore, you were still yourself, unique and beautiful and unmistakable for anyone else.” “What she wouldn’t have given back then (as a teenager) to hear a trans adult tell her that she wasn’t alone, that happiness and wholeness were possible, that you could find a way to become the person you knew in your heart you truly were, despite all undeniable evidence to the contrary.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Fletcher’s son, Brendan is having a hard time at college. Eve says of Brendan: “He presented himself to the world- as a big, friendly, fun-loving bro- a dude you’d totally want on your team or in your frat.” Even though Brendan comes across this way, it becomes clear that he has a lot of built up issues, a lot of them to do with his father who left the family for another woman when Brendan was younger.  Eve: “…something had gone out of him in the process (of divorce), all the boyish softness and vulnerability that had touched her so deeply. He just wasn’t as nice a person as he used to be- not nearly as sweet or as kind or as lovable- and she couldn’t forgive herself for letting that happen, for not knowing how to protect him, or how to fix what was broken.” “The divorce had left her with a permanently guilty conscience that made it almost impossible for her to stay mad at her son or hold him accountable for his actions.”

Brendan begins to struggle with fitting in, finding friends, and keeping his grades up. “One thing you realize when you’re on your own is how happy the people who aren’t alone look.”  His father comes for a visit during family day with his wife and Brendan’s autistic step-brother, Jon-Jon.  He says of his step-brother, “the whole time he was screaming and thrashing around, I kept thinking how unfair it was the my father loved him so much and held him so tight- way tighter than he’d ever held me-and wouldn’t let go no matter what.” Brendan is jealous of his step-brother and desperate for his father’s love and attention. He has felt neglected by him his whole life.

By the end of the book, most of the characters have managed to find some sort of happiness and understanding. I think this quote from the cover sums up the book perfectly: “a moving and funny examination of sexuality, identity, and the big clarifying mistakes people can make when they’re no longer sure who they are and where they belong.”

“You feel what you fucking feel. You don’t have to apologize to anyone.”

“You couldn’t turn away from the truth just because it ripped your guts out.”

the burgess boys

21868206_10155691102708392_1382185691_oThe Burgess Boys, Jim and Bob, along with their sister, Susan, are a true portrait of a dysfunctional family. Susan’s son Zach, throws a pig head into a mosque and is charged with a hate crime and the family comes together to be a support system for Zach and to try to prevent Zach from going to jail.

Jim Burgess is the successful man in the family. He is a famous attorney in New York and always the one in charge. The more we get to know Jim, the more we realize he is a very angry and unhappy person. His feelings start to come out as Jim has to deal with his family and the memories that resurface from being back in his hometown. “Everything to do with this family depresses me.” “It’s all gone to crap. I’m scared. I think about death a lot. I’m grieving for myself. I’m a sham.” I am a dead man going down. It’s just a matter of time. I could not keep it up.”  Buried secrets are revealed as we watch Jim unravel.

Bob Burgess is a lonely man, divorced, with no children. Bob: “Nothing lasts forever, there is nothing to be counted on.” He also lives in New York. “He thought of all the people in the world who felt they’d been saved by a city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked its way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder saying, “Whatever is happening, Bob Burgess, you are never alone.”

Susan Burgess is Bob’s twin. She is also divorced and lives alone with her only child, Zach.  Growing up, Susan was most often the recipient of her mother’s so called jokes and disapproval.  Her son, Zach, has become her whole life.

Zach is friendless, quiet, hesitant in all his actions, just not quite right. He was teased mercilessly in elementary school and beaten up in high school. Zach’s father, who often put Zach down, left while he was in high school.  Zach is a lonely, fragile boy who cries and never has friends over.  The hate crime he is accused of has left him even more scared and lonely.

Abdikarim is the man who was there when Zach threw the pig head into the mosque. He is an Islamic immigrant who fled from the violence in his country. He is the perfect example of what immigrants have to face in America these days. Abdikarim was a great character.  “There was a heaviness inside him.  It grew each passing month, to stay or go he couldn’t make that decision.  He felt too old for the spring of excitement to return to him. Too old to learn English.  Without that, he lived with the constancy of incomprehension. THE incomprehension was a danger.  Living in a world where constantly one turned and touched in comprehension-gave the air the lift of uncertainty and this seemed to wear away something inside him.  He always felt unsure of what he wanted, what he thought, even what he felt.”

This book touched on some of today’s controversial issues of immigrants and hate crimes but also explored what family really means. Elizabeth Strout is an amazing novelist.  She writes beautifully.