Review: The Nickel Boys: A Novel by Colson Whitehead

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WOW! Wow! Wow!!

The Story

…the immense exertion white people put into grinding them down….

Elwood Curtis is doing well in life and in school in early 1960’s Tallahassee, Florida, when he hitchhikes to a college class he’s been allowed to enroll in in high school and accidentally changes his destiny. He lands at the Nickel Academy–a Florida reform school for boys that is a special circle of hell.

My Thoughts

Colson Whitehead is one of THE authors of our time whose works are destined to be classics–especially The Underground Railroad, but Nickel Boys, too, will easily make that cut. My reading of this book was influenced by a [white] relative’s time incarcerated in the modern version of a reform school–a rehabilitative community prison for juvenile offenders. While it was nothing like Nickel in terms of the gruesome punishments or the predatory staff, there were still common elements. Like the impossibility of getting a real education. That still lingers in every prison setting.

I have lived in a ruthless African dictatorship and studied the Soviet Union extensively, so none of the torture or violence was a shock to me. I remember Dr. King (he was assassinated on my mother’s birthday) and know that, while it might be arguable that things are not as bad as his day, things are again sliding in the wrong direction in terms of racial discrimination. This book is a good reminder of how bad it was and how bad it must never be again.

The WOW, Wow, Wow, at the start of this post refers to what, “made” the book. To say more would be to totally spoil the story. This “story element” does prove my point about the author being one for the ages though.

The Nickle Boys: A Novel by Colson Whitehead

I listened to the audio version.

My Verdict

4.5

For another fictional look at institutionalized youth in despicable conditions see:

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The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan (Author), Yuri Machkasov (Translator)

For nonfiction on our prisons and criminal justice system see:

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American Prison by Shane Bauer

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An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

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The Lager Queen of Minnesota: A Novel by J. Ryan Stradal

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My Interest

Having loved the author’s earlier book, Kitchen Gods of the Great Midwest, I knew I wanted to read more by her. Having previously been over-run by small vineyards, my rural county now has a new “brewpub” serving craft beers to any area previously dominated by Budwiser. “Brewpub” might be wrong. “Taproom?” Whatever. They have a food truck come by to sell food in the parking lot. Inside the taproom/brewpub, they only sell beer. So, with that all in mind I started listening to this new book.

The Story

Two sisters take different courses in life–one by choice, one not so much. Big sister Edith does the predictable 1950s thing and marries young. Younger sister Helen finds her passion early: beer. But not just drinking it. She discovers she wants to brew it. She then does a few dirty tricks to use both her inheritance and her sister’s to make her own beer dream come true generations before people sought degrees in brewmastership (or whatever it is called).

Fast-forward to the modern day when Edith become guardian to her grandchild, Diana. Thru a stroke of sheer luck, Diana is taken on at a local brewery, and she, too, finds her calling making beer, only by now it is craft beer, but she needs a little help. That help is the best part of the story so I won’t spoil it.

My Thoughts

My first thought was how much this book was like a Fannie Flagg novel in tone and to me, that is high praise! I like a good, fun novel. No one gets raped or murdered and even the underhanded trick at the heart of it all isn’t really that heinous. Later I thought, the subtitle should have been: “Empowerment Through Beer.”

Diana’s story was so real and so relevant to today. No, she did not have to make the choice she did, but teenagers do surprising things when they try to do the right thing. [No spoilers]. I loved the outcome of that–it is how much such events should be handled in the real world. Edith’s life as a late-in-life worker was especially poignent. I am served every morning by elderly women just like Edith when I hit any drive-thru.

I enjoyed this book from start to finish. The author is pitch-perfect on her characters voices, vibes, values,and valor. None were charicatures–all were real. It helped, too, that the performer of the audio book nailed the local accent. That makes it an even better experience.

As to the beer ad brewing aspect of the story, I’ve tasted some craft beers and admit I do not “get” the whole excitement, but I do love the sound of many of them as well as the names and logos–much more interesting than the old Bud, Hamms, Old Milwaukee and Michelob. And, yes, Coors was divine back in that day!  In regard to craft beers, after reading this book I realize I’ve likely just tasted bad ones. Chocolate Stout might just be the ticket for me, though.

My Verdict

3.5

The Lager Queen of Minnesota: A Novel by J. Ryan Stradal

 

Review: Twelve Patients: Life and Death in Bellevue Hospital by Eric Manheimer

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The Story

Author Eric Manheimer is head of New York’s Bellevue Hospital–one of the oldest and busiest hospitals in the country. As the title suggests, he tells his story of “his” hospital by telling the personal stories of twelve patients cared for in Bellevue. Like New York City itself, the patients are the fabled “melting pot” of ethnicities, socioeconomic levels, educational backgrounds, and careers. Mental health, homelessness, domestic abuse, poverty, immigration status, and other factors contribute to the severity of the patient’s needs.

My Thoughts

This was not a book I could race through–it requires too much of an emotional connection to read it, digest it and recover [though there are no unnecessarily gruesome details] to read it fast. I have had a family member in the prison system so I was in no way shocked that are prisons are our mental health care of last resort. Nor was I especially shocked by the ways people must cobble together a living, or how the form substitute families–I’ve lived much closer to this than the author.

What did shock me was that he was able to keep doing his job while being treated in “his” hospital for a type of cancer the treatment of which required having his head bolted in place on a table for radiation!! THAT really amazed me.

Sadly, it was also a revelation that all those stories of Nazis fleeing to Argentina might have more truth than I thought. One woman’s story involved being taken from her parents, who were viewed as enemies of the country’s [then] oppressive military regime and given to “pure” regime-supporting military families ala Hitler’s Lebensborn. I gasped reading this. Pure evil. I admit, this is not a new revelation, but I have too little familiarity with South American politics to have known of it before.

Overall, I was amazed at the work of this institution. It also reinforced for me that while access to health care is not a “right,” our nation must sort out it’s horrible patchwork of payment systems and make it easier for patients to receive the care they need, regardless of income.

 

Twelve Patients: Life and Death in Bellevue Hospital by Eric Manheimer

 

 

If this book interested you, you may also want to read:

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My review from my old blog, published April 21, 2014

This book is being devoured by book clubs, so I knew I’d read it eventually. I was apprehensive though–a hospital in the most bungled natural disaster in American history? Wouldn’t it be the ultimate in rubber-necking to read this? No. It was the ultimate in human experience–both the good and the bad kinds. I felt for most of the people in this book–most. I won’t say which ones did not earn my sympathy. But it does make all those deadly dull emergency planning meetings I’ve attended over the years seem worthwhile. And those emergency posters SHOULD be posted. Read this book and you WILL volunteer for the Red Cross and go thru their training and answer the call. Ditto FEMA classes (Did you know you can earn college credit for those?). This book is why I generally prefer non-fiction–this is REAL. It happened. These are real people. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink.

Review: All the Stars in Heavens: A Novel by Adriana Trigiani

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My Interest

It was love at first sight for me. Clark Gable was THE MAN. No matter that, in real life, he was 3 years younger than my grandparents, he was the ONE. Well, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, that is. I had a poster of him as Rhett in my bedroom for several years. I still have several books on him in my Gone With the Wind collection. Loretta Young, the dreamy wife in my favorite Christmas movie–The Bishop’s Wife, added to the appeal of this book. Finally, author Adriana Trigiani has become a fast favorite of mine when I want an enjoyable family sort of saga.

 

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Gable & Young in Call of the Wild

 

The Story

 

“The secret had become a member of the family. It had its own space; each person bore a responsibility to it in their fashion….But the problem with any lie is that it is as transparents as the truth.” (Kindle version, p. 419)

The King of Hollywood, Clark Gable, and actress Loretta Young, made the movie Call of the Wild on location one winter and fell in love. At the time, Gable was married to controlling second wife, ‘Ria Langhorn Gable, 17 years his senior. The relationship was doomed from the start. Sadly–or happily depending on your point of view, this relationship led to the birth of the couple’s daughter, whose existence had to be officially hidden. This book is the story of that relationship and of Loretta’s efforts to make a good life for daughter Judy–going so far as to have her daughter’s ears pinned back to camouflage their likeness to Gable’s famous ears.

As Loretta deals wtih keeping the secret, Gable goes on with his life, all the while maintaining that Young pushed him away. Today, sadly, Gable would be big in #metoo tweets. His ways were not those of a modern metrosexual man. I admit that his reputation as a “ladies man” is not something I like or admire. Later in life, their daughter would claim her father had “date raped” her mother, but in the book all is consensual.

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Gable & Young later in life in Key to the City
How steamy is this photo? Love it!

 

What I Liked

I loved that Loretta’s faith was accurately portrayed. Like all believers (Loretta was Catholic) she was completely imperfect. That Gable was a married man DID bother her. When she became pregnant she would not even consider an abortion like many other stars of the day had in similar circumstances.

What I Didn’t Like

“Didn’t like” is too strong, but I’ll stick with it for lack of a better expression. There were several times when the story seemed to jump forward without warning–or mention of the new year. This was confusing, resulting in have to backtrack and listen to something a second time.

There were a few silly historical errors that did not affect the story, but as always, make me wonder how old or well-educated the editor was. Doesn’t anyone Google? In one scene David Niven mentions doing his own lobotomy [joke] at a time when no one would have even be aware of the procedure–it may havebeen created, but was not at all known at that time. That is the level of error. These are a pet peeve of mine.

Finally, this is the only Gable book that didn’t mention his terrible breath!

Those are minor problems in an otherwise enjoyable story.

All the Stars in the Heavens: A Novel by Adriana Trigiani

My verdict

3.5

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More by Adriana Trigiani

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You can read my review of Adriana Trigiani’s newest novel, Tony’s Wife here.

How fabulous is that cover??

From my old blog:

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WOW! How often do you find a big sprawling family saga WITHOUT  graphic sex, graphic language, horrific abuse or sexual molestation?? Well, The Shoemaker’s Wife IS that novel!! Such a sweet book! Coming of age story! Immigrant story! Love story! This one is not-to-be-missed! This story is the one you’d likely pick for your own ancestors! The characters are achingly real. The story is simple, honest, NORMAL. I just plain loved it!

The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani

 

For Additional Novels on the Golden Age of Hollywood:

 

51gsrre2mol-_sy346_  Girls in the Picture: A Novel byMelanie Benjamin–my review.

Women Enters Left by Jessica Brockmole–my review5133dxm6knl-_sy346_

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing: A Novel by Delia Owens

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The Story

The marshlands of coastal North Carolina are home to an exquisite natural world, and to “swamp people.”  The story of “Marsh Girl,” Katherine Danielle Clark, aka Kya, is told in back-and-forth chapters, revealing her incredible bravery in surviving alone after abandonment by all of her family, and of the murder of local football star Chase Andrews.  Is Kya his murderer? Or is she simply a reclusive, self-educated naturalist?

What I Loved

“Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would.”

Every. Single. Word. This is a book that manages to SURPASS its hype–it is that good. Several reviews have compared it to the writing of Barbara Kingsolver–and that is true. This book is Poisonwood Bible great. Kya’s survival of her abandonment outshines that of Turtle in Kingsolver’s Bean Trees, bringing to mind an updated Understood Betsy–one that Oprah would admire (but without the sexual abuse so often found in Oprah’s book club picks).

“…[the] great blue heron is the color of gray mist reflecting in blue water. And like mist, she can fade into the backdrop, all of her disappearing except the concentric circles of her lock-and-load eyes. She is a patient, solitary hunter, standing alone as long as it takes to snatch her prey. Or, eyeing her catch, she will stride forward one slow step at a time, like a predacious bridesmaid. And yet, on rare occasions she hunts on the wing, darting and diving sharply, swordlike beak in the lead.”

I especially loved Kya’s natural world. The author captures the beauty of the marshland in language worthy of a classic naturalist like John Muir. She manages to show not only the physical beauty of the area but the beauty of Kya’s connection to her natural world. The way she knows the gulls, or, when she points out that “all grasses are flowers,” or when she pilots her boat by understanding the unseen world of currents and channels, as well as the seen world of bayous and estuaries, is truly magnificent.

“Her collections matured, categorized methodically by order, genus, and species; by age according to bone wear; by size in millimeters of feathers; or by the fragile hues of greens. The science and art entwined in each other’s strengths; the colors, the light, the species, the life; weaving a masterpiece of knowledge and beauty that filled every corner of her shack. Her world, She grew with them–the trunk of the vine–alone, but holding all the wonders together.”

“She touched the pages and remembered each shell and the story of finding it, where it lay on the beach, the season, the sunrise. A family album.”

Kya’s flight from the humiliation of public school and her subsequent world-class naturalist status, gained solely from observation and self-education, would make Charlotte Mason and every CM-homeschooler rejoice. Her meticulous collecting, labeling, mapping or drawing of the location a specimen was found, show how she “saved” herself and how she made the boundaries for herself that a child needs. I can’t stop thinking about how much I would love to see her collections if they were real.

I listened to the audiobook.

My Verdict

4.75

Not to be missed

Where the Crawdads Sing: A Novel by Delia Owens

If you enjoy novels about the natural world:

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Remarkable Creatures: A Novel by Tracey Chevalier

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Flight Behavior: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver

Review: Red, White & Royal Blue: A Novel by Casey McQuiston

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The Story

After a disaster at heir-to-the-throne Prince Philip’s wedding to Martha, younger brother Prince Henry of Wales and America’s “First Son,” Alex, must pretend to be friends and do some charity appearances together. Soon they discover that thanks to their parents (and subsequently their own) roles on their national stages, they have a lot in common. But wait! There’s more! Soon, the two young men fall deeply in love.

What I Liked

While this is totally fictitious, I couldn’t help but see either a young Prince Charles who was cool (and not a “young fogey”) or a Prince Harry who was academic (and not a student dodged with rumors of ‘help’ with his A level in art).  Alex was the typical hyper-achieving son of hyper-achieving American parents. One who was often told he was “great,” but not told much that he was “good enough” [I listened to the audio and couldn’t stop the car and write down the actual quote that time.] Henry, the son of a brainy mother (the first royal with a Ph.D.) and James Bond (his late father played 007) wore his heart on his sleeve while brother Philip was tightly wound and sister Beatrice went to rehab.

But Henry has more intuition than he likes to let on. When a role model lets Alex down badly, Henry tells him: “Someone else’s choice can’t change who you are.” And, when they are falling in love reassures Alex, “Sometimes you must jump and hope it isn’t a cliff.” [I’ve used quotation marks but these maybe just a little off the quote.]

This was a fun read. Not quite the West Wing, but still very witty and fast-paced. Royal fans will love it.

My Thoughts

Keeping in mind this is unapologetically a summer rom-com book, and one written for a much younger audience (20 somethings), I adored this book. I admit I was uneasy–I’ve never read a same-sex romance before. There was sex and I was anxious about how that would be portrayed. I often throwback books with “ick” moments in sex scenes. Guess what? Yes, there were a few words here and there throughout the book that aren’t beloved by my generation–but nothing that would have phased my own 20-something kids. The sex? I didn’t squirm once. It’s a rom-com, not an adult bodice-ripper, so it was the normal type and level of description for any rom-com. And, unlike any hetero rom-com I’ve ever read, they stopped long enough to use a condom and lube. (Ick moment of this review). The only squirming I did was with the predictably over-the-top rom-com ending –a lighter touch with the speachifying would have been good. But, who cares! It was fun–that’s all a rom-com is supposed to be.

My verdict

Red, White & Royal Blue: A Novel by Casey McQuiston

Do you enjoy royal fiction? Check out my recent New Royal Fiction post here.

Review: The Last Year of the War: A Novel by Susan Meissner

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My Interest:

World War II is a major interest of mine. With the border situation terms like “Internment” or “Concentration Camp,” “Civil Liberties,” are being tossed around a lot so this sounded very interesting.

The Story:

Elise and her family are a normal family with German roots living in very German Davenport, Iowa, in 1943. A neighbor boy starts it all by asking her chemist father if he knew how to make a bomb. Of course a chemist knows how to make a bomb, but in the midst of a war with Germany a chemist who can make a bomb,  who has a copy of Mein Kampf, who has family still in Germany a has a case full of German military medals–well, the F.B.I. found that intriguing.

Very soon Elise and her family became some of the few Germans taken into custody and sent to an internment camp.  Never mind that most of Davenport had family in Germany with relatives, possibly even siblings, serving in the Nazi Army. They weren’t chemists with a copy of Hitler’s book. The F.B.I. didn’t care about the backstory. Elise’s parents had applied to be U.S. Citizens, but they’d been here 20 years and had only just done so. More suspicion.

At the Camp, Elise makes a rare Japanese friend, Mariko. In the Texas camp, Japanese befriended Japanese and Germans German. Only Elise and Mariko, like most of the camp’s children, were American citizens, interned along with their parents–some of whom had become Americans. The two girls develop a closeness that sustains them until the worst thing imaginable happens–Elise’s family was repatriated in January 1945 to Stuttgart.

My Thoughts:

I found the story very interesting and well done until the end of the war–I even found myself coming up with errands to keep listening in the car! I listened while doing housework–it WAS compelling. The family’s difficulties were seen thru Elise’s eyes–not the parents so the trials of being arrested and interred were seen from a pre-teen and teen’s eyes. The friendship between the girls was very normal and sweet, their reactions to their sitiation were typical of any kids their age.

[Spoilers]

I did find it odd that Elise, a teenager, barely has more than a token tantrum over being forced “home” to Germany. To me, that wasn’t realistic. In fact, it was close to Pollyanna. Elise doesn’t speak German, is leaving her best friend, her school and her country.  Nor does she really go off when she finds out her father had to agree to repatriation for the family to be together in the camp. She and her mother and siblings could have remained free, though she does see clearly that her mother wasn’t the type to cope on her own.

Aside from that and wondering how a bakery in 1945 Germany had gasoline to spare to use their delivery truck,  how the family got so much food, and how they kept her little brother from becoming an ardent Hitler Youth (he was the perfect age for indoctrination), I did wonder how her father could have been so isolated from the news of conditions in Germany. Maybe I missed it being said in the story that they were not allowed news in the Camp? Minor detail. Descending into “hell” wasn’t far from the truth.

The big thing was the after-war story. It just didn’t work. I felt I was reading an entirely new book. Grandma loved them all so much she ditched them to live with a niece–odd,. Sure, Elise took a tried and true way out by marrying a G.I., but she didn’t have to. She was an American citizen. I felt that Ralph was put in to check some boxes to tie the story to today’s renewed interest in socialism–and hopefully as a bit of warning about that. He wasn’t “real” to me at all. Elise stopped being “real” and became a brainless twit–settling for being the unpaid nanny (“Elsie” seemed very symbolic of this)  instead of pursuing an education and a life the way Ralph intended.

How interesting that at the time in German history when we had to enact the Marshall Plan, her parents sent HER a birthday gift, but she never sent them money or gifts? Really?? Considering where she was living this seems cold. Just plain cold. I liked Hugh, but why did Elise need a “savior”? She had all of Ralph’s trust fund! Very odd ending–like the author had this other story in the drawer, couldn’t find a conclusion to the very interesting repatriation story and tacked this mess on to meet a deadline. That’s overly harsh, but the ending just didn’t work for me.

Overall,  I found her obsession with Mariko–a friend for only a year or so–tedious and too childish. Therapy seemed like it should have come into the picture years before on this but their friendship ended on the right note–that was in the modern day part of the story. I thought Mariko’s approach to their relationship was more honest.

I DID find it interesting that Elise named her Alzheimer’s “Agnes” and used good coping strategies to keep being as independent as possible. But why had Elise, who had coped so ably in Germany–even fending off a pair of would-be rapists, become such a ninny on her return to America? As I said, the ending just didn’t work for me.

Note: It was very interesting to learn that Japanese from Peru and a few other Central/South American nations were intered in the U.S. as well. I’d never heard of that.

My Verdict

3.0

The ending took this down a lot.

The Last Year of the War: A Novel by Susan Meissner

For a nonfiction look at another family awaiting repatriation see:

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Journey Interrupted: A Family Without a Country in a World at War by Hildegarde Mahoney. My review is here.

For a nonfiction look at life in immediate post-war Germany, see:

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After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation by Giles MacDonough, my review is here.

Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

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My Interest

India is a country I’ve long wanted to visit. It is a fascinating place. The story interested me for that reason and because the young woman is of my own kids’ generation.

The Story

Shalini is a young college grad working in a lifeless job and yearning to make a difference.  She decides to go off and look for a man who used to visit their family–a man from Kashmir, a troubled region near the dangerous boarder with Pakistan.  In alternating chapters, she tells of her time in Kashmir and the story of her trouble middle-class upbringing in Bangalore, explaining  how her family knew the man for whom she is searching why he was important to her.

My Thoughts

I sincerely doubt if one American in 1000 today could find India and Pakistan on the map, let alone the Himalayas (which Americans pronounce incorrectly) or Kashmir or Bangalore. We hear of India and Pakistan only when the word “nuclear” can be added or a disaster is perpetrated by an American chemical company. Even fewer Americans know that a minor member of the royal family, Lord Mountbatten, (Prince Philip’s Uncle and Prince Charles’ mentor) afraid to be away from his naval career too long, set an arbitrary date for full Indian Independence. To make that long story short, he divided India into two nations–Pakistan being the new country born out of a majority Muslim area. This area of the so-called “partition” has been violent almost ever since. If Americans consider the mess we have currently on the Mexican border and then add in religion, and religious extremists who are eager to kill or die or both, you can about picture the region Shalini went to in this book.

All through the story, I thought of myself and my fellow Peace Corps volunteers arriving bright-eyed, pukingly earnest and eager to “help” by telling people how to do things the American way. Shalini’s experience was so similar. The feeling of “family” created with the locals with whom you lived [although the dictator I lived under did not allow foreign volunteers to live with host families as is the norm in nearly every Peace Corps country–even 1960’s India itself where President Carter’s mother, “Miss Lillian” served in retirement], the sense of “belonging” you gain as the community becomes geographically familiar to you, and self-esteem you develop as the languages and gestures of the people start to become understandable. You feel yourself “assimilate.” You think you are a local, a real resident. A part of the community.

All of that is laughable. You are so ridiculously naive. You find this out when you go to leave at the end of service and they want your stuff. Shalini, too, found out just how naive she was and I relived every emotion along with her.

Every word of this book rang true. The emotion, the process of assimilation–it was so chillingly accurate. Yet, in the end, Shalini found out what an impact she had [no spoilers] and how naive she was.

My Verdict

4.5 Stars

The Far Field by  Madhuri Vijay

I listened to the audiobook.

I learned of this book from the Podcast “Reading Women,” episode 70.

 

Review: Why I Left The Amish by Saloma Miller Furlong

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My interest:

I live in an area with many Amish families and regularly shop at an Amish-owned store. In addition, I’ve studied cultish religions for a few decades now. I find them fascinating and chilling.

The Story

Imagine growing up in a large family where the father was the ultimate authority. No crossing him. Not only because he was violent, but because you’ve been raised since birth to submit to his authority and not to question anything. Sounds a lot like TV’s Duggar and Bates families, doesn’t it? Hold on, it’s about to get weird.

While Amish communities differ in their practices and in their accommodation of technology, many practices courting…in bed. Yes, you read that right. A boy comes over, he goes to the girl’s room and, while leaving all their clothing on (no mention of removing a girl’s straight pins or a boy undoing the buttons only men are allowed). This is not only fine, it is expected. No side hugs–full-on dry you-know-what. With any boy who wants to. The boy chooses. Never the girl. Of course they many will end up courting for real and getting married.

Contrary to the Breaking Amish-type reality show, all Amish do not get much freedom at their coming-of-age point. As you may well imagine, boys get far more freedom than girls–girls must help with all the drudgery in their parents’ homes. Sounds like we’re back with the Duggars, doesn’t it? While what freedom can be had is being enjoyed, heavy pressure is being exerted to be baptized and marry and stay within the fold.

Author Saloma “Loomie” grew up in a dysfunctional Amish family in Ohio. Her father had a violent temper and, on one occasion, beat her sister so long and so hard her mother actually stepped in (unusual in the Amish world) and told him to stop or he’d kill her. Then there was her brother–a Josh Duggar of the Amish world who went way farther than Josh. WAY farther. No one in the community tried to stop any of this. Her father, eventually, was allowed to make a [lesser] sitting confession of his temper, but his family had to share the blame for “provoking” him.

As the age for Baptism grew closer, Saloma tried to decide on her future. Understandably, she wanted things to work in “her” world–it is very hard to leave everyone you love and the only way of life you know. But Baptism, she rightly felt, had to come from the heart–not from outside pressure of embarrassing her parents or rejecting them. To join the church she had to “lay down [her] questions and follow obediently, and with a willing heart.” (p. 128). That was no small order–especially the no questioning. “Yet the unease of going through the process without my heart being in it did not leave me for a minute. … (p. 128).

Nor was surrendering her individuality an easy concept. It was supposed to strengthen the community, but, she kept asking herself, “didn’t we need to be individuals frist, before we could come together as a community?”(p 131). In a sermon, the Bishop told of grain taken to the mill to be ground. Some of the grains fall to the wayside, he said. Saloma started to believe she would be happier as one who “escaped being ground.” (p. 131).

Thankfully, no millstone reached her. She went free.

My Thoughts

The Amish are often idolized. I haven’t seen much in my area that I’d say I approve of–they overwork their horses, their kids work long hours, and their women are treated even worse than their animals. Some run puppy mills. While they won’t vote and don’t serve in the military, the do use public hospitals, especially for their high-risk pregnancies and for the children born with severe birth defects from intermarriage among such a small community.  I do not understand why their children are allowed to leave school at 8th grade, but mine must stay until 18. Wrong.

Cults and near cults tend to use many of the same control tactics. Women are subservient to men, lack any control over their fertility, and are extolled to birth large families whether their health or income can support them. Men are allowed great freedom to discipline their wives as well as their children physically. Women must ask for each and every thing. They rarely are allowed control over any money. (Yes, there can be rare exceptions). Children may not have birth certificates so that obtaining a Social Security card is difficult or impossible. This prevents runaways for they have no way to seek legal employment. (This sort of things has been documented as happening in very far right, isolating homeschooling families, too).

Even my feeling on those things paled with how I felt reading of the father’s tepid, sitting “confession” of his poor judgment (for it really wasn’t rendered as ‘wrong’) listening to all that Saloma’s father and brother got away with made my blood boil. Listening to the men ignore a near-murder of a beating and give the father the faintest tap on the wrist was too much for me.

What I Liked

I liked that Saloma saw faith as a serious thing. She could not just go through the motions of the life expected of her. I also liked that she was bold and made a meaningful life, married, had a child and went back to school at about the time her own son was starting college. That was quite a lot! Then she wrote this book. I am so glad she got out. I feel for her sisters who suffered, in one case, even worse abuse but stayed.

Why I Left The Amish: A Memoir by Saloma Miller Furlong

 

For more Amish books and culture:

Reading Amish and More

 

Review: Mary Coin: A Novel by Marisa Silver

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Background

Think “Great Depression” and the photo (albeit in black and white) on this book cover likely comes to mind pretty quickly–maybe just after an image of F.D.R. or of a man in a fine overcoat selling apples on the street. Maybe you se an image from the book or movie, The Grapes of Wrath.  Dorothea Lange, the photographer who captured the image, was simply doing a government job, trying to keep her family going–just like the “Migrant Mother,” in her photograph. She was merely paid a normal salary. Neither photogrpaher nor subject earned any royalties on the sale or use of the image.

The Story

This book fictionalizes the story behind one of the best-known photographs in 20th Century American history. The woman renamed Mary Coin in the story, was a mother with six or seven children reduced by the economic collapse we now call the Great Depression to doing migrant fieldwork.  Look carefully at that photo. She is not hopeless. Nor is she helpless. She is strong. Those children on either side of her trust her completely–they now she will protect them.

The story is told in three parts: the story of Mary and her children. The story of the photographer–renamed Vera Dare, herself a struggling mother with an otherworldly and unfaithful artist as the father of her children. She is holding on by doing a government job documenting the misery in the country.  The final strand of the story is that of history Professor Walker Dodge who is struggling with modern-day family problems while pursuing the past. But other than the obvious–Mary and photographer Vera, do all the strands connect? Well, no spoilers here!

My Thoughts

I loved this book from start-to-finish. The Depression is not totally ‘history’ to me–it is somewhat a reality. My Dad was born in a dilapidated farmhouse on another man’s land. That winter they mostly had Cream of Wheat and apples to eat, but Dad grew up to be 6 feet tall and big enough to play football.  My grandmother was abandoned by Dad’s father and had to leave him with her parents, lie, and train to be a “beautician” to support them. Along the way she started dating the bus driver who drove the bus back to the farm each week–the man, I knew as my Grandpa.  My grandmother’s story has an element of the story given to Vera in the book.  Many people were that desperate. Vera’s children, and even Mary’s were the lucky ones–the ones whose families stayed together over the long term. The ones whose fortunes really only improved when the U.S. began churning out war material.

So, based on the numbing hours of family history I was subjected to at a dinner table that did not have coloring sheets or games on a screen or even a kiddie table, this book rings with authenticity. Today we forget how little softness too many people enjoyed before World War II (and even today). How harsh childhood was, hold little cash money people had, how few things most people owned, how bad their diets were. How much work was required just to survive, how little time there was for education or leisure. And, how brutal the whole life equation could be.

Mary couldn’t turn to the government for Medicaid or WIC or TANF–those were mostly in the future. And just like today, having no fixed address, or not having been let go from a full-time, above-the-table job, what “relief” there was wouldn’t help her or her children. She had only herself and that car–the car that “saved them” as she says late in the book. The car that was their home and that took them down the road to the next farm when the field they were in was stripped clean and it was time to sign on and pick something new again. And did you know that field/farmworkers were not included in Social Security?

In spite of all of this, Mary Coin: A Novel is not a depressing book. Mary herself is why–she fights back by not quitting. She isn’t an unsung hero of a union movement or anything–she simply gets out of that car, shack, or tent, each day and goes into the field to work flat-out for 10 solid hours each day, six or seven days a week. To be paid pennies. Pennies. But by doing this she raised her children and they survived. That is heroic.

My Verdict

4.0

Highly recommended

Mary Coin: A Novel by Marisa Silver

An NPR Book of the Year 2013

The Real “Migrant Mother”–Florence Thompson

Here is a link to the a short piece on Florence Owens Thompson from PBS.

My friend at Book Club Mom reviewed this book when it was first released. She includes several links to stories about the photo and Florence. You can read it all here.