Top Ten Books With Staying Power

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

This week's Top Ten List (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) asks us to choose ten books written in the last decade (or so) that we hope people will still be reading in 30 years time.  Since I haven't done a Top Ten in a while, this seemed like a good week to jump back in.  I mean, basically I just have to list my ten favorite books of the last ten years right?

As it turns out, wrong.  There is a difference between a book that you loved personally and one that you think that people should still be reading in 30 years.  For that kind of staying power it should be something that speaks to our common humanity and portrays something important about our society at large, in my humble opinion.  So, I have created a list not just of books that I love (though I do love them all), but that I think have something important to say about the human experience and the societies we create.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Mosseini-The eradication of the oppression of women is a major indicator of a society becoming more developed, and this book shows us why.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins-Yes, I know it's YA and people are probably tired of hearing about it, but this book is so full of social commentary that I hope teachers are actively teaching with it 30 years from now-and that we have not yet taken our voyeurism and "reality" tv to that extreme.

The Harry Potter Series-Basically for the same reason as The Hunger Games.  Underlying the magic and whimsical elements is a solid foundation of social justice and equality.

The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger-OK, this one is mostly on the list just because I loved it so, but it does have some interesting things to say about the nature of relationships.

Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood-What The Handmaid's Tale did in highlighting reproductive choice, these books do for environmental issues, with some feminism thrown in.

Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich-This book puts the lie to the conservative claim that if you have a job and work hard you will get ahead in American.  Not if you are working for minimum wage, and Ehrenreich lived it to prove it.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak-Amazingly beautiful, heart-breaking, transcendent and brutal, reading this book made me understand how the Nazi's affected the everyday German, and it is a great picture of courage.

Monster, Walter Dean Myers-Another YA title, this book illuminates the way that poverty and the need to survive can make people act against their own interests, and how incarceration affects teens.

These Things Hidden, Heather Gudenkauf

Monday, May 28, 2012

Adolescence is a time of transition, a time in a child's life when they are not yet adults, but not really children.  This makes it a challenge to decide how to deal with them-finding a balance between supervision and freedom, support and independence, is something that parents and society struggle with.  And when the adolescent commits a crime, we as a society have trouble finding that balance-are they children who cannot be held accountable for their choices, or are they adults who have defied societal standards and must be punished.  I was reminded of this dilemma while reading Heather Gudekauf's novel These Things Hidden.

These Things Hidden interweaves the lives of four women-Allison, Brynn, Charm, and Claire.  Five years earlier, 16 year old Allison was convicted of manslaughter in the death of her newborn infant.  Released from prison early, she goes to a half-way house and tries to reconnect with her sister, Brynn.  Brynn, who at 15 was with her sister on that awful night, has borne the brunt of the fall-out of her sister's crime.  Emotionally fragile, bearing the guilt of the infant's death, she struggles to get through each day.  Charm, a 20 year old college student, carries a secret that makes it difficult for her to deal with the imminent death of her step-father.  Claire, a bookstore owner, marvels daily at the miracle that brought her son Joshua into her life-after years of trying to have a child, she and her husband adopted Joshua after he was left at the fire station as a newborn.  None of these women know it, but Joshua is the one thing that connects them all.

Told in the first person by Allison and Brynn, with chapters in the third person for Charm and Claire, this book is about more than just the fairness of holding a 16 year old responsible for the death of her child.  It is about family, what it means to be a mother, a sister, a caregiver.  Allison and Brynn's parents appeared perfect from the outside, giving their girls every advantage.  But emotionally there was very little connection in their family, and when first Allison and then Brynn disappoint them, their parents turn away from them.  Charm's mother collected men like trading cards for many years, and Charm feels much closer to her stepfather Gus than to her biological parents.  Obviously simply giving birth to a child does not make a person a parent.  Claire and her husband are excellent parents to Joshua, but they live with the fear at the back of their mind that his biological parents could show up and ruin their happiness.  Gudenkauf paints a portrait of love and guilt and fear and love again through the stories of these women and the ways they are connected to Joshua, and to each other.  This novel is women's fiction at its best.  Not overly sentimental or sappy, with no easy solutions, the book explores relationships and family in a way that is insightful and engaging.

Cross-Blog Pollination-I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I posted this review first on my children's and young adult book blog, Second Childhood Reviews this morning, and while I don't usually review the children's and YA books I read here on this blog (after all, that's why I have two!), this book is worth sharing with a wider audience.  I imagine my own daughter at 10, and can only feel rage at a society that allows-hell, encourages-the sexual assault and physical abuse of young girls.

Summary:  (from publisher)
Forced by her father to marry a man three times her age, young Nujood Ali was sent away from her parents and beloved sisters and made to live with her husband and his family in an isolated village in rural Yemen. There she suffered daily from physical and emotional abuse by her mother-in-law and nightly at the rough hands of her spouse. Flouting his oath to wait to have sexual relations with Nujood until she was no longer a child, he took her virginity on their wedding night. She was only ten years old.

Unable to endure the pain and distress any longer, Nujood fled—not for home, but to the courthouse of the capital, paying for a taxi ride with a few precious coins of bread money. When a renowned Yemeni lawyer heard about the young victim, she took on Nujood’s case and fought the archaic system in a country where almost half the girls are married while still under the legal age. Since their unprecedented victory in April 2008, Nujood’s courageous defiance of both Yemeni customs and her own family has attracted a storm of international attention. Her story even incited change in Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries, where underage marriage laws are being increasingly enforced and other child brides have been granted divorces.

Nujood's story is simply but powerfully written.  Detailing a loss of innocence that was made all the more brutal for coming from the betrayal of her parents, I Am Nujood is both an easy and a difficult read.  While the sexual assaults that she endured daily are only described in much detail once, the effect of it on her is both tragic and ultimately redemptive.  Despite all teachings to the contrary, Nujood refuses to accept that her fate as a woman is to be beaten and raped by her "husband", showing a bravery that not many adult women in repressive societies do.  Her determination to move forward and help other girls is an example to any survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, whether from countries where the practice is societally supported or from more "enlightened" countries like America, where supposedly we value women more.

But this book is much more than one personal story of survival and redemption.  This book can be used to highlight the very real problem of forced child marriage that exists in parts of the developing world.  Unicef estimates that in Africa, there the practice is prevalent, 42% of girls will be married before the age of 18, many without their consent.  This means that a lack of formal schooling and a separation from the rest of society will only lead to a perpetuation of the cycle for their daughters.  Child marriage is most often the result of poverty combined with a  rigid sense of honor.  This sense of having to "honor" the family by putting up with abuse is pervasive and makes girls in this situation feel ashamed of their desire not to be married.  There is much work to be done to help women world-wide gain the education and rights necessary for them to have true self-determination, not to have to choose between the equally unacceptable alternatives of staying with their family and starving or being forced into a marriage with an older man and enduring whatever abuse he chooses to throw her way.  

While the reading level for this book is quite low, the content is mature, and should it should be read with guidance by younger teens.  I believe that it could be a very powerful book to use in the classroom, however, not necessarily for its literary merit as much as for the issues it raises about human rights.  While the description of Nujood's rape on the first night of her marriage is disturbing, it is not graphic in nature in terms of language.  I believe that it would make an excellent addition to any high school literature or social sciences curriculum, and that it could be used as a jumping-off point for a unit on the status of girl children throughout the world.

The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Have you ever been driving down the road and come upon a car with the bumper sticker that reads, "In case of rapture this car will be unmanned"?  For a while they were real popular here in southern Chicagoland, and every time I saw one I thought the same thing, How arrogant! Granted, as an atheist I don't really believe in the Rapture or heaven, but from what I know about the teachings of Jesus somehow I find it hard to believe that he would be in favor of his followers assuming that just by believing in him they get a free pass to heaven when the Apocalypse happens.  Wasn't he all about good works and loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek and all that?  What would happen if suddenly millions of people worldwide disappeared in a Rapture-like event but the supposedly devout faithful weren't necessarily among them?

This event and its aftermath are the backdrop for Tom Perrotta's latest book, The Leftovers.  One October morning millions of people all over the world, of all races, cultures, and religions, simply disappeared.  Vanished without a trace.  One minute you are sitting next to your best friend on the couch, the next instant-gone.  Some people lost their whole family in the blink of an eye, other families stayed intact but lost friends and colleagues.  There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to the disappearances, which led those trying to recover from the loss to find different ways to cope.  The novel follows one family and their attempts to make sense of what seems like a senseless event.  Kevin and Laurie and their children Jill and Tom  were living the American dream.  Kevin was a successful businessman, Laurie a busy stay-at-home mom.  Jill and Tom were both honors students, and Tom has just left for Syracuse University when the Sudden Departure, as the world soon called it, occurred.  Three years later, Laurie is a member of a cult called the Guilty Remnant, Jill has shaved her head and nearly failed out of school, and Tom has disappeared into the organization of a faith "healer" who gained fame by hugging away the pain of those left behind.  Kevin tries desperately to keep some semblance of normalcy going while trying to give everyone he loves time to recover from what happened to them all.

The narrative structure of this novel is of the every-chapter-from-a-different-POV variety, which I know bothers some people, but it works in this book because it allows Perotta to examine the various personal emotional reactions of the people affected by the Sudden Departure of their friends and family.  Aside from the family listed above, we also see the point of view of a woman named Nora, who lost her entire family-husband and two kids-in the time it took for her to go to the kitchen for a rag to wipe up a spill.  The depth of her grief feels boundless-to her and to the reader.  Her unsuccessful attempts to move on from the event illustrate just how difficult it can be to move forward when everything you thought you knew is taken away.

Perrotta does an admirable job imagining how different types of people would react to such an impossible-seeming occurrence.  The loss, and ultimately the not knowing, drive people to extremes.  Some turn to religious cults who claim to understand "god's" plan and to provide answers that people seek.  Some frenetically try to return to normal, diving into the same mindless consumerism that existed prior to the Departure.  Some turn to drugs or alcohol or sex as a way to dull their pain.  But the book does not dwell only on the sadness and loss-to me the book's message speaks to the human ability to survive, to the unique capacity of human beings to adapt to new circumstances, to the idea that even in a world where the old rules have been turned on their head, people can and will begin to create order from the chaos.

A Correction, and a Cautionary Tale

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

So earlier I wrote a review of My Name is Mary Sutter, in which I mentioned it was nominated for the Orange Prize.  That was incorrect, as the author herself pointed out to me when commenting on my review.  Never mind that the review was rather negative, which already put it pretty high on the awkward scale.  The cautionary tale part of this post is that it was in the same to-be-read pile as the books I got specifically because they were nominated for the Orange Prize.  Lesson learned-always double check your book info.  And maybe not put books in piles.  And maybe don't be so concerned about whether the book was nominated for a prize when you decide to read it.  Mea culpa, mea culpa...

Her Name was Mary Sutter...

and sadly, I didn't really care.  My Name is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira, details the story of Mary Sutter, a wealthy midwife living in Albany, New York at the outbreak of the Civil War.  Her one dream is to become a surgeon, but she has been turned down by every medical school and doctor in Albany.  When the war starts, she sees her chance to get into the field of medicine by becoming part of Dorothea Dix's nurses corps.  She travels to Washington, DC and bullies herself into a position at the Union Hotel Hospital.  And then there's some family tragedy, and some arguments with the head doctor, and some gruesome descriptions of injuries and disease...and then I gave up.

Everything about this book makes it something I should enjoy.  The genre, the theme, the feminist message-all things that resonate with me as a reader and a woman.  However, I found myself unable to work up much caring about the characters or what was happening to them.  The story was slow moving, the characters all annoyed me at some point or another-and not in a good, "ooo, I love to hate them" sort of way-and the descriptions of the barbaric state of medicine during that time were more disgusting than instructive.  Ordinarily I enjoy reading about the political machinations that lead to major world events, but even the political insights into the disorganization and incompetence that resulted in a greater human toll than necessary couldn't keep me going.  I will admit I stopped about 220 pages in-even though that was 2/3 of the way through,  I have too many other things to read to spend any more time on a book that was clearly not doing anything for me, intellectually, spiritually, or from an entertainment stand-point.  I assume since this book was nominated for the Orange Prize** that other people must have enjoyed it more than me, so give it a try if it sounds good to you.  You can tell me how it ended.

**Apparently, it did not in fact get nominated for the Orange Prize-as Ms. Oliveira herself was kind enough to point out in a comment below.  Darn TBR piles and their lack of appropriate organization!