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The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 17+ hours
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The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery, narrated by Barbara Caruso, was our September book club selection (unfortunately, I missed the meeting). Aurelia is a young girl who lives with her housekeeper mother in a Catholic school until her mother falls ill before they are set to embark with her uncle to Japan. Without her mother, she becomes despondent and longs for a home, but her uncle, a priest, is less equipped to provide that for her, even in Japan. When a fire rips through the area, Aurelia is alone and hiding in the grounds of the Shin family when the daughter, Yakako, finds her. She’s soon adopted into the family, less as a daughter and more as a servant.

Tea ceremonies are the life blood of the Shin family, but in the late-nineteenth century, the nation faces a number of political changes. Even though she is young and eventually reaches puberty in the Shin family, she becomes integral to the household and feels more at home with them than those from the West. There are still moments where she stumbles, unsure of the customs and eager to indulge Yakako’s need for freedom, until they paint themselves into a corner with her father.

Caruso’s voice is a perfect fit for a novel about tea ceremonies in Japan, a ritual only executed by men. Like many women in Japanese society, their actions are based on ceremony and deference to the men in their lives — a father and a husband — but even then, they can find small comforts among themselves. Aurelia is no different. There is much hard work, conflict with the father, and anxiety due to the changes in Japan — a westernization that could brush aside the importance of tea ceremonies.

There are moments when readers will have to suspend disbelief — how can Aurelia (Urako) learn about Japan from books in 1866? Or learn the language to make it passable just from those books and a cook on the ship over — but the interactions of Aurelia with her protector Yakako are delightful as they navigate the differences in their cultures and misunderstandings. But the narrative gets bogged down in the historical detail, leaving readers wondering what the point of it all is and why they didn’t just pick up a history book instead.

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery, narrated by Barbara Caruso, spans about 40 years and much of the Shin family’s time is spent decrying the modernization and westernization of Japan, which is reasonable given the dedication the family has to tea ceremonies. However, Aurelia seems to merely be an observer in her life most of the time, doing little to grow other than what her benefactors tell her. A well-researched and written novel, but the plot and characters plod along in what seems to be merely a history lesson from the eyes of a westerner thrust into a the role of imposter as the Shin family adopts her as their own servant. Her return home is less than climatic.

RATING: Tercet

About the Author:

The only writer ever to have received the American Library Association Stonewall Award for Fiction twice, Ellis Avery is the author of two novels, a memoir, and a book of poetry. Her novels, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012) and The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006) have also received Lambda, Ohioana, and Golden Crown awards, and her work has been translated into six languages. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and out of her home in the West Village.

Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 496 pgs.
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Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which was out June book club selection, demonstrates the best of Chekhov’s short story writing. He uses an economy of words to depict the every day lives of clerks, former actresses, professors, young boy orphans, and so much more. His stories carefully illustrate the mundane lives of these Russian people and the struggles they faced. There are tales of lost love, actresses who want more than to be a pretty face, and men who strive to be more than they are and fail.

For the book club, we chose to read and discuss 10 of the stories in this collection: The Death of a Clerk, Small Fry, The Huntsman, The Malefactor, Panikhida, Anyuta, Easter Night, Vanka, The House with the Mezzanine, and The Lady with the Little Dog. I have read the others since the meeting, except “The Boring Story” that I had previously and had turned me off Chekhov until college when we read his plays.

What I love about Chekhov is his sparse language and his ability to paint a full picture of someone’s life in so few words. Each word matters, and he often will choose words for a dual purpose, like the use of the word “stranger” in “The Huntsman.” It can literally be someone who is unknown to you or someone you haven’t seen in a long time and you feel that they have become a stranger. I found this translation very readable and the stories relatable even today — these stories were written in the late 1800s.

Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky will keep readers on their toes, as some situations can be a bit odd. However, the concepts of lost love, jobs that are unsatisfying, and husbands who become strangers to their wives are issues that persist even today.

RATING: Quatrain

What the book club thought:

We found a great deal to discuss in these stories, even though some were just 2-5 pages. It is fascinating how so few words can generate so much discussion, even for stories that we barely understood.We had a great deal of discussion about “Chekhov’s Gun” about the functionality of every element in a story and the idea that promises are made and should be kept.

Everyone seemed to find reading these short stories worthwhile, even if not all of them were enjoyable. There are some fascinating pieces in this collection.

About the Author:

Anton Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short-story writer, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russel Hochschild (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 11+ hours
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Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russel Hochschild, narrated by Suzanne Toren, was our book club selection for February, but I missed this meeting as well. Hochschild focuses on communities in rural Louisiana to learn more about the Right and how they come to hold somewhat contrary beliefs about the government and what it should do and how it is not helping them. Her main focus was on environmental pollution, which helped her keep the study narrower, though I’m sure more issues affect the decisions of voters identifying with the Tea Party and the conservative Right.

Many of these conservative right leaning citizens of the United States seem to be motivated by taxes, faith, and honor, she says, as well as their own personal wishes. Part of the paradox is that while some see the need for regulations to say protect the environment and themselves from toxic pollutants, they also distrust the government. Additionally, these locally rooted people view Washington, D.C., as too far away, and many believe the federal government has taken away their local identities.

Hochschild also postulates that much of the issue stems from the loss of the Confederate South’s honor and the imposition of the North’s values on the South after the Civil War and during the Civil Rights Movement. Now the Tea Party has tapped into the need for honor with those who, even though poor and struggling, identify with the rich “plantation” owners and want an end to government handouts for those they see as “cutting in line.” Many of those line cutters are strangers and the government helps them but not you, and then you are viewed as “backward,” many of these Louisianans say. In many ways, her study suggests that the Rich are seceding from the Poor, even though many of the people she talked to are not wealthy at all.

In the election process, President Donald Trump become a totem that unifies the Right and provides them with a focus on their own improvement and lifting them up from their own emotional quagmire. The hats, signs, and branding push them together in an uplifting way, while pushing out the “other,” who the groups see as “line cutters.” The rallies also freed the Right from “feeling rules” that these people saw as imposed on them by the liberal North.

Rather than consider themselves as victims, they often take pride in their struggles, no matter how emotional draining it is. They tend to view their world optimistically — they look forward — and often trust the free market to do the right thing, even though research shows companies tend not to protect workers, the environment, or other aspects of society. Telling in the book is how Blue states benefit from the lax regulations of Red states, enabling them to reap the benefits of products produced without having the waste/pollution in their own backyard.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russel Hochschild, narrated by Suzanne Toren, may offer a depressing view of the Right and their own paradoxes, but the book offers a sense of hope that the “empathy” wall can be overcome through conversation and practical cooperation. Although there were some repetitive pieces in this book and judgment peppered throughout, readers will find it informative as to why President Trump spoke to these people who felt like strangers in America, even though they were born here. As the media and political pundits and speakers push for division, the best medicine for democracy is cooperation and compromise — the middle ground.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Arlie Russell Hochschild is one of the most influential sociologists of her generation. She is the author of nine books, including The Second Shift, The Time Bind, The Managed Heart, The Outsourced Self, and Strangers in Their Own Land (The New Press). Three of her books have been named as New York Times Notable Books of the Year and her work appears in sixteen languages. The winner of the Ulysses Medal as well as Guggenheim and Mellon grants, she lives in Berkeley, California.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 10+ hours
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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, narrated by the author, was our April book club selection. This memoir will have you wondering where child services was for most of Jeannette’s life. Her parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls, had three other children and were often negligent in their parenting, and even dangerous — placing their kids directly in dangerous situations or failing to prevent them from being in such places. The family moved a lot in the early days until her mother inherited some money that would have allowed them to live comfortably if budgeted well, but as her parents were very bohemian, practicality was outside their comfort zone.

Each child in this family was forced to find their own way to cope and survive, and some did so better than others. In many cases, the children went their separate ways, but there were times when they defended on another from their parents and from those willing to abuse them. Clinging to one another was an option, but eventually, West Virginia’s harsh landscape and judgment on outsiders forced the older children to seek their fortunes in New York City.

Walls has some tales to tell and many of them sound like they couldn’t possibly be true — did she really cook hotdogs by herself at age 3? While I wonder about the recollection of some events, I see that her point is not the chronology but the need for her to survive on her own most of the time, even though she had both parents at home. The kids acted more like adults on some occasions and when the kids called them out for it, they were punished because they were expected to respect their elders no matter what.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls at is core is a story of hope and survival. Walls should be commended for her bravery in speaking about her childhood, especially after hiding it for so long as she climbed the ladder in the world of journalism. Well written and engaging, this is a memoir that will have you regretting anytime you fought with your less bohemian parents.

RATING: Quatrain

What the Book Club Thought:

Everyone finished the book and thought the writing was very fluid. They were appalled by how the Walls’ children were treated by their parents and how the mother and father neglected their responsibilities on so many levels. There were moments in the book where some members wanted more information, particularly about the youngest child, but agreed that maybe Jeannette did not have memories of her youngest sister’s plight beyond what she wrote. This book was well discussed and raised a lot of issue as to whether the parents had an over-arching philosophy for how they lived their lives or whether it was merely selfishness. Very good discussion book.

About the Author:

Jeannette Walls is a writer and journalist. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, she graduated with honors from Barnard College, the women’s college affiliated with Columbia University. She published a bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle, in 2005.

And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 10+ hours
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And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander, which was our book club selection for March, is narrated by Kate Reading and is the first in a series of Lady Emily mystery novels set in Victorian England. Lady Emily is a woman ahead of her time, interested in being free to do as she pleases without the constraints placed on her by society. Her marriage to Philip, the Viscount Ashton, comes quickly as she locks horns with her mother, who like Mrs. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice is eager to marry of her daughter to a man of great fortune.

Following her husbands fatal trip to Africa on safari, Lady Emily finds herself engrossed in his journals, learning more about her husband than she did during their short courtship and marriage. She’s fallen in love with him, as she never expected she would, but what she discovers could render his reputation and hers asunder. She embarks on an unconventional journey to uncover the truth, even if it means her husband is less honorable than she believed.

Alexander’s historical fiction is delightful with its colorful characters, red herrings, and societal constraints. Lady Emily has more wealth than other women would at this time, and her antics are a little less shocking in Victorian society than they otherwise would be, though her mother would disagree with me. The allusions to Mrs. Bennet are strong, but not quite as funny as the Mrs. Bennet in Austen’s novel. Lady Emily’s mother is a bit more grating on the nerves, but probably because she is only seen from Lady Emily’s point of view.

And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander is engaging, and I’d be interested to see what happens to Lady Emily in the second book and whether she warms up to marriage again later in her life. Living a life of independence, however, is something she’s not likely to let go of without some serious incentive.

Book Club:

Unfortunately, I missed the meeting for this book, as I had not finished it in time and have found myself extraordinarily busy with work, moving, and adjusting to home life changes.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

The daughter of two philosophy professors, Tasha Alexander grew up surrounded by books. She was convinced from an early age that she was born in the wrong century and spent much of her childhood under the dining room table pretending it was a covered wagon. Even there, she was never without a book in hand and loved reading and history more than anything. Alexander studied English Literature and Medieval History at the University of Notre Dame. Writing is a natural offshoot of reading, and my first novel, And Only to Deceive, was published in 2005. She’s the author of the long-running Lady Emily Series as well as the novel Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor

Source: Audible
Audio; 9+ hours
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We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor, narrated by Ray Porter, which was our January book club selection, is a science fiction novel with humor.  I’m not even going to attempt to recap the plot of this hot mess. Think Star Trek with a bunch of star date logs that jump from one Bob to another version of Bob, who has had to rename himself to reduce confusion. This confusion comes not from the fact that Bob replicates himself to complete this inane mission, but from the constant back and forth in time and between characters.

There were moments of humor, but most of it was forced with the narrator believing his jokes were funny and trying to convince the reader that the jokes are funny. The most interesting parts of the novel that raised moral and ethical questions were quick to pass and more time was spent on stupid missions or arguing between Bobs and other characters or even between themselves.

The beginning in which Bob originally finds his brain had been sold to a company 100+ years before and then was used to turn him into an AI was intriguing.  He had to learn to navigate his new environment, its restrictions, its politics, and the fact that his past would be that — in the past. Once launched into space, the only other part of the novel worth exploring is when a planet with inhabitants is reached and the AI must decide whether to play god or allow a species to certainly perish.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor was too disjointed and lacked a purpose — with the only plot line carrying the story being the search for a new planet for a human race that may be no more. In all honestly, I had 2 hours left of the audio and I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it.

RATING: Epitaph

GoodReads Synopsis:

Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it’s a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he’ll be switched off, and they’ll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty.

The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad – very mad

About the Author:

Dennis Taylor is a computer programmer by day, a writer by night, and a snowboarder when in season. He’s read science fiction for many years, and has written his own.

***Book club seemed to enjoy this***

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 52 pgs.
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We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, our book club pick for May 2018, is an adaptation of the author’s TEDxEuston talk in Africa. To talk about gender is often uncomfortable, and it is often met with platitudes, like things are so much better for women now and what’s the big deal if someone greeted the man you’re with but not you. These are statements of dismissal and an attempt to nullify the validity of the discussion about equal rights for all sexes/genders.

Adichie is from Nigeria, but the situations she speaks about are from all over the globe, including the United States.  These are situations in which women (through socialization) feel that they must dress or act a certain way when in the workplace in order to be respected.  However, assertive behaviors in male co-workers are still rewarded but not favorable in women of the same position.  Adichie uses examples from her own life and her interactions with friends to illustrate her points about culture and its need to evolve in order to meet the needs of modern society, as well as the needs of humanity as it continues to evolve.

“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.” (pg. 46)

Her discussion of how many American women strive to be “likeable” demonstrates how women are groomed over time to view their worth as only as a man would perceive them to be.  There are notions of pretending and how women often must pretend that they like something or act a certain way because marriage is the ultimate goal. Because what would women be without marriage? “The language of marriage is often a language of ownership, not a language of partnership.” (pg. 30)

While men and women are biologically different, Adichie explains that today’s society is not as it was when men hunted and women made the home — strength was necessary to lead. Intelligence, creativity, and more are needed in today’s society to keep productive, efficient, and creating a new world in which we can be happier and fulfilled.  When women thank their husbands for doing one chore after both have come home from work but a man does not thank his wife for all the housework she does daily, what does that signify? Shouldn’t we be grateful when either spouse shares the housework load and works a job outside the home? Shouldn’t we equally share the load in family life?

“But by far the worst thing we do to males – by making them feel they have to be hard – is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.” (pg. 27)

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, our book club pick for May 2018, is thought-provoking and a conversation starter. We cannot pretend that gender discrimination and expectations do not exist any longer. It must be acknowledged before it can be fixed by teaching both boys and girls to be who they are and not to pretend to be a particularly “gender” assigned to them by an out-of-date culture and society.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Inspired by Nigerian history and tragedies all but forgotten by recent generations of westerners, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels and stories are jewels in the crown of diasporan literature.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 225 pgs.
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A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which was our October book club selection, is a deeply emotional book about loss and guilt and letting go. Conor O’Malley is 13, but his burdens are great as he cares for himself the best he can while his mother clearly ill from chemotherapy. She is barely able to wake up and move about. At school, his life is gray and the only color he finds is in his encounters with the bullies at school because they provide him what he wants — punishment.

“It swung him out of his room and into the night, high above his backyard, holding him up against the circle of the moon, its fingers clenching so hard against Conor’s ribs he could barely breathe. Conor could see raggedy teeth made of hard, knotted wood in the monster’s open mouth, and he felt warm breath rushing up toward him.” (pg. 8)

It is a deeply atmospheric novel in which the gray and black emotions of Conor permeate all that goes on.  The Monster who visits him each evening tells him three stories, and Conor expects them to teach him something, but what Conor must learn is something he can only teach himself through experience.  The Monster, however, is not his recurring nightmare.  And the Monster, though fearsome, seems to be the darkness inside him and not an actual monster.  We all carry monstrous emotions and we try to keep them hidden — sometimes even from ourselves.  Through magical realism, Ness has created a tale for teens and adults alike that will ensure they look inward and assess their own pain, guilt, and loss in a new way.

Sometimes people need to lie to themselves most of all.” (pg. 67)

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is deeply affecting.  Readers will long feel the sorrow and the heaviness of this one, but it is darkly humorous in parts.  While one of the monster’s tales is a bit muddled, it could be attributed to the 13-year-old’s imagination in how it fails to fully parallel the other tales.  Ness is a crafty storyteller, and his Conor is every boy ever deeply impacted by loss, abandonment, and other dark emotions.

RATING: Quatrain

What book club thought?

Everyone at the meeting liked the book very well and really felt engaged with the narrative and Conor’s emotions.  The biggest debate was whether the monster was a real entity or in Conor’s mind.  It was interesting to listen to the theories that members had about the individual tales the monster told and how they paralleled Conor’s predicament.

About the Author:

Patrick Ness, an award-winning novelist, has written for England’s Radio 4 and Sunday Telegraph and is a literary critic for The Guardian. He has written many books, including the Chaos Walking Trilogy, The Crash of Hennington, Topics About Which I Know Nothing, and A Monster Calls.

He has won numerous awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, the Booktrust Teenage Prize, and the Costa Children’s Book Award. Born in Virginia, he currently lives in London.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly (audio)

Source: Public Library
Audiobook; 14 CDs
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Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, narrated by Cassandra Campbell, Kathleen Gati, and Kathrin Kana — which was our September book club selection — is an expertly woven tale of Caroline Ferriday’s lilac girls, or the Ravensbrück rabbits, who were experimented on in a German WWII camp.  Ferriday, who was a real woman, is a socialite who soon realizes that her work with French nationals is more about helping others than it is about her social status, even as she falls for a married French actor and considers a different life for herself.  Told in alternate points of view — Ferriday, polish teen Kasia Kuzmerick, and a young ambitious German Dr. Herta Oberheuser — Kelly’s trifecta pushes readers deep into the emotional baggage of WWII and the relationships that carry each woman through.  Clearly well researched, Ferriday comes to life as a woman with little else to do but mourn her father and help those in need, while Kasia has a lot to learn even as she plunges headlong into the resistance to impress a boy.  Meanwhile, Herta — the most educated of the three — seems to have learned little compassion for others, instead remaining focused on how to get ahead as a medical professional, no matter the cost.

Even the German doctor appears sympathetic at first, until we see how camp life hardens her against humanity.  Kasia wears her camp damage on her at all times, pushing even her family away when it is clear she needs them most.  Meanwhile, Ferriday’s romantic troubles seem trivial in comparison, though it is clear they will push her into something that will become her life’s work — a search for justice for those who need it most.

It will be hard to look away from these women as they deal with the harsh experiments perpetrated by the Nazis, and they are set on their own paths and learn how best to move on with their lives after the war is over.  Kelly has lived with these women for some time, and it shows in her deeply dynamic characterization of the real-life Ferriday and Oberheuser; Kasia and her sister also are clearly based on real life accounts as their sisterly bond becomes a rock on which they can rely in even the toughest moments.  Even if you think you’ve read everything about WWII, this is not to be missed.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, narrated by Cassandra Campbell, Kathleen Gati, and Kathrin Kana – is a harrowing look at guilt — misplaced or not — and the affects of bonds between siblings, mothers and daughters, and even strangers during wartime.  Nurturing supportive relationships with other women can ensure survival.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Martha Hall Kelly is a native New Englander who lives in Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard. She worked as an advertising copywriter for many years, raised three wonderful children who are now mostly out of the nest and Lilac Girls is her first novel. She is hard at work on the prequel to Lilac Girls.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Source: Public Library
Audio, 3 CDs
Hardcover, 152 pgs.
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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which was our May book club selection, is a no-holds-barred look at the construct of race in America.  Through letters to his 15-year-old son, Coates attempts to demonstrate how his views on race changed over time, from the hard streets of Baltimore where posturing and violence against other blacks was expected to the intellectual and spiritual questioning he experienced at Howard University.

I first listened to the audio as read by Coates, but it became clear to me that I was missing some of what he was saying.  My second read in print was much more in-depth, allowing me the additional time to reflect on what I had read as I went along and re-read certain passages.

This is not a book providing solutions to a son or the world, but it is a call to action.  It’s a plea for everyone to be more mindful of our actions and the societal norms that allow certain people to do even the most mundane things without fear, such as listening to their music loud.  What’s most prominent here is the failure of our education system to help those who need it most and to raise up those heroes in all communities, regardless of the violence they met or didn’t meet head on.  While we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., there is often little talk about the violence endured by those in the civil rights movement and the perpetrators of that violence who were allowed to get away with it.

“America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization.”

Like Coates discusses, the American myth of exceptionalism does not allow for mistakes, though many were made in the birth of this nation, from the reliance and continued use of slaves to the ravaging of entire Native American populations in the name of progress.  Becoming successful through struggle, however, should not be taken so far as to mean we purposefully make it harder for certain groups to achieve success of any kind and that we have the right to bulldoze others in order to achieve a goal.

While Coates is very negative toward the world (and has a right to be), this book should probably be read in spurts so readers have time to sit with what each letter is and how it plays out on the whole.  Reading it in one sitting without time for reflection can become a heavy endeavor, as any great work that requires empathy can do.  Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates explores one man’s individual struggle growing up black in America against the backdrop of an America that continues to bury its dark past and make excuses for the perpetual prioritization of perceived “safety” above justice in which all are held to the same standards.

**My one qualm with the style is that it seems very academic, which may limit its audience and that would be sad because more ‘Dreamers’ need to wake up.**

RATING: Quatrain

What the book club thought:

Most of the book club found the biographical parts of the book the most interesting.  Some suggested that his arguments vacillated from one side to the other over the course of the book, and often got muddled with internal arguments that he seemed to have with himself.  There was a debate about the point of the book and whether it was supposed to be solutions provided by the end.  There didn’t seem to be any solutions presented.  There were debates about whether he focused too much of the text on anger toward the police and whites, while others thought some of the examples may not have been the best ones to prove his points about racism.  Many agreed that the book was eye-opening if not well organized.

About the Author:

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues for TheAtlantic.com and the magazine. He is the author of the 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. His book Between the World and Me, released in 2015, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Coates received the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2015.

New Authors Reading Challenge 2017

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 371 pgs.
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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which was our April book club selection, is a novel that satirizes the aftermath of the Vietnam war, but it also is a serious examination of identity from the point of view of someone who is a subversive and a mole within the South Vietnamese military at the time of the war. The Captain, who remains unnamed, is in the South Vietnamese military but feeding information to the People’s Army of Vietnam (communists) through his childhood friend, Man. Meanwhile, their third childhood friend, Bon, has been trained as an assassin by the CIA. Balancing his friendship with his duty to the communists becomes a balance that the Captain often loses, but as he has so few real connections with others, it is his friend Bon who pays the highest cost.

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess.” (pg. 1)

In many ways the opening of the novel will signal to the reader that everything told by the Captain may be untrue or at least partly. But he also seeks to set himself up as a sympathetic character who is torn not only by his heritage — the son of a Vietnamese mother and French priest — but also by his knowledge of America from being abroad at school and his communist leanings. After fleeing Vietnam with the General when the Americans lost the war to the communists, the Captain longs to return, but he is repeatedly told that he must remain a mole among those exiled to America to ensure they are not planning a return. He is forced to swallow more of the bitter pill that his life is not his own, even in America.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen provides a deep look at issues of mixed cultures and races, how they are treated in Vietnam and America during this time period, and how difficult it was to reconcile defeat on either side. It also asks the bigger questions about revolution and the disillusionment of passionate idealists. Corruption of any revolution can occur, and that can be the most devastating for the passionate idealist, but how does it affect those who can see both sides of the equation? And is the real crime to have done nothing or to not have truly chosen a side to be on — right or wrong?

RATING: Cinquain

What the Book Club Thought:

The discussion compared the novel to 1984 and to Catch-22 for its satire, but mostly, we were engrossed in the plight of the Captain and his identity issues. We found it hard for him as a European-Vietnamese man with communist and American-leaning tendencies to reconcile all that he was and commit himself to one cause. Overall, most of the members at the meeting “enjoyed” the book, though one or two members were less than thrilled by the disembodied scenes in the interrogation room, which they felt took them out of the story.

About the Author:

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Other honors include the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, a Gold Medal in First Fiction from the California Book Awards, and the Asian/Pacific American Literature Award from the Asian/Pacific American Librarian Association. His other books are Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction) and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His next book is a short story collection, The Refugees, forthcoming in February 2017 from Grove Press.

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 341 pgs.
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The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a black-and-white comic strip-like memoir of the author’s childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, her time in Austria as a student, as well as her return to Iran following a disastrous time in Europe. Her panels are nuanced and the dialogue is fantastic, depicting the emotion of her as a child during a tumultuous time in her country’s history. While the political climate is frightening, her parents attempt to shelter her as much as they can, but the revolution comes and hits close to home. Her more liberal upbringing has provided her with a divergent outlook from those imposing Islamic law on the people of Iran, and she struggles to feel at home in her own country.

Beyond the political and religious climate, Satrapi depicts a typical childhood of teasing other kids in class and trying to fit in with others, as well as the transition to adolescence and the rebellion that comes with it. Her graphics are done in a monochrome style, but emotion is clear in the nuanced work from the use of darker backgrounds for angry mobs to the lighter backgrounds for loving moments with friends and family. As an adolescent she wants to spread her wings and explore new things, but when her parents call and check on her, it’s clear that even the things she’s exploring don’t seem right to her, as guilt washes over her joy at hearing from them.

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a multi-layered look at immigration, politics, religion, and identity. As Satrapi struggled to hide her heritage and her culture in Europe, she found that she also tried to hide her beliefs and convictions when back home in Iran. In many ways, she was unsure of her own identity and where she belonged. The struggle is beyond the simple right and wrong of a given regime or interference from other nations, it is a struggle of finding oneself amidst the chaos that is often beyond our control.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Marjane Satrapi is an Iranian-born French contemporary graphic novellist, illustrator, animated film director, and children’s book author. Apart from her native tongue Persian, she speaks English, Swedish, German, French and Italian.