So many great books this month! The Lemon Tree is perhaps one of the better books I’ve ever read, and particularly timely, I think.
The Middle East
The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan (5 stars). This amazing book details the history of the Israeli/Palestine conflict by following two separate families, one an Arab family who was driven from their historical home in Palestine, and another of Jewish refugees from Bulgaria who settled in that same house in the newly formed country of Israel. The families are both fighting for the same thing–their rights to a home and historical homeland. When that homeland is the same for opposing factions, and governments and rebel fighters and “domestic terrorists” (of the Israeli or Palestinian variety) are all in on the action, and it’s motivated by religion and war and all sorts of ancient feuding and anger and tug-of-war, well, frankly, you get the mess that is the middle east. This taught me so much about the history of the region and the people who are fighting for it, about refugees and their plights and fears and lives. Read this. Read it now.
The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer (4 stars). Isaac is an Jewish Iranian jeweler during the reign of the Shah and the subsequent revolution. Because of his success and wealth (and ties to important individuals in the Shah’s government) he is targeted by the Revolutionary Guards. This is his story, and the story of his wife and child, and their extended family. In Iran during and after the Revolution one person’s relationships with the former regime could (and did) mean trouble for the entire family. I devoured this book in a day and a half, such a wonderful writer and the different point of views of narration–from a wealthy Jewish jeweler, to a child, to a aristocratic woman losing everything important to her–bring so many pieces to life in a 3-dimensional way. Recommended.
Additional Recommended Reading: Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country, by Shirin Ebadi; The Butterfly Mosque, by Willow Wilson;
Slavery & Racism:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (4 stars). I love Twain’s dialogue, and I cannot get over how Huck, a mostly uneducated kid, thinks through all these enormous topics like god and religion, racism and slavery, and parenting and society, and then comes to his own determination based on all the logical facts he can grasp. I love that. I think all humans should be better about using Huck’s mentality: people are people, things are things, they should not be confused. You need people, you don’t need things. Also, Tom Sawyer almost ruined the ending of this for me. He is so determined to use Jim and his escape to freedom as his own personal playtime, and unfortunately Huck doesn’t ever stand up to him. I’m sure Twain uses this as some kind of “society is messed up and thinks this way, and we go along with it because it’s ‘proper’ or ‘expected’ and, in the end, this behavior makes changing the status quo impossibly difficult.”
Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman, by Dorothy Sterling (4 stars). I read this when I was a kid (6th/7th grade-ish) and even though this is written or younger readers it is such a wonderful introduction to Harriet Tubman, her determination, drive, strength, and persistence in bringing slaves from the south into Pennsylvania, New York. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed (allowing escaped slaves in the northern states to be recaptured and taken back to their former Masters), she led her charges another 1,000 miles north to Canada. Harriet guided hundreds of men, women, and children to freedom, crossing back into slave territory time and time again to bring people to safety. During the Civil War she served as an army nurse, hospital administrator, scout, and front line general in South Carolina as well as organizer of the all black infantry divisions and a fierce proponent to petition Congress to grant those men equal pay with white soldiers. Called both “Moses” and “The General” she is one of the true hero’s of the 1800’s and the fight for the abolition of slavery.
Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, by William and Ellen Craft (4 stars). This first-person account of a small family who escaped from the south into the Northern states, and then on to Canada and finally England is simple yet very powerful. The Crafts do not mince words on describing their hopes and dreams for freedom and it comes across so clearly and heartbreakingly beautiful, a quick read.
Oronooko, by Aphra Behn (3 stars). When I downloaded this I thought it was a first-person narrative of a black slave in the America’s. It is not. Author Aphra Behn spent some time in Suriname in the 17th century, and this story is based on her experiences, first printing in 1688. For it’s time, she shows remarkable insight on the essential human-ness of black people. She details their feelings and emotions and relationships. However, she also claims that a black slave, the African Prince Oronooko, had a straight Roman nose, straight hair, and arrived in the New World on a slave ship dressed in a snappy suit and speaking both English and French. So…there are some clear problems there. (Yes, I’m sure it’s possible that some of those things were partly true, but I just…I don’t believe this was the case in 1688.) She also has these super irritating ideas of a “noble savage,” that Christians cannot be slaves but can own them (but a black slave converting to Christianity does not equate with freedom, obviously), and that black people enjoy being slaves because their masters are so kind and they can’t possibly want anything more than a kind master. Again, for it’s time, this is all super progressive, and that third star is solely because of that fact.
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell (4 stars). This book touches on so many different pieces of why and how an underdog can win over a giant, or other seeming insurmountable odds. I love a good underdog story–most of us do–and Gladwell delivers in spades. In my opinion, this isn’t as great as Outliers but tackles some similar subject matter (what is it that makes one person succeed and another fail?).
Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande (3 stars). Gawande is one of my favorite writers, I love his ability to describe facts and difficult concepts or industries in a way that is easy to digest. That being said, I feel like this book was more personal to him than any of his others, and with that there seems to be more anecdotal fact/evidence than not. Which is fine, but it is a different kind of writing than I expected. I did appreciate that this book made me think about end of life care–partly for me, mostly for my parents–and helped me figure out some steps that I should be discussing with my spouse and my parents and siblings in order to be prepared and be able to make the best decisions possible under new, emotionally heartbreaking circumstances, whenever they show up.
The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, by Azar Nafisi (2 stars). Of the three books Nafisi discusses that–for her–define America I had really only read one of them, so a whole book of literary critique and analysis on books I hadn’t read or even heard of was…rough. The three books are Huck Finn, Babbit and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. (A quick check of my Goodreads friends shows that only one has read either of the latter, most don’t even have them flagged in an ambitious “To Read” pile. Shrug.) Overall, I enjoyed the section about Huck Finn, but the rest were super “meh” to me. I also realized that my love of non-fiction instead of novels made this book even more mediocre for me. I just…I don’t relate to these fictional characters the way she does, so hundreds of pages about them is not engaging for me, it feels like I’m cornered at a boring party and she’s talking and raving about people I don’t know and she doesn’t give any background information, just starts in on theories about their lives and…it gets real old real fast.
Additional Recommended Reading: The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose (who at least explains basic pieces of the plot and characters before she goes on to discuss a book you haven’t read).
Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley (5 stars). I love this play! A very quick read, this one-act play focuses on doubt, suspicion, prejudice, and expectation. Gah, you should all read it!
Angels in America, by Tony Kushner (4 stars). I listened to Tony Kushner speak a few months ago and decided I should probably read his most famous work. I liked and appreciated it, I liked the dialogue and the imagery, I’d be really interested in seeing this performed live.
I tackled a couple of enormous books this month, and their heft kind of slowed me down. Middlemarch is 900+ pages, and one about Joan of Arc is 600 pages of tiny text, if printed like a regular novel instead of a tiny-text-encyclopedia book it probably would have exceeded 1,000 pages. I’m glad I liked Middlemarch as much as I did, because some of my other selections weren’t that great. (Sad panda.)
The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened The World and Changed History, by William Klingaman and Nicholas Klingaman (2 stars). Meh. This book is not really about volcanoes, it is about the climate change caused by a massive explosion in Indonesia in 1815 and the subsequent world-wide cooling in 1816. There are reasons the only books written about weather minutiae for a single year are almanacs…it’s just not that engaging. Only the first two chapters actually talk about the volcano, everything else is day-by-day temperatures, rainfall, and drought/famine, but very poorly written. There are a few tidbits about paintings or literature or social movements that were inspired by the unusual weather (Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was, for me, the most interesting), but not enough to redeem the book.
Additional Recommended Reading: Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded, by Simon Winchester (a far better book about volcanoes); One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson (a better-written book about a single year of history).
Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words, by Jeanne d’Arc (4 stars) Without the English mis-trial (and it’s volumes of documents) this book could not exist, the bulk of her words and statements were taken from her trial records, either being stated by her, or from the deposition of witnesses at her trial testifying to her character. This is a quick read, a few hours max, but it was so delightfully simple and clean. Joan was not an overly complicated person, she was devout and determined and patriotic. I’m not saying her character is one-sided, I’m saying that it is easy to grasp the fullness of her mission and her chutzpah in a hundred and fifty pages of her words. Recommended. (Also, if you aren’t overly familiar with Joan of Arc, there is a really great synopsis of her life and campaigns at the end which can help fill in some of the gaps.)
An Army of Angels: A Novel of Joan of Arc, by Pamela Marcantel (2 stars). Holy Tediousness!! This book should have been hundreds of pages shorter and would have been far superior for the edits; get this lady an editor, stat! Additionally, hundreds of pages of hero-worship for Joan of Arc (who I admire in many, many ways) gets pretty old when she is constantly waging war and calling for massive violence in the name of God. Catholic French fighting Catholic English because both claim their divine king should be the supreme ruler of the French provinces is not all that inspiring, and the trial of heresy and blasphemy because the English cardinal didn’t believe Joan was even worse. Does Joan herself do some freaking amazing things in the face of the historical times in which she lived, her being a woman in a man’s world (both medieval world and world of war), and her actions and accomplishments for anyone so young and uneducated? Yes. She does. Add to that her claims of divine leadership, visions, and voices and you have a legend. It’s not every day a 19-year old village girl leads a decrepit army to victory against the largest occupying force on the continent and actually crowns her king during the coronation ceremony. Pretty awesome stuff, really. But the chapter after chapter of justification (by the author, it seemed) for Holy War was soul-sucking. With ISIS and the Westboro Baptists and all the other violence in the name of religion going on right now it is disheartening to realize that this kind of battle has been fought for thousands of years, and will probably continue for another thousand years. But does fighting really please god? Any god? Is murder and violence and cold-blooded killing truly pleasing to a father of humanity? I think no, and that was the point that–for me–was really driven home throughout this book. Not that Joan, or the English, or author Marcantel ever come to that conclusion. (They don’t. It’s all glorious, blessed holy war for them; pages of violence and torture and battles as evidence of honor and faith in God…you know, with a few token Hail Mary’s, or forgive the sinners, or repent and be saved, ye godless, heathen English soldiers/French witch. Blech!)
Additional Recommended Reading: Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain (one of my favorites); Henry VI, Part 1, by William Shakespeare (reading Henry V to set up why the English are in France in the first place wouldn’t hurt either).
Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (4 stars). I love, love, love Garcia Marquez’s writing! I want him to write the narrative of his life. So, the book itself is primarily about love/lust deferred, and what happens when you suddenly have the opportunity to pursue a relationship you’ve been dreaming about for decades. This book has been described as a novel-length response to the question “What is love?” I think there is a lot of truth to that, actually. Florentino and Fermina both have to re-evaluate themselves, their individual history, their relationship history, and the rest of their lives before they can truly be together. This is a love story, but it’s not all butterflies and roses. It’s a lot like, you know, real life. Cholera and death and arguments and floating away on a quarantined boat to spend the remainder of your lives together.
Additional Recommended Reading: 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Middlemarch, by George Eliot (5 stars). I have tried and tried to like Jane Austen, but I just cannot get into her writing and assumed I just disliked all Regency romance books. That being said, I absolutely loved Portrait of a Lady and so decided to try George Eliot. People, I’ve found my new spirit animal. Eliot’s characters are delightfully sarcastic and her narration above and around them gives them self-awareness and depth that I have personally not found in Austen’s writing. I don’t know if I can say enough good things about Middlemarch, Eliot is brilliant, her story line is complex and detailed and the characters are involved in everyone’s lives and family (like in any proper English manor town), it was like watching three seasons of Downton Abbey without having quite so much dRAmAz! with the servants and Lady Mary (oh, Lady Mary). Recommended.
Additional Recommended Reading: Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James
I realize that those of you with kiddos are probably gearing up for back to school, or have perhaps started already. And that is super fantastic for you and the kids! Structure! Brain workouts! Hours not spent entertaining bored children! I’ve loved seeing pics of my nieces and nephews and other loved littles as they head back to school this week.
However, as of yesterday morning I am officially out of school. I took a grad-level class this summer as a sort-of professional development project for my job. I work in higher education in my state and my job entails training high school counselors how to help their students be more prepared for college, including applications, FAFSA completion/financial aid, and the transition from high school grad to college freshman. The class I took focused on all those things and is geared for grad students in their final year of a Master’s degree in high school counseling.
You guys, I totally aced it. Like, a “98% A!” aced it. This is not to say that I didn’t learn anything, but the most valuable pieces for me were not the instructions and readings on methods, strategies, and programs to help students become college ready. My office literally wrote the curriculum for those sections and I live and breathe it every day at work. The most valuable part of this course was the discussion boards where I could interact with counselors and learn more about what they do outside of college advising. Did you know that helping students understand the college application/enrollment and financial aid processes are not actually part of a counselor’s job description but rather fall into “other duties as assigned” ?! No WONDER my high school counselor was not at all helpful as I tried to navigate that process as a 17-year old kid! More and more counselors are wanting to take on those kinds of responsibilities and work with students and families to facilitate a smoother transition into college…but dang, I was shocked that it is not required or even recommended and, until 2 years ago (at least in my state), there was zero training for counselors and counselors-to-be on how to figure out how to create a successful “college going culture” within their school. Zero.
I won’t get into all the details about college going rates for my state (fair, but not great), or college graduation rates (we have the highest drop-out rate for women IN THE COUNTRY!), or FAFSA completion rates (we have the lowest completion rate in the country–that’s the bad side of that scale), and all the other data pieces that land on my desk. But I do want to say that the program I run–focusing on helping students figure out the “getting to college” process–is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever been part of, I love going to work, I love the work I do, and I am learning to better understand the roadblocks I come across along the way (see above paragraph about counselor training).
You guys, at age 32 I feel like I am in my dream job. Sure, I’d love eleventy-jillion more dollars in my bank account, but I LOVE what I do and am immensely satisfied with my work-self. Which means it’s time to seriously consider a Master’s degree…. gulp!