RED SCARF GIRL by Ji-Li Jiang

Our January Mother-Daughter Book Club read was Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang. This was probably the most serious and definitely one of the saddest books we have read for book club. It’s a memoir about the author growing up in China in the late 60s during the Cultural Revolution.

Ji-Li’s family had been relatively well-off before the Revolution, especially compared to other families around them. They all lived in one room – Ji-Li, her parents, her grandmother, and her sister and brother. But they employed a housekeeper and had nice things in the house. After the Revolution, they were considered to be a “bad class” because her grandfather had once been a landlord. Red Scarf Girl is a chronicle of the years of anxiety, fear, deprivation and pain that Ji-Li’s family suffered when the Communists targeted them as capitalists who had built a fortune on the backs of working people. Her parents were persecuted, her father was jailed, her grandmother was physically abused, and their apartment was repeatedly ransacked and looted by the Red Guard.

Ji-Li had been an honors student before the Revolution, and when the book opens, she is still trying to remain faithful to the party and obey the directives she is given in school. Over time, however, she becomes aware of the capriciousness and ruthlessness of the Red Guard, and when her loyalty to the Party is tested against her loyalty to her family, she chooses her family. Her disillusionment with authority, exacerbated by her disappointment with her schooling under the new regime, makes for a powerful coming-of-age novel about adherence to political views and the nature of sacrifice for one’s beliefs.

I had feared that the girls wouldn’t enjoy Red Scarf Girl, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many girls had read it and really thought about it. The subject matter was difficult, but it was easy to digest. We had a good discussion about how different characters in the book reacted to the harshness of the Cultural Revolution and what the girls would have done in Ji-Li’s shoes. We admired how brave she was, even as things just kept getting worse and worse. The Epilogue is worth reading, as it talks about how Ji-Li looks back on those years (she now lives in America). Rather than feeling angry at Chairman Mao and his government, she explains how her classmates and the families around her were brainwashed by Mao’s messages and believed that the Cultural Revolution was necessary for China’s survival. Her message – that without laws, a small group or even a single person can take control over an entire country – is just as relevant today, and we talked as a group about how important it is to preserve and retell stories like Ji-Li’s.

Red Scarf Girl was not an uplifting or easy read, but it was an important one. I am glad that we picked it for book club and that my daughters read it.

THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan

The Children Act is Ian McEwan’s latest novel. It takes place in London (where I read it!) and it’s about Fiona Maye, a family court judge who is facing simultaneous professional and personal crises. On the home front, her husband of 30+ years has told her that he wants to have an affair. He loves her, but he feels like the window of his own desirability is closing, and he wants to experience the thrill of new passion once more. Needless to say, Fiona is devastated and angry, and when her husband leaves their apartment that night, she has the locks changed and tries to focus on her work, despite her pain.

On the professional side, Fiona hears a consistent stream of cases involving divorces, custody battles, restraining orders and the like, some of which are difficult and some of which deal with greedy ex-spouses fighting over money. But one case  – which comes before her the day after her husband leaves – is much more agonizing. Fiona has to decide whether a 17 year-old with leukemia who has refused a blood transfusion due to his Jehovah’s Witness parents’ beliefs should be forced to have the life-saving treatment. She decides to go visit the boy – Adam – in the hospital, to see for herself whether Adam is acting on his own accord. Their meeting has a profound impact on both of them, and influences her decision in his case but also forces her to think about her role as a judge, especially at a time of deep insecurity in the rest of her life.

This is my fourth McEwan novel (after Atonement, On Chesil Beach, and Saturday). I LOVED Atonement (top 5 of all time), liked On Chesil Beach but found it odd, and wasn’t as impressed with Saturday. To be sure, McEwan is a beautiful writer. Just beautiful. In many ways, The Children Act read like a novella: it covered a pretty short period of Fiona’s life, but packed an emotional punch thanks to sharp detail and McEwan’s depth of writing. When I was in law school, I found the family law cases to be the most wrenching, often because both sides were equally compelling. McEwan did a nice job here of laying out the case and letting the reader appreciate its complexities. Fiona’s decision is made early enough in the novel that the case doesn’t take over the book; it is its aftermath that really propels the story.

I marked several passages as I was going through the book because of the sheer beauty of McEwan’s writing. I don’t think they will be as powerful out of context, so I won’t copy them here. But even on re-reading, I am still in awe.

Strong second read of 2015.

RARE BIRD: A MEMOIR OF LOVE AND LOSS by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

Anna Whiston-Donaldson and I run loosely in the same DC blogging circles. We’ve never met, but I learned about her and started reading her blog, An Inch of Gray, after her 12 year-old son Jack was killed in a freak drowning accident in September 2011. He was out playing in the rain with friends on a late summer afternoon and got caught in the current in a tiny neighborhood creek that had flooded due to a very unusual strong summer storm.

I soon learned of Jack’s death and started following Whiston-Donaldson’s blog, which quickly reoriented to focus on her family’s loss in the aftermath of that terrible September day. I was always struck by how honest she was about her anger and sadness about Jack’s death, as well as her strong Christian faith and how she could reconcile the two. She published a book this past September, Rare Bird: A Memoir of Love and Loss, which was my first read of 2015.

Rare Bird is an extremely sad book – how could it not be? The loss of this beautiful, sensitive, smart, sweet boy was a tragedy. And to learn about it from his mother’s perspective? Heartbreaking. It’s impossible to read Rare Bird and not put yourself in the author’s shoes, trying to imagine how you’d put one foot in front of other other if it happened to you. But it is not a depressing book, and that is an important difference. It is unflinchingly honest in every respect. Whiston-Donaldson holds nothing back as she relates the days leading up to Jack’s death and the year after. She talks about her marriage, her faith, her thoughts of ending her life, and the importance of staying present and capable for Jack’s younger sister, Margaret. She also talks about her grief and how she eventually emerged from that first, awful year. Perhaps that is why I didn’t find it depressing, even though it brought me to tears on many occasions.

Whiston-Donaldson is also a very good writer. Rare Bird is readable, clear, and even funny at times. Writing is definitely one of her talents, and I am grateful that she took the time to adapt her blog and memories into this longer format.

There is a fair amount in Rare Bird about Whiston-Donaldson’s Christian faith and how Jack’s loss tested it. I am Jewish and therefore couldn’t necessarily relate to some of what she wrote, but I still found it interesting and compelling.

Don’t be afraid to read Rare Bird. I had a hard time putting it down and I am so glad that I read it. I learned a lot from it, and I am grateful for Whiston-Donaldson’s honesty and analytical, challenging mind. I wish her and her family peace in the coming years and will always keep Jack in my mind.

2014: Reading Year in Review

So this is kind of depressing: I just re-read my Reading Year in Review post for 2013, and it’s pretty much exactly what I was going to write this year. I didn’t read as many books as I wanted to, and I didn’t love a lot of the books I did read. Same thing, different year. Last year, I said that “wasn’t blown away by a lot of what I read”, and resolved to be more selective this year. I think I was pretty selective this year, but I still didn’t love a lot of the books I chose. As I said last year, I think I am too picky, or grumpy, or both.

Last year, I read 49 books, which I was bummed about because I wanted to hit 50. In 2014, I fell short again. November and December were particularly slow for me, due to being really busy and getting mired in The Art of Fielding. I managed to get to 48 books, which is one shy of last year. 2015: I will reach 52! A book a week!

Here are my standout reads from 2014:

Best audiobooks were Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris (read by the author) and The Blessings by Elise Juska (read by Therese Plummer).

Most disappointing books: To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris and Lucky Us by Amy Bloom.

Most creative read goes to One More Thing by BJ Novak.

For the last three years, I have tracked the Depressing Themes of the books I read, and the lists have been impressive. Here are the depressing subjects covered by the books I read in 2014: infertility, loss of a child (three times), giving up a child for adoption (twice), agoraphobia, infidelity, loss of a spouse in Iraq, being a widower, latchkey childhood, Japanese internment, PTSD, untimely death of a spouse, grief in general, abusive parents, arson (twice!), Brooklyn parenting, Iraq war casualties, dystopia, Holocaust reparations, loss of a parent, Puritanism, cerebral palsy, death from AIDS, suicide. That was actually a lighter year than 2013…

The breakdown:

  • 43 fiction, 5 non-fiction
  • 8 repeat authors during 2014: Maria Semple, Maggie Shipstead, Ann Hood, Sarah Pekkanen, Sue Miller, Joshua Ferris, Jojo Moyes, Jane Smiley
  • 16 audiobooks
  • 11 male authors, 37 female authors

How was your 2014 in reading? What were the highlights?

TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME by Carol Rifka Blunt

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Blunt is another book that I didn’t like as much as most people did. I bought it because I had heard great things about it, and I enjoyed parts of it, but overall I didn’t love it.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home is set in the 80s (which the author never lets you forget, throwing in references to things like Dennis Miller on SNL and New Wave songs and Yoo-Hoo whenever she could) in Westchester. When it opens, 14 year-old June is about to lose her beloved uncle Finn to AIDS, which at the time was a scary and mysterious disease that caused paranoia and blame in the general population. June doesn’t really fit in with her friends at school – she’s sort of a Renaissance Faire type of girl – and is left totally adrift when her uncle dies. Finn was her closest friend, and had become a replacement for her older sister Greta, with whom she had once been very close.

The title of the book refers to a portrait Finn had painted of June and Greta, which he finished right before he died. Finn was a famous but reclusive artist who had disappeared from the art scene a decade earlier despite critical acclaim and financial success.

After Finn’s funeral, June learns that he left behind a boyfriend, Toby. Her parents scare her into thinking Toby is a murderer for giving AIDS to Finn. But Toby starts sending June letters and secretly trying to see her and share special things that had belonged to Finn. The two slowly develop a relationship based at first on their mutual grief over Finn’s death, but eventually find their own ways to connect.

Meanwhile, Greta keeps acting colder and meaner to June, and their parents are absent (it’s tax season and they are accountants). June steals away to the city to see Toby more and more frequently, and strange things keep appearing on the portrait Finn painted (which has been estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Here’s what I liked about the book: Finn and June’s relationship; the backdrop of the 80s (I am a sucker for anything set in that decade); the depiction of high school isolation and insecurity; and Toby. Here’s what I didn’t like: it was unrealistic (how could June sneak off to the city like that, day after day); the bad choices June made over and over again; and the fact that the loooong middle of the book had the same pattern happening over and over (June pushed Toby away and then returned to him; Greta got drunk and admitted she missed June; June ignored Greta’s attempts to reconcile and went back to Toby; June needed more reassurance that Finn loved her). After a while, it got boring and predictable. No one really changed; they just danced around each other and lobbed bits of honesty at each other before retreating.

I respect what the author was doing here – exploring AIDS in the 80s through the prism of a coming-of-age novel – but the book was too flawed to fully succeed.

I listened to Tell The Wolves I’m Home mostly on audio, and I thought the narration by Amy Rubinate was quite good. I enjoyed the audio more than the print version, perhaps because she gave June some credibility and pathos that was missing from the book. She expressed the petulance and confusion of a 14 year-old, and handled other voices quite well.

I’ve been a bit of a cranky reader lately, and Tell The Wolves I’m Home is yet another on the list of books other people loved that I didn’t. I am hoping to right the ship in 2015. Not sure how yet, but I’m determined to lose myself in books I love.

If you read and loved Tell the Wolves I’m Home, tell me why.

THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach

I may have been the last person on the planet to read The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, but I finally did. The 500+ page book slowed me down quite a bit this month. Unlike most people who have read it, I liked it, but didn’t love it.

The Art of Fielding revolves around a baseball team at a fictional Wisconsin liberal arts college. The main characters are Henry Skrimshander, a baseball phenomenon from South Dakota who is headed to the majors (or is he?); Mike Schwartz, the team’s captain; Owen Dunne, Henry’s room- and teammate; Guert Affenlight, the college’s president; and Pella Affenlight, the president’s daughter. There is a fair amount of baseball in the book – which I liked – but not enough to turn off non-baseball fans.

Ultimately, The Art of Fielding is about relationships and how loyalty can be tested and proven over the course of challenges and setbacks. It is also about coming to terms with who you are, especially when you turn out to be someone different from who you thought. People bill it as a coming-of-age novel, but I didn’t really see it that way. College was more of a backdrop for the story than a meaningful setting that guided the plot, and one of the main characters is in his 60s. It’s really about a pivotal year in the lives of five people and how they were challenged and tried to figure out where and how they fit in.

People have been raving about The Art of Fielding ever since it came out. I don’t quite understand why. The writing is quite good, and Harbach is very clever with his turns of phrase. But overall I found the book pretty slow. I had no problem putting it down. I found some of the dialogue and details to be implausible, and I kept asking, “Don’t these characters interact with ANYONE other than the other four?”  I was moved by some of the characters’ predicaments, but I was also frustrated by how they chose to deal with their situations. It was an interesting story, but I think it fell flat. In the end, this book just didn’t do it for me the way it did it for others.

The reviews are so overwhelmingly positive for The Art of Fielding that I urge you not to rely on my opinion on this one. Give it a try, if you’re one of the few who hasn’t already.

OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper

I am no stranger to depressing books. I read quite a few of them. I actually quite enjoy them. But I think I met my match in Out of My Mind, our December Mother-Daughter book club pick.

Out of My Mind is about Melody, a fifth-grader with cerebral palsy who is in a wheelchair. She can’t speak or move, and has spent most of her life unable to communicate with those around her. But she has a vibrant mind, and she has lived in the prison of her body, misunderstood by almost everyone else, who thinks that she is mentally challenged just as she is physically.

In sixth grade, Melody starts attending “inclusion classes’, where she joins normal fifth graders. She is given an aide and eventually obtains a computer device which speaks for her after she types words into it. Suddenly, people realize that Melody is smart – so smart that she makes it onto her school’s academic quiz team, handily beating everyone else. But she yearns for the acceptance and companionship of her peers, which sadly remains out of her reach.

Out of My Mind is such a sad book. It’s sad for many reasons – Melody’s inability to communicate with her well-meaning but overwhelmed parents; the callousness of her fellow fifth graders and even her teachers; the fact that Melody’s situation isn’t going to change at all in the future. In an afterward, Draper said that she didn’t want her readers to feel sorry for Melody. It’s hard not to feel sad for her, though, given her situation, and for her parents, who love her desperately but can’t change her reality.

One scene in particular really got to me: Melody’s mother comes home from work after Melody has set up the device that can speak for her. Melody has the device tell her mother that she loves her, for the first time. Age eleven. It was such an emotional moment – I was very moved.

My daughters (age 10) liked Out of My Mind but found it to be pretty painful too. (So much so that they didn’t even want to skim through it to review for book club, because they had read it last year.) As a group, we had a good discussion about it, with most of us pretty outraged at how mean some of the kids were to her. We of course had access to Melody’s thoughts, which no one else did, and we got a much better sense of who she was as a result. That made her isolation even worse.

I would recommend this book to middle grade readers, but suggest that a parent read along to help the reader process some of the particularly sad parts.