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The War On Normal People

“Scarcity will not save us. Abundance will.”

Is Andrew Yang’s name familiar to you yet? If it isn’t it will be soon. He is in the large field of Democratic presidential hopefuls for 2020. I just finished his book titled The War On Normal People (2018, 244 pages) which presents his proposal for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and human-based capitalism for our country.

It’s worth a read- it’s fast, compelling, and provides an alternate view of what the United States can look like in future years.

The first 1/3 describes his own experience as the child of immigrants and a successful entrepreneur whose focus was creating jobs. He is convinced we are in the beginning of huge economic and technologic change that has already eradicated millions of manufacturing jobs (it’s not the migrants or China, Donald!). Retail jobs are soon to disappear (how many places have self-check out now?), followed by truck driving jobs (driverless trucks are being tested), and then even white-collar jobs (computers can read radiology reports with greater precision than the human eye).

The second third describes what is happening to our society as the economy changes. We have “bubbles” in several areas in which there is thriving economy and society, but we have scarcity and poverty in cities where the manufacturing jobs have already disappeared. This part is depressing because if all the jobs are going as Yang predicts, then it’s easy to fear that our whole country will end up like Youngstown Ohio.

But don’t worry – there’s the final third which is much more optimistic and lays out Yang’s vision for our future. The bottom line need is that we need to shift from market-focused capitalism, which only values efficiency, to human-based capitalism, which values people, relationships and society.

A few of Yang’s ideas- he goes into more depth of course in the book:

  • The UBI would apply to every adult in our country and would take the strain off of regions that lose jobs as workers are displaced by automation.
  • People would earn credits for helping others that they could use for buying things or to pay others to help them.
  • The healthcare system needs to be re-vamped and should not be tied to employment.

If you don’t think these things can work please give the book a try – Yang presents studies and statistics that support his hypotheses. Happy to lend you our copy (Greg got it as a Christmas gift!)!

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Beale Street: the Book, not the Movie

The book is always better than the movie!

James Baldwin is an author I’m not very familiar with. Last year I read Giovanni’s Room and enjoyed it but it didn’t “grab”me. Recently I noticed If Beale Street Could Talk at the local book store…I knew Regina King had won an Oscar for her role in the movie. Everyone knows books are better than movies, so I figured I’d go with the book.

Wow. What a book. And now I need to see the movie!

Set in the 1960’s, Beale Street is told from the perspective of Tish, a young African American girl whose fianc├ę Fonny is imprisoned. Tish also happens to be pregnant with their child. The story is not told in a linear fashion but it flows nicely and it is easy to follow. Maybe you’ve seen the movie & so I don’t need to re-hash it for you…. but here is what I liked about the book:

  • This is a beautiful love story. Tish and Fonny have been friends since childhood and have loved each other always. Baldwin presents it beautifully.
  • The story is set in New York City -the young couple grew up in Harlem with their families. 21 year old Fonny has found a “pad” in Greenwich Village in which he is sculpting. He and Tish consummate their love here, they hang out here, and he and Tish have found a loft in which they hope to move to. The city is a huge part of the story.
  • I am in awe of the love and support that Tish has from her parents and sister. Fonny’s mom and sisters are tougher nuts, but Fonny’s dad and Tish’s family support the two kids as they deal with Fonny’s incarceration and Tish’s pregnancy.
  • This was published in 1974 but is just as timely today as it was then. Especially pertaining to unjust incarceration of black men.

Please let me know if you’ve happen to have both read the book and seen the movie…ALSO please let me know if you’ve ever seen a movie that is better than the book it’s based upon!

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Two Books to Check Out

Two New-To-Me Authors – Now I want to read everything by them!

  • Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
  • You Think It, I’ll Say It Stories by Curtis Sittenfeld

Last week I devoured Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (2013, 307 pages). It has been on my to-read list and then it was selected by my book group so voila – two birds with one stone.

I loved it. It tells the story of how people living in a small town in 1961 rural Minnesota deal with life’s sorrows. Frank, the narrator, is 13 years old and the middle child of a minister. Although there is much sadness in the book, there is equal if not more love and grace.

The feeling and cadence of the author recall Marilynne Robinson and Kent Haruf – other authors who have written about small towns and grace. Once introduced to these authors I quickly read their other books and I plan to do the same with Mr. Krueger’s.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (2018, 223 pages) is an entertaining offering of ten short stories. I’ve not read any of her novels -mainly because Eligible was described as un updated Pride and Prejudice and who messes with the master? But I’m happy to say I will now add her novels to my To-Read list!

Ms. Sittenfeld’s characters and situations are relatable. There are embedded mysteries, there are complicated relationships, there are ordinary and unusual situations. One recurring theme is the I’m-all-alone-in-my-situation – you know – when you think you’re the only person in the world with a particular issue or problem. Another is that of the former high school dork who now has gained confidence and insight to his/her former self.

I liked all of her characters and found myself wondering how I would act or conduct myself in the situations. I also reflected upon how people put themselves in self-constructed roles and dramas. Something that’s good to think about because I haven’t yet outgrown this tendency!

Let me know if you’ve read any other books by either of these authors and which you recommend!

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Embarrassing to say I Have Have Never Read These Books

So I never watched the movie ET until just a few years ago when we watched it with our kids. I guess because I was a teenager when it came out and was too cool (not really). I’ve also never seen the Princess Bride, a situation which I know needs to be rectified.

Likewise there are several books that I should have read by now that for some reason I just haven’t. So I’m adding a few of these to my to-read list for this year.

The Hobbit – Yup, have never read. I think it’s my brother Tim’s favorite all-time book. Neither have I read The Fellowship of the Ring. I haven’t seen any of the Peter Jackson movies, and so I’m really at a loss when the NYT crossword clue concerns a Tolkien character! So I’m putting The Hobbit on the list for this year & if I dig it I’ll add The Fellowship of the Ring for this or next year.

Anne of Green Gables – On the favorites list of many friends. How did I get to be a middle-aged woman without reading this book? On the list for 2019! Speaking of this – I recently (few years) only read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodges Burnett… I found and borrowed it from the Marshall School library when I was shelving books there. I don’t know how I missed that because I adored The Little Princess and read it many times.

The Harry Potter series – I’ve only read The Philosopher’s Stone.… I guess I should re-read that and move on to The Chamber of Secrets through The Deathly Hallows? That should keep me occupied for a while. We have all the books in the house but honestly I think my kids have watched the movies but not read all the books. How/why my kids are not more avid readers is a topic for another day.

Books I read in high school that I count as having read but really shouldn’t because I don’t remember them at all: 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, Lord Jim…. I’ll re-read these at some point but not sure it will be this year. I’m assuming I’ll enjoy them a ton more than I did junior year at Verona High School. (Sorry Ken Luks!)

Do you have a list of books you wish you had read by now? Please share in the comments or drop me an email!!

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Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Creatively told & compelling: a family on a complicated road trip searching for (among other things) lost children at the US-Mexico border.

This book was a recent gift from a friend in publishing with a note attached: “Supposed to be good”. When this friend recommends a book, I read it sooner rather than later. I was rewarded with something new, different and amazing.

Lost Children Archive (2019, 383 pages, Alfred A. Knopf) by Valeria Luiselli tells the story of a family of four on a road trip. They are leaving their life in NYC to pursue different things in Arizona. There are many uncertainties but it’s clear that their lives will be completely changed by the journey.

I’ve already been compelled to re-read parts of the book and am still thinking/processing everything, so this post will not encompass everything important about the book. But I had to start somewhere.

A few immediate things I loved:

Elements of Storytelling – The book has a few layers of stories within it. The book is mostly narrated by the woman/wife/mother (we don’t know her name). Ms. Luiselli uses photos, lists, maps, and I think made-up fictional works to enhance the narrative and make it real.

Inventory of Sounds – The husband/wife met while making an “Inventory of Sounds” in New York City. The husband is intent on getting to Apacheria, the last place the United States where native Americans were free, with the intent of capturing any remaining echoes of the free native Americans (at least that’s how I interpreted it). The idea of documenting different sounds is new to me and is presented in a way that is important to the story.

Experience of Migrant Children – The wife is focused on getting to the US/Mexican border to witness and document the removal of children (though very timely now, in 2014 Valeria Luiselli worked as a translator for children after they crossed the border). The wife is also looking in particular for 2 young sisters who were sent to meet their mother Manuela (a friend of the wife’s) but were abandoned in the desert by the “coyote” who was paid to transport them.

The story of the 2 sisters is interwoven with the family’s journey as a fictional narrative that the mom reads to her children. It becomes more and more real as the family approaches Apacheria. The details of the two sisters’ journey seems like a bad dream but it becomes clear that it is no dream nor made up cautionary tale.

Couple & Family Dynamics – What makes a family? What makes a couple? What makes them endure? Luiselli dives deeply into the relationships. I love the older brother’s care and protection of his sister. He is the book’s other narrator and you will enjoy his voice.

One very interesting comment from the wife: “we…had made the common mistake of thinking that marriage was a mode of absolute commonality … instead of understanding it simply as a pact between two people willing to be the guardian of each other’s solitude…” She attributes this notion to Rilke but I had never really heard it before and find it very interesting to think about.

OK there’s so much more in this book but will leave it at this for now. I need to read more about the author’s personal experiences, I think she also has something nonfiction about this topic also.

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Looker by Laura Sims

Quick and (for the most part) Entertaining Read by Local Author´╗┐

I really didn’t notice the profile of the woman behind the lipstick schmear until just now…

This week I was deep in the middle of Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (I really like it!) when I realized I needed to prepare for a book club meeting. I gave myself until yesterday to pause Lost Children and to pick up Looker (2019, 180 pages). Not too much on the calendar for this weekend so I figured I could get through this book, billed as a psychological thriller, without too much difficulty.

So I read it yesterday. Or I should say that I read most of it and then skimmed the final 20 pages.

The story is told from the perspective of a slowly unraveling woman whose husband has recently left her. She is obsessed with a beautiful neighbor. The neighbor is a successful actress who seems to have everything the narrator does not (namely husband and children).

The book, by South Orange resident Laura Sims, is entertaining and even mildly funny until the narrator’s antics become really creepy. I was cringing as the pages progressed. Hence the skimming.

So while I can’t say I fully enjoyed the book, it is thought-provoking. The narrator tries so hard to appear outwardly like she’s got everything together but her honest ramblings to the reader reveal what’s really happening. We all have successful selves we present outwardly and we also all have inner thoughts that might be surprising to others. This book makes you think about how very wacky other people might actually be.

This book might make you cringe also. But give it a try – it’s great to support a local author. You can borrow my copy!

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Conversations With Friends

An at times uncomfortable though always insightful portrayal of relationships.

Cover of Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

This book jumped off the shelf into my arms as I was browsing at the bookstore!

Sally Rooney really gets how people, especially women, think and relate to each other. Conversations With Friends (2017, 307 pages) details the complicated relationship between Frances and Bobbi, two college students in Dublin. The two young women embark on a friendship with an older woman and her husband (Melissa and Nick).

I get a little squeamish in books or movies when someone is going to get caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing. I almost put the book down because I thought that’s where this book was headed… However after a day’s lapse I resumed reading and was so glad I did.

Frances perceptively narrates the progression of the different relationships. Per the title there is a lot of conversation, and also a lot of inner thinking. As the story proceeds, Frances does become the young millennial feminist that her personae presents. She is not afraid to be who she is and love whom she loves. (Grammar people is “whom” correct there?)

It was fun getting inside Frances’ mind. She is a stand-offish cool-as-a-cucumber sort on the outside and (of course) inwardly full of self-doubt. She is continually surprised at others’ reactions to her because she is so internally focused and doesn’t express herself to others. It made me reflect on paradigms we establish about ourselves and our relationships. It also made me wonder what type of woman I would be if I were 21 years old myself today! What choices would I make?

Reading during my lunch break.

So I do recommend this book. I grabbed this copy at Words, let me know if you’d like to borrow it. Also – in 2017 it was on several Best Books of the Year lists (Vogue, Slate for example) and Sally Rooney won the Sunday Times Young Writers of the Year Award.

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For Something Completely Different, Try Friday Black

Interesting stories about institutionalized racism, racism as amusement, consumerism, genetic optimization, dystopian ground-hogs day and more.

Friday Black (2018, 192 pages), a collection of stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, was recommended by one of the staff at Words here in Maplewood. The Words guy teaches at Seton Hall Prep and was so moved by the stories that he uses two of them in his English class. I took the bait and bought the book!

I recommend this book of short stories.

The stories are amazing. I took my time reading them because there was so much to think about in each one. They are other-worldly – dystopia from the point of view of a young black man. For example the stories encompass:

  • A theme park in which the white customers pay to react to the threat they perceive when confronted by a young black man in their neighborhood.
  • How the consumption and purchase of goods and clothing has become a blood sport,
  • How black youth reach the limit and unite after a jury fails to convict a white man who slaughtered five black kids.

There is violence and gory imagery throughout the book, so if you can’t deal, this book might not be for you. I’m not crazy about blood and guts in general but they are essential to these stories, plus there is a sense of underlying humor. Although the topics and settings may be other-worldly, I really connected with the family relationships that are presented throughout the book.

I plan on re-visiting this book again soon. I think these stories are ones that will reveal more upon re-reading.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Malawian boy triumphs against odds to survive famine, teach himself physics, and use ingenuity to improve his family’s life.

This week I read another memoir – make that 3 in a row! Had been meaning to read for a while, saw there is now a Netflix movie so I hustled to read this. I was also scoping it out as there is a young adult version that I’d like to get my kids to read.

Disclaimer: This book is set in Malawi and thus I was inclined to love it. I spent two years as Peace Corps volunteer teaching secondary mathematics from 1993-1995. I was posted to Ekwendeni, a small town in the northern region of the country. William Kamkwamba was a small child when I was there and lived in a different region of the country, but I fully related to and enjoyed his depiction of Malawian life.

Right: Me, in front of my house in the teachers’ compound… Below: Student life at school…. Still working on figuring out captions and photos LOL.

His memoir describes the life of a typical Malawian boy (a girl’s life would be very different!) growing up as a subsistence farmer. His family grows just enough maize to feed themselves with little left over to save to plant for the next year. There is one maize crop a year and it must feed the family for the entire year. There are other vegetables grown, and a bit of tobacco, but to a Malawian, maize and nsima (porridge) are life. A drought occurs in 2000 and the maize crops fail across the country. The government does nothing to intervene and people starve and die. Somehow William and his family manage to survive.

Following this horrific ordeal, William decides to do something to improve his family’s situation. As he could not pay for school, William teaches himself about electricity and physics. He decides to build a wind-powered device which will generate electricity and hopefully one day power an irrigation system so that his family won’t have to worry about lack of rains again. His entire village thinks he is misala, or crazy, but he perseveres.

It is a beautifully told story, full of sly humor despite the poverty and circumstances. I loved the description of the schools William attended as I taught in one so very similar. He describes not being able to pay the school fees and then hiding and sneaking into the classroom anyway, until he’s finally caught after 2 weeks. I was NOT a fan of ejecting kids because of lack of payment and happily hid kids in the class if I was able to. I had two Form 2 (or Sophomore) classes each with a zillion kids (ok maybe 150)…. seriously this is one of them:

One of my Form 2 classes, more than 100 kids all on the floor.

By the time the kids get to Form 4 they are styling with desks but still crammed – 200 in this one class.

You will enjoy this book if you happen to have been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi… or if you want to imagine life in another culture…and/or if you are a fan of plucky heroes who overcome great odds to do something really amazing and great.

How Would You React?

Irresistible memoir that reconstructs Dani Shapiro’s sense of self.

In January I read a compelling Wall St Journal review about Dani Shapiro’s new memoir and had to snap it up when I saw it at Words, our local bookstore. Inheritance A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love (2019, 249 pages) is about Ms Shapiro’s shock at learning via DNA testing that she is not biologically related to her father, and the aftermath as she investigates her history and comes to terms with it. It’s an irresistible story, flowing easily and quickly, and is satisfying in the end.

Ms Shapiro grew up as an only child in an orthodox Jewish home and her Jewishness is a huge part of her identity. She finds herself unmoored as she begins to unravel how/why she is not her father’s biological daughter. (Her parents are now both deceased). She and her husband piece together once-forgotten comments and old memories. She consults with very old relatives, friends, and family rabbis who were alive at the time of her birth who may shed light on the circumstances of her conception and birth. Internet searches and genealogical sleuths help them with their investigation.

The theme of being “other” runs throughout the book. Dani Shapiro always felt like an outsider in her own family and within her Jewish culture for reasons she couldn’t quite name. This is a feeling most of us can relate to.

I was really touched by the love she encounters throughout the year she spends unwinding everything. Love is a big part of this memoir, and it is beautiful.

There are a few points in the book where I wanted to say – “Enough already, get over it, it’s not that big a deal!” to the author. (You have an amazing life, family and career...It’s not like you had to claw your way out of Camden!)

But even with that, I really enjoyed the story. Ms. Shapiro is a well-known author who has published both fiction and other memoirs, so she knows how to research and tell a good story. Of course I won’t reveal what happens or how she gains resolution, you’ll have to find that out for yourself!

Please let me know if you have read and enjoyed any of her other books. I’ve read her pieces in magazines but this was my first book by her. I’m interested in trying another!