Saturday, April 1, 2023

#13 [2023/CBR15] Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I found Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez (2022) on NPR's Best Books List under "eye-opening reads." It takes place in 1973 Montgomery, Alabama where Civil Townsend, a young black woman of relative wealth starts her first nursing job at a government-run, family planning clinic. Civil travels to a one-room shack as part of her job and meets Erica and India. Erica and India are only 13 and 11 years old. Their mother recently died, and they live in cramped and unsanitary conditions with their father and grandmother.

Civil's father is a doctor, and she grew up in town in drastically different circumstances. She is horrified by their living situation. She is also shocked that she was instructed to give the depo provera birth control shot to them when they are so young. She is even more disturbed when she learns that the depo provera shot had caused cancer in some animal studies. Civil does what she can for the family, helping them move into a government-subsidized apartment, and finding their father, Mace, a job. Civil finds herself getting closer and closer to the family. 


Then one day, Civil stops by the family's new apartment to find the children gone. Their grandmother tells Civil that a different nurse from the family planning clinic had taken them to the hospital in order to get their shots. Confused and alarmed, Civil hurries to the hospital to find Erica and India crying in pain at the hospital. Not given enough, if any, pain medication, they are recovering from a tubal ligation surgery.

Definitely the most emotional and disturbing part of the novel, these two young kids were dragged off to the hospital for a painful, invasive procedure that dramatically affects the rest of their lives. It was horrifying. 

The rest of the novel is Civil coming to terms with the guilt of what happened and a lawsuit against the family planning clinic and the government agencies.


I really wanted to like this book, and I came into it with high expectations. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The book certainly kept my interest in the beginning, as I was trying to figure out what was happening. But by the second half, the worst had happened, and I was ready for the book to be done. The characters did not feel real to me, so it lacked some emotional punch it could have had. I was also not particularly interested in Civil and her family. I wish there had been more focus on the children and what happened to them as well as what was happening around the country. Instead, there was something of a romantic triangle that felt unnecessary and Civil trying to figure out her life.

In addition, Civil found herself loving Erica and India, but I found most of their interactions kind of disturbing. She didn't question them thoroughly at all before giving them the depo shot when she first met them. She cut their hair without asking their father or grandmother. And she didn't listen, dismissing Erica's feelings, when she said she needed to get away from Montgomery. 

Halfway through, I wished I was reading a non-fiction account of what had actually happened instead of Take My Hand--because it wasn't doing much for me. I wish I could have liked this one more.

#12 [2023/CBR15] Spare by Prince Harry (ghostwritten by J.R. Moehringer)

I'm definitely not one of those people obsessed with the royals. Their entire existence feels like something of a farce at this point, desperately holding on to a tradition and privilege that doesn't really make sense anymore. At the same time, they are undeniably famous and lead a fascinating, bonkers life. I don't follow royal news, so I only vaguely knew what was going on with Megan and Harry. When I heard they left England, I figured they were probably better off. I wasn't really interested in watching their Netflix special, but then I got Covid and spent day after day stuck on my couch in a daze. I watched a lot of television that week, and I felt bad for how desperate and scared Harry and Megan were when they unexpectedly lost their security and were being hounded by the paparazzi.

So when I saw that Harry was reading his new memoir, Spare (2023) ghostwritten by J.R. Moehringer, I figured it would be a good audiobook for me. And it was pretty interesting. The book is relatively long and Harry goes into a lot of detail about his life. The death of his mother features prominently throughout the book. For years, young Harry would imagine that his mother was alive. He believed that she had run away to get away from the press and would come back to get him and William. I cannot even imagine being a child and  violently losing my mother like that--especially under all that scrutiny.

Harry talks about growing up a royal and going to school. After high school, he spent his gap year working at a ranch in Australia and visiting Botswana. Then he moved on to the military. I had no idea that he went to Afghanistan twice, the second time as a helicopter pilot. He mentions the women he dated and became important to him, and his fight to find meaning in his life. He also discusses his mental health difficulties. After he came back from the war, he was getting panic attacks and suffered from anxiety.

Finally, Harry talks about Megan and his life with her. Their relationship seems very sweet, and I hope they stay happy together. He says that the media was constantly attacking Megan, and the palace did nothing to protect her. In fact, the media people from his father's office was feeding stories to them. Harry also mentions disagreements and fights with his brother: sometimes over Megan, sometimes over power and palace roles. In the end it all led to the rupture between Harry and Megan and the English royalty.

One very frequent theme in Spare is the loathsome paparazzi. I read one review of this book that said Harry overdid the paparazzi hate, but I can understand it. If not for the paparazzi, his mother might still be alive today. They hounded him his entire life, and broke up a number of relationships because the women he was dating couldn't stand the attention. They broke into phones, chased people down, and harassed friends and family. 

As far as the relationship between Harry and William, there's not enough information for me to take sides. I listened to Harry's perspective, but I don't know William's. It does sound like familiar family drama, just on a whole other level. Family therapy would probably be great for them.

As I was listening to this book, I was primarily torn between two emotions. The first was genuine sympathy for a boy who lost his mother so young, whose family is so weird and stoic, and who has been stalked by paparazzi his entire life. I felt that Harry really cared about what people thought of him and doing good in this world. In some ways, he reminds me of my younger brother. On the other hand, I was often jealous. Harry jaunts down to Africa to meet his girlfriend or go on vacation. He decides he wants to go to Australia for his gap year and someone at the palace makes it happen. He has skiing holidays in Switzerland and other beautiful, exotic locations. (His grandmother is woken up by bagpipes when she is in residence at Balmoral Castle.) He can come across as a nice, friendly, normal guy, but he also comes from a place of such extreme privilege. I would never want to change places with him, but I deeply envy his ability to travel and go on adventures.

The last thing I noticed was what the press wrote articles on when discussing the book when compared with what was actually in the book. Spare is better than I expected after seeing some of the negative reviews and the quotes taken out of context. I guess this happens often to Harry, but it was enlightening to see it for myself.

Monday, March 27, 2023

#11 [2023/CBR13] Tokyo Rose - Zero Hour by Andre R. Frattino, Kate Kasenow, and Janice Chiang

Looking for another book to read, I searched through NPR's Best Books List for something new and found another graphic novel. Tokyo Rose - Zero Hour: A Japanese American Woman's Persecution and Ultimate Redemption after World War II (2022) by Andre R. Frattino, Kate Kasenow, and Janice Chiang.

This graphic novel is about Iva Toguri. She was an American citizen of Japanese descent, and a young, independent, patriotic woman. In the summer of 1941, her parents convinced her to go to Japan to help care for a sick aunt. Iva was not happy about this situation. When she arrived, and was treated more like a servant than family, she was even less happy. Finally, in early December, Iva's father sends her a ticket to come back to America. Iva is elated, but she isn't able to get all of her paperwork together to make the next boat. Before she can leave, it is December 7, 1941, and the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, Iva can't get home.

Because she is Nisei--of Japanese descent, but a foreigner--Iva is looked at with suspicion. She moves into an apartment of her own and works at a media place that does propaganda for the Japanese military. Eventually, she is recruited by a POW Australian major who is being forced by the Japanese to create radio programs to demoralize the western forces. She does the talking for his radio program until he has a medical emergency and the program is shut down.

When the war is over, Iva is ready to return home. She is offered $2,000 from a reporter to talk about her experiences as "Tokyo Rose"--a name for the many women who talked on the radio during the war. Not only did Iva not get paid for the interview, but she got caught in a political maelstrom and was charged with treason. Even though Iva is nothing but patriotic, the trial is a ridiculous show, and she is convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison (serving six). Her husband (a man she met when she was living in Japan) is never allowed back in the country and the two eventually divorce. Even after all this, Iva seemed to remain positive.

I found this to be an interesting look into something I had known nothing about. I'd never heard of Tokyo Rose, and I knew nothing about the injustice Iva suffered. The most powerful part of the book was when Iva was writing a letter home to her family in America, patriotically extolling the virtues of the United States while her family is being loaded into buses and taken to concentration camps.

I did have a couple of problems with this book, however. First, when I read the timeline at the end of the book, it stated that Iva had lost a child at some point after she got home and before she was tried with any crimes. However, the book made it seem like she lost the child in Japan, from the stress of being arrested. In addition, there were parts of the trial that were unrealistic and seemed to be done for dramatic purposes. It made me wonder about the veracity of the rest of the story.

Second, even after everything Iva goes through, she is nothing but patriotic until the end. This may be true, but I felt like she must have had some moments of doubt or anger at the government or people putting her through this. Or what did she feel when she learned her family was put in concentration camps and had lost everything? How could she not be bitter, even if she eventually got over it?

Friday, March 17, 2023

#10 [2023/CBR15] Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

All of a sudden, I was seeing Demon Copperhead (2022) by Barbara Kingsolver all over the place. I first noticed it on NPR's Best Books List. And then my book club chose it as our next book. I'm very familiar with Barbra Kingsolver. She was one of my favorite authors for many years, and I've read most of her books. However, I was disappointed in one of her latest books--Unsheltered and didn't finish it. I wasn't sure if Kingsolver was a good author for me anymore, so I picked up Demon Copperhead with relatively low expectations.

As the blurbs will tell you, Demon Copperhead is a retelling of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. However, Demon's story takes place in contemporary southern Appalachia. Like David Copperfield, it is written from Demon's point of view and begins with his birth. I read David Copperfield, but it was so long ago (2011) that I barely remembered any details. I even went back and looked at my review, and it didn't jog my memory. 

I was very impressed by this novel. Demon is a unique, fully realized character with an incredibly hard life. His father is dead, his mother is an addict, and his new stepfather is abusive. When his mother dies,* he is thrown into the foster care system, which is negligent at best. Demon's heartbreaking attempt to stay with his neighbors is one of the more memorable scenes in the book.

After a harrowing trip across the state, Demon finds his paternal grandmother, who gets him a new place to stay--with the highly esteemed high school football coach and his daughter. His life changes for the better, but Demon still feels the need to prove his worth. An unfortunate knee injury leads to opioid addiction that has been enveloping the entire community for some time. Bad things happen, and more bad things happen until Demon can start building his own life back up again.

This book works on a number of levels. It is a good retelling of David Copperfield. I'd say that Kingsolver hit most of the big plot points, but in ways that fit perfectly with her new time and setting. Kingsolver also makes scathing points about the foster care system, opioid drug companies, and the world's perception of Appalachia. Finally, Demon became a character that I cared about, and I gladly read his story for many hundreds of pages to find out what happened to him.

Highly recommended.

*SPOILER - on his birthday! This scene was very powerful.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

#9 [2023/CBR15] Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton

I'm not a big reader of graphic novels, but I usually read one or two a year and appreciate the differences in storytelling. With graphic novels, I've always steered towards memoirs, and Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands (2022) by Kate Beaton, is no different. I first saw Ducks on NPR's Best Books List

I almost immediately felt a connection to Beaton. We're not too far apart in age, and I felt her pain as she tells the story of how she struggled after she graduated from college with a liberal arts degree. Beacon's from Nova Scotia--where my mother's family came from--and an area of Canada struggling economically. Forced by the crushing weight of her student loans and lack of employment opportunities, she decides to go East and take a higher paying job in Alberta's oil sands.

Beaton hears that working in the camps is where you make the money, but she's not prepared for the reality of it all. She's isolated and surrounded by many unhappy men who have very few outlets. The amount of attention she gets is staggering, and it is not welcome. I am familiar with being in a work environment dominated by men, and some of this hit quite close to home. But because Beaton wasn't able to leave and she was so isolated, her situation seemed much more intense. In addition, Beaton survived sexual assault there as well. I can't imagine how hard it all was on her.

Although Beaton's personal experiences in dealing with the monstrous amount of sexism in camp dominate the storyline, she also delves into the environmental effects on the area around her, as well as the hardships on most of the other workers who are forced to be away from their families for so long in such an intense, isolated place

When Beaton can't stand the oil sands any longer, she goes to Victoria for a year to work. She finds a job she loves in a museum, but she's barely earning enough money to survive. Her loans make this dream of a world impossible, and she is forced to go back to the oil sands--this time taking a relatively safer office job.

I really liked this graphic novel. It hit me emotionally--much stronger than I expected. My only nitpick is that there were many characters and different camps--making it difficult to keep everyone straight. In addition, the novel sometimes changed scenes or times and that wasn't always clear. However, it was still very readable, understandable, and memorable, with a deep emotional impact and a nuanced point of view. Recommended.

Monday, February 13, 2023

#8 [2023/CBR15] The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni

My book club chose The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell (2018) by Robert Dugoni for our next book club book. I had not heard of the book or the author, but my friend said she liked it, and I was hoping to as well. The plot is a coming-of-age story of a boy in Burlingame, California who was born with ocular albinism in the late 1950's. The only consequence of Sam's ocular albinism is that it makes his irises red. However, he is known as "the devil boy" in school and instead of Sam Hill, he is called Sam Hell.

Being different from others can certainly make your life more difficult--especially when you are young. When he first goes to school, Sam's life is made even worse by an incredibly mean bully, David Batemen. Fortunately, he also makes the best friend of his life, Ernie Cantwell. Ernie is the only black child in the school and is also an outsider. Only a couple of years later, Mickie (Michaela) Kennedy joins their little pariah group of friends. Mickie's family life is not great, but we don't really learn many specifics about her except that she's something of a rebel with a reputation.*

At first, I was mildly interested in this book, but my interest waned as my annoyance with the book increased. I'm not even sure where to start, but after reading for awhile, the story felt like a series of problems that were easily solved and/or set ups to make our protagonist look good. Sam struggled with a bully, David Bateman, but then Bateman's friends ratted him out, and Sam's problems were solved! Sam was very sad he didn't have a bike, but then his dad goes and buys him a brand new one! Sam really wanted a car when he turned sixteen, and then his parents give him a classic convertible! Sam had the best grades in high school, but there was some weird thing where he wouldn't be Valedictorian. But then he gets into Stanford and somehow survives after all! Honestly, Sam started annoying me.

I also felt that not much was happening in this book. And that's fine. But if there's not much action, then there has to be really good characters, and I didn't find that in this book. Ernie, as the only black child in the neighborhood--who also struggled with dyslexia--could have been a much more interesting character if he did more than just support Sam and be good at sports. In addition, Mickie, was some kind of manic-pixie-dream girl that we learn almost nothing about, and Sam often treats her like shit. Every once in a while he gets sad or angry and attacks her for being a slut. She's also the person that just hangs around forever waiting for him. Her story also could have been much more interesting, and I don't understand why she liked Sam at all.

At some point in the story, I started wondering why Sam's red eyes were such a big deal. It's really minor compared to what a lot of people have to deal with. And when he gets older, he gets brown contacts, which make him completely normal. At the end of the book, Dugoni mentions that the story may be a little bit inspired by his youngest brother who was born with Down Syndrome. I kind of wish Dugoni had written that story because Sam's red eyes became pretty meaningless as soon as he got out of elementary school.

One storyline that really irritated me was Sam's first sexual experience with a girl named Donna, who worked at his father's pharmacy. Sam is fascinated with Donna's large breasts and happily sleeps with her often even though she doesn't want to be seen out and about with him. When she leaves for school a week early, her father tells her that it's because her parents caught her sleeping with another boy. Her parents apparently told their daughter's boss (back when people cared more about these things) that their daughter was caught with a boy and who it was--just so Sam's dad could relay all that to Sam who gets some very convenient closure. And Dugoni adds on a tiny bit of information about Donna at the end just to pile on, which seemed unnecessary and unjustified.

This happened with the bully, David Batemen, as well. The hero, Sam, is treated "badly," and the story comes up with some way to get rid of them. Bateman is thrown out of school, and beaten by his abusive parents, which no one seems to care about. And Sam's first love is dressed down as a slut and sent away to school.

By this point in the book, I felt disconnected from the characters and did not care much what happened to them. I was curious to know how it ended, and I did finish it, but on the whole I was disappointed.

*Until the very end, where out of the blue, Mickie tells Sam that she had a hysterectomy when she was younger for reasons that are not explained.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

#7 [2023/CBR15] Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry (2022) by Bonnie Garmus is on NPR's Best Books List, but I'd seen the title all over the place. The pink cover with the woman on the front made it look like a romance novel, but the NPR description sounded a lot more fraught than what you would expect. Initially, it didn't sound very appealing, and I wasn't even sure I wanted to read it. I did become a little more interested when it was recently recommended by a book club friend. But that's all before I started reading: I loved it. Lessons in Chemistry was my favorite of the year (so far), but also at least my favorite fiction book of last year as well.

Elizabeth Zott is a chemistry nerd, and she has the brains to make some serious advancements in her field. The problem is that she is a woman trying to work in the sciences in the early 1960's. The book begins with Elizabeth Zott, a single mother, supporting her young daughter, Madeline, by hosting a popular television cooking show. Elizabeth is not fulfilled and not happy, and she says the reason why is Calvin Evans.

With this, the book flashes back in time ten years to the Hasting Research Institute. Elizabeth Zott is working as a research chemist with a difficult, asshole of a boss when she meets Calvin Evans--the undisputed star of the research institute. After a rocky start, the two click. They are both loners, dedicated to their research. And even though Evans has not completely escaped the patriarchy's influence, he admires Elizabeth and treats her as an equal. The two make a great couple.

But then things go wrong and Elizabeth finds herself alone, unwed, jobless, and an unexpected mother. She struggles through, eventually creating a life for herself and something of a support network with some close friends. 

I'm not interested in going into the details of the plot. I went into this book not knowing at all what to expect, and I think that made it better. But there are some very funny lines, some romance, some heartbreak, and even a little mystery. In addition, it has the feel of a fairy tale--with a heroine who can handle almost anything, an almost unbelievably precocious child, and an unbelievably smart dog who fits perfectly into the story. It feels very fun and light--until something horrible happens that reminds you that life can suck and our characters are struggling. I was very impressed with the writing. Even though the characters often felt bigger than real life, I felt their emotions almost viscerally. In addition, the unfairness of Elizabeth's struggles at the Hastings Institute were so frustrating! 

This book made me feel, and I found it inspiring. I loved this book, and I highly recommend it.

Random Quotes:

"Imagine if all men took women seriously. Education would change. The workforce would revolutionize. Marriage counselors would go out of business." (331)

"Worst of all, he was a rower." (8)

"Almost no one bought this story. Dr. Meyers had a reputation. But he was also important, and UCLA had no intention of losing someone of his stature." (20)

"No surprise. Idiots make it into every company. They tend to interview well." (111)

"In the 1950's, abortion was out of the question. Coincidentally, so was having a baby out of wedlock." (130)

"E.Z. machine-stitched above the breast pocket in a slutty-looking cursive." (189) [This quote is completely out of context, but it made me laugh that the font is being slut-shamed.]