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The Sun Does Shine - Anthony R. Hinton
"To hope under the most extreme circumstances is an act of defiance that permits a person to live his life on his own terms." J. Groopman
Reading Hinton's heartbreaking, yet inspiring story of spending 30 years on death row for crimes he not commit stirred up a torrent of emotions. Mostly I felt a great deal of anger at the broken criminal justice system that created this nightmare. To counter the anger I held tightly to the hope that exposure of what happened to Hinton, and others, will shake us enough to create a demand for change. I also was in awe at Hinton's ability to deal with his circumstances. With a deep and powerful faith, Hinton never entirely gave up hope that the truth would surface. This time hope won. Hinton is now free, fighting for and inspiring others.
For another perspective, check out "Just Mercy" written by Bryan Stevenson, the social justice lawyer who fought for Hinton's retrial and eventual release.
Disoriental Negar Djavadi
Disoriental is an extraordinary novel brimming with stories of a woman’s identity born out of the turbulent clash of old and new cultures. And what a story it is! Born to politically active parents during a time of great upheaval in Iran, nothing about Kimia or her family life was typical. Revolution, displacement, fear and loss during her early life contributed to Kamia’s sense of being different. Now as an adult at the brink of a significant decision, one that others would condemn,Kamia turns to the reader and asks us to listen in order to understand. She tells us that Iranians use the power of words to feel alive, to forestall fear.They tell stories which open to reveal other stories so she begins with a family tale of old world Persia and then moves back and forth in time telling the stories that shaped her. The history, politics, cultural identity and family dynamics that fill these tales are woven together like a beautiful oriental rug that delights the eye.
Djavandi gives Kimia the voice of a singular storyteller whose words have the power to entrance and move you,the reader.
White Houses - Amy Bloom
White Houses is a fictional account of the unlikely but real relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hicks. Within the first few pages I was captivated by the depiction of Hicks' hardscrabble childhood and her unusual journey to becoming a well regarded journalist who found herself in a life-changing meeting with Eleanor. Despite their differences they developed a relationship that endured in spite of the First Lady's very public life. They worked and traveled together, set up a private apartment and fantasized about a different life together. But as demands on Eleanor grew the relationship faded. After years apart and Franklin's death they plan to reunite. As she awaits Eleanor's arrival Lorena's thoughts return to their past and the story unfolds. It was never an exclusive or easy love but one that provided each with an unconditional accpetance and comfort that they did not find with others. Bloom's elegant expression of the emotional depth of this mature relationsip makes White Houses not only a beautiful and absorbing story but also one that is thought provoking and inspiring.
NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles
As I finished the final pages of News Of The World I realized just how much I enjoyed this story of an unlikely relationship developing under difficult circumstances.
Jiles is a gifted wordsmith whose descriptive prose creates vivid physical and emotional landscapes that you slip into without effort. Although it is filled with interesting and lesser known historical facts of the time period and culture, it is the portrayal of the evolving relationship between two unique characters that is particularly moving and beautiful. At times I found the story so engaging I couldn't turn the pages fast enough, at other times I lingered.
Set in Texas of the 1870s, Captain Kidd, a 72 year old retired army captain and former newspaper publisher, travels to small towns in Texas to read news articles to local folks who are hungry for news from around the world. His routine is unexpectedly disrupted when he reluctantly accepts the task of transporting to relatives a recently re-captured 10 year girl who four years earlier had been taken captive by an Indian tribe. Although she doesn't understand english she is shrewd,resilient and determined to escape from the people who are taking her away from her beloved Indian family. The arduous journey across Texas is filled with countless hostile encounters and to survive their resistance transforms into reliance and distrust into trust.
In the end I found News Of The World to be a subtle yet powerful story about compassion and transformation. Jiles could have drawn out the story, could have packed in more details but she didn’t need to. It’s a wholly satisfying story as is.
City of Thieves - David Benioff
Long before Benioff became a scriptwriter for The Game of Thrones he wrote this ingenious story considered by some to be a near perfect novel. I don’t know about perfect but I found it to be one of the most memorable,clever and well written novels I’ve ever read.
The story begins in 1942 during the Siege of Leningrad where desperation and absurdity knows no bounds. Two recently arrested prisoners are offered a chance to save themselves from execution if within 4 days they can find and return with a dozen eggs for the cake the Colonel has promised his daughter for her wedding. Eggs! A near impossible task in a city where people are starving and eating glue to stay alive. The will to live drives their quest and carries the pair through many harrowing moments as they scour the corners of Leningrad. Occasionally I cringed at the historically accurate portrayal of the grim conditions,yet Benioff excels in balancing the dark moments with light. The evolving, sometimes humorous relationship between the two men gives this imaginative story its heart.
Without a doubt, City of Thieves reveals Benioff’s boundless imagination and outstanding ability to create a thoroughly engrossing and entertaining story.
Think about it---build the first U.S. bomber plant from scratch, one that could produce one bomber per hour, and do it in record time. All those who opposed Hitler knew the need was great and the clock was ticking.
Here is the fascinating backstory of how, in a field east of Ypsilanti, Michigan, the Willow Run bomber plant was built and became the largest airplane factory in history and the linchpin in America's arsenal of democracy. Baime presents an insightful blend of events giving equal time to the political, cultural and international forces of the time as well as to the personal dynamics of the individuals who rose to meet the formidable challenge.
A very interesting, informative book that at times is a real page-turner!
American Fire - Monica Hesse
An absolutely riveting account of a string of arsons that unnerved the communities of Accomack county Virginia, overwhelming their volunteer fire departments and baffling the authorities. The search for the culprits took the small towns on a long,frustrating journey and then after almost 6 months local residents, Charlie and Tonya, were caught lighting the 62nd fire. The communities were shocked and angry as they grappled with the knowledge that two of "their own" had caused so much damage and disruption. Was it thrill seeking, revenge or something else that motivated Charlie and Tonya? The motive(s) turned out to be totally unexpected.
Having previously covered the arsons for the Washington Post, Hesse returned to Accomack county to follow Charlie and Tonya's criminal trials. What she expected to be a few weeks stay turned into months as she gained the trust of community members and authorities and widened her investigation. What she uncovered over the course of her two year stay resulted in this mesmerizing account of personal dissappointments and psychological manipulation. With an eye for detail Hesse not only explores Charlie and Tonya's background but also the culture, institutions and physical landscape of the communities. Much more than a timeline of events,Hesse has created a vivid sense of place and a page-turning account of Charlie and Tonya’s arson spree and how it affected the tight knit communities suffering economic decline.
American Fire is a fascinating story!
Angels of Detroit Christopher Hebert
Christopher Hebert’s remarkable intersecting stories of those who still “live” in what remains of a once thriving city is set just outside of Detroit's revitalized city center and midtown area. Deteriorating buildings hold secrets and desires. Vacant, dimly lit blocks remain a constant reminder of yesterday, frustration and loss.
Built on the bones of Detroit’s history Hebert weaves an extraordinary fictional story of women and men who do what they can to retain or regain control of at least some part of their lives. Some make the best of what remains, others can not accept the loss. Throughout, the scarred physical landscape looms large as a decisive underlying influence in their decisions.
It’s a challenge to summarize this engaging,expansive,multi-character novel without revealing the plot but there is much to recommend. There’s an ease and clarity to Hebert’s writing and the characters’ voices ring believably true. He carefully builds the individual story lines and in unexpected ways gradually ties most together adding a sense of urgency and suspense to the story. And for me, the Angels of the novel may be the female characters who with few exceptions are strong, resolute survivors. Perhaps these women, like the 2 women who stand side by side on the original seal of Detroit, represent the hope that the city will rise once again.
“The seal in the middle of the flag represents the fire that destroyed the city in 1805.
Two women stand in the foreground while the city burns in the background.
The woman on the left weeps over the destruction, while the woman on the right
consoles her by gesturing to a new city that will rise in its place.”
Once Upon A River - Bonnie Jo Campbell
A year after reading Once Upon A River I am still thinking about Cambell's exquisitely rendered story. Although not a "pretty" tale the author has woven a compelling story of the main character's adventures as she struggles to survive. Young Margo is uncommonly capable of taking care of herself when circumstances leave her without an immediate family. To survive on her own terms she has to leave home. Survival skills may get her through the day but emotional inexperience and uncertainty create daunting challenges and the story's tension. Who can she trust? Who should she trust? Set in southwestern Michigan, the river offers Margo her refuge, comfort and at times, a home. Once Upon A River is an exceptional example of this Michigan author's distinctive voice and style.
The Women In The Castle Jessica Shattuck
The Women In The Castle is a powerful story of how 3 widows of WW II German war resisters coped in the aftermath of their husbands’ deaths. With a completely unique perspective the author has created an immersive and thought provoking story. I hesitate to say a novel about this difficult time is a really good read...but this one definitely is.
At the center of the story is Marianne, an incredibly strong-willed woman who promises her husband and his collaborators that she will take care of their wives if the plot to overthrow Hitler fails. With his death and the end of the war she assumes this role with a fierce determination fueled by hatred of former Nazis and German citizens who did not resist. She succeeds in finding some of the women and their children but Marianne’s single-minded focus blinds her to their emotions and needs. At first they find solace in one another but slowly take different paths leading to years of separation. As each woman’s backstory unfolds the scope of the story deepens as it deals with the many choices each faces as she tries to rebuild a new life. There is a sensitivity and grace to Shattuck’s writing which I found powerful and deeply moving. Ultimately this is a tale of struggle,complicated relationships,loyalty and reconciliation
And, yes there is a castle. Over the course of the novel it represents the vestiges of an aristocratic society, symbolizes a dying culture, becomes a refuge and in the end represents resilience and strength.
The Bones of Paradise
Set in the Nebraska ranch lands during the decade after the massacre at Wounded Knee this sweeping historical novel is filled with unsolved mysteries, vivid landscapes and conflicts of every kind. During this tumultuous time period life for the ranchers and remaining Indians was riddled with mistrust and violence.
In this setting the author serves up a compelling tale of power struggles within the multigenerational Bennett family. While estranged family members fight with one another they also struggle to solve multiple murders and battle outsiders who strive to gain oil and mineral rights to the Bennett land. Told in alternating time periods and from the view points of various characters, the story pulls you in as pieces of the mysteries fall into place. Much of the strength of the novel is derived from the vivid representations of the historical conflicts of the time and the perfectly tuned internal dialogue of the characters as they deal with long-standing personal conflicts.
I was thoroughly captivated by the Bennett family saga and its engrossing, masterful blend of history and mystery.
The Vengeance of Mothers is a sequel to the author's popular and somewhat controversial novel One Thousand White Women written almost 20 years ago. The premise of the story-the US Government's exchange of 1000 white women with the Cheyenne Indians for 1000 horses- fueled much debate in reviews and book clubs. Was any of the novel based on historical events?
Fergus continues the story of the Brides for Horses program through the alternate journal entries of the remaining women. Their personalities come alive as they record what they've left behind and their struggles to adjust to their new lives. Within weeks of their arrival the Brides exchange is abandoned(and denied)and the government escalates its plan to overtake and displace Native Americans. As the women assimilate into the native communities their allegiance shifts. They grow into confident, strong,respected women for the first time in their lives as they join with the Cheyenne to save their villages and culture.
At its core,The Vengeance of Mothers is an intriguing story of loss, hope and transformation. Whether partly true or complete fiction it has the feel of a well told family saga handed down through generations.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an engaging novel about a cantankerous bookstore owner who prefers to be left alone but whose life is turned upside down by the appearance of an unexpected arrival. Although I particularly enjoyed the author's descriptions of the inner workings of a bookstore, it is the artful mixture of humor, suspense & tenderness,along with a variety of appealing characters,that makes this story both moving and entertaining.
It’s All Relative A.J. Jacobs
A.J. Jacobs is a fellow with no end of curiosity and a love of an all encompassing project. He was ready for another undertaking when an unexpected email from a distant relative set him on a path to connect with his relatives scattered around the world and invite them to a record breaking reunion. Deciding on this new project was easy, the hard part would be learning how to research and find all the cousins.
It’s All Relative follows Jacobs over the course of a year as he learns about family research methods while also working out the logistics of setting up a reunion for what he hopes will be thousands. Overwhelmed is a word he uses frequently but he was determined to connect as many relatives as possible to the World Family Tree project.
Jacob’s light-hearted, self-deprecating style makes for an interesting non-technical overview of many of the current research techniques and debates within the genealogy world. Whether you’re already doing family research or thinking about getting started this entertaining book highlights all the reasons why genealogy is so addictive!
morningstar : growing up with books
“My parents learned about life from hardship. Me? I learned from books.”
Like many of us, at an early age Ann Hood discovered the magic of books and they became her constant companions. Throughout her life they provided inspiration, hope and a way to understand the rapidly changing world outside of her small hometown. Hood shares the critical moments of her life and the book(s) that had the greatest influence. Some taught her how to dream of "something different", some opened doors and showed her the importance of asking "why", others taught her about politics and sex. Many gave her the courage to follow her dreams. This compact often touching memoir is a compelling testament to the transformational power of books.
Ann Hood’s morningstar is perfect for anyone who has read a life-changing book, loves the feel of a book in-hand and immediately notices that special “bookstore smell”.
Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship Gregory Boyle
After attending a recent talk given by Father Greg Boyle I left wanting to know more about Homeboy Industries which Boyle founded 30 years ago. It is now the largest gang intervention,rehab and reentry program in the world and the inspiration for similar programs. I was moved by his humble non-judgmental compassion and deep commitment to “go to the margins to meet and develop kinship with those in need”.
“The day simply won’t ever come when I am asked...to carry more than these men and women that I have been privileged to meet.”
Barking to the Choir is an inspiring mix of Boyle’s personal reflections, a bit of history of HBI and most important the spiritual/philosophical beliefs that support HBI’s primary mission of extending a second chance and community to those who enter the programs. Mixed throughout the book are profiles of some of the “homies” who have left the gang life behind, found community and gained self-respect and pride for the first time in their lives. I don’t know if Boyle has always had a sense of humor but he certainly has one now and it’s clearly evident in his descriptions of his interactions with the homies. Without a doubt the subjects that Boyle discusses are serious and meant to be thought provoking but the essays are written in a light-hearted manner and filled with hope.
Through his work, talks and books, Boyle sets out to challenge the status quo, our assumptions and put a human face on those we have marginalized. He succeeds!