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My class ended Monday evening, so when I got home, I started reading a book for fun. The publicist for  the debut novel  Ginny Moon, Shara Alexander, sent me an advance copy, because author Benjamin Ludwig lives in New Hampshire, and I used to write a column that mainly featured NH authors. I had seen reviews already, since I order fiction at my university, and I had already ordered a copy, because I like to stock fiction that features characters in professions our students will pursue — and we have programs in school counseling, teaching, nursing, and psychology, so I thought a book about an autistic girl that features many adults in helping professions might be of interest to them.

What I didn’t count on is that I would like it so much that I would read way too late under the covers with a book light cupped inside my hand so I wouldn’t wake my husband. Or that I would skip drying  my hair before work so I could finish the last couple of chapters while eating breakfast. Or that I would have to touch up my eye makeup because I would cry through the ending.

Ginny Moon is fourteen and lives with her adoptive parents. Her “forever mom” is pregnant and that makes Ginny think a lot about the baby doll she took care of when she lived with her birth mom. As Ginny remembers, or “goes into her brain” more often, her adoptive family are disturbed by the ways she acts out. Readers piece together what Ginny is remembering long before the adults in the book, and I found  myself feeling very frustrated and even angry with some of them — how could her teachers and other school staff not see that something is amiss? How can her “forever” parents be so clueless, and even somewhat selfish? Will anyone figure out what Ginny is hiding and what she is trying so hard to tell everyone?

I don’t necessarily like this kind of emotional page turner, but Ludwig manages the drama well. Yes, I cried, but I never felt manipulated to feel a certain way, as poorly written family novels can sometimes do to readers. I could vividly imagine what Ginny and the other characters looked like, and I could hear her voice. In my last job, I met many people on the autism spectrum, and it seemed to me that Ginny seems like a very authentic, human character, possibly because Ludwig is a father who adopted an autistic daughter, so he’s writing what he knows.  My favorite character is Patrice, the psychologist who has been with Ginny through her entire ordeal (the Blue House where she lives with her forever parents is not the first place she’s landed since being taken from her birth mother), has a cat named Agamemnon, and seems to be a little more clear-eyed and level headed than the other adults Ginny relies on.

This book will appeal to a wide audience — I would definitely recommend it to book clubs, and I think there is plenty to appeal to teens. When I worked in the public library I sometimes had people ask me for books for older readers who don’t like swearing and sex in their books, and this one would fit the bill (there are some descriptions of adults behaving badly, but told from a child’s point of view, so compared to other novels that mention sex or drugs or abuse, this one is pretty tame). If you know a special ed teacher or aspiring special ed teacher or counselor, this would be a good end of the school year or graduation gift. If you’re looking for some thought provoking but entertaining fiction to take on a plane trip or to occupy you while you wait for a repairman or at your kid’s softball practice, this is it. Just don’t expect to get much sleep once you’ve started reading it, nor to look good at work the next day.

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So I started a class, I as mentioned at the end of my last post, and have definitely not had as much time to read for pleasure. But I finished Britt-Marie Was Here last night. It’s a follow up to My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. It’s interesting because in that book, Britt-Marie was not a very sympathetic character. She was presented, as she herself describes in the follow up, as a “nag-bag.”

So it seemed brave to me that Backman chose to take his most annoying character and turn her into a heroine in her own right. And I think he absolutely succeeds. Britt-Marie is suffering from some of the events at the end of the previous book which I won’t give away here, and finds herself in a small rural town called Borg, which is struggling as a result of the global recession. She inadvertently becomes the soccer coach, even though she doesn’t know anything about it, and also bumbles her way into friendships, and finds herself helping people and even a rat. She’s able to reflect a bit on her life and through those thoughts she has, we learn why she’s so obsessed with cleaning and doing things properly.

I cried a fair bit, but it may be I was just in a good place for that right now. I suspect the Computer Scientist would call this book “sappy” — two recent films we’ve seen he’s referred to in that way (Hidden Figures and A United Kingdom). But like those films, these books deal with some serious issues in an accessible way, and I say any art that makes itself appealing but draws people into thinking and talking about things like race, class, community, family, and humanity are worthwhile, even if they tug at the heartstrings. And those of you who have read bookconscious for awhile know I am not a fan of stories that are overly sweet, so I would say if these were.

What do you think? Is there a book you’ve read that someone else criticized for being sappy?

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winter-book-bingo

I finished my book bingo card this week. For an old favorite, I chose Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins. And for a book I haven’t read by an author I like, I chose Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska, and interestingly enough, Billy Collins wrote the introduction. They are both incredible and it was nice to return to poetry after not reading any for a long time.

For a biography or memoir, I listened to Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl  by Stacy O’Brien. O’Brien’s story would be incredible if she only wrote about Wesley, the barn owl she adopted when he was only four days old, loved, raised, observed, lived with for nineteen years. But her own story is also incredible, from her musical childhood to her incredible fight against a mysterious, debilitating illness. I didn’t love the narration, honestly. I also don’t think audiobooks on my commute are the best idea — I’m probably going back to podcasts.

And for any book in a series, I read Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidant by Susan Elia MacNeal, which is a Maggie Hope novel. MacNeal gets into several interesting side plots, including an intriguing nod to Roald Dahl‘s life, as well as the continuing saga of plucky Maggie Hope, this time visiting the U.S. as part of Churchill’s team for the famous meeting with Roosevelt just weeks after Pearl Harbor. I enjoyed it, but realized when I was finished that I don’t think I read the previous title in the series so I’m going to have to go back.

It was fun to finish my card, but I’m looking forward to just reading things because the mood strikes, or someone recommends something, or a book catches my eye.

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I worked with many publicity professionals during my time at Gibson’s and then writing a book review column. A couple still stay in touch and occasionally send a book and one of those people is Scott Manning. When he tells me a book is worth reading it invariably is, and recently he sent me Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. I read it this week for one of the “Reader’s Choice” squares on my book bingo card.

To say this book is eye-opening isn’t really accurate — Dunbar tells readers what they could see pretty easily, if they paid any attention to American history. The south had slaves, lots of them, and the first President was a southerner. Mount Vernon was a plantation that depended on slave labor, one of a network of such farms belonging to the Washingtons and to Martha’s Custis relatives. And while some history books like to point out that George Washington had mixed feelings about slavery, he also signed the Fugitive Slave Act, in part because many Northern states were already beginning to move towards abolition and Southerners were afraid that runaway slaves would be beyond their grasp unless the federal government made it illegal to help them. And the Fugitive Slave Act did that, as Dunbar explains, “To be clear, those who purposely interfered with the recapturing of a slave, or who offered aid or assistance to a fugitive, could be fined an exorbitant amount — $500 — imprisoned, and be sued by the slaveholder in question.”

I will add, some details about the extent of the Washingtons’ efforts to keep people enslaved, to punish slaves who seemed in their views not to work hard enough or to have bad attitudes, and to flout Pennsylvania’s laws (they rotated slaves back to Mount Vernon in order that they not stay more than 6 months in Philadelphia, because they would have then been free), were new to me. Based on my very informal poll, which consisted of telling everyone around me about what I was reading and gauging their reactions,  these facts are not well known.

Dunbar’s writing about Washington is interesting but what makes her book stand out is the story of Ona Judge, a young woman born into slavery at Mount Vernon who as a teenager became Martha Washington’s personal attendant. Studies have shown that telling an individual’s story, for example in order to solicit funds for a massive humanitarian crisis, is highly effective, and Never Caught is a fine example of that psychological impact at work.

In telling Judge’s story Dunbar masterfully places the focus not on harsh treatment or back-breaking labor — Judge’s work was constant but not physically harmful, and she was not beaten or raped as far as the record shows — but on the undeniable, inhumane, supreme injustice of a person being owned by another person. Judge had no say in the matters of her life which free people take for granted. Even once she was “free” and even after the Washingtons both died, Judge was technically a fugitive, owned by the Custis family, and her children were technically born slaves, even though she raised them in relative freedom. At any time, someone could capture her and her family and take them back to Virginia and that would have been legal.

But fortunately, Judge ended up in New Hampshire, and apparantly people in my adopted state had the beginnings of a “live free or die” attitude and even the prominent and the powerful in New Hampshire were not always willing to tow the line politically. Washington did in fact track Judge down and tried to call in favors to get her back, but New Hampshire’s independent thinkers, and Judge’s own very strong desire to remain free, protected her. Yet she did not have a happily ever after life, and Dunbar spares no details in pointing out the suffering that Judge and her family experienced. Again, you may have learned about slavery in school, but did you ever think of how soul-permeating  the impact of being owned really was? Some free blacks prospered but Dunbar makes clear that for many others being an escapee was a life sentence of poverty, ill health, and struggle.

Dunbar’s book is full of details of post-Revolutionary America, and observations about the people who were already working to end slavery. It’s a painful read when considered in light of the continuing racial injustices in America, and it’s hard not to wonder if the founders had abolished slavery in the Constitution, how different things might have turned out. One tiny quibble I have, and this is likely an issue of my own taste — is that Dunbar sometimes speculates about the emotions of her subjects. For example, in writing about Judge’s son, Dunbar states, “His mother’s depression must have been suffocating.” Or “To Judge, Whipple seemed like a nice enough man; that is, he hadn’t yet called for the constable to have her arrested.” I think telling readers that Judge’s lot in life was pretty miserable by the time her 16 year old son decided to become a sailor is enough — readers can conclude that he probably didn’t want to be around her misery. Similarly, the exchange between Whipple (a man who realized who Judge was as she was applying for work) and Judge makes clear that she was able to continue the conversation, which is enough evidence that she didn’t feel he was a threat; we don’t need to be told Judge thought he was nice, which ventures into speculation.

To be clear, maybe somewhere in Dunbar’s research she came across something that said Judge thought Whipple was nice, I don’t know. I just don’t like the speculative style of nonfiction fiction writing that seems to be popular right now, and I blame it on the overly dramatic “historical re-creation” television programs that are ubiquitous. But this happens only rarely in Never Caught, which is otherwise an interesting and horrifying account of the beginnings of the split in our early union and the deplorable toll slavery took on people. And the well told story of a woman I’d guess most Americans have never heard of.

As for my other Reader’s Choice? Something completely different. I had a crummy week last week so I lost myself in a light read, Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess. It’s everything an escapist read should be: funny, smart, and romantic. Plus, there are mouth watering descriptions of cooking, lovely descriptions of the Cotswolds, and sly jabs at high powered law firms and the newly rich. When Kinsella’s heroine, Sam, finds she has made a 50 million pound error on the very day she is supposed to hear whether she made partner at the most successful and prestigious firm in London, she freaks out and gets on a train. When she gets out she has a terrible headache, so knocks on a door to see if she can figure out where she is and ask for a glass of water. The person who answers the door thinks Sam is a housekeeping applicant. She gets the job she didn’t apply for and has no idea how to do — she isn’t even sure how the washing machine works or how to turn on the oven. Who helps her? A handsome and sensitive gardener and his kind mother. Romantic comedy that is screen-worthy. I’d go see it.

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Last spring I read Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community  by MLK, Jr. This week I finished Why We Can’t Wait, which was written four years earlier. King recounts the momentous events of 1963, including the actions undertaken by civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens in Birmingham, the cruelty and violence that the white establishment in Alabama, especially under Bull Connor’s leadership, perpetrated on nonviolent protestors that galvanized national support for the movement, and the March on Washington. And he writes, as very few others can, of his hope for the future. Last spring I found that encouraging. It was harder to feel hopeful this year.

In 1963, King believed that with continued effort, the nonviolent resistance would not only prevail in bringing about equality for black Americans, but that it had the potential to help bring about an end to economic injustice and even war as well. In the final section of Why We Can’t Wait King writes of his belief that “In measuring the full implications of the of the civil-rights revolution, the greatest contribution may be in the area of world peace . . . . Nonviolence, the answer to the Negroes’ need, may become the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity.” He was talking specifically about not only ending nuclear proliferation, but he armed conflict altogether. A few years later he was struggling to remind his own movement of the benefits of nonviolence in the face of calls for armed resistance to institutionalized racism; that made it very painful to read his optimistic words here.

The other thing I found disheartening was King’s description of Congress in 1963. He described a “stranglehold” by a minority devoted to preserving the status quo  (wealth and power, at the expense of justice) and called for “the growth of an enlightened electorate” to break this hold. Clearly decades later there is still a minority — people wealthy and powerful enough to hold office, — strangling the legislative process in this country. Enlightened is not a word I’d use to describe the electorate.

King also called for “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement” for the violation of African Americans’ human rights since the beginning of American history. He cited Nehru’s efforts in India to end mistreatment of the Untouchables as an example. But as recently as this summer, the mistreatment of Untouchables in India made international headlines, and around the world in many cultures, there are comparable groups who are treated as lacking in human dignity. Even in America various privileged groups (I say that as someone who is privileged) demonize and discriminate against various “others” like immigrants, young black men, poor women, the mentally ill, muslims, etc. Would restitution have prevented the further entrenchment of institutionalized racism in America? I doubt we’ll ever know.

I think it’s common around the national MLK holiday (still observed as Great Americans Day in Biloxi, Mississippi) to wonder what King would make of the  continuing racial injustice in America. I don’t dare speculate, as a privileged white woman, but I like to hope that he would still believe love can win. On good days, I still believe that too. But re-reading Letter From Birmingham Jail and then reading about the way our president-elect went after civil rights veteran and U.S. Congressman John Lewis this week on social media, I feel as if love and progress have their work cut out for them.

 

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I was chatting with a professor at work last week about what we’d each read over the holiday break and he mentioned Slade House. Longtime bookconscious readers know I’ve enjoyed several other titles by David Mitchell, and actually The Computer Scientist had pointed out Slade House to me when it first came out, so I went to the stacks and checked it out.

It’s a trip of a book, from it’s strange little format (in the hardcover edition we have at the library, which is square and has a cut-out cover exposing an Escher-esque maze of stairs) to the idea of the novel itself – that twins Norah and Jonah Grayer have learned the secret of immortality. Both “engifted” with psychic powers, they hone their mystical skills until they have perfected luring other unsuspecting engifteds, usually people who are misfits in the world, and take what they need from them to go on living (I don’t want to give away the whole story). You can guess that doesn’t end well for the victims.

The other premise of the book is that Slade House, where the twins’ strange and nasty work is done, doesn’t exist in the physical plane of the world, but in an “orison” of a house that was bombed in WWII. The door to reach the garden of the great old house appears every nine years in Slade Alley. So the victims are from different decades in each chapter.

It’s a short book (it took me a week because I’m also reading another book), and it feels like an over-grown short story to me. I understand that it’s related to The Bone Clocks, which I haven’t read. I enjoyed Slade House even though it left me wanting to know more about both Jonah and Norah (I would have liked to have read about their growing up, discovering their gifts, and honing them — we get all that as backstory told by another character) and their victims, who we meet only as they are lured into Slade House. Still, Mitchell is a good writer and he tells a compelling tale.

I like the kind of story that makes you look around and think “What if . . . ?” as in “What if there really were engifteds around here somewhere?” Let’s face it even if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t believe in ghosts and never considers metaphysical questions, an awful lot of people do, and an awful lot of people claim to have experienced the presence of someone who is no longer in the physical world. I think as long as there have been stories, and as long as there are stories, people will place their hopes and fears about what happens when we die, whether a part of us (soul, spirit, ghost, or whatever you call it) goes on and if so where it goes, how existence works. So brief as it may be, Slade House, gets to the heart of that and its appeal is in this universal hope or fear (or both).

Back soon with the nonfiction book I’ve nearly finished.

 

 

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I finished The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago and have been avoiding writing about it. I think the author is passionate about her topic. It’s interesting. There is a whole group of girls who are dressed as boys in order to uphold their families’ honor and provide them with someone who can run errands, escort the girls and women to school and shopping, etc. When Jenny Nordberg found out about these “bacha posh” she was intrigued and began a quest to find and record the stories of current or former bacha posh.

Nordberg makes some very important points about international efforts in Afghanistan. By focusing so much on the rights of girls and women, westerners have fed the notion that gender equality is “against men.” Nordberg posits that by focusing so much on women in a place where many men cannot find work to support their families, NGOs and foreign powers have further entrenched the patriarchy. And that in a society where men literally control every move women make, “Men are the key to infiltrating and subverting patriarchy.”

Sensible, right? The stories are wrenching, but how wonderful that someone told them, right? The issues the books raises about gender roles and gender identity deserve wide attention and are really vital issues in our world. But for some reason, I just did not love this book, and I can’t really explain why. I usually enjoy books about hard topics, or books that challenge accepted wisdom, or examine the status quo in new ways. I think both the subject and the writing in The Underground Girls of Kabul are compelling.

I leave you with this mystery, dear readers. For unexplained reasons, I just didn’t like this perfectly deserving book. It’s different than a full on reading funk, where no book appeals, because I’ve started a couple of other titles since this one and am liking them well enough. Anyone else experience this lately?

 

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