Saturday, February 3, 2018

A challenge for Black History Month

February is Black History Month, so it's a good time to look more closely at the history of racism in our country.  Most of us lack a complete and deep understanding of the history of racist ideas in America, and this prevents us from comprehending the complexity of the issue and the way forward.  As I mentioned in my reading notes posted a few weeks ago, the last book I read in 2017 was Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi.  It won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction.  The Judges inscription for the award reads:

"Stamped from the Beginning turns our ideas of the term "racism" upside-down.  Ibram X. Kendi writes as a thoughtful cultural historian, aware that he is challenging deeply held, often progressive assumptions.  Using a masterful voyage through the history of the U.S. political rhetoric, beginning with Cotton Mather and ending with hip-hop, he argues that even the most fervent anti-racists have been infected with that resilient virus.  With his learning, he dares us to find a cure." 

Ibram X. Kendi is an award-winning historian and New York Times best-selling author.  He's Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.  This book is brilliant and very important.  It challenges the assumption that we can overcome racism simply through overcoming hate and ignorance.

"Hate and ignorance have not driven the history of racist ideas in America.  Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America.  And this fact becomes apparent when we examine the causes behind, not the consumption of racist ideas, but the production of racist ideas."

I can't possibly adequately summarize this book, even if I went back and copied out every passage I marked with a sticky note.

This is why I wish everyone could read the book.  At over 500 pages, it is not an easy or quick read.  But it is well worth your time, and it's imperative to understanding how we got where we are today in terms of racism in the United States.

If you're unable to commit to a 500+ page history book, start by visiting Kendi's website.  There you can read some of his essays.  Also check out his recent piece in the The New York Times: "The Heartbeat of Racism is Denial ."

If you're a reader, please consider diversifying your reading habits in general.  Why not commit to reading a book by a Black author to honor Black History Month?  In the past year, I've read a number of excellent books across a variety of genres, including but not limited to:
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesym Ward (fiction)
Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith (memoir)
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (young adult fiction)
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (essays)
March Trilogy by John Lewis (nonfiction/graphic novels)

Of course, reading is just one way to help us better understand Black History and racism in America.  In Milwaukee, there are a variety of organizations that host events to help our community better understand racism and the challenges of segregation in our city.

I am attending one such event on February 13th at the Frank Ziedler Center for Public Discussion.  The event is "Interrogating Whiteness" and will include an introduction by Martha Barry, an instructor for the YWCA's "Unlearning Racism" course, storytelling, and discussions with fellow community members about racial identity and whiteness.  I am participating as an Ex Fabula Fellow, having had the privilege of participating in the third year of the Ex Fabula Fellowship this fall.   "Ex Fabula strengthens community bonds through the art of storytelling."  They partner with a number of organizations in the community to put on outstanding events.  For example, my husband and I attended "Refugee Stories" at the Haggerty Museum of Art and heard compelling and braves stories from several immigrants who live in our community.  Be sure to check out Ex Fabula's website (linked above) or FB page for upcoming events.

There are many local organizations committed to fostering community bonds and better understanding.  The Ziedler Center mentioned above, as well as many local libraries, sponsor events.  The Milwaukee Jewish Museum currently has an exhibit about civil rights.  ZIP MKE is a grassroots organization that uses photography to engage and connect people throughout Milwaukee.  If you're on Facebook, check out March on Milwaukee 50th, which is a page "dedicated to the commemoration of Milwaukee's Civil Rights Movement and the 200 nights of Fair Housing Marches that took place in 1967."  These are just a few examples.


"Shallow understanding from people of good will
is more frustrating
than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."  
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reading, storytelling, are you going to work to better understand?

Please feel free to comment with any organizations, events, books, etc. that you would recommend. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Year-end book & blog notes

A new year has started with its promise of fresh starts and new beginnings.  I usually like to take some time at the end of the year to look back and to look ahead, setting goals for the year to come.  There wasn't much space for reflection at the end of the year.  I'm just getting around to wrapping up my reading notes and looking back at my blog activity for 2017.

I blogged nineteen times in 2017, which is exactly the number of times I blogged in 2016.  Since I don't blog a certain day or number of times per week, this is purely incidental.  I'm pondering some blogging and writing goals for 2018, but I haven't settled on anything specific yet.

Of the posts I wrote last year, these three received the most views:
1)  When your dad dies (& some thoughts on grief)
2)  Yes, Shakespeare is for everyone.
3)  all you mommas

Since the posts are not on any one specific theme or topic, this confirms that my blog is indeed "A blog about nothing (and anything)."  One constant in my three and a half years of blogging is my reading notes.  Here's what I've read since my last post in September through the end of 2017.

Adult Fiction

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
In light of everything that's been in the news lately - regarding immigration and the alleged comment about "shithole" countries - this novel is a very timely read.  In fact, it's one of the books listed in the article "11 Incredible Books by Writers from 'Shithole' Countries."  The story takes place during the financial collapse of  2008 and chronicles the lives of two men and their families.  Jende Jonga is an immigrant from Cameroon living in Harlem who becomes the chauffeur of Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers.  I really liked the way the author developed the various characters and wove together the stories of the families.  Perhaps this book asks more questions than it answers about the "American dream."  And that's what makes it so thought-provoking, in addition to being a beautifully-written and compelling story.  Highly recommended! 

The End of Temperance Dare by Wendy Webb
This is a suspenseful and mysterious "ghost story" that takes place in an artists' retreat that was formerly a sanatorium for patients with (and mostly dying from) tuberculosis.  I'd read another of Webb's mysteries and knew I could count on her for a page-turner.  If you're willing to suspend your disbelief (it's a ghost story after all!), you will be entertained.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett
This is the debut novel of Brit Bennett.  The Goodreads description reads: "Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California, Brit Bennett's mesmerizing first novel is an emotionally perceptive story about community.  It begins with a secret."  Throughout the novel, we see how this secret affects the lives of the three main characters, as well as the families and church community in which they are rooted, as they grow from teens to young adults.  I enjoyed many aspects of the book, but I was dissatisfied with some of the character development and with the ending.

Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
A few friends recommended this novel.  I enjoy historical fiction and this didn't disappoint.  It was interesting to learn about a piece of history that I hadn't been familiar with - the Eugenics Sterilization Program in North Carolina, under which social workers had over 7000 women sterilized, some without their knowledge or consent.  The characters drew me in, and the story was very good.

Tenth of December by George Saunders
After reading Lincoln in the Bardo, I put Saunders' short story collection on my to-read list.  Once again, I'm impressed with his singular style.  As a reader, I was fascinated by these strange and quirky stories.  As a writer, I'm always fascinated by the concept of what a story can be.  Short and long, funny and sad, realistic and fantastical.  The title story is a beauty.  My other favorites were "Victory Lap," "Puppy," "The Semplica Girl Diaries" and "Home."

Child / Young Adult Fiction 

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
This book won the 2017 Newberry Medal.  I saw it on a website and was intrigued by the title and beautiful cover.  It's a middle-grade fantasy novel, and I enjoyed the characters, their fantastical world and the story very much.  The writing is quite lyrical, however, so I wonder how it resonates with young readers.  I know I definitely want to read more of Barnhill's books.

Uglies, Pretties, Specials - Scott Westerfeld
This is a popular young adult dystopian series.  As is often the case, the first book was the strongest.  It's an interesting concept - the idea of making everyone meet the same standard of beauty through surgery.  However, there was an ongoing girl against girl thing between the main character Tally and her sometimes friends-sometimes enemy, plus their involvement in a love triangle with a male character, that really irritated me.  There are better books to read in this genre for sure.         

Whirligig by Paul Fleischman
This is a young adult novel that was the "all school read" for my son's high school this fall.  It's a short book and a quick read.  It's very sad but also an extremely moving story of redemption.


The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
by Daniel James Brown
I hesitating reading this, despite recommendations, because I thought it would be a "sports book."  But I'm so glad I finally read it.  It's a such a compelling historical narrative of the time period and more specifically of the people.  The life story of Joe Rantz - his hardships and his grit - is fascinating.  The second half was particularly good.  Although we know what's going to happen, the author draws us into the story so deeply and so emotionally with the suspense of the races and the lives of the people involved.  I was moved to tears more than once reading this book.  Loved it!

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown

I liked the idea of the book, but the content was just okay to me.  I really admire Brene Brown and have watched her TED talks and read The Gifts of Imperfection, which I loved.  This one was a quick read, but it didn't seem like a complete and cohesive book to me.

Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith
In retrospect, it's interesting that I read this memoir less than a month after reading The Mothers.  Smith's real life story shares some similarities with the fictional story of Nadia in The Mothers - both are coming of age stories about girls who grow up in middle class African American families in California, both have strong ties to their church communities, both lose their mothers at a fairly young age.  But Smith's real life doesn't have the same level of tragedy and isolation as Nadia's fictional life.

Smith is the current U.S. Poet Laureate and her lyrical, beautiful writing hints that she's a poet.  I enjoyed this peek into her life, into a certain family culture at a certain time.  Some aspects I could relate to - the big religious family, the 80s, the insecurities of high school, the love of books and literature.  At the same time, her experience growing up in a black family living among mostly white people was illuminating.   The evolution of her views on both faith and race - particularly when she went away to college - was really interesting to read about .  Perhaps most moving was her close relationship with her mother, the strain of the relationship as she grew older and ultimately the experience of her mother's death when she was still a young adult.  I definitely recommend this memoir.  I haven't read Smith's poetry, but plan to check it out.

Why Buddhism is True: the Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by
Robert Wright
I loved this book!  I was fascinated reading about evolutionary psychology and how our brains/thoughts/feelings developed in certain ways that made sense for hunter-gatherers but no longer serve our needs.  And then to see how this all aligns with secular Buddhism and the practice of meditation was really interesting. 

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
by Mark Manson
This book grew out of a popular blog post - "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck."  I happened to read this right after Why Buddhism is True.  When Manson talks about not giving an "f" about certain things, he's essentially talking about not being attached to emotional reactions and things that don't matter.  He references Buddhist philosophy quite a bit in the book.  Parts of the book were pretty funny, and I enjoyed some of the stories he told about himself and others.  (I was irritated by a story about the importance of being honest and how he told his wife that something she was wearing didn't look good.)  At times his 30-something male humor and life views did not resonate with me.  I'd love to see a similar book written by a middle-aged mom.  Heck, I could WRITE that book.

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
This is the very last book I read in 2017.  It's sitting here on my desk, overdue at the library and with about a million sticky notes marking pages.  This one needs its own blog post.  Stay tuned.

Monday, September 11, 2017

End-of-summer reading notes: from challenging to comforting

School is back in session; the days are getting shorter; and it's starting to feel like fall.  It's a good time to wrap up my reading notes for the summer and get back to blogging, since I haven't posted for several weeks.

In my last reading posts, June reading notes: a lot about Asia & a little about multi-tasking, I wrote about a few books that were more challenging reads.  I enjoy reading a wide variety of genres and authors.  Reading can be a form of relaxation and stress relief as well as education and enlightenment. 

In a post from a few years ago, I wrote about the stress-relieving benefits of reading.  My mix of reading at the end of summer had me thinking that just as we have "comfort foods," we may also have "comfort books."  For me, novels that allow me to delve into fantasy worlds are "comfort books."  I ended the summer by reading a few young adult fantasy novels.  Life got busy and stressful, and I felt the need to switch gears from the mix of realistic fiction and nonfiction that I'd been reading for the past few months.

Contrary to all that, the first book listed here pretty much defies genre and categorization.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This is a very different sort of novel.  I started reading it during our family reunion weekend, which is an environment that doesn't lend itself to deep concentration.  I kept rereading the first several pages and thinking - what is this!?  When I got home and had longer periods of uninterrupted reading, I was able to fully appreciate and embrace this unique novel.   

It's a ghost story of sorts set during the Civil War in the aftermath of Willie Lincoln's death.  The term "bardo" refers to a kind of limbo in the Tibetan tradition.  The novel takes place in one day.  The story of what occurs in the cemetery is interspersed with historical quotes or passages.  Except, as I found out later, some of those passages are real historical accounts while others are made up by the author.  The ghosts living in the cemetery do not understand themselves to be dead and are going about "life" while also observing Abraham Lincoln as he visits his dead son.  Lincoln's grief over the death of Willie is portrayed very movingly.  Even the historical or "faux-historical" quotes about Mary Lincoln's grief brought me to tears.  The book can be confusing, especially in terms of point of view, but I got it after a while and became fond of the two main ghost characters.

I'm not sure if I could universally recommend this book.  Some readers may not appreciate the unusual format and style.  Yet it's well worth reading, in my opinion.  Both the personal and universal aspects of grief are portrayed beautifully.  Consider this passage, which is one of the ghosts describing Lincoln's thoughts toward the end of the book:
 "His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it." 


Present over Perfect: Leaving behind frantic for a simpler, more soulful way of living
by Shauna Niequist

I read this for a discussion group.  Apparently, the author is a popular blogger/speaker (  The book seems like a collection of blog posts.  I found it to be repetitive, essentially saying the same thing over and over in a slightly different way.  I'm definitely on board with the idea of living more simply, but the author comes from a place of economic privilege that made it hard for me to relate to her.  Most of us moms are not able to go to a lake house for a month every summer, go on yearly retreats, take frequent vacations with friends and go on exotic trips with our families.  That being said, I really enjoyed the discussion this book prompted with a wonderful group of women.  So in the end, it was worth the short and quick read. 


Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Starry River of the Sky
When the Sea Turned to Silver
by Grace Lin

The first of these companion middle-grade novels I read a few years ago with my daughter as part of a mother-daughter book club.  I've been wanting to reread it along with the other two.  All three books benefit from Lin's lyrical writing and beautiful illustrations.  References to characters and stories overlap, but this isn't a series.  Folktales and storytelling are woven into the main story.  The protagonist in each book takes a journey of some sort and ultimately finds courage to help others.  Grace Lin has written and illustrated a number of picture books and early readers as well.  Check out her website for more information.   

The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne

This is a suspenseful and entertaining psychological thriller.  The premise was clever.  The main character is a woman whose father  - who had kidnapped her mother and kept them both in captivity for many years - escaped from jail.  It was a great summer read!

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

I love Semple's writing!  This novel takes place in the course of one day during which the protagonist Eleanor Flood is having a crisis of sorts and coming to terms with part of her life that she'd kept secret.  Like the author's Where'd you go, Bernadette?, it's a comedic reflection on modern motherhood and middle age.  There were parts that had me laughing out loud, and I wish I would have marked passages to reread.  I'm remembering a funny scene at Costco as one.  I find Semple to be hilarious and enjoy her somewhat manic style.  But I know from reading reviews and talking to others that her style doesn't resonate with everyone. 

The Blue Sword
The Hero and the Crown
 by Robin McKinley

I read a couple of McKinley's novels many years ago.  When a friend added these to her to-read list on Goodreads, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed this author.  These two particular books occur in the same fantasy world and a couple of characters overlap.  I appreciate McKinley's strong female characters and their adventures with the addition of some romance too.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Although I wasn't able to make the meeting, I started reading this for a book discussion group.  The Pulitzer Prize winner is a nonfiction narrative written from Dillard's journal observations of her natural surroundings at and around Tinker Creek.  As she writes on her website (linked above): "The book attempted to describe the creator, if any, by studying creation.."

It took me a while to get into the book, and I was side-tracked by other things I was reading at the same time.  But as I got further in, I found myself marking several passages with sticky notes.  The writing is lovely and insightful.  Here's one snippet:   
"A great tall cloud moved elegantly across an invisible walkway in the upper air, sliding on its flat foot like an enormous proud snail.  I smelled silt on the wind, turkey, laundry, God what a world.  There is no accounting for one second of it."
Dillard seems a kindred spirit in her exultation of the wonders of our natural world and philosophical reflections.  I definitely want to read this again, when I'm not in the middle of sending one child back to college and getting the other two off to their first and last years of high school plus going back to school (work) myself.  It's a book that deserves more savoring and pondering than I was able to give it at the time.     

 The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Some of my librarian friends are fans of Stiefvater, and I've wanted to read her books for a while.  I decided to start with this stand-alone title rather than one of her series.  It was a great book to escape and relax into during the first week of school.  I enjoyed the characters, especially the main character Puck (Kate), as well as the setting and storyline.    

 What have you been reading lately?
What are your "comfort reads"? 
What's on your list to read this fall?
Happy reading!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Yes, Shakepeare is for everyone.

In three years of blogging, I've often written about the places I enjoy in my city - parks, pools, neighborhoods, etc.  Another gem in Milwaukee, of which I'm a huge fan, is Shakespeare in the Park.  It was a pleasure to attend this year at the new venue, the Peck Pavilion at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, with three generations of my family.  All of us  - from fourteen to eighty-two years of age - thoroughly enjoyed Much Ado About Nothing.  We watched, captured by the story and the characters; we laughed; and we were moved and entertained each in our own way.  That's the beauty of Shakespeare's plays.  And it's our great fortune to have Shakespeare in the Park giving us that gift each summer for free, making Shakespeare accessible to families and to others who might not otherwise be exposed to the Bard. 

our group before the performance of Much Ado About Nothing
The new location is amazing, and I look forward to future summers of Shakespeare there!  At the same time, I feel lucky to have been in on Shakespeare in the Park from the start and to have enjoyed the various venues through the years.  I remember taking my sons, then ten and twelve years old, to see The Tempest the inaugural year at Alverno College.  We were excited and got dressed up for our theater date.  I recall my sons' excitement at attending a play outdoors and their enthusiasm for the characters and the sets.  The next two years, my husband and I took all three of our kids to Twelfth Night and Macbeth at Alverno.  We appreciated the humor of Twelfth Night and the eeriness of Macbeth, our first tragedy. 

a view of the stage at Kadish Park, summer of 2015
The move to Kadish Park brought new excitement, being right in our own Riverwest neighborhood.  We were there with various groups of family and friends to see As You Like It in 2013 and A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2015.  It's been fun to see some of the same actors, from year to year, in different roles or to recognize actors whom we've seen in plays at First Stage or other places.  Although I didn't make it to Kadish Park last summer, our younger two kids saw Julius Caesar with their aunt and uncle the same weekend my husband and I were moving our oldest child to college.  So, yes, our kids really have "grown up" with Shakespeare, thanks to Shakespeare in the Park! 

a list of supporters' names illustrate William Shakespeare, summer of 2013

If you're in Milwaukee, there are a few more opportunities to see Much Ado About Nothing at the Peck Pavilion this Thursday, Friday and Saturday (July 20-22). 

Click here for details and get thee to the show!  


Why Shakespeare?  (an end-note)

Shakespeare's plays have endured through the ages and hold a place in the canon of literature.  Many of the themes are universal and accessible to people - of various ages and backgrounds - in different ways.  References to Shakespeare's plays, plots and characters abound in literature and art and even in popular culture.  And the language of the plays is wonderful.  I'm not a scholar or expert, but I know for sure that Shakespeare's plays have enriched our lives. 

As a book lover and voracious reader, one of my priorities as a parent has been to expose my kids to good books and literature.  I was inspired by an education blog to introduce my kids to Shakespeare when they were still pretty young.  Experiencing Shakespeare is not just about slogging through the text of Romeo and Juliet or The Merchant of Venice in middle or high school.  In Shakespeare's day, people didn't read Shakespeare.  They attended and enjoyed the plays.  If we read Shakespearse's plays, that shouldn't be completely divorced from experiencing them as performances.  For example, we have:  listened to an audiobook dramatization while following along in a text; read a synopsis or an abridged version and then watched the play or movie; or, attended a play first and then gone back to read parts of the text.  There's an abundance of resources about Shakespeare and his plays, both online and in books - adaptations, teaching guides, graphic novels, cartoon dramatizations, and so on.  A Google search or a chat with your favorite librarian can get you started, or feel free to ask me about some of my favorite resources.

Ron Scot Fry (founding artistic director of SitP) presents To Be: Shakespeare Here and Now
to our homeschool group, February 2013

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

June reading notes: a lot about Asia & a little about multi-tasking

It seems appropriate to be writing these notes on Independence Day, a federal holiday that commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and a day to celebrate American patriotism. defines patriotism as "love for or devotion to one's country." 
What does "love of or devotion to one's country" look like?  What if one is compelled to leave his or her country (willingly or not)?  It is possible to feel "at home" in a new country or back in the old country or anywhere at all? 

The books above (one nonfiction and two fiction) offered insight, although no easy answers, to those questions.  I admit to not being very knowledgeable about the many countries of Asia and their diverse cultures and histories.  Nor have I read many books with Asian characters or written by Asian authors.  If you've read my last two book notes (which you can find here and here), you know that I'm trying to be deliberate about reading from diverse perspectives.  These three books expanded my understanding of cultures and experiences different than my own.  Not only that, but the books are amazingly well-written and entertaining as well as illuminating. 

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman

Book description from
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down explores the clash between a small county hospital in California and a refugee family from Laos over the care of Lia Lee, a Hmong child diagnosed with severe epilepsy. Lia's parents and her doctors both wanted what was best for Lia, but the lack of understanding between them led to tragedy. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest, and the Salon Book Award, Anne Fadiman's compassionate account of this cultural impasse is literary journalism at its finest.
This is a fascinating true story.  The author intersperses chapters about Lia Lee, her family, their life in Laos and the U.S., and details of her medical treatment with chapters about the history and culture of the Hmong people.  The culture clash around Lia's treatment is put into the context of her Hmong culture, customs, and political history.  I knew very little, for example, about how the CIA trained Hmong men to fight against communists in Laos, the subsequent abandonment of those who fought, the story of the Hmong people escaping to Thailand and their eventual resettlement in the United States and other countries.  And while I was aware that Wisconsin has a significant Hmong population, I didn't realize that the three states with the largest Hmong populations are California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Through the story of the Lee family and other families chronicled in the book, I learned a lot about the experiences of Hmong refugees in the United States.  The author does a good job of representing the various "sides" of the story - the Lee family, the medical professionals, social workers, etc.  The events took place in the 1980s, and the book was written in the 1990s.  For that reason, I appreciated the afterward and updates included in the fifteenth anniversary edition.      

My curiosity about Southeast Asia piqued, I read the novel The Sympathizer by author Viet Thanh Nguyen.  A friend who recently traveled to Vietnam recommended the book to me.  Nguyen is a brilliant writer.  You can read more about him on his website.  I also recommend listening to this interview with him on NPR's Fresh Air.    

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Book description from

The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as five other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship.
Wow - what a read!  What struck me most about this book was the genius of the storytelling and the dark comedy.  It's a tragic story in so many ways, and yet I found myself laughing out loud at numerous passages.  This is not an easy read and the last few chapters were a bit frustrating to me (although I can see why necessary).   

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Book description from
With the coruscating gaze that informed The Sympathizer, in The Refugees Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half-sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration.
After reading The Sympathizer, I wanted to read Nguyen's collection of short stories.  Again, wonderful writing and clever storytelling.  I was absorbed in this collection and read it in two days.

Other June reading:

double dutch by Sharon M. Draper

A good novel for the tween-to-teen age group by popular and award-winning children's author Sharon M. Draper.  I was drawn into the excitement of the double dutch tournaments through Draper's vivid descriptions.  She nicely weaves together the stories of the different characters and their secrets while showing loving relationships between family members and friends who help each other weather challenges and difficulties. 

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

I like this book and am going to reread parts of it because I think author Cal Newport has a lot of great ideas. 

That being said, I had to laugh at myself when I first started reading it because the situation was so antithetical to the spirit of the book.  As I waited for two pots of water to boil, I brought the book into the kitchen with me.  I was cooking the family dinner, making brown rice for a family member with a sick stomach and simultaneously cutting up fresh fruit and veggies and boiling eggs so that everyone would have healthy stuff to pack in their lunches.  The book ended up face down on top of the microwave while I scrambled from stove to sink to refrigerator to cabinet to cutting board and back around.  This was not DEEP work, it was multi-tasking, but - wow! - I was getting a lot of necessary stuff done! 

Of course, the author is referring to "knowledge work" not household management.  But I do wonder how the book might differ if written by a woman and particularly by a mother.  Still, as I mentioned above, there are constructive ideas in the book for anyone who wants to focus more on their "work" (whether paid or creative or otherwise).  Thanks to writer Lisa Rivero from whom I learned about this book on her blog. 

That's it for June.  I have a large stack of books waiting to be read in July.  We'll see how far I get.  How about you?  What have you been reading?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

found sound: noises natural & not

the wind plays variously - 
creaking dilapidated tree trunks,
rustling tall grasses,
tapping paper-thin leaves
against each other on tall red stalks
in a genteel sort of applause.
a bird chorus sings diversely -
a chaos of sounds, high and low,
staccato and long-drawn notes,
dominated by the distinctive calls
of red-wing black birds.
my feet beat softly on the
boardwalk or pavement
and crunch the small stones
of the gravel path.
two runners approach with
the sound of quicker footfall
and later a biker passes by,
the wheels rhythmically
creating a stone-song underneath.
a bunny hops away
not quite noiselessly;
further down the path
a small boy sits with his grandma
at a bench along the river
and greets me with
an enthusiastic hello.
fishermen on the other side
banter boisterously
about grilling their catch
with lots of butter.
a surprised dragonfly flutters
with noisy abruptness from
the bush where it had rested
and an equally startled sparrow
scoots away with tapping
steps and flapping wings
across and above the path;
my ears occasionally
catch the fleeting buzz
of passing insects.
crows caw in the distance
while close to the path
a small and leafy tree explodes
with the loud chattering of
unseen birds hidden within;
i imagine a sort of
bird family celebration
or perhaps a domestic dispute?

leaving the park, i pass
a group of volunteers
quietly conversing
while weeding out
invasive species
as i return to my car
and the sounds of...
a distant church bell ringing,
children playing,
cars and other machinery,
the sounds of the city
going about its day.

Yesterday afternoon I walked around the Rotary Centennial Arboretum at the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park.  I was determined to pay deep attention to the surroundings and particularly the sounds.  Typically I might let my thoughts wander to my "to-do list" or be tempted to take pictures rather than simply appreciate the environment. 

As far as sound, I was inspired by an article I recently read "Soundscape of the city is about more than decibels," including this quote:
"The quality of sound, both good and bad, is among the most significant, yet least-discussed, aspects of the human habitat." 

The article mentions a group called the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology whose mission is "exploring the role of sound in natural and cultural environments."  There's even a World Listening Day on July 18th, 2017, which is "an opportunity to consider and engage one another in an ear-minded, soundscape approach to our environment, to understand our shared role in making and listening across cultures, generations, places, disciplines, and communities..."  Makes you want to listen more, doesn't it? 

I've also been reading writer Lisa Rivero's blog series, DIY Summer Writing Retreat, which would be of interest not only to writers but also to anyone trying to find more focus for creative work.  A few of the posts are about the distractions of social or digital media.  While I don't think I'm an excessive user of social or digital media, I do see the way it easily creeps into my life.  A hike, for example, can too easily become an opportunity to take photos rather than a meditative or recreational stroll.  Yesterday I only allowed myself to take one picture at the end of my walk.  Because I didn't have a notebook with me, I quickly jotted down my observations in the notes on my phone when I got back to the car.  Later I looked those over and wrote this poem.   

There's nothing wrong with photographs, of course.  But I wonder if our constant access to picture-taking via our phones compels us to look more for the photo opportunity than to immerse ourselves in the moment.  What do you think?


Two other nature poems you may enjoy:

cell phone/nature poem for the first day of spring


Saturday, June 3, 2017

February through May reading notes

In my last reading notes (January reading notes - got privilege?), I highlighted a couple of titles that had me thinking about privilege and race.  Over the past four months, I read additional titles related to those themes as well as classic fiction, short stories and a couple of food/diet-related titles.  It was a good mix of genres and themes - just what I like.

For those interested in exploring various perspectives regarding race, I highly recommend the timely young adult novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  Well-written and compulsively readable, it tells the story of Starr Carter, a teenager who lives in an inner-city neighborhood but attends a suburban school.  Starr witnesses the shooting of her good friend by a police officer, and the novel tells of the aftermath.  Starr's voice and perspective are powerful, and the author handles the subject matter skillfully and insightfully.  Read more about the book on the author's website.  This New York Times bestseller has received a number of awards and accolades.

I read the following titles that also deal with race and identity in a variety of ways:

March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
In my January notes, I mentioned this graphic novel series depicting John Lewis' civil rights activism.  It's a well-done and highly-informative trilogy through which I learned a lot about the civil rights movement.  Read more at the publisher's website.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
My daughter was reading it for her middle-school literature group, so I finally read Alexie's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story.  I'm so glad I did.  Junior's experiences he navigates two worlds - life on the reservation and school in town - made me laugh and cry.  A great read.

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay
I really enjoyed most of the essays in this book.  I laughed out loud at Gay's experiences participating in high-level Scrabble competitions.  And I agreed wholeheartedly with her affection for The Hunger Games and her problems with The Help.  I look forward to reading more of her work.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
I decided to read this nonfiction account of Henrietta Lacks and her famous cells since the book was in the media again due to the release of the film version.  It's a compelling read that tells a fascinating and often heart-breaking story. 

I also read the following fiction titles:

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
I love this book!  It's been called heart-warming, feel-good and charming.  It's all of those things and just really good story-telling and a great read.   

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I enjoyed revisiting and discussing this classic with my daughter's middle school literature group.

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
I've read this wonderful children's novel about the American Revolution to or with all three of my children.  Great historical fiction for kids!

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
This is a decent novel and definitely tugs at the heart strings in terms of the characters and their relationships.  I'm not sure how accurate it is as historical fiction.  A few of the plot developments seemed unrealistic.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Given the publicity about the new Hulu series based on this classic dystopian novel, I wanted to reread it.   And I really enjoyed revisiting this story.  I hope to watch the Hulu series eventually.

Fidelity: Five Stories by Wendell Berry
Since I just finished this today, it's technically a June read.  I'm sneaking it in while it's on my mind.  I've read some of Berry's poems and have wanted to read more of his work.  Thanks to my friend Sarah for recommending this collection.  These stories are so beautifully-written and so moving.  In particular, I was in awe of the title piece "Fidelity" and of "Making it Home" about a soldier's return to his family farm after the war.  Oh my.  I'll be reading more of Wendell Berry.


If you read my last post (Sometimes you need a reset), you know that I've been on a quest to improve my eating habits and health.  So I read the following two books.  The first was helpful and informative, although much of the information is on the Whole30 website.  The second was a quick read, and I only skimmed parts.  I don't think the subject matter merited an entire book. 

The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom by Melissa Hartwig and Dallas Hartwig

Food Freedom Forever: Letting Go of Bad Habits, Guilt and Anxiety Around Food by Melissa Hartwig


With only seven days of work remaining before I'm off for the summer, I'm perusing my long list of books to read and looking forward to reading more...

What are your recent favorite reads?  What are you planning to read this summer?