Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

randomfamily Random Family is an incredible first-hand account following the lives of several families based out of The Bronx in New York City over a ten-year period. At the heart of this book is the familiar cycle of poverty: teen pregnancies, absentee/imprisoned fathers and harried young mothers who are ill-equipped emotionally and financially to raise kids — some of whom grow up to repeat the cycle.

There was no money, only a Starburst left. “Can I have that?” She asked her father, who then popped it in his mouth. He exaggerated it’s deliciousness. “Bite it,” he said, inviting her to sample the sticky gob on the tip of his tongue.

“Gim-me!” Mercedes cried. Cesar pulled out the gooey and offered it to her, but just as she reached for it, he pulled it back. He teased her with the offer again, and just as she reached for it, he swallowed it and smacked his lips.

In the subtle tyranny of that moment beat the pulse of Cesar’s neighbourhood–the bid for attention, the undercurrent of hostility for so many small needs ignored and unmet, the pleasure of holding power, camouflaged in teasing, the rush of love. Cesar’s three-year-old daughter walked back out into the world and left him behind.

Life is hard in prison and on the outside where the system is a series of speed bumps, hurdles, and roadblocks in the form of appointments and qualifications these women must meet — often with several children in tow — to get food and housing.

The ghetto is a patriarchal society of domineering, often shiftless or imprisoned men whose attention the women compete for.

A lifetime assault of contradictory messages–to be sexy, to respect, that all men were dogs but without them women were nothing–reinforced her sense of powerlessness and futility.

The beautiful thing about this book is the strength and resilience of the young mothers, who despite their hopelessly irresponsible and often violent men and a system practically set up to fail them, most of them “do right” and raise their kids, they best they can. As a reader, you want these women to succeed, you want to see their burdens eased, and you cheer them on.

Here’s an interview with the author, ten years after the publication of the book. This book is a striking, sobering portrait of one sprawling family, though the abject poverty and the system as oppressor are too familiar.

I discovered this book at the top of the Unlisted List at Vela.

August, 2015

Bettyville: A Memoir by George Hodgman

BettyvilleI am terrified of getting old.

I fear becoming vulnerable mentally and physically. I’m afraid of not being able to look after myself, of my mind and memory dissolving and unraveling, putting me out of control of my life. I’m afraid that at times I’ll be lucid enough to know I’m failing. I’m petrified of becoming dependant on — at the mercy of — others.

In Bettyville: A Memoir, author George Hodgman leaves New York and returns to his family home in Missouri to care for his 90-year-old mother, Betty. As mother and son, Betty and George are a lot alike. Throughout their lives they’re both just trying to “get it right.” Betty did her best to raise a son she knows is gay but whose lifestyle she can’t accept. Commitment-phobic George does his best to care for an emotionally remote mother who is wonderfully cantankerous, independent, and fiercely unsentimental.

The book is about aging with grace, about allowing yourself to be vulnerable, about preserving dignity despite memory loss and the body’s tragicomic fall. It’s about the distances between close family members, about the two people who supplied your DNA, yet fear acknowledging who you really are, and about how silences suppress the truth. It’s about allowing yourself to be cared for, to be taken care of. What’s beautiful about this book is the tenderness, respect, understanding, and forgiveness with which George treats his mother. We should all be so lucky to have someone like him at our side when our decline steepens.

Betty Baker Hodgman died just this past Sunday, July 26th, 2015. She was 93 years old.

I read this book twice back-to-back. It’s worth your time.

June and July, 2015

The White Queen by Phillippa Gregory

thewhitequeenI discovered this first book of six in The Cousins’ War series Googling what to read while waiting for George R. R. Martin to complete the next instalment in The Game of Thrones series. Recommended on this list by Vox, I feel like The White Queen is much more a historical novel than a fantasy novel. True, Elizabeth Woodville — descendant of water goddess Melusina — can cast spells to control weather and injure her foes, though this magical element is a tiny part of the book.

The White Queen tells Elizabeth’s Woodville’s story: an unlikely widow marries a king in secret and, after the secret wedding is revealed, various factions in England play tug-of-war with the throne for the following 300 pages. The allegiances dissolve and reform so fast that you need a pen and paper to keep tally. I learned early on in reading this book not to count on any loyalty from anyone and found this the most disappointing aspect of the book. There are few — if any — characters to root for.

To say the Plantagenets, the Yorks, and the Tudors lacked imagination in naming their children is an understatement. There are so many Edwards, Richards, Elizabeths, Henrys, and Georges that you need an org chart and an alive/dead/in exile scorecard to keep track of who is who and where they are.

There are five more books in this series, covering different real-life players in a true life 15th Century England game of thrones, though they’re not for me.

June — July, 2015

Betty is unsentimental

when Jane comes out, we hug, but Betty draws back. Her family, the Bakers, did not hug socially, and she is not a woman who cares much for such. Nor is she often sentimental. Inside a silver locket she has worn for years, a gift from my father, are the stock photographs of strangers it came with.

Bettyville: A Memoir by George Hodgman

On the second read of Bettyville. Fantastic book.

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

On the Move_ A Life - Oliver Sacks Read Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life and prepare yourself for a series of vignettes by a master storyteller. It’s as though Oliver has arrived at your dinner table to regale you with anecdotes, memories, and stories of his career, travels, writing, relationships, loves, and life. As a reader, you want to make sure his wine glass stays full, so that he keeps on talking.

Sacks’ enthusiasms are deep and expansive. It’s this passion, palpable warmth, and self-deprecating charm that compel you to adore him. His fascination with the brain, deep respect and appreciation for science, and empathy for his patients anchor the book. Around these snapshots of his career are stories about his love for California in the 60s, his passion for motorcycling, weightlifting and the Muscle Beach scene, his relationships, and youthfully prodigious drug use.

This book is worth your time.

June, 2015

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Children-of-god Children of God is the sequel to The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell’s fabulous Jesuit time-travel tale. While I enjoyed this book and recommend it if you’ve read The Sparrow I found the plot, pacing, and new characters disappointing.

Emilio leaves the priesthood and falls in love with Gina Giuliani, ex-wife of Camorra mobster Carlo Giuliani. They’re set to marry, and suddenly, Carlo beats and abducts Emilio to fulfill the Vatican’s wish for Emilio to return to Rakhat. It’s this beating and abduction that disappoints. The philosophical discussion about whether the ends justify any means in the name of God falls flat. There had to be a better way to get Emilio to choose to return to Rakhat on his own terms.

The plot’s pace flags at times; Emilio arrives on Rakhat only after 90% of the book is complete. It seems odd that as a reader you have to wait that long for that main event in the book to take place. Rakhat’s political and social landscape have altered dramatically in the years since his departure; the Runa have overthrown the Jana’ata in an uprising initiated with Sofia’s prophetic chant in the Kashan massacre: We are many. They are few.

Sofia is revered on Rakhat as a revolutionary, toted about in a sedan chair as if she were royalty. Life on Rahkat has been hard on her and she’s bitter about losing her son Isaac, an autistic savant who essentially just wanders away from her one day, and never returns. There is a sad irony in Isaac. As an autistic, he can’t relate or connect socially. He’s born to a mother who used intelligence as prophylactic against human connection, who sold her incisive mind to escape prostitution.

Sofia and Emilio’s eventual reunion is awkward and tense, poisoned by Sofia’s bitterness and Emilio’s still-precarious emotional state.

While the prose is almost as beautiful as The Sparrow, the new characters — especially Gina, her daughter Celestina, and the second Jesuit mission crew (Carlo, Danny Iron Horse, Sean Fein, Frans, and Nico) — feel like one dimensional caricatures. It’s particularly disappointing because the characters in The Sparrow were deep and interesting and original. It’s too bad that so few of them lived to appear in the sequel.

If you enjoyed The Sparrow, you should read this book, though prepare yourself for a different sort of a ride.

May — 2015

Isaac makes a song of DNA

…he had set himself the task of memorizing every base pair in human DNA, having assigned a musical note to represent each of the four bases–adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. He would listen to the monotonous four-note sequences for hours.

“Sipaj, Isaac,” she’d asked when this jag started, “what are you doing?”

“Remembering,” he said…

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

TheSparrow I stumbled on The Sparrow from a tweet by Erik Westra. Erik is gold when it comes to books. I read and loved A Constellation of Vital Phenomena on his recommendation.

Like ACoVP, The Sparrow is a beautiful and poignant novel which tells the story of a family made, not chosen. A disparate set of earthlings travel light years to the Alpha Centauri system in a bid to find intelligent life — the singers they interpret via radio signals on earth.

When the travelers, (Emilio Sandoz — Jesuit priest/linguist, Dr. Anne Edwards and her engineer husband George Edwards, Sofia Mendes, an artificial intelligence expert, astronomer Jimmy Quinn, music expert Alan Pace, botanist Marc Robichaux, and their leader, D.W. Yarbourgh, the Father Superior) arrive on Rakhat — a beautiful planet with three suns — they encounter the Runa, a species of nonviolent gatherers based in Kashan. Supaari VaGaygur, a third-born Jana’ata merchant, supervises trade in the Kashan region.

This book is so beautiful in so many ways: the anthropological exploration of Runa and Jana’ata as species, their respective societies, and cultural norms is fascinating. You almost feel as though you’re a silent participant on the scientific mission. The characters are exceptionally well drawn; they’re complex and conflicted and beautifully flawed. It’s the relationships between the humans — how they eventually drop their masks to embrace their plight on Rakhat and surrender to one another — and to love — that’s most satisfying.

While this book is about exploration and the search for alien sentience, faith is the dominating theme.

The Sparrow explores faith and the opposite of faith — despair — the state of being in which the faithful feels that God has abandoned them. Emilio Sandoz suffers a crisis of faith, questioning why a just and loving God would allow the cruelty, depravity, and brutality he suffers on Rakhat. It’s only through a harrowing confession that as a reader you must bear witness to, that you begin to understand Emilio’s despair and God’s part in it.

This book is a about predators and prey, the helpful and the helpless, about how in extreme cases we must be completely stripped bare — become naked before God — in order to regain our humanity.

“So God just leaves?” John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. “Abandons creation? You’re on your own, apes. Good luck!”

“No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us and remembering.”

“Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. “‘Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it.'”

“But the sparrow still falls,” Felipe said.

In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I read this book twice, back-to-back. It’s worth your time.

March — April, 2015

The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

300px-WoT08_ThePathOfDaggersThe Path of Daggers book eight of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series — revolves around rebellion and mystery.

The rebel Aes Sedai, led by Egwene al’Vere clinging perilously to her Amyrlin Seat, open a traveling window in the last couple pages of the book, foreshadowing the pending war with Elaida’s forces.

The great mystery? Mat Cauthon is still where we left him at the end of book seven: buried (but presumably still alive) under a pile of rubble.

While the plot still lollygags aimlessly for hundreds of pages, mired by unnecessary scene description, dozens of meaningless characters, and an anti-climactic Seanchan battle scene in which Rand nearly fries himself and everyone around him misusing the “sword-that-is-not-a-sword,” I need to know if Perrin rescues Faile or whether she finds a way to escape. I need to know if Elayne secures the Lion Throne of Andor. I need to know whether we see Loial the Ogier — my favorite character — ever again. I need to know if Rand retains his sanity. I’m curious about how he resolves his relationship quandries around Min, Elayne, and Aviendha. I also want to know whether plucky, lucky Mat Cauthon surfaces from under that pile of rubble.

March — April, 2015

Romanità

The city gave its name to the power of patience— Romanità . Romanità excludes emotion, hurry, doubt. Romanità waits, sees the moment and moves ruthlessly when the time is right. Romanità rests on an absolute conviction of ultimate success and arises from a single principle, Cunctando regitur mundus: Waiting, one conquers all.

The Sparrow Mary Doria Russell