Monday, January 24, 2022

The School for Good Mothers: Amy Tan Meets Margaret Atwood


Even though some of the reviews had prepared me for the futuristic turn in Jessamine Chan's novel The School for Good Mothers. The author does not delay throwing the reader into the story on 39-year-old Frida Liu's "bad day," in which she leaves her fussy toddler daughter Harriet home alone to run for coffee, turning into a two-hour diversion. When the neighbors hear the girl crying and call the authority, the child is taken into protective custody and turned over to her father, Harriet's ex-husband and Susanna, the young Pilates instructor for whom he left Frida. Working with the same lawyer who represented her in the divorce, Frida meets challenges arranging chaperoned visits with her daughter with the social worker. She has to endure cameras placed throughout her apartment, part of a new program being test-piloted in the Philadelphia area. 

Even with the Big Brother atmosphere established before the court date, readers will still be shocked when Frida not only doesn't regain custody but is sent to a training camp for "bad mothers" on a former college campus. The women there are forced to chant, "I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good." The manipulation by the pink-uniformed attendants is unnerving, but when the women are issued robotic children simulating their own children for their re-education, the story takes a heart-wrenching turn for the creepy. 

Frida's interaction with the other women takes on the feel of women's prison, and her growing tenderness toward the "doll" child she calls Emmanuelle is testament to her yearning to be reunited with her own daughter. The difference in age and ethnicity plays a role in the dynamics. As the only Asian mother in the school, Frida is often odd woman out. 

In light of the current less-than-ideal system caring for child welfare, Chan's novel shows what can go wrong when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction and experimentation ignores human realities.


The Feather Thief: Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

 January is off to a good start as I have read such a variety of books. One that fascinated and surprised me was Kirk Wallace Johnson's The Feather Thief, the true story of a heist at the Britain's Natural History Museum in the small town of Tring. Johnson was working to draw attention to the security and safety needs of Afghanis who had cooperated with U.S. Troops when this unusual story was brought to his attention during a fly-fishing excursion. 

He became obsessed with the story, starting with Alfred Russell Wallace, who spent years collecting rare and colorful bird species for the museum, while simultaneously with Darwin developing the theory of natural selection. After losing years of work when a fire broke out aboard the ship when he was returning with his collection, he returned to Malaysia to focus on the Birds of Paradise.

Johnson also provides historical background on the eventual movement to protect the beautiful but rare bird species after so many were collected for women's fashions. The account of a cape made from thousands of hummingbird bodies was enough to give me pause.

The anti-hero of the story Edwin Rist was a young American flute player studying music in England. His interest in music, however, was rivaled by his obsession with salmon flying tying. In that world, he was something of a prodigy. When he learned of the variety of feathers and bird skins stored in drawers in Tring, he broken in through a window and escaped with more than a hundred rare birds. (This is no spoiler alert, since the book opens with the heist.)

While it took the museum weeks even to know the birds had been taken, Rist was eventually brought to justice but let off with barely a slap on the wrist. Johnson, realizing many of the stolen birds were unaccounted for, took on the mission of tracking them down and finding the complete story. 

I knew about other art thefts--the Isabella Stewart Museum, The Scream, Mona Lisa, but this was a new story to me. Having recently read Rachel Joyce's novel Miss Benson's Beetle, about the search for a rare insect, this true story fascinated me with the drive to find unusual creatures in order to attempt to save them.


Saturday, January 1, 2022

My 2021 Annotated Reading List (Warning--A Long Post)

 2021 Reading List

Spoiler alert: This year, I couldn't just list the authors and books. I had to add some notes. I read fewer books than usual this year, since I'm in the middle of my late-in-life doctoral journey, but remembering what I've read what double pleasure.

Montimore, Margarita. Oona Out of Order—a good January read, since on Oona’s 1/1 birthday, she is sent to a different year, in random order.

Wetmore, Elizabeth Valentine. I would love to talk to someone else who read this one.

Rosenthal, Jason, My Wife Says You May Want to Marry Me. Be sure to Google the piece from NYT’s “Love Stories” to find his wife Amy’s essay that inspired this book.

Woodard, Colin. American Nations. This was a required reading for one of my courses this year that I found fascinating, particularly the idea that the U.S. is actually not one but several nations.

Dordal, Lisa. Mosaic of the Dark. (poems)

Harmel, Kristin. Book of Lost Names. There is no way to exhaust the stories from WWII. This one followed the story of a French girl who not only helped forge documents to help children escape Nazi-occupied France, but kept records of their real identities.

Applegate, Katherine. Home of the Brave.

Walters, Jess. The Cold Millions. I’ve read two or three other books by Walters—all different, all engaging.

Smith, Michael Farris. Nick. This novel builds the back story of Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby. Unlike a lot of novels told from another perspective, this one felt less derivative and could stand on its own.

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. The story of two sisters, one who chooses to leave, passing as white in a completely different world.

Saunders, George. A Swim in the Lake in the Rain. It’s hard to described just why I loved this book so much. It’s very much a reader and a writer’s book, using a selection of Russian short stories.

Haig, Matt. The Midnight Library. A lovely take on the ways one might sample the other possible lives.

Kozen and Kozen. The Trust about Leadership. Surprise! This one is a textbook.

Acevedo, The Poet X. This book that won the National Book Award for Young Readers tells the story of a young Harlem girl who finds her voice through spoken word poetry.

Schwartz, Harriet. Connected Teaching. This was a CTL book club selection at Lipscomb, and the author joined the last book discussion. We all needed to find ways to build stronger connections with our students, particularly when teaching remotely.

Lencioni, Patrick. The Advantage. This is another course assignment, dealing with how to build a cohesive team.

Charles, Janet Skeslein. The Paris Library. (See note on Book of Lost Names—another WWII novel). Based on a true story, the protagonist views Nazi-occupied Paris from the American Library there.

Shirer, Priscilla. Elijah: Faith and Fire. I enjoy Shirer’s “women’s Bible studies” more than most. She gets out of her own way and focuses on the Scriptures she is addressing.

Renkl, Margaret. Graceland at Last. I will write more about this essay collection by the Nashville-based NYT author, following on the heels of her lovely Late Migrations.

Lemmie, Asha. Fifty Words for Rain. This novel follows a young Japanese woman whose circumstances of birth send her away from her rightful family.

Parker, Priya. The Art of Gathering. This was recommended by a friend whose reading judgment I respect. I find myself recommending it to anyone who wants to make the best of circumstances that bring people together, whether socially, academically, or otherwise.

Serle, Rebecca. In Five Years. If you knew how your life would end up in five years, would you or could you change it?

Bush, Tony. Theories of Organization Leadership and Management. Yep, another textbook.

Downs, Annie. That Sounds Fun. Reading this makes me wonder why people think it’s so hard to have fun.

Ripley, Amanda. The Smartest Kids in the World (and How They Got That Way). This book, assigned in my International Education class was eye-opening. The appendix is useful for parents and teachers too.

Bowers, Cathy Smith. The Abiding Image. I loved this book by the former NC poet laureate. I remember her speaking about how the “abiding image” informs her poetry. This book is useful for anyone wanting to write, particularly creatively.

McCorkle, Jill. Hieroglyphics. I heard McCorkle and her fellow North Carolinian Lee Smith in conversation (facing Zoom trouble) during the Southern Festival of Books. I’ve never been disappointed by McCorkle’s novels. Even when I’m reading, not listening to an audiobook, I hear her distinct voice.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Klara and the Sun. There is a subtlety to Ishiguro’s writing. This book, set in a future when families can select robots as companions for their children, is haunting.

Dare, Abi. The Girl with the Louding Voice. In her first novel, Dare deftly manages to allow her protagonist to gain her voice. I found it absolutely charming.

Cowan, Justine. The Secret Life of Dorothy Soame.  The author’s lingering bitterness toward her mother doesn’t get in the way of a true story well told, revealing a ugly side to altruism in London.

Reid, Taylor Jenkins. Malibu Rising. At first I had trouble engaging with this novel, fearing it was just another tale of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Learning the background from which the siblings at the core of this story emerged gave me more sympathy for them. 

Kline, Christine Baker. The Exiles. Baker manages to shift from one protagonist to the other in this novel of injustice in England, aboard ship, and in Australia’s penal colony.

Jago, Carol. With Rigor for All. This was a re-read for me, one I recommend for any English teacher. Jago is a leader in English language arts who learned in the trenches, teaching high school for many years. Every one of her books offers more than theory. I always find something I can take right into the classroom. 

Morganstern, Erin. The Starless Sea. Another mysterious, enchanted book for the author of The Night Circus.

Hager, Thomas. Electric City. This book was of particular interest to me, since I’m from the Muscle Shoals area, but his story of Henry Ford’s attempt to build a new Detroit in North Alabama would be of interest to anyone who likes nonfiction.

Lahiri, Jumpa. Whereabouts. Another collection of short stories from the author of The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies.

Schwab, V. E. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Sometimes immortality might be more a curse than a blessing, particularly when you could not leave a mark even on others’ memory. An interesting tale of a Faustian deal.

Berg, Elizabeth. The Confession Club. Berg is known for her novels of women’s friendships. I was far into this book before I realized that some of the characters from The Story of Arthur Truluv, one of my favorites by Berg, made an appearance in this book. 

Ellis, Helen. Bring Your Baggage; Don’t Pack Light. Sometimes, while reading this novel, I had the feeling like when I’m listening to a comedienne who comes on a little strong. It may be that sometimes the familiar feels a little uncomfortable.

Conley, Susan. Landslide. This novel pits responsibility as a mother against that of a wife. Kit’s husband is injured in a boating accident while away fishing to support them. The needs of her two teenaged sons pull her away from going to him.

Thorton, Chris Harding. Pickard County Atlas. This book was recommended by a friend and former colleague who always knows when a book is right for me. A Nebraska family deals with the unsolved disappearance of their son and brother, as the Sheriff deals with his own family’s past.

Anon. Epic of Gilgamesh. I taught this classic of world literature for the first time this semester. I found it especially interesting that it wasn’t unearthed until the nineteenth century and that pieces continue to be unearthed.

Chevalier, Tracy. Virgin Blue. This author builds the backstory to old works of art, bringing in a modern connection.

Jackson, Joshilyn. Mother May I. I honestly believe the best way to experience Jackson’s novels is by listening to her reading the audiobook. This tale of a kidnapping gone wrong keeps the suspense taut all the way through.

Kidd, Sue Monk. The Book of Longings. I’ve heard others speak of a reluctance to read this story that imagines the perspective of a girl who marries Jesus. The author does a beautiful job of bringing readers to that world and developing strong female characters.

Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. This Haitian American author follows the interrelated story of daughters, mothers, and sisters.

Kooser, Ted. Splitting an Order. (poems) I have so much respect for Kooser, a former U.S. Poet Laureate and for his wonderful poems. This made me want to read more.

Morelli, Laura. The Night Portrait. Morelli weaves the stories of DaVinci and a Renaissance courtesan with the WWII story of a female German art restorer and an American soldier of Italian descent charged with protecting the Monuments Men.

Owens, Scott. Sky Full of Stars and Dreaming. I picked up Scott’s latest collection while I was back in Hickory for a visit, then had him to serve as guest poet for Black Dog Poetry Virtual Open Mic. This one lives up to the standard I have learned to expect from him.

Lowell, Catherine. The Mad Woman Upstairs. Attending Oxford, the last living relative of the Brontes deals with the heritage that can’t help but define her.

Osman, Richard. The Thursday Murder Club. This book was recommended by my dear friend, the late George Parks, a prolific reader who loved to talk books. I was delighted upon finishing the book to learn the sequel had just been released.

Ephron, Nora. I Remember Nothing. The late essaying and screenwriter, in this collection, deals with the all-too-real aspects of aging. I even learned to call that swirl that has appeared at the crown of my hair my “Aruba.”

Doerr, Anthony. Cloud Cuckoo Land. Anybody expecting another All the Light We Cannot See will be disappointed, but if you’re willing to go along for the ride, Doerr goes back to ancient Greece and modern American in a tale that weaves mythology and science fiction into realism.

Awad, Mona. All’s Well. With the definition of an unreliable narrator this novel tells the story of a woman who has taken a job as a drama professor after an injury ends her own acting career. She is determined to produce All’s Well That Ends Well, even though her acting students prefer Romeo and Juliet. The element of magical realism brings in shades of “the Scottish play.”

Penny, Louise. The Madness of Crowds. Anyone who keeps up with my reading knows how much I love Penny’s novels. While this one touches on statistics in a way that would appeal to my professors and colleagues, I still insist that readers must start with the first book in the Gamache series, Still Life.

Osman, Richard. The Man Who Died Twice. Yes, as soon as I could, I read this sequel to The Thursday Murder Club.

Adams, Sara Nisha. The Reading List. A moving, well-written tribute to reading, libraries, and friendship, Adams develops the connections between Mukesh, recently widowed, and Aleisha, who works at his local library. I had read (and probably taught) all but one of the books on “the list” and will get to that one soon.

King, Stephen. Billy Summers. Whenever I read anything by King, I am reminded of what a good writer he is. His characters are layered and believable. It’s also fun that he always sneaks in little allusions to his other novels, in this case The Shining.

Towles, Amor. The Lincoln Highway. Towles is another author who never writes the same book twice. I have enjoyed (okay, loved) his other books, so I was eager to read this one. It’s a journey tale that takes inadvertent detours. Told in different voices, it incorporates Shakespearean and mythological allusions.

Dante. The Inferno. Reading this classic along with my World Lit I students, I found it so much more readable that I remembered. Like Paradise Lost, reading this work of literature adds to one’s cultural knowledge in myriad ways. 

Whitehead, Colson. Harlem Shuffle. For me, Whitehead is three for three. His protagonist in this story is trying to stay on the right side of the law, but just barely, with a strong sense of family loyalty.

Joyce, Rachel. Miss Benson’s Beetle. Not the VW Beetle, as I first imagined when this popped up on our book club list. Joyce’s characters are quirky but endearing, and they make the most unlikely journeys.

Harper, Lisa. How Much More. I'll confess this wasn't my favorite of Harper's Bible studies for women. The concept was a good one, but it felt disorganized and fragmented. Fortunately, the women in our class always brought rich discussion.

Jaswal, Balli Kaur. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. This would be a perfect book to pair with Adams’ The Reading List. For book clubs who like to serve book inspired food, these both require Indian cuisine (and a great cup of chai).

Coomer, Sandy. The Broken Places. This latest collection by my friend and Black Dog co-host is both painful and beautiful. Her ability to juxtapose is unparalleled.

Smith, F. Lagard, ed. The Daily Bible in Chronological Readings. This has been one of my favorite year-long journeys through the Bible. He pulls together the life of David and the Psalms he wrote on particular occasions, he groups Proverbs thematically, and he presents the harmony of the Gospels. I enjoyed it so much, it was one of my favorite Christmas gifts this year.