This is an amazingly well written book with deeply flawed characters who are in turn both understandable and detestable. My opinions on the characters changed so much over the course of the novel.
It stars out when Yejide finds out her husband Akin has–against her wishes–taken a second wife. The reason is that after four years of marriage, she has still not conceived. They’ve been to doctors and the doctors tell her she’s perfectly fertile. He says he’s fine too. But still no baby.
Then Yejide does a mystic ceremony with a shaman and when she comes down from the mountain she says she is pregnant. Her belly begins to swell and she shows all the signs of pregnancy, except that when they do the ultrasound and other tests, they find that there’s no baby in her. It’s a strange madness. The desire to have a baby controls her life, and the focus of their marriage.
The story is told in alternating sections from present day to past, so we get hints that Yejide has babies that are lost to her. We also learn in the present day that Akin and his brother Dotun have had a grievous falling out and have not spoken to one another for a very long time, and that Yejide has been away from her husband for a very long time as well. As the novel goes on, we see the cause of both of these estrangements as stemming from some choices that the main characters made. I have to be coy about the plot, because it would spoil the story to know too much.
In the background, the country of Nigeria is undergoing political turmoil and they’re about to have elections which will supposedly supplant the military rule. There’s death and tragedy aplenty in this story, but it’s not about the political situation, just among it.
What was brilliant about this story is the way in which the characters make huge sacrifices for the sake of their loved ones which end up hurting the people they care most about. I almost stopped reading at several points, because the characters did things I thought were unconscionable. But it was for book club so I trundled on, and I’m glad I did. The story made me cry in several parts, but it had a very satisfying ending. I feel like it would merit a second reading, because there were things that happened in the first chapters which weren’t really understandable until I knew the backstory. Since I almost never reread books, I’m going to dock a star for that, making this merely an excellent book and not necessarily a flawless one.
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
The cover says this is Picoult’s most important book. As Handle With Care was a book about raising a disabled child, this book could be titled “A White Person’s Guide to Racism.” Picoult is a very accessible author;. Reading her is like reading the novel equivalent of a mainstream Hollywood movie; the people tend to be polished and shiny and exaggerated enough that you know where they stand.
Kennedy is a public defender who, unlike her compatriots, is doing the job because she’s passionate about it and she has a rich spouse who can support her. Ruth is a hard working ER nurse who manages to fit in with white society because of her lighter skin and her exemplary academic background. She has a sister, Adisa, who is on the other end of the spectrum, a single mother whose kids dress in street swag and speak a version of English that Ruth barely understands. The antagonists are Turk and Brittany, violent members of a white power group whose idea of a good time is to go out and assault unsuspecting people who belong to one of the many, many groups they disdain. These two groups come together when Turk and Brittany’s baby is born at the hospital where Ruth works. The baby dies, and the parents sue Ruth. The hospital basically hangs Ruth out to dry, and Kennedy is assigned to defend her.
There are things I liked about the novel. It does deal with a wide variety of aspects of racism in America. It deals with the presumption of guilt, about what it means to fit in, and about how dangerous it is to be a black American. She talks about the costs of assimilation, what she gave up to “fit in” with white society, and how little she actually fits in in the ways that matter. The first half of the book was slow, but after the trial started, it picked up. There was a section in the middle where I was actually excited to read it and didn’t want to put the book down.
I wanted to like this book more. I admired Picoult’s ambition, and I wanted to like Ruth and Kennedy, but she made it kind of hard to really get into them. Kennedy seemed like she was sort of becoming a real person, and then she’d have these cutsey perfect couple interactions with her husband that seemed like scripted toothpaste ads and it would pull me out of the story. Ruth would start to feel like a real person, and then she’d have these Reader’s Digest “good citizen” moments and she’d feel more like someone dressed up for the camera. For example, her son was not just super smart and a good student, his name was Edison. Was Einstein just a little too on the nose? His dad wasn’t just a veteran, he was an exemplary veteran who was killed in the line of duty. It was like Picoult just didn’t trust that the reader would like Ruth, so she had to sweeten her up a bit. Ditto for Turk. He and Brittany violently assaulted some innocent man on their first date, and after the death, Brittany is out of her mind with grief, and basically out of the story, so that Picoult didn’t have to develop her as a character. It was as if Picoult didn’t trust that we’d realize they were the bad guys. I mean, come on. You had me at neo-Nazi. Once you make someone a neo-Nazi, most people are going to figure out that person isn’t the hero.
There were some rather mawkish plot points as well. Ruth has to get another job, so she doesn’t get a call center job or a job filing medical records, which would be low-paying entry-level jobs far beneath her. No, she has to get a job at McDonald’s, the very epitome of a low-paying, low-status job. This sets her up for humiliation in more than one way. Seriously? McDonald’s? Some of the courtroom scenes really belabor the medical background, with tedious exposition that I glossed over because it slowed the story way down. It was as if Picoult was showing off the research she did. Yes, I get it. Good job. There’s a rather implausible plot point at the end as well, which leads to one of those “Disney villain falling off a cliff” moments, where the bad guy is out of the picture in a way that leave the good guys’ hands clean.
This is the second Picoult book I’ve read, and I think it might be my last. I can see what she was trying to do here, and I applaud her for it, but there just wasn’t enough subtlety for my taste. The plots were too contrived, the characters too cardboard, the good guys too good and the bad guys too bad. The characters acted stupid just to make mistakes which would teach the reader a lesson. I noticed that when the author switched from Ruth’s viewpoint to Kennedy’s, I had a hard time figuring out which person’s viewpoint it was because their voice was the same. For a work to help people think about racism in a new way, especially if it’s not a subject they’ve learned a lot about, this is a good novel. For a work that makes you get wrapped up in characters so much that you believe they are real people and deeply care about their lives, it’s sub-par. It’s a good book for a book club (because there are many points for discussion), or for readers who only read one book a year and want something that makes them feel smart without actually taxing them too much mentally.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
This is a memoir of what I call the “my childhood was worse than your childhood” sub-genre. In fact, I would say that it’s a standout in this sub-genre, although “worst childhood” is not a contest anyone really wants to enter, much less win. It’s a good book, well-written and entertaining, and should make most people grateful that their parents were not as negligent and abusive as Westover’s parents are depicted in this memoir.
There are two aspects to this: the titular one is about Westover’s self-made education at the age of 16 when she decides to take the ACT and enroll in BYU. It’s a very popular and very common trope in fiction: supremely talented individual, through hard work and natural ability, applies herself and in a short time, soars over people who have been studying their entire lives. It’s not a trope I’m fond of, as I think it happens far more often in fiction than real life. Either the ACT doesn’t accurately measure scholastic aptitude (possible), BYU is not as good a school as it thinks it is (possible), public schooling is not valuable (distressing, but possible), she’s fudging the truth and had actually quite a bit more education than she implies, or Westover is some kind of savant genius. The author points us towards the latter option. She wasn’t really homeschooled, she insists. She knew how to read but that’s it, and everything else she learned in the summer before she took the test. There’s something missing in this part of the story. But for the sake of argument, we’ll just go with “she’s a genius.” Everyone loves a prodigy story, why not? She also implied that she was a miraculously good singer the first time she ever sang, so why not have her a brainiac as well? Maybe she’s just remarkable. It happens. And two of her brothers also went on to get PhDs, so it could be that they were just that desperate to find an escape from their life and had enough OCD to study their way through.
The second aspect of the story, and in my opinion the far more compelling one, is the story of familial abuse. Her culture is a deeply patriarchal one. Her father rules the family, and while her brothers can get away with some growling and snarling at the alpha wolf, it’s not tolerated in women. This is a common situation in a lot of families, especially traditional, religious and/or Mormon ones. A man’s role is to provide for his family, a woman’s place is to be a wife and mother. It’s a call and response almost as familiar as “peace be upon you … and also on you.” Some women manage to reconcile their flavor of Christianity’s notion that a woman is never more than a servant to others with no ambition of her own. Some flavors of Christianity (and Mormonism) lighten up on this, as they lightened up on the polygamy thing (which I’m sure had nothing to do with Utah’s application for statehood.) Her version of Mormonism doesn’t seem to lighten up much on the patriarchy/misogyny thing. Westover touches on her struggles with this concept, that it was hard for her to see herself as an independent and autonomous human being who was also “in the arithmetic of heaven” equal to less than a man. I can imagine how it must have felt to have been raised to believe that you are nothing more than a man’s property/servant (one of many) and then to read Betty Friedan for the first time.
This patriarchy explains partially, but not completely, her parents’ reaction to Westover accusing her brother of abuse. The memoir implies that this is the thing that tore her family apart. Westover’s sister confirmed that their brother Sean was abusive, so Westover, emboldened, asked her parents to address it. Her parents seemed to do the calculus like this: do we side with the violent psychopath, or do we ask the obedient and harmless one to pretend this didn’t happen so that we can all go on as we have been and no one is obligated to change anything? I’ve seen this happen in my own life (not so much in my family, who are extremely kind and wonderful people). If you are the reasonable one, and you are having a conflict with an abrasive asshole, they ask you to be accommodating. Why? Because the other choice is to ask the asshole to stop being an asshole, and no one wants to confront that guy, because he’s powerful and he hurts people. This is like the crux of the #MeToo issue. Someone hurts a woman, and the woman kicks up a fuss, wanting justice (or at least the abuse to stop.) In this sub-cultures’s belief that “a woman is less than a man” a lot of people decide that the solution is to just press on her and punish her until she stops kicking up a fuss, because it’s too hard to get the abuse to stop and justice is messy and involves conflict with a powerful person. They didn’t want to believe that Sean was an abuser, (because then they’d have to admit that they did nothing to stop it) so they tried to force the messenger to be quiet so they could keep pretending everything was fine.
Only Westover didn’t keep quiet. She was unwilling to go back on her word and pretend that lies were truth. She implies that this is the only conflict she had with her family, but I suspect that her going far away to become educated was probably a lot more of an issue than the memoir implies. This was probably the final straw in a lifetime of issues. The childhood Westover depicts involves parents who are so negligent that they crossed back and forth between “we don’t care if our children are killed or seriously injured” to “we are actively trying to seriously injure or kill our children.” Even without the “we don’t believe in doctors” nonsense, they don’t sound like good parents. A father who would force his daughter to use dangerous machinery without any safety precautions even after his son was seriously injured is not a father who would protect his daughter even if it were easy for him to do so. A mother who wouldn’t buck her family’s dislike of hospitals to to treat her daughter’s concussion (even after she knew how she herself had suffered gravely from a brain injury) is not a mother who would do anything to keep her daughter safe. Like anything, not even if it were easy. Really, it’s a miracle that all these kids survived to adulthood, if Westover’s depiction is at all accurate.
So if you like the “my childhood was awful and I overcame it” kind of memoir, this is a very good one. It wasn’t quite as good as The Glass Castle, but it’s better than some others I’ve read but don’t remember as well. I wouldn’t call it uplifting or inspirational. It’s really full of sadness, that she lost her family because she wasn’t willing to be gaslit and abused anymore. It’s sad that she’s been not just estranged, but ostracized by all the people in her family and town who are financially dependent on her parents and who can’t pay the rent unless they agree to whatever lies they’re asked to believe. I do think that there are large pieces of the story missing. Certain things don’t quite piece together in my mind, like how she was able to save money and live in Idaho off of the money she was earning bagging groceries, or how she was able to learn 12 years of education in three months while also holding down an exhausting full-time job. But whatever. It’s an entertaining story and it makes me extra grateful that my parents weren’t religious fundamentalist abusive weirdos.
This was a book club selection about a story that encompasses what for many of us would be the ultimate nightmare. What if your only parent abandoned you? What if you lost your beloved child? It concerns Deming and Polly Guo, sometime residents of China and New York and about their identity as immigrants or as rural Chinese. Polly has Deming out of wedlock in the U.S. and sends him to be cared for by her father in China, having him return when Deming is nearly five years old. Then she abandons him again when he is 11, an act that Deming (who is adopted and renamed Daniel) doesn’t comprehend.
The first part of the book is all in Deming/Daniel’s point of view. He’s not doing so well. Despite having affluent adoptive parents, he is unwilling or unable to attain their version of success. He’s dropped out of college and is dropping the ball on their carefully-finagled second chance. He’s underemployed and nearly broke, living in New York with a band that may or may not take off and a mountain of hidden gambling debts. I kind of understood, because it has to suck to be abandoned by your mother. I also kind of hated him for being such a screw up and disappointing those who cared about him.
The second half of the book is from Deming’s mother’s perspective. Or, to be more accurate, his mothers’ perspectives. It tells the story of Kay, and about how she wanted to adopt a child and about how she felt about Deming/Daniel. She’s sympathetic, even when she’s making decisions that show her blindness to Daniel’s particular pain. The novel also deals quite a bit with Polly/Peilian’s story. It has a long way to go to make her sound sympathetic. Most people respond to a mother abandoning her child with revulsion; that is considered nearly unforgivable (while a father abandoning his family isn’t good, but so common as to be unremarkable.) We hear how hard Polly has to struggle, as a rural Chinese citizen illegally working in the city, as an illegal immigrant working in New York, and what happens to her after. Would any of us, the reader wonders, have fared better?
Perhaps obviously, racism and bigotry both subtle and overt is a recurring theme in the novel. The characters are often categorized as being the wrong kind of people. Rural Chinese is not as prestigious as city Chinese. Legal immigrant isn’t the same as illegal. Mandarin is better than Funzhouese. Outside of New York isn’t as good as New York, and within New York, Manhattan is better than the outer boroughs. There’s a lot of subtle bigotry, for example when Kay and Peter pressure Daniel to get a college degree, not realizing that their ideas of the superiority of college education implicitly imply that the place Daniel came from is inferior. They want to save him from his culture. There’s also the amusing way people treat exotic cultures; the New York diners are wondering if their Chinese food is “authentic” while the Chinese people Daniel encounters take him to an “authentic” New York style pizzeria.
This is really everything you want in a novel. It’s got a compelling story, believable and complex characters, and enough new ideas to bring up thoughts and discussion.
Stuff fascinates me. Why do we accumulate stuff, what is our relationship to it, and why can our relationship get to the pathological stage? I’m a child of people who are, well, if not hoarders, certainly on the spectrum of that, and I have a touch of it myself. Within the past few years, my pendulum on this spectrum swung the other direction as I had to declutter to an almost minimalist state for a cross-country move. After reading Marie Kondo’s book and getting rid of most of what I owned, my relationship to my stuff changed and it has become a subject I’m fascinated by. This book went to my “to read” shelf the moment I heard about it.
One of the best things about this book is that the author is also the one who did the first-hand research on it. I really respect that. Frost spent time visiting his subjects and did quite a bit of the social work involved in helping them. He shows sympathy for his subjects and it’s clear he genuinely likes most of them personally, even if he’s at times disgusted by their homes (the story about the roach-infested apartment would disgust anyone.)
Frost categorizes the hoarders into different types of people, that is, people who hoard for different reasons. Some of the most tragic cases involved children who hadn’t yet learned to handle any of their disorder, like the girl who cried when she lost mud off her shoe and the girl who compulsively steals things and won’t give them back. This isn’t a self-help book. While Frost gives some insight to how these people feel about their belongings, why it’s so difficult for them to part with things we’d consider trash, there isn’t much help for changing. Change comes only very slowly and has to be instigated by the afflicted person. One insight that he offered was that people don’t really see their own clutter. When asked to draw a map of their house, they’ll ignore rooms that are impassable because of stuff; they literally don’t see it. Sometimes all it takes is looking at a photograph of their own home for people to jolt out of their selective blindness.
This is a very well written book about a problem that everyone knows about and many people suffer from (sometimes second hand) but very few people have ever learned anything about from a valid psychological viewpoint. Frost seems to imply that people are like this because they’re born like this, not that something causes it (though genetics can play a part). I think that when more books are written on this subject, they’ll all contain this title in the bibliography. It’s not a life-changing book, and I don’t have any solid takeaways in terms of my own life, but it’s a good introduction to a subject which fascinates me.
These are the seedpods and buds that I made for my tile mosaic project. To make the seedpods, I rolled out a cone and indented it to show where the inner seed capsules had dried and shrunk in on themselves. then I added a disk at the top, incised with lines to look like the …
These are the stems of the poppies I made for my number plaque tile mosiac project. They aren’t very interesting, but they are necessary. I made them by extruding clay through a clay gun using the triple-circle die. I made more than I needed, because I’m not sure what shapes and sizes I’m going to …
This is another set of tiles I made for my number plaque mosaic project. These were harder to make. I rolled out slabs of 1/4 inch cone 06 clay, and then used a razor blade to cut around the leaf shapes. Poppy leaves are deeply lobed, which makes them a difficult shape to reproduce, not …