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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Spying on London in WWII

Kate Atkinson's new novel, Transcription, is about a young girl at the start of World War II who is hired by the M15, the British intelligence agency, to transcribe secretly recorded conversations between a British M15 agent posing as a Nazi sympathizer and other British Hitler supporters. The Fifth Column was the name for the network of Brits who supported the Nazis and the German cause. 

This fictional story of Atkinson's is based on real transcripts recently released by the M15. Atkinson became interested in the Fifth Column and fascinated with the unnamed "girl" who transcribed these conversations. The book moves from 1981 at the end of the life of this "girl," whom she names Juliet, to 1950, when she is working for the BBC post war, to 1940 during the time Juliet is working for the M15 as a transcriptionist.  We learn that Juliet is a naive orphan learning about life and love while negotiating layers of intrigue in the early days of WWII.  Juliet has her own secrets which we don't learn until the end of the novel. I am certainly not posting any spoilers here, but the book is another winner by one of my favorite novelists. I highly recommend!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Borderline

It's been a long hot summer in America. Watching Trump lie daily.  Seeing racism and sexism out in the open. But the worst sight was seeing children being separated from their parents on our border with Mexico. Living on the border. Border line. Bordering on insane.  Borders, boundaries. Arbitrary lines created by governments.  Protecting whom from what?  More Mexicans are leaving this country than entering. MS-13 gangs started in Los Angeles, not Mexico. Who are we kidding?

In late June I got to meet Jose Antonio Vargas at the American Library Association meeting. He told his story. His mother sent him to America from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in California when he was 12.  He didn’t know he was not a legal resident until he was in high school. He found out when he couldn’t go with his school choir on a trip to Japan because he had no passport. Later he couldn’t apply for scholarships to go to college. He ended up getting a special scholarship to go to college and went on to become a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with the Washington Post on falsified papers.  He’s 37 years old now and has "come out" as an illegal alien. He said it was harder to come out as illegal than to come out as gay, which he is also. He has spent time in detention in McAllen, Texas. He has not been deported. Yet. 

Vargas has just written a book called Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.  This will be released in September. He said he might not be living here then. But he still considers himself an American citizen, even though this country thinks of him as an alien. The book was eye-opening and instructive. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Stay Warm with Winter Book Recommendations

People are always asking me for book recommendations and I often refer them to this blog, but I haven't written a list post in a while. So here are some of my favorite books from the last six months with very brief reviews.  The ratings were given immediately after finishing the books, but pretty much still hold true in comparison.

My recent five-star books:
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward - Searing is a good word to describe this book. Ugly, hard life to read about, but so gorgeously written. The afterlife is the only bright spot in this dark book. This is a great novel. Jojo is now one of the Great American characters and is a redemptive figure in a land of despair. I even had sympathy for his flawed mother Leonie by the end. Well done, Jesmyn Ward. You are truly a genius.

Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama - I had to give this five stars because I got to hear Barack Obama's voice in the middle of this Trumpian madness of threatening nuclear war and supporting white supremacists. I got to listen to Obama read his story about being the son of a multi racial couple - a foreign Kenyan student and a white midwesterner. He used different voice and accents as he read this book, maybe not the best written, but definitely the best read and the best story. Even though I've heard the story over and over, I'd never read the book. It tells his life story (and ancestors) until just before he started law school. The book made my heart smile and gave me hope in the midst of this Trump darkness. And surprise of surprise, at the end, the book had the bonus of Obama's 2004 Audacity of Hope speech at the Democratic Convention. I cried. I will listen to it over and over. There is hope for this country. The whole book on Audible is a must listen!


My recent four-star books:
The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst - Wow! An beautiful book. This Katrina story is searing and heartbreaking. Babst gets so much right about that time and about New Orleans and the people that call it Home. Since we are moving back in a few months after 11 years in Houston, I found it heartbreaking but also redemptive. A few things didn’t ring true to me but mostly it was agonizingly realistic and beautifully written.

The Spare Room By Helen Garner – This was a wonderful novel by a beloved Australian writer. I plan to read more by her. I was blown away by her description of the feelings of a woman who offers to host a friend with cancer in her home for three weeks. The friend is undergoing a controversial treatment and while the hostess starts with loving, generous feelings by the end she is filled with regret and fury. Honest and accurate.

Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debbie Irving - I slowly read this important nonfiction book over several months and learned so much. I would not have called myself racist until I realized all the ways my privilege makes me totally unaware of what people of color face every day. I now want to learn more and do more for racial justice. This book was easy to read and written in a way that a white girl like me can understand. I hope more people will read this book.

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny – I started reading this book for the second time and didn’t realize it for a few pages (like you do sometimes on your Kindle) but I kept reading because I love her books so much. This is #12 and one of my favorites. I also devoured #13 in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache books, Glass Houses, one of the greats.. These Canadian mysteries are simply the best. My favorite is still How the Light Gets In, but this is my second favorite. I can’t wait for #14!

Incendiary By Chris Cleave - Wow! I read in this in one sleepless night during Hurricane Harvey in Houston. It was as terrifying as the weather. Written as a letter to Osama bin laden from a working class mother who lost her husband and four year old son in a bomb attack in London, it was spell binding. Funny and tragic and plot driven, this book made me cry several times but I couldn't stop reading it. I highly recommend this great novel by a favorite writer.





I read many other books that ranged from entertaining to dull and worthless. Here I am listing the better books I read since mid-August.  Insider scoop: The only way I can remember what books I’ve read is to look back on my Goodreads Books Read. I love Goodreads and try to quickly post a short review of every book I read just as I finish on my page there. Follow me – I think you just look up my name, Harriet Riley, to find me. I’d love to know what you are reading as well!!! Next week, I’ll share my three-star books, an excellent reading list on its own.  Some of these might make your five-star list because taste is subjective. Happy reading!



Friday, December 15, 2017

Raising the Dead in 2017

I have been spending a lot of time in cemeteries recently.  Not only did I visit my local favorite, Glenwood Cemetery, several times in the last couple of months, but three of my favorite books in 2017 led me along the paths of graveyards and the undead. The novels were not in the horror genre either. All three books are outstanding fiction and truly some of the best I read this year.




The first of my cemetery books in 2017 was  Lincoln in the Bardo, the first novel by the acclaimed short story and essay writer George Saunders. Called experimental fiction, the book patches together historical truths about the death of Abraham Lincoln's young son, Willie, with a lively chorus of voices of the dead from many different time periods and backgrounds. The book is original and inspiring and completely takes place in a graveyard.

Next was The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman which I read last summer and reviewed here. The living boy Bod is raised in a cemetery by the kindly ghosts who are protecting him from the bad man who killed his family and is trying to murder him as well.  Gaiman weaves an unforgettable tale set in...you guessed it...a graveyard.



Then this fall, I read and loved Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, who I wrote about in this blog post.  As my current favorite Mississippi writer, I read the novel immediately upon its publication this fall. She won her second National book Award for this book. Her first was for Salvage the Bones. Ward had a big year because she also won a MacArthur Genius Grant! But Sing, Unburied Sing happens to also be about ghosts or the unburied, as the title suggests.  The novel tells the story of Jojo, a 13-year-old boy learning what it means to be a man in rural Mississippi. The book is heart wrenching in the details of the struggles of this poor, black family. The ghost in this book is also a 13-year-old boy who carries all the sadness and hurt of the past generations of black men in Mississippi.

It wasn't until I was wandering through Glenwood Cemetery preparing for a workshop for teachers that I will be leading in the new year, that I noticed this theme in my reading. At Glenwood, the dead are very much present. As Jojo's dying grandma says in Sing, "...That don't mean I won't be here, Jojo. I'll be on the other side of the door. With everybody else that's gone before." She continues, "Because we don't walk no straight lines. It's all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once."  The living and the dead co-exist in all three of these novels, as well as Glenwood, a park-like cemetery, where I often go to write. That veil between the living and the dead feels very thin in cemeteries and in these three novels.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Best Medicine

When the world feels particularly scary, I look for a book that makes me laugh and takes me away from thoughts of global disaster.  Domestic disasters seem to cheer me up. 

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny was such a book.  This funny, tender tale of a marriage, the second for him, first for her, made me laugh out loud. Infidelity, house guests, origami, parenting are all covered here through the voice of Graham, the husband. Graham and Audra have been married 11 years and have one son, Matthew. He has Asperger’s and has some eccentric friends, but the book is not about raising a child with a disability. Well, maybe it is in some ways. But it also makes readers smile about daily domestic life and ex-wives. Audra, the wife, is an energetic talker and a people person without filters. Graham’s first wife, Elspeth, comes into their lives and this makes Graham re-consider his marriage and look at his life more closely.

His observations about life are spot on. For example, Graham thinks, “there should be a houseguests’ club, like the kids’ club in a resort, where your houseguest could watch movies and play games and have a snack while you recharged your batteries.” I personally thought this was such a clever idea. Graham also thinks about one of the great paradoxes of parenting as he drops his child off for a play date with a new friend. Graham does not know the parents but is so eager for his child to have a friend, that he just leaves his child with a father that he probably wouldn’t hire to work for him or lend money to or trust to house sit his apartment or valet park his car. “But leave their only child with for two hours? Oh, well, sure, no problem!” He says, “No one tells you shit about parenting ahead of time, really. Well, they do but not anything useful.”


While there were some melancholy moments with hard truths, I mostly laughed throughout this book. And laughter is the best medicine. So thanks to Katherine Heiny, her clever first novel came to me right when I needed it. I’ll be looking for more from this talented author.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Fantasy Summer

Dear readers, 

I have been remiss in updating you on all my reading adventures the last few months. I have no excuse except the usual distractions. Writing articles, teaching writing, reading, lots of travel, family time (a college graduate!) and house shuffling. I have been steadily reading my way through the summer. The best way to keep up with my book list is through Goodreads. I try to rate and write a very brief review as soon as I finish each book and I post every book I've read under My Books.  So follow me on Goodreads and you'll know every book I read and hear (some books are Audible books). 38 books so far in 2017!


I've read some good ones the last six months, but I've been on sort of a slow burn with Neil Gaiman. I'm soaking up his words and I am in awe of his writing. I've long known of him -- read a few of his essays and had his writing tips posted by my desk, but I'd never read a novel by him.  My brother told me to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane and I gave it five stars on Goodreads. I enjoyed this tale so much that I wanted to start it again when I finished. A grown man looks back on his childhood through his memories as a seven year old. The book is fantasy tinged with reality in a glorious tale resonating with truth. Big Truth. Ahhh. My favorite type of book (see earlier review).




Then earlier this summer I read American Gods. Everyone is talking about the television series, but I knew I had to read the book first. Shadow, the ex-con protagonist of the book, is enduring and unforgettable.  He learns about the gods that live in the background of the new world, America, and the battle between the old and the new gods. The book has so many layers and constant action as Shadow faces many obstacles, but finally makes peace with the gods and with himself.

This week I just finished The Graveyard Book, Gaiman's Newberry-award winning book for young and old alike.  The world he creates in a graveyard in England ranks up there with Hogwarts for inventiveness and quirky characters.  I loved this book for all the big reasons I love to read -- traveling to different worlds, accessing magic, meeting great characters, escaping from the ordinary and giving me hope for a broken world.  I know this sounds like a lot from a younger age book but it was really amazing. I came to the end just before midnight and it entered my dreams all night. The magic lingered.  
The book is the story of Nobody Owens, called Bod, a regular boy who is raised by the dead inhabitants of a centuries old graveyard. Bod's family is brutally murdered in the first pages of the book when he is only a toddler. Bod, blissfully unaware of the grisly scene, wanders into the graveyard. The ghosts promise his recently deceased mother that they will raise the child and protect him from the murderer that still seeks for Bod. The book is creepy and fun and just plain enchanting. In his Newberry Medal acceptance speech, printed at the end of the book, Gaiman said he wrote a book he would want to read. He said he had the seed of the idea of The Graveyard Book when he was much younger, but "realized it was a better idea than he was a writer." So he waited and he wrote other books and perfected his craft in then in 2006-2008, he wrote this. He said, "I wrote the best I could. That's the only way I know how to write something."


I was lucky enough to hear Gaiman speak here in Houston earlier this month.  The event was called "An Evening with Neil Gaiman" and it was at the Wortham Theatre, a large venue in Houston. I thought maybe it would be in a smaller venue within the building. But when my friend Evelyn (thank you for the ticket!) and I arrived, we were in the large Brown Theatre and there were literally thousands of fans. The place was sold out. It turns out that the Dark Prince of Fantasy, as Gaiman has been called, has a huge, very loyal fan base. His graphic novels in particular are popular with a large segment. A different group of people than myself, but it turns out we have a lot in common. Now I want to read those graphic novels as well. That evening Gaiman read from Norse Mythology, his newest book, and several essays and some experimental writing and in between reading, he answered audience questions which he read from index cards. He was delightful, funny and sincere, just what you want your idol to be. He was honest about the hard work of writing, saying that he loved having written and he loved being about to write, but the actual act of writing was akin to getting a cavity filled without Novocain.  I was already a fan of his books, now I am a fan of the man himself. Read Neil Gaiman and tell me what you think.

See you sooner. I promise.
H.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Justice and Mercy and Brokenness

Non-fiction books like Just Mercy are tough to read because they are true. And it is really depressing to think about all the persons who are wrongly incarcerated in this country and who are always unjustly executed. It's unspeakable. But in this book, Bryan Stevenson makes the reader really SEE the lives of poor black men, women and children who constantly feel a  "discomfort too longstanding and constant to merit discussion but too burdensome to ever forget."  He makes these people real and help us understand their vulnerability enough to cry alongside Stevenson. We get to know Walter McMillan and Joe Sullivan  and Marsha Colby and Charlie through Stevenson's eloquent writing. We feel - along with Stevenson - as one character seems to say, "I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I'm here. I'm here because I've got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness. I'm here because I'm supposed to be here. I'm here because you can't keep me away." Once you read this book, you'll be a witness too. 

Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit law center, in Montgomery, Alabama when he was in his early 30s on a shoestring budget with the lofty goals of ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, challenging racial and economic injustice and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable in American society. As you will see in this book, which puts a human face on these issues, he has succeeded in many ways.  But there is still much to do, especially in these Trump years as hatred is encouraged in the courts. The documentary 13th and the book The New Jim Crow also add more stories and information to this issue. But Stevenson's book really brings the issue home. 

Toward the end of the book, Stevenson tells us that he does this work because he's broken too. And he reminds us that we are all broken by something. "Our shared brokenness connects us," Stevenson says. He is truly doing God's work for the most vulnerable people in our society.  When one person suffers, we all suffer. We are all tied up in our humanity. He says," The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It's when mercy is least expected that it's most potent..." And as he says at the close, "..all of us can do better for one another."

Brave men and women like Bryan Stevenson are leading the charge to change laws and show mercy to the vulnerable and the oppressed.  He did the hard work. Now we have to face these tough truths and do our part. Read this book and then support the Equal Justice Initiative