Sunday, August 26, 2018

Praise Song for the Butterflies

By Bernice L. McFadden

Akashic Books     2018
244 pages     Literary Fiction

Praise Song for the Butterflies is my first exposure to author, Bernice McFadden, although she is the author of nine previous novels and the winner of several awards. Her books primarily deal with the experiences of the African American community, and Praise Song moves the experience from the United States to Africa and back.

The novel begins with a rather startling 2009 stabbing in Harlem by a woman named Abeo, who we learn is married with two children. This scene is designed to capture the reader’s attention, which it does immediately. The shock is real; wow! I didn’t see that coming!

The book then moves to “before” in 1978 when Abeo Kata is a young girl in Port Masi, Ukemby, a fictional African country situated between Ghana and Togo. Abeo’s family are substantial members of the community; her father Wasik a government employee, and her mother, Isme, a stay-at-home mother of Abeo and a baby boy. They are practicing Catholics having been converted in their village, but when Wasik’s mother came from the village to live with them after her husband died, the climate in the home changed. Wasik’s mother believes in the Gods of the countryside, and when Wasik is accused of  unethical behavior at work and put on leave, his mother encourages him to take Abeo to the priest out in the countryside shrine to appease the Gods. The next section of the book concerns Abeo’s horrendous 15-year-experience as a ritual shrine slave, a tradition called Trokosi.  Abeo is completely broken in body and spirit when she is rescued by an American woman who has made it her mission to rescue the girls in Trokosi slavery and offer them hope and a new life.

The theme of the book follows a quotation of Charles Dickens; “I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free.” The plot moves swiftly and the chapters are short, a compelling format that keeps the reader’s sadness and anxiety at bay a bit. At the end of the novel, we are thoroughly engrossed in Abeo’s new life and her butterfly-like freedom, so when we return to the stabbing in Harlem, we understand fully why it must happen. We are finally honored to see a young woman, one who has survived unspeakable pain, become a woman of grace and courage.

I loved this book. I had been exposed to ritual slavery in some other books, but McFadden’s writing style as well as the length of the book made reading about this horrendous practice bearable and enlightening. It also expresses the indomitability of the human experience and gives the reader the courage to face her own life tragedies. I appreciate so much being introduced to Bernice McFadden by the publisher. I appreciate so much getting to know Abeo Kata.

Praise Song for the Butterflies will be published on Tuesday, August 28.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Third Hotel

By Laura van den Berg

Farrar, Straus & Giroux     2018
224 pages     Fiction

I have spent 3 days reading The Third Hotel, and I have no idea what I have just finished. One reviewer called it “strange, unsettling, and profound from start to finish.” Ok. I believe that.

Don’t quite know where to start. Here is the summary:
“In Havana, Cuba, a widow tries to come to terms with her husband’s death―and the truth about their marriage―in Laura van den Berg’s surreal, mystifying story of psychological reflection and metaphysical mystery.
Shortly after Clare arrives in Havana, Cuba, to attend the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema, she finds her husband, Richard, standing outside a museum. He’s wearing a white linen suit she’s never seen before, and he’s supposed to be dead. Grief-stricken and baffled, Clare tails Richard, a horror film scholar, through the newly tourist-filled streets of Havana, clocking his every move. As the distinction between reality and fantasy blurs, Clare finds grounding in memories of her childhood in Florida and of her marriage to Richard, revealing her role in his death and reappearance along the way.” 

Yeah! I told you. The Third Hotel is strange and unsettling. I looked up the definition of magical realism in my search to put a name on the genre in which the book might fit. Wikipedia defines it this way: “a genre of narrative fiction that, while encompassing a range of subtly different concepts, expresses a primarily realistic view of the real world while also adding or revealing magical elements.” I believe this fits the bill, although in many ways, van den Berg’s writing defies categorization.

At its heart The Third Hotel is a meditation on grief and loss. Clare has just lost her husband Richard. Her level of grief is profound, and when she sees him from a distance in Havana, she follows him as she seeks answers to all the unanswered questions of her life and marriage. When she finally meets up with him and they take a journey into the mountains of Cuba, the mystery that is her husband is amplified and her grief is compounded rather than appeased. The reader never comes to a conclusion about who or what Clare is seeing when she discovers Richard; is he a ghost, a doppelganger? “She ordered herself to stop recognizing him, since what she was recognizing was plainly impossible, but then she crept closer and saw just how possible it was.”

What is absolutely certain is that Laura van den Berg is an incredible writer. The setting, the imagery, and the language is absolutely breathtaking. I loved the descriptions of Cuba, and I felt like I was on the scene every moment, even if I didn’t quite see Richard like Clare did (or did she actually see Richard?). We are so very clearly exposed to the inner workings of Clare’s mind; “the gap between her inner reality and the world around felt so enormous she feared she was going to be swallowed up.” All the way through the novel, we are privvy to Clare’s inner reality. We are never sure what to believe—what she is seeing. One of my favorite lines relating to Clare is: “the ice cube she had pressed against her heart in childhood was proving slow to thaw.”

The New York Times reviewer cautions the reader looking for noir, a mystery, or a thriller. He says,  “Don’t take the bait when “The Third Hotel” starts voguing like a thriller. Instead, read it as the inscrutable future cult classic it probably is, and let yourself be carried along by its twisting, unsettling currents.

In his praise for the novel and its author, the Washington Post reviewer says, “The most transforming kind of fiction is capable of causing a dislocation of reality: a bit of the bizarre, a lot kept beneath the surface and worlds opening within worlds.”

I recommend The Third Hotel with caution. Look out so that you don’t become crazed trying to figure out the plot; rejoice in the vivid descriptions of Cuba and the incredible writing; and breathe a sigh of relief when it is finished—if indeed it is finished. 

Additionally, I am done reading about grief-stricken widows for a while. I feel like my summer has been filled with their stories. On to other stuff. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

From the Corner of the Oval

By Beck Dorey-Stein

Spiegel & Grau     2018
352 pages     Memoir

“This place. This place. This place could break your heart.” With this poignant reminder, Beck Dorey-Stein begins her memoir of the five years (2012-2016) she spent as a stenographer in President Barack Obama’s White House. Beck, short for Rebecca, got the job through a rather unimaginable way. She had been working as a tutor and teacher at the Sidwell School, where the Obama girls went to school, but in an attempt to move on, she answered a Craigslist ad for a stenographer at a Washington law firm. Surprising, she finds during the second interview that it isn’t a job at a law firm at all, but a job transcribing notes “from the corner of the oval” office. Over the ensuing years, she kept meticulous notes of this incredible experience, fully aware that she was part of history in the making.

At once extremely funny and gut-wrenching, Dorey-Stein describes the men she dated (and bedded), the places she was privileged to visit, and the great friends she made among the White House staff. Once she is confident in her position and her gift for writing, she shares her reflections with White House staffers, and they all encourage her to become an author.  While she is critical of the “ladder-climbing bobbleheads” that make up a great deal of the Washington young adults, she is clear-eyed about her own experiences among those bobbleheads.

I stopped counting the number of times that Jason, the scoundrel, came to Beck’s hotel room on Presidential trips. And I laughed aloud when she was afraid that Jay Carney thought her hair straightening machine was a vibrator or the time she forgot her underwear and mentioned, “Today I’ll be traveling commando with the commander in chief.” Throughout, you never forget that Dorey-Stein is a young woman who parties a lot, drinks too much, and is far too critical of herself and her failings.

I was already feeling tremendously nostalgic for a president of integrity, grace, and humor when I opened From The Corner of the Oval. This account of Obama’s second term from the eyes of his stenographer just made watching Omarosa expose details about the Trump White House all the more painful. Dorey-Stein witnessed some of the greatest moments in the Obama years. I almost cried when she told about watching the speech after the church shootings in Charleston when Obama broke into singing “Amazing Grace.” I was touched when on Dorey-Stein’s birthday, her friends got her a ride on the Presidential helicopter and the President told her about how he met Michelle. Ah—the humanity of the man, and the humility with which he faced his job.

The most interesting review came from Paul Begala who calls it “equal parts C-Span and ‘Sex and the City.’” Other former White House staffers have expressed their impressions of this memoir, but as Begala says, you just keep rooting for Beck to succeed, become a writer (which, of course, she has) and find love. This is not a book about Obama policy or Obama wins and losses, but it  charmingly relates the brief interactions Dorey-Stein had with a wonderful man. The reader ends up being sad that the presidency is currently a laughing stock and longing, like Dorey-Stein does, for those glory days when a beautiful family brought honor to the office of President of the United States.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Becoming Starlight: A Shared Death Journey from Darkness to Light

By Sharon Prentice PhD

Waterside Press     2018
185 pages     Spiritual
The Shortlist

Although I only read parts of Becoming Starlight by Sharon Prentice, I wanted to share the book with you. It seems that currently there are a plethora of books about grief and the death of spouses and partners. Frankly, I was burned out before Becoming Starlight came from the publicist. I just couldn't relive my own grief journey again. This book, however, appears to be particularly meaningful. The theme of Prentice's memoir is grief as a spiritual journey. Prentice has a “shared death” experience at the moment of her husband’s death. Here is a summary of the book.

“Becoming Starlight is the true story of one woman’s tumultuous relationship with God during the soul-wrenching deaths of her daughter and husband, and her eventual redemption as her soul slipped over to another framework of existence—a realm of pure love and light—by means of a Shared Death Experience (SDE) at the moment of her husband’s death. 

The little known Shared Death Experience—a profound transcendent consciousness—afforded the author a peek into forever-ness, a lifting of the veil between this life and the next.

Deeply embedded in Becoming Starlight is a life-and-death struggle with Spiritual darkness and loss of faith. It’s a story brimming with the stuff of life—tremendous love, agonizing loss, quiet rage, inconsolable sorrow, and a complete fall from Grace. At the heart of it is a war between who lives and dies, a battle that brings us face to face with our own mortality.”

As well as telling the story, the concept of shared death is explored and many examples are given from Prentice’s life experience. In my own experience with death, I know that there are people who wish to die in the presence of family, thus sharing the experience. I also know that there are people who choose to die when they are alone—making death a singular experience. This would be the case for my father, who waited until it was quiet and he was alone. My husband waited until his whole family was in the room. I said, “You can go now. Everyone is here.” And everyone in the room saw and felt his spirit leave his body in a whoosh. This is the type of experience Prentice describes in great detail in her memoir.

If this book has resonance for you, here are some other books that I have read and written about—these are the most recent.

·         Waiting for You at Midnight by Vicki Salloum
·         You Are Not Alone by Debbie Augenthaler
·         Grief Works by Julia Samuel

Here is Sharon Prentice’s website.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Me and My Fear

By Francesca Sanna

Flying Eye Books     2018
40 pages     Picture Book/Children

My love affair with Francesca Sanna, her books and her illustrations, continues with Me and my Fear. Two years ago, Sanna published the outstanding book, The Journey, about refugees beginning the journey to safety. This new book, also beautifully illustrated, finds our little girl, now an immigrant, facing her fears as she reaches a new home, a new language, a new school, and no friends. Fear becomes her constant companion, and “she” (her fear) keeps growing and growing. The character, fear, is a white blob with a face. It grows and takes up the whole room, but then shrinks as the girl learns to deal with her fear. The breakthrough comes when she makes her first friend at school.

I read Me and My Fear with my granddaughter, Adela, age 7. I did have to explain to her that the white ghost-looking blob was a representation of the idea of fear. Once that was understood, Adela felt that the book was wonderful. We talked some about a girl in her class who had moved to Kalamazoo from Czechoslovakia and couldn’t speak any English. We wondered if she had the same kind of fears as the little girl in the book.

I told her that one of my current fears was falling and breaking something. I said that it was a common fear for older people. “Grandma, you’re not old!” she said. But when I asked her what her fear was, she quite surprised me by saying that she was afraid that her mommy and daddy might die and leave her and her brother alone. I told her she was experiencing  a common childhood fear, but she had a big family and if something were to happen to her parents, there would be lots of people to take care of her and her brother.

I believe that Me and My Fear is a great follow-up to The Journey. I think that it has many classroom applications, and should be used in classrooms where there are immigrant and refugee children. As with my granddaughter, some great discussion can follow for individual readers and classrooms.  The Publisher’s Weekly starred review says, “this creative depiction shows how friendship, empathy, and connection can help bring the overwhelming down to size for all.”

Friday, August 3, 2018

Collaboration: The Ways We Work Together

By Tomas Moniz and Alicia Dornadic

AK Press      2018
38 pages     Children nonfiction

Collaboration is a charming book, in both English and Spanish. It describes the manner in which the we work and play with each other and with the world around us.  It is designed for children in the early elementary grades. I read it in English with my granddaughter Adela, who is going into the second grade.

First we discussed the term collaboration, then we read the book, and then we discussed the ways in which she collaborates. She happens to be attending a summer day camp that her mother is running for a bunch of elementary school children, so she had lots of examples of collaboration. Her analysis of the book was that the words could help children understand how people work together, but she felt that some of the pictures were difficult to decipher. They are watercolors, rather monochromatic, and do need some interpretation. We also talked about how reviewing this book for my blog was also a collaboration.

My favorite lines were “the way you turn the page and I read the words and we dream the story.” I loved the thought “we dream the story.” Adela’s favorite page was “the way you sing the words I make the beat we make music.” She had just come from singing at a nursing home with her other grandma and the children from the day camp. They collaborated with guitars, drums, and a viola!

We would recommend this book for classrooms—particularly bilingual classrooms. My daughter will use it in her classroom this school year as she teaches her school children to work together.

The publisher AK Press, is primarily a publisher of adult books. This is their first foray in children’s book. It’s a meaningful start.

Maybe Congress should be sent copies and Adela will come and explain collaboration to them!