Friday, December 15, 2017

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui


Until she was an adult, Thi Bui did not know the stories of her parents. She knew they came from Vietnam but the world they knew, the circumstances that created her life, all that was a mystery until she began to dig. The Best We Could Do is the story of Thi’s family: what they experienced and overcame. And it’s not pretty. It is the story of people living in a Vietnam in flux, a county shifting and changing until it is a place of fear and danger. As she sorts through her roots, she slowly begins to understand herself.

This was powerful and very sad. It’s a story that puts a face to the plight of refugees, fleshing out how truly terrorizing life can be and what people are willing to sacrifice to get a chance for their children. I liked the graphic novel format for this tale that taught me about a Vietnam that no longer exists and about the complicated web of experience that makes us who we are.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (audiobook)

genre: historical fiction

One girl from the Akha Ethnic Minority culture.

One tea cake.

In the far mountains of China lives a community of tea growers.  Tight-knit with incredibly strict traditions, Li-yan grows up knowing exactly where she fits in the world.  She appeases the spirits, she helps her mother who is a healer and midwife, and she picks tea.  It isn't long, however, before the tranquilly of this mountain life is disrupted by an outsider and Li-yan's choices lead to an untenable situation: she is pregnant and unmarried, a taboo in her culture.  Li-yan's decisions, the friends she makes, the place she finds herself in between traditional and modern life, all of this is at the crux of this book.  

I found myself completely immersed in this story, especially enjoying learning about the tea-making culture and the struggles of adoptees from China.  I cared about Li-yan and while somethings seemed too horrible to bear, some things also seemed too good to be true, but I was able to suspend my disbelief for both.  As an audiobook, I loved the voice of Li-yan and to hear the words spoken in Chinese. The other narrator's more juvenile voice grated on me a bit - it never seemed to age the way I expected it too, but still, I'm not disappointed I listened instead of read.  

Thursday, November 30, 2017

My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business by Dick Van Dyke (audiobook)

genre: memoir

It’s true that Dick Van Dyck has lead a pretty astonishing life. In this memoir he takes us from his early childhood to the present time, telling his life stories and sharing anecdotes of the different performances he has been in. There is gossip, there are trials, and through it all you get a sense of the rich life that he has lived. From early vaudeville-type acts to Bye-Bye Birdie on Broadway to the Dick Van Dyke show to Mary Poppins, he’s lived his adult entire life amongst the Hollywood A List.

I think I probably chose this because it was read by the author and I have liked everything that I have seen him in. It’s an engaging enough book, a little bit scattered at times, a little bit preachy and a little bit "look at how amazing my life is."   Because I didn’t really know anything at all but his personal life, I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t super thrilled with what I saw. I appreciate that he is honest about his personal choices and demons, I just found myself a little disappointed with the disconnect I saw between the kind a family man he says he is and some of his choices. But, that is my own experience and values making that judgement and for the history of television comedy and the look at a life-well lived, it was pretty good.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

One of the Girls in the Band by Helena Dunicz Niwinska

genre: memoir

One of the Girls in the Band is the memoir of Helena, Polish violinist, who through a series of heartbreaking circumstances finds herself in a women’s orchestra in Auschwitz concentration camp. She starts her story at the beginning, with her early childhood and, as a woman in her 90s, she follows her story to the present. Like most memoirs of this period, it is a remarkable tale of survival that shares the common theme of friendship with tiny glimpses of beauty among horror and unthinkable tragedy. 

The musical and musician aspect gives it a different slant and the narrative voice is very strong. Helene responds to other written memoirs of fellow survivors and tries to shed light on the intentions of those who she feels have been slandered in memory. *possible spoiler next sentence* She tries to sort through the ethical misery of playing your violin while watching families walk to the gas chambers - I can’t imagine this sort of turmoil and it’s hard to think about.

I had a hard time with all the foreshadowing and the translation isn’t particularly lyrical or beautiful. But, having now visited Auschwitz (I purchased this book in the bookshop there) I appreciated having some context and a visual sense of where the events took place. I’m glad Helene took the time to write her story.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jaime Ford

genre: historical fictoiun

A boarded up hotel. A missing keepsake. A man and his past.

As a second generation Chinese American living in Seattle, Henry’s life is a lonely one. He’s the only Chinese boy going to an all-white elementary school and now that the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor, he’s always needing to convince people he’s not Japanese. Soon, though, he meets Keiko, and being Japanese doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. In fact, it starts to matter very much, as talk of evacuating Japantown circulates and Henry is as helpless as Keiko to do anything about it.

Told both in the present and in flashbacks, this book sheds light on a painful and under-discussed series of events in American History. I appreciated learning about the jazz scene as well as the ethnic difficulties in Seattle during this time period. Was it awesome storytelling? Not particularly. It was slow going and some parts really required a lot of effort for me to suspend my disbelief. Anachronisms pulled me out of the story also, which was frustrating, but I did care for the characters by the end so it didn’t feel like a waste of my time.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes #2) by Sabaa Tahir (audiobook)

This book is a sequel, and for sure you should read the first book, Ember in the Ashes, before starting this one. It’s really good and I highly recommend it :-)

Laia and Elias are out of the clutches of The Commandant, but just barely. They know that their goal is to break Laia’s brother Darin out of Kauf prison but it is a task that's more than daunting. Not only is it a very long journey, but Helene is hunting for Elias and it’s not safe for scholars anywhere. The Warden of Kauf is ruthless and cruel and to get Darin past him will take a vast network of people to help, and even then there is no way to guarantee success. It seems like an almost impossible goal but to Laia, her brother is worth the attempt.

Second books tend to not be as thrilling, in general, as the first and third in a trilogy but this was really well done. There is a lot of new, dark and deep magic that we learn about there are many twists along the way that make it an exciting story in and of itself. Some characters are so twisted and violent that it is upsetting at times. It is suspenseful in all the good ways and I liked that this time we also heard the story from Helene‘s point of view. All three narrators are absolutely phenomenal. Their interpretation and voices really added to the story for me. This is a series that I will absolutely follow to the end.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

genre: non-fiction graphic novel

This graphic novel is a journey through Katie's eating disorders and mental illness into a place of forgivness and understanding with herself.

I need to first note that there is both nudity and sexuality, so it is not for everyone, especially not young teens.

For myself, as the parent and friend of people who have both eating disorders and mental illness, I found this book to be painful and restorative at the same time.  I ached for her. I wanted to shake her.  I wanted to solve it. And yet, just like in life, she had to figure things out for herself. I loved her therapy sessions, especially near the end.  I really liked the metaphoric black cloud of mental illness that would follow her over her head everywhere, that feels so poignant to me. 

There were hard things about reading it, both emotionally (obviously) and because I couldn't always tell people apart. It's hard to keep myself in the narrative when I can't figure out who anybody is.  It was also a bit repetitive - but I get that. An eating disorder is ALL about unhealthy, receptive behaviors that we can't control. But still, as a reader, sometimes I found myself skimming her inner dialogue. 

Overall, though, I didn't really want to put it down.  I'm glad that Katie is in such a healthy place that she could process in this way and share it with us.

The Home Front with Martin Sheen: American Voices During World War II (audiobook)

genre: non-fiction, history

This book was designed as an audiobook, using first hand accounts and oral histories of Americans as they recall their experiences during World War II as they relate to "home" - America.  It was set up into distinct chapters, almost like mini podcasts, about different topics.  I really enjoyed the ones about the social and economic changes that came to our country as a result of the war.  Beyond that, there was definitely a lot I didn't know. I know there was a, vague in my mind, "isolationist movement" but I didn't really understand why or how slowly things changed.  I didn't understand the baggage here from World War I. 

One very disturbing piece, well, two really, was the way that women and, especially, African Americans were treated here both before, during and after the war. It is shameful and painful to learn about. I forced myself to stay attentive and listen to the voices of actual soldiers as they talked about literally being ready to die, some nearly doing so, for a country that refused to let them sit on the same seat on a bus as a white man.  Putting their life and honor on the line for a country that refused to give them a loan to buy a home or give them a decent wage-paying job.  I hate it.  I hated listening to the voices of people who spewed that racist filth.  But I made myself because we need to know, all Americans, what people fought and are still fighting against.   Our aggression against the Japanese, too, both here at home and during the war was interesting to learn about - I get it, most of it anyway, but at the same time, it's complicated, isn't it?   I have read before about the Japanese internment and it's another one of those really uncomfortable, painful things to listen to.  We fought in Europe for ideals that we completely disregarded at home.  That's the ugly truth.

I know so much about the war and how things shook down in Europe that I think it was important for me to put all of that in the context of my own people who stayed here, trying to survive at home where there were shortages and a terrible, terrible fear of invasion. 

I'm glad I listened to this.  Plus, it did help that I got to listen to Martin Sheen, whose voices is so familiar and presidential that I loved my minutes with this audiobook even more.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Last Unspoiled Place: Exploring Utah's Logan Canyon by Michael S Sweeney

genre: non-fiction

In northern Utah there is a smallish city called Logan. Both college town and agricultural area, it sits at the mouth of a huge canyon of the same name. This book takes us through the canyon, mile marker by mile marker, exploring the geography, geology as well as the human interest in the area. It’s not a guide book, although I love that I found in its pages many ideas of places I’d like to visit, it’s more of a tribute, a journey, an introduction to a unique and beautiful part of the world. Little vignettes about fly fishing, mining, skiing and historic figures spice up the narrative that’s written like a National Geographic article. The photography is lovely and while there were a couple typos, I enjoyed what I learned. I will soon be packing up my family and moving to this area next summer and this book really did get me excited for the journey.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller (audiobook)

genre: young adult fantasy

As the daughter of the Pirate King, Alosa knows how to get what she wants - and has no fear of doing whatever it takes to get it.  If she has to purposely let herself get captured so she can find something aboard a rival ship, so be it.  Being a prisoner isn't always a cup of tea, however, and life on this new ship is more frustrating than exciting.  It's going to require all her wit and cunning to both get what she needs and extricate herself from the entire situation.

I liked this audio very much, great narration.  Alosa is snarky and tough but with vulnerability too.  The plot moves pretty quickly and there were twists that surprised me.  In fact, halfway through the book one twist threw me for a bit of a loop and I had to readjust my expectations for the book, but it didn't spoil it.  I ended up finding it quite intriguing and while the romance wasn't perfect, the banter was good and I would love to see how the rest of this story plays out.
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