Sunday, March 27, 2011

Kindred

Kindred
Author: Octavia Butler
Beacon Press, 2004 [originally published in 1979]
287 pages

I would like to thank work friends Lauren and Shakira for introducing me to the amazing world of Octavia Butler! :-)

It's 1976, the year of America's Bicentennial. While moving into her new Los Angeles home with her husband Kevin, Dana begins to feel dizzy. Suddenly, she's transported back in time to the year 1815 to a plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland. A young boy is drowning, and Dana saves his life. The boy happens to be her ancestor, Rufus Weylin, son of the plantation owner.

This first trip is one of several Dana makes to the nineteenth century. We're never told exactly how the time travel works. It's just a given, and it happens whenever Rufus's life is in danger. Dana may be gone for days or weeks or even months at a time, but when she returns to 1976, only a few minutes have passed by.

Each time Dana makes a trip, she stays a little longer and sees a little more of the grim realities of life during that time period. Since Dana is black and educated, she's viewed as a threat to plantation society. Each time she returns, the level of danger increases.

Dana's other ancestor is Alice, who was born free. As one character in Kindred pointed out: a free person's papers could easily be destroyed. Rufus and Alice were friends when they were young, but as they grow older Rufus becomes obsessed with her. His obsession ultimately leads to Alice's enslavement.

During one visit, her husband Kevin goes with her back in time. Kevin is white, and was probably the most complex character in the book. He seems like a fairly liberal kind of guy in 1976, and is disgusted by much of what he sees in the nineteenth century. But as Dana notes, he adjusts a little too easily. He also has a much more difficult time readjusting when he returns to the 'present' day.

Kindred is an amazing book and a genuine rollercoaster of a ride. It also makes you think about the concept known as 'man's inhumanity to man' and why/how it is that society often supports unethical behavior even when it's clearly wrong.

Coming up next . . . something light and breezy! My brain is a little fried from all these heavy subjects lately. :-)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Veganist

Veganist
Author: Kathy Freston
Weinstein Books, 2011
304 pages

Several weeks ago, I made my mind up that I was going to go vegetarian. I had lots of reasons for doing it, and for two and a half weeks now, I've been about 90% vegan. I haven't eaten any meat or dairy, at least not intentionally. (I have had a couple of eggs, but they were farm fresh eggs from my parents' small farm and they treat their chickens very well.) Anyway, at about the same time as I started eating this way, I began reading Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World.

Each chapter in the book lays out a good reason to move toward a more plant-based diet: health reasons, environmental reasons, etc. I've read lots of other books that try to convince readers to go vegetarian or vegan, but sooner or later they usually get annoyingly preachy. Not Veganist. In fact, several times the author expresses her purpose for this book is to get people to consider the impact if they lean into a vegan diet, not necessarily to be a strict vegan, which may be the ideal but is not always attainable by everyone.

One point of view I hadn't read much about in the past was the spiritual perspective. Freston discusses some of the eating rules/guidelines outlined in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. While I'm certainly not an expert on this topic, it does make sense to me that if your belief system involves reducing suffering, then that should extend to the animal kingdom as well.

The chapter on factory farming had me tears. I read part of it out loud to Sandy, and there were times when I could barely read because it was like something got caught in my throat and I couldn't say the words out loud. After reading this chapter, I'm not sure I will be able to return to eating meat or dairy, especially meat and dairy from factory farms.

Most likely you won't want to, either, if you read Veganist.

This isn't a cookbook, so don't expect recipes. It does, however, have a fairly extensive appendix section that includes three weeks' worth of meal suggestions, recommended books and web sites, and examples of vegan products you can buy at grocery stores and health food stores. All in all, Veganist is a reasonable, well-written set of arguments for a plant-based diet and a nice addition to my growing library of vegetarian-focused books.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sarah's Key

Sarah's Key
Author: Tatiana de Rosnay
St. Martin's Griffin, 2008
293 pages

My friend Sophie from Belgium sent me this book with a note that said she read it on a plane from Sydney to London and couldn't put it down until she finished. Having been on two flights from Sydney to the USA, I know how a good book can make that incredibly long journey easier.  Sophie was right. Sarah's Key is the type of book that hooks you from the first couple of pages, and it doesn't let go until the very last word.

There are actually two story lines, both taking place in Paris. The first is in July 1942, when a young girl and her mother are roused in the middle of the night by someone pounding on their apartment door. The girl makes a split-second decision to lock her little brother in a secret cabinet -- a place where they'd played hiding games in the past -- and she takes the key with her. She thinks she's coming back soon. What she doesn't realize is that she won't be going back -- ever. You see, that was the night that French police removed hundreds, maybe thousands of Jewish families from their homes and took them to the Velodrome d'Hiver, in what history now calls the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup. Most were eventually taken to Auschwitz.

Sixty years later, Julia, a middle-aged journalist -- an American who's lived in Paris for over half of her life -- is struggling with moving into a new home and dealing with a husband she's outgrown. She gets an assignment to look into the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup, which she'd never heard of previously. Come to find out, most French people of her generation and younger haven't heard of it, either, or don't know much about it. The people who do remember seem to want it swept under the rug, or at least that's how it seems to Julia.

As she investigates the events surrounding this painful moment in France's history, Julia learns about a young girl named Sarah, whose tragic story will break your heart. She also learns a great deal about herself. I can't tell you much more without revealing too much. I'll just say I loved it, and hopefully you will, too.

Thanks, Sophie! :-)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Favorite

Favorite
Author: Karen McQuestion
Amazon Digital Services, 2009
170 pages

In addition to having one of the coolest author names ever, Karen McQuestion has made a name for herself as a successful self-published fiction writer. Favorite was released via the Kindle (for $2.99) before it was released as a book. The Kindle version has been a bestseller for several weeks now.

In a town two hours from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sixteen year old Angel (“Angie”) Favorite is just trying to live her life and be a good person. Since her mother went missing five years ago, she and her brother Jason have lived quietly with their grandmother. Their Dad is a musician always on the brink of (but never quite achieving) his big break, so they live with Grandma for the purposes of stability. But now Grandma’s getting married, and things are changing. While our running errands, Angie is accosted by a strange man who tells her she must go with him, that there’s something she needs to see. This freaks her out, and she tries to run away, but the man pursues her. Next thing she knows, she’s waking up in the hospital . . . and her would-be attacker is dead.

This sets up the reader for all kinds of possibilities, and the author leads us down a meandering path with Angie and the would-be attacker’s mother. Mrs. Bittner is the matriarch of the town’s wealthiest family, and she lives in a mansion on the lake with her butler/driver and cook, the married couple Hank and Trudy. She’s drawn to Angie in particular. The more Angie resists, the harder Mrs. Bittner tries. When a series of events separates Angie and Jason from their Grandma and Dad, Mrs. Bittner insists that they stay with her. Things get creepy when the siblings move into the mansion. Think John Saul for younger readers.

Angie is the narrator of the story, so you know things will work out. But you might be surprised where the path leads, and how things wrap up. This may be a young adult novel (which I didn’t realize until I was already into it) but it’s full of psychological suspense. As a $2.99 Kindle download, I felt like I definitely got my money’s worth from this quick read. The paperback (priced more like a normal book) will be available on Amazon.com on 01 April 2011.
 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Blue Sweater

The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World
Author: Jacqueline Novogratz
Rodale Books, 2009
304 pages

After my trip to El Salvador, I wanted to read something to complement my experiences there. I'd actually purchased The Blue Sweater for my Kindle back in 2009, but hadn't gotten around to reading it yet. That's because the time hadn't been right for me - until now.

The Blue Sweater is an engaging, thoughtful look at the author's life work. After working for a few years in global banking on Wall Street (where she found a passion for developing countries), she was drawn to the non-profit world, particularly to programs focused on women and entrepreneurship. She describes her experiences with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as private entities, and the creation of the Acumen Fund, the non-profit she founded to fight global poverty through entrepreneurship. (Think Muhammad Yunus, microloans, Kiva . . . )

The first part of the book leads up to and describes her time in Kenya and Rwanda (at the time just prior to Rwanda's troubles). Her tales of her time in East Africa were my favorite parts of the book, and I could really feel her sense of wonder coming through in her writing. Her later work in other African countries, as well as in India and Pakistan, is also described in detail.

Obviously, Novogratz is a brilliant person who has a lot of ideas on how to improve things. She's also very aware that so many well-intentioned programs (regardless of vision) . . . fail miserably. The Blue Sweater presents a perspective that's both balanced and intellectual. As for the blue sweater (i.e., how the book got its title) . . . well, that's such a cool story, you'll just have to read it yourself.