The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Background of line drawn images in red and blue against a black backdrop. The images are of plants and letters. Over all this is the title and author.

For Pride Month, my book club decided to read The Color Purple by Alice Walker. This book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1983. That’s a lot to recommend it. I have to say I was not disappointed. In fact, I read the entire book in one day this past Sunday, all 288 pages.

The book is an epistolary novel told through letters written by Celie. On page one is the shocking revelation that she was sexually abused by her father at the age of fourteen, having two children by him. She is married off to a man who really wants to marry her sister Nettie. From there it goes on to tell about her relationships with her husband, his children, and a woman that Celie falls in love with. Most of the letters are addressed to God. But as her relationship to and understanding of God changes, so does who she addresses her letters to.

This novel touched me deeply. Not only is it about family and overcoming trauma, it is about growing into real adulthood and a deeper understanding of one’s spirituality. To my sense, this sense of spirituality as based in nature and her laws really rings true. In its approach to the divine, it reminded me of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

There is a whole section that describes the experience of missionaries in Africa. They try to help the natives they live amongst even as powers beyond their control slowly encroach on their village, forever changing their way of life. This reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart that I read in college back in the late 80s. Just like then, the truth of that experience was a gut punch.

Overall, the word that comes to mind to describe this book is “authentic”. It feels true to the human experience in its challenges, ugliness, joys, and triumphs. Despite the sometimes bleak situations, the book left be feeling warm and hopeful about how we as humans can grow and improve.

My rating: 5/5

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

A man walking away from a lamp post looks back in trepidation. The background is a giant open book with the book title on it.

In the book club that I manage, we read a book in a different genre each month. This month our theme is works in translation, and we read The Shadow of the Wind. It was originally published in Spanish, and the edition we read was translated by Lucia Graves.

The story takes place mostly in Barcelona, Spain from 1933 to 1955. This era covers the Spanish Civil War that took place during the Second World War. This was a very difficult time for Spanish citizens and is a very important part of the story.

The book starts when a ten-year-old boy reads a book also called The Shadow of the Wind. The boy is captivated and stays up all night to finish it. As he begins to look for other books by the author, he finds it a struggle. And so his young life becomes a journey to learn about this mysterious author of what he learns is a rare book.

As the book unfolds, we learn about the life of the author. In many ways the boy’s life becomes a mirror of the author’s. They both fall in love with a girl forbidden to them. And as the story comes to the climax, their lives begin to intersect.

This book is a love story and adventure as well as a bildungsroman and a thriller. But despite the excellent writing and captivating story, at times I found myself wondering why I cared. And at times I found myself confused between the story of the boy and the author. In the end, I also felt that the book was a little longer than it needed to be. Despite these shortcomings, I did enjoy the novel. I wish I could highly recommend it. But if subject matter appeals to you, it might be right up your alley.

My rating: 3.5/5

I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

A painting of a blue upholstered reading chair sitting in front of a wall of bookshelves with ladder on the edge of the cover.

Anne Bogel is the host of the podcast called What Should I Read Next? On the show, she interviews guests and gives them suggestions as to what they might want to read next. I highly recommend it. She has a gentle, friendly way of connecting with people that never comes off as pushy or demanding. I get that same feeling from her book I’d Rather Be Reading.

The book is collection of essays about the reading life. In them, we learn that Anne bought a house next door to a library (jealous!), that you can tell a lot about someone by their favorite book, and that sometimes the book finds you. The essays tend to be short and easy to read. They are very well-composed, packing a lot into such a small place. In short, it is lot of fun for nerds like me that love to read. Nothing really new here, just comforting words from a fellow book lover.

My rating: 3.5/5

Recitatif by Toni Morrison

Book title and author text on a blue background

In 1986, Toni Morrison published her only short story called Recitatif. It was republished last year as a hard cover book with an introduction by Zadie Smith. This is a story that everyone needs to read, especially with the different interpretations on the state of race in our country.

The story is that of two women who meet as young girls in an orphanage. One is black, the other is white. We follow the girls as they become women, wives, and mothers, dipping in and out of each others’ lives. There is something very special about this story and the way the author tells it, but I can’t say what it is without giving it away. And, please, do not read the introduction before the story. Read the story first! The introduction gives away what makes the story special and will ruin your first read.

This story is important today both for what it shows in the relations between these two women as well as what it intentionally leaves out. It leaves us asking some very important questions about how we view race and why. Most importantly, it doesn’t give us any of the answers but leaves us to work that ourselves, together.

My rating: 5/5

Too Literary for Me

Cathedral book cover

As I set out on my year of short fiction, I looked through my “to read” list of books for short story collections. One of these was Cathedral by Raymond Carver. It came to my attention in part because it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I decided to read it for my first short story collection of the year.

I am a huge fan of the short story form in part because of the influence of O. Henry. He is well-known for his use of irony and quick turns at the end of his stories. I also appreciate how due to their brevity, short stories often simply dip into a characters life and then leave without necessarily resolving everything or tying it all in a neat bow. Sometimes it is messy, like real life. Many of the stories in Cathedral have this last quality, perhaps all of them. Despite this, I have to say that I wasn’t a fan of Carver’s style.

The stories in this collection have as their theme in some way relationships, mostly friendship and marriage. And while the stories are quick glimpses into their lives, they didn’t feel like they had that much to say about them. I found them voyeuristic rather than entertaining or challenging. The writing is amazing, but I just didn’t understand why I was reading about these people. What was the point? Perhaps the stories were a bit too literary for me.

Deep Relationships

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow book cover

There has been a lot of hype this year about Gabrielle Zevin’s novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. It is all deserved. The book is a tale of lifelong friendship that starts in a children’s hospital. Sadie and Sam go on to become world-famous video game programmers. Many reviewers have focused on that last aspect of the novel, but the story is much deeper than that.

This is a story that any person can identify with. These friends support each other, fight, go through periods of not speaking, and still care deeply and struggle together and with each other. It is a tale of relationship more than anything else. And it is an engrossing story supremely well-told.

The author uses what some may call gimmicks in a few places. For instance, one chapter is a he said/she said where the same experiences are told from the point of view of each of the main characters. Another chapter is told in the second person (you). However, in each case, the method of writing serves the storytelling well. At the end of the book I felt I had been taken a deep into the lives of very real people from whom I learned a lot about the struggles and rewards of deep relationship.

A Story of Trees and People

The Overstory book cover

I finally got around to reading The Overstory by Richard Powers, and it did not disappoint. The simplest description of the novel is that it is the story of trees and forests. But that is over simplified. It is the story of humans, their experience with trees, how they learn and grow in relationship to them, and how they come into conflict because of this. Still doesn’t sound very enticing or interesting, but it surely is.

The storytelling is gripping. In the first section of the book, each chapter is a separate story about a person or family. These are internally complete and gripping stories themselves. The second section starts to bring them together. The language is flowery and descriptive as well as immersive. I found myself sucked into every person’s life story. I am very grateful to have read this as an ebook as there were a lot of words new to me. This ease of looking up word definitions is one of the main reasons I prefer to read ebooks.

The theme of the book is very ecological and makes a strong statement about the place of trees. I found the ending a bit of a let down as it does not wrap things up neatly. There is no happily ever after or prescription for a better future. The book is more an exploration of how we got here and some ways some of us have and might address this condition. After thinking about it a bit, I feel like that was the ending the book needed regardless of my expectations or desires.

Change is Hard

Goodbye, Vitamin book cover

I no longer remember how I learned about Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. It’s the story of a young woman who moves back home to her parents’ home to help her mom take care of her dad who is dealing with a worsening case of Alzheimer’s disease. I’m interested in stories about how people deal with hard times, so I recently picked this one off my “to read” pile.

The format of the book is unique. The main character moves back into the home she grew up in just after Christmas with the promise to stay a year to help her mom with her dad. Each chapter is a month in that year. The writing is from the perspective of the daughter and is almost like a diary. There are date entries that are further divided into sort sections, some of which are only a sentence long.

The result of this unusual format is a very intimate look at how a young woman deals with the dynamics in her family caused by her dad’s condition. Just before moving back home, she was left by a fiance so she is dealing with change in her own life as well. She doesn’t always handle things well (who would?) and struggles not only to understand what is happening to her father but to herself.  Overall this is an excellent piece of literature exploring the challenges we will all face with end of life care for those we love.

Connecting Through Books

The Reading List book cover

Recently I’ve been interested in books about books, bookstores, libraries, writing, stories, etc. One of these is a debut novel by Sara Nishi Adams called The Reading List originally published in August of last year. A list of books gets passed around in the Wembley section of London. One of the recipients of this list is Aleisha, a seventeen-year-old reluctantly working at the local library for the summer. An older gentleman named Mukesh come into the library looking for advice on what to read. Thus begins the primary relationship of the book.

The story is as much about the neighborhood and its Indian residents as it is about the people and the books. My one complaint about the story is that it refers to a lot of Indian words, foods, and experiences that are not well-defined or explained in the text. I would like to have better understood what these were. That said, anyone familiar with Indian cuisine and Hindu living will feel right at home.

The story follows the two main characters at they read and discuss the list of books. This may not sound very interesting, but both people learn lessons from each book that they can use in their lives. It is a book about relating to others through the shared experience of reading, and it is beautiful! I highly encourage everyone to read it.

In case you were wondering, here is the reading list itself. How many of these have you read? It won’t matter if you have read them or not when you read this book. The author does a marvelous job of sharing what one learns from reading these books without spoiling any of them. And if you have read them, you will get even more out of the story.

  • The Time Traveler’s Wife
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Rebecca
  • The Kite Runner
  • Life of Pi
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Little Women
  • Beloved
  • A Suitable Boy