Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Reading With Patrick

Title:  Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship
Author:  Michelle Kuo
Publication Information:  Random House. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  081299731X / 978-0812997316

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I went to the Mississippi Delta with a specific project:  to teach American history through black literature."

Favorite Quote:  "The idea that you can change somebody's life for the better is powerful. It looms, in particular, over the debate about teachers. Are they good or bad, cheats or saints, unfairly demonized or blindly exalted? Underpinning these opposed portraits is the debate over the nature of the student. One side of the argument claims the student is an impressionable blank slate, a tabula rasa onto which teachers - if they're good enough, smart enough, and they care enough - can effectively imprint their passions and knowledge. The other side argues that the student is already permanently formed by his conditions - by violence, by neglect, by poverty. No teacher can change his life. Neither side can be completely true. "

Here is the story summarized. Michelle Kuo, the daughter of first generation Taiwanese immigrants, grows up in relative security and prosperity. The family focuses on education and solid careers. Ms. Kuo graduates from Harvard and is unsure of the path she wants to take. While figuring things out, she joins the Teach for America program and is sent to a school in Helena, Arkansas. There, she encounters one of poorest communities in the country. It is a community that is ridden with poverty, crime, and racial divides. She teaches for two years and then leaves to pursue law school and her own life forward. Knowledge that one of her students stands accused of killing someone brings her back to Arkansas while he awaits trial. That is the time spent "reading with Patrick."

What I appreciate about this book is that it talks about what is so often not talked about in the United States - the poverty, the racial divide, and the inequity in the justice system. These are the issues so thoughtfully and poignantly dealt with in books such as Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. This book most reminds me of An Invisible Thread, which is also a story of an unlikely connection between people and the impact it can have.

I began this book prepared to love it and prepared to be moved by it. Unfortunately, for several reasons, this book was not for me. Reading with Patrick has very little about reading or about Patrick. This book is very much Michelle Kuo's story. It speaks to her immigrant background, family concerns, and cultural expectations. Those all come into play as many who surround her do not understand her choice to teach.

This book is about a young woman finding herself independent of family; her journey happens to intersect with this community and this young man. She comes as and remains an outsider to the community in Helena, Arkansas. It speaks about the poverty, crime, and racial divides in Helena, Arkansas but as it touches her life and not as a social commentary. Then, the page turns, and her journey continues without them. Michelle Kuo's journey is an interesting one as it mirrors the path of many young people, but just not the one I was expecting.

The subtitle of this book also uses the term life-changing friendship, but from reading the book, friendship is not what comes across. Pity perhaps. Guilt at a secure, prosperous life perhaps. A momentary connection but not friendship. This thought is reinforced by a little research on the background of this book. Very little is found about Patrick, but much can be read about Michelle Kuo. In fact, the base of this book can be found in a 2009 article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The book acknowledges that the initial article was written without permission from Patrick and even without his knowledge. I leave this book wondering what was Patrick's story and what happened to Patrick and how Patrick's life changed because Michelle Kuo was a part of it for a time.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Wildling Sisters

Title:  The Wildling Sisters
Author:  Eve Chase
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399174133 / 978-0399174131

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "None of us can bear to touch his belt, so horrifyingly intimate."

Favorite Quote:  "It does feel like we have as many lies, forced to adjust our manners and allegiances according to the different worlds we inhabit, learning to say the right thing or not reveal too much."

The English countryside. An old house. Two time periods. A group of women. Mothers and daughters. Sisters. A mystery. This book has the perfect fixings for an enjoyable summer beach read.

Flora, Pam, Dot and the narrator Margot are the Wildling sisters. They are being raised by their eccentric and rather high maintenance mother. She packs them off to their aunt and uncle's house, Applecote Manor, in the country so she can go off and pursue other opportunities in Morocco! This moves comes with challenges and opportunities all its own for the girls. The home, though lovely, is a somber one because the daughter of the house Audrey vanished one day. She was never found, and her disappearance was never resolved. Her mother still holds out hope that her daughter will return; meanwhile, a house and a life becomes a living shrine. The neighboring estate on the other hand is home to handsome young men, who present a world of opportunities for the Wildling sisters who are on the brink of seeking relationships. What happened to Audrey and what happens to these young women during this summer is the story of the past.

Fast forward several decades. Applecote Manor sits empty and is sold to a couple looking to make a complete change in lifestyle. Jesse falls in love with the house and falls in love with the idea of her own home without the shadow of her husband's first wife lingering in every corner. She comes with her husband, her biological young daughter, and her teenage stepdaughter Bella. Bella is fifteen and still engulfed in the grief of her mother's death. The relationships between husband and wife and between stepmother and stepdaughter are fraught with conflicting emotions.

The mystery surrounding the house - that of Audrey's disappearance and that of the summer of the Wildling sisters - adds a counterpoint. For Jesse and her stepdaughter, it both adds to the fear in their relationship and conversely provides a way to connect that is not tied directly into the emotions of their own relationsihp.

The book starts off with a bang with a description of a body being dragged. It then slows considerably as the Gothic setting is described and the backstory of the past and the present is set up. It then picks up speed towards the middle and the end with some unexpected twists and turns.

Jesse and Bella's story is the stereotypical one of a rebellious, hurt teen and an adult working to get through and make a connection. Both characters act true to type, and the story resolves as you would expect. It is meant to be a current story, but reads as though they are also of a time in the past.

The story of the past and of the Wildling sisters themselves takes a much more unexpected path, making this the more intriguing of the two time periods. The Gothic impression of the house and the Gothic overtones to the story add an enjoyable atmosphere to this book about strong women in difficult situations making the tough choices.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Before Everything

Title:  Before Everything
Author:  Victoria Redel
Publication Information:  Viking. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0735222576 / 978-0735222571

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On a late March day when you could taste springs muddy tang, Anna was given results from the latest scans."

Favorite Quote:  "You couldn't get away with anything. Which was, of course, horrible and the very best things about having been friends forever."

The description of this book checks so many boxes of a sweet, nostalgic summer read. It is a story about women and about friendships that have lasted a lifetime. It is a story about family. It is a story about strong emotions as one woman enters hospice care, and the friends and family who surround her deal with that reality and try to make the most of the time left.

Anna is dying. Her friends, particularly best friends and "The Old Friends" Helen, Caroline, Molly, and Ming, gather around for grief, for comfort, and for support. Anna's family, particularly her estranged husband Reuben is also part of Anna's caregivers. The book weaves between the present of everyone waiting for Anna's impending death and of everyone's journey through the memories of their friendship with Anna and of their own life.

This should have been a powerful book. Sadly, for me, it misses the mark for several reasons.

First is the character of Anna herself. Sadly, Anna is not a very likable character, making it challenging to invest in her story. Her terrible diagnosis and the fact that she is in hospice care is sad and devastating, but nothing else in the book binds the reader to her. One of the chapters in the book describes her own shortcomings:

  • She'd preferred attractive people. A lot more. When she'd made friends with a woman who wasn't beautiful, she felt embarrassed to be out with her. But also a a little proud of herself. As if that showed largess.
  • She hadn't read enough books for someone who considered herself cultured. There were years she didn't read at all. She wasn't interested in difficult narratives.
  • She saw everyday situations hierarchically. Whose kids were smarter? Whose kids struggled more socially? Who were the athletes, the artists?

This is a book centered around Anna's sad situation, but Anna's story becomes one I am not interested in. I feel sadness and pity for her situation, but I don't find any emotional attachment to the character.

Second is the fact that the book is not just about Anna's story. Each of her friends brings her own perspective, her own baggage, and her own story. The result is a scattered focus, jumping between all these lives that are jumbled together. That is indeed how friendships in real life are - messy and mixed up, but, in a book, sometimes less is more

Third is the writing style. The book is written in short, choppy sections with some only a few sentences long. Perspectives shift, and narrators shift, creating a discordant and hurried note through story that is really a quiet journey towards an ending. The writing style adds to the feeling of too many things mixed together in the book. Yet, at the same point, the pace seems rather slow because the entire book is somewhat about waiting for a person to die.

Sadly, my reaction to the book matches the reaction of Reuben to the situation in the book. "Reuben wanted it over. Not Anna dead. Jesus, he wasn't a complete asshole. but he wanted this dying to end."

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.