After a rather long stretch of time in which I mostly reread my favorite fiction (Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter on repeat!) and kept up with the news and our church’s Bible-in-a-year plan, I have been diving back into the world of books. I realized that I have a lot of time in which I can read but not do much else (while Aubade is nursing, especially at night), but of course holding a book is complicated by said nursing… so I had been reading the news, surfing the web, and spending altogether too much time on Facebook, which was not helping my postpartum mood in the least. Then I remembered that all the libraries in my county have come together to create the Greater Phoenix Digital Library – meaning that more books than I have time to read are available on my phone, for free, with a simple app and the PIN from my library card. Honestly I’m not sure how I managed the boys’ newborn phases without this…
So, despite finding that a lot of the books on my wish list are checked out by other users of the library system, here are four books I’ve read this week that were completely new to me, in a variety of genres:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
This is of course a classic, and most people who haven’t read it are still familiar with some of Angelou’s poetry, at least (I knew of her mostly through her poetry, to be honest – Phenomenal Woman makes the social media rounds fairly frequently, and I love it every time I read it). But for me, who grew up in an educated, well-off, white family, it was eye-opening to see the deep personal and emotional impact of both intimate individual hurts (like parental divorce and sexual abuse) and systemic oppression (like the racism and poverty Angelou faced herself and saw affect her community). Someone’s story can be far more impactful than all the statistics and social study lessons in the world, especially when told with the simple power and unpretentious elegance of Angelou’s writing. It’s not an easy read, because of the painful topics it deals with, but it is definitely worth reading.
The Family Nobody Wanted, by Helen Doss
This is a memoir of quite a different type, although it touches on some of the same themes. Doss and her husband discovered as a young couple that they were infertile and that the demand for Caucasian infants to adopt was far greater than the number of babies available. So, in the 1940s and 50s, they built their family by adopting the unwanted children – children of mixed heritage who didn’t look “white” enough for mainstream American families to consider – and ended up with 12 children all together! The book is an honest look at their family life, addressing the racism directed at their children and family but mostly just full of hope and humor (I laughed out loud many times at the anecdotes Doss related – she is quite adept at capturing the funny side of disastrous moments as well as the dialogue of her young children).
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
After reading two memoirs, I decided to switch things up and chose this post-apocalyptic novel after seeing it on one of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s booklists (in general, that is a helpful site if you aren’t sure what book to read next!). I don’t normally read this type of fiction because it is dark and suspenseful and keeps me up all night, and this was no exception… The basic premise is that a strain of the flu wiped out the vast majority of the world’s population, disrupting civilization to the extent that people are living without electricity, without medicine, scavenging and hunting to survive, holding on to what scraps of art and culture they can salvage, and falling prey to cults and prophets who offer some explanation for why so few survived. Mandel’s characters are diverse in personality and background, and the different ways they experience the pandemic (as well as the years before and after it) feel very authentic. I particularly liked how the threads of theatre, music, and literature wound through the characters’ stories without devolving into preachy passages about the meaning and value of those things in a broken world; the novel is far more about what it means to be human, and how humanity survives and even perhaps recovers from an event so utterly devastating.
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Kristof and WuDunn examine the inequality of women in the developing world in a number of different arenas, including forced prostitution, rape (as a tool of shame or a weapon of war), maternal mortality and injury, and education. Each issue tackled is presented in light of the story of one or two individual women, spotlighting the problems involved as well as the complexities faced in addressing those problems; for instance, we see how difficult it is to truly free an underage girl from forced prostitution in the story of one young woman who returns multiple times to feed her drug addiction – which was in itself instigated by her captors and abusers. Some stories are inspiring; some are less so; and the statistics that they illustrate are often bleak. As a new mother myself, having experienced a labor (with my first) that would have resulted in death or serious injury without access to a surgeon, it is horrifying and saddening to read about women who have had similar experiences without the medical care available to me and others in the West. There is so much pain and death that could have been avoided. On the other hand, however, the book also shows us the stories of whole communities that have been improved by simple investments in education, or by deciding to take justice for women seriously. In addition to the stories and the statistics, a unique and valuable aspect of this book is the appendix listing specific organizations that are working in effective ways to address the issues faced by women in the developing world, to give the reader ideas of whom to support. I would encourage anyone – especially anyone who believes that things like rape and maternal care are only “women’s issues” – to read this book and see just how much communities can grow and heal when they come to realize that women, as in the eponymous proverb, “hold up half the sky.”
What have you all been reading lately? I’d love to hear your recommendations, since I have a short window of reading opportunity open right now!