So many great books this month! The Lemon Tree is perhaps one of the better books I’ve ever read, and particularly timely, I think.
The Middle East
The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan (5 stars). This amazing book details the history of the Israeli/Palestine conflict by following two separate families, one an Arab family who was driven from their historical home in Palestine, and another of Jewish refugees from Bulgaria who settled in that same house in the newly formed country of Israel. The families are both fighting for the same thing–their rights to a home and historical homeland. When that homeland is the same for opposing factions, and governments and rebel fighters and “domestic terrorists” (of the Israeli or Palestinian variety) are all in on the action, and it’s motivated by religion and war and all sorts of ancient feuding and anger and tug-of-war, well, frankly, you get the mess that is the middle east. This taught me so much about the history of the region and the people who are fighting for it, about refugees and their plights and fears and lives. Read this. Read it now.
The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer (4 stars). Isaac is a Jewish-Iranian jeweler during the reign of the Shah and the subsequent revolution. Because of his success and wealth (and ties to important individuals in the Shah’s government) he is targeted by the Revolutionary Guards. This is his story, and the story of his wife and child, and their extended family. In Iran during and after the Revolution one person’s relationships with the former regime could (and did) mean trouble for the entire family. I devoured this book in a day and a half, such a wonderful writer and the different point of views of narration–from a wealthy Jewish jeweler, to a child, to a aristocratic woman losing everything important to her–bring so many pieces to life in a 3-dimensional way. Recommended.
Additional Recommended Reading: Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country, by Shirin Ebadi; The Butterfly Mosque, by Willow Wilson.
Slavery & Racism:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (4 stars). I love Twain’s dialogue, and I cannot get over how Huck, a mostly uneducated kid, thinks through all these enormous topics like god and religion, racism and slavery, and parenting and society, and then comes to his own determination based on all the logical facts he can grasp. I love that. I think all humans should be better about using Huck’s mentality: people are people, things are things, they should not be confused. You need people, you don’t need things. Also, Tom Sawyer almost ruined the ending of this for me. He is so determined to use Jim and his escape to freedom as his own personal playtime, and unfortunately Huck doesn’t ever stand up to him. I’m sure Twain uses this as some kind of “society is messed up and thinks this way, and we go along with it because it’s ‘proper’ or ‘expected’ and, in the end, this behavior makes changing the status quo impossibly difficult.”
Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman, by Dorothy Sterling (4 stars). I read this when I was a kid (6th/7th grade-ish) and even though this is written or younger readers it is such a wonderful introduction to Harriet Tubman, her determination, drive, strength, and persistence in bringing slaves from the south into Pennsylvania, New York. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed (allowing escaped slaves in the northern states to be recaptured and taken back to their former Masters), she led her charges another 1,000 miles north to Canada. Harriet guided hundreds of men, women, and children to freedom, crossing back into slave territory time and time again to bring people to safety. During the Civil War she served as an army nurse, hospital administrator, scout, and front line general in South Carolina as well as organizer of the all black infantry divisions and a fierce proponent to petition Congress to grant those men equal pay with white soldiers. Called both “Moses” and “The General” she is one of the true hero’s of the 1800’s and the fight for the abolition of slavery.
Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, by William and Ellen Craft (4 stars). This first-person account of a small family who escaped from the south into the Northern states, and then on to Canada and finally England is simple yet very powerful. The Crafts do not mince words on describing their hopes and dreams for freedom and it comes across so clearly and heartbreakingly beautiful, a quick read.
Oronooko, by Aphra Behn (3 stars). When I downloaded this I thought it was a first-person narrative of a black slave in the America’s. It is not. Author Aphra Behn spent some time in Suriname in the 17th century, and this story is based on her experiences, first printing in 1688. For it’s time, she shows remarkable insight on the essential human-ness of black people. She details their feelings and emotions and relationships. However, she also claims that a black slave, the African Prince Oronooko, had a straight Roman nose, straight hair, and arrived in the New World on a slave ship dressed in a snappy suit and speaking both English and French. So…there are some clear problems there. (Yes, I’m sure it’s possible that some of those things were partly true, but I just…I don’t believe this was the case in 1688.) She also has these super irritating ideas of a “noble savage,” that Christians cannot be slaves but can own them (but a black slave converting to Christianity does not equate with freedom, obviously), and that black people enjoy being slaves because their masters are so kind and they can’t possibly want anything more than a kind master. Again, for it’s time, this is all super progressive, and that third star is solely because of that fact.
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell (4 stars). This book touches on so many different pieces of why and how an underdog can win over a giant, or other seeming insurmountable odds. I love a good underdog story–most of us do–and Gladwell delivers in spades. In my opinion, this isn’t as great as Outliers but tackles some similar subject matter (what is it that makes one person succeed and another fail?).
Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande (3 stars). Gawande is one of my favorite writers, I love his ability to describe facts and difficult concepts or industries in a way that is easy to digest. That being said, I feel like this book was more personal to him than any of his others, and with that there seems to be more anecdotal fact/evidence than not. Which is fine, but it is a different kind of writing than I expected. I did appreciate that this book made me think about end of life care–partly for me, mostly for my parents–and helped me figure out some steps that I should be discussing with my spouse and my parents and siblings in order to be prepared and be able to make the best decisions possible under new, emotionally heartbreaking circumstances, whenever they show up.
The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, by Azar Nafisi (2 stars). Of the three books Nafisi discusses that–for her–define America I had really only read one of them, so a whole book of literary critique and analysis on books I hadn’t read or even heard of was…rough. The three books are Huck Finn, Babbit and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. (A quick check of my Goodreads friends shows that only one has read either of the latter, most don’t even have them flagged in an ambitious “To Read” pile. Shrug.) Overall, I enjoyed the section about Huck Finn, but the rest were super “meh” to me. I also realized that my love of non-fiction instead of novels made this book even more mediocre for me. I just…I don’t relate to these fictional characters the way she does, so hundreds of pages about them is not engaging for me, it feels like I’m cornered at a boring party and she’s talking and raving about people I don’t know and she doesn’t give any background information, just starts in on theories about their lives and…it gets real old real fast.
Additional Recommended Reading: The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose (who at least explains basic pieces of the plot and characters before she goes on to discuss a book you haven’t read).
Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley (5 stars). I love this play! A very quick read, this one-act play focuses on doubt, suspicion, prejudice, and expectation. Gah, you should all read it!
Angels in America, by Tony Kushner (4 stars). I listened to Tony Kushner speak a few months ago and decided I should probably read his most famous work. I liked and appreciated it, I liked the dialogue and the imagery, I’d be really interested in seeing this performed live.