She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

Warning: There are many triggers in this book for victims of many types of abuse, as well as those with mental illnesses. I won’t list the types because I don’t want spoilers, but if you think you are interested but have these types of triggers, please be advised.

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She’s Come Undone is one heck of an emotional roller-coaster. Main character Dolores takes us through her life, from one catastrophic event to the next. First, her parent’s abusive relationship. Then the death of her baby brother. Then her mother goes into a mental hospital. And her father cheats. Then her parents divorce. She eventually is moved to her grandmother’s home, away from the one friend she had made, and is forced to endure the teenage years alone. All of this is just the base of which Dolores builds her life, and as you can guess, it’s a rocky foundation. She’s depressed, she’s consoling herself with food and television, and she’s isolating herself from everyone with harsh defensive mechanisms. Taking place between the 1950’s and 1980’s, there is very little support for the circumstances and situations that Dolores is dealing with, and what support she does find comes with the price of a negative connotation.

It seems like it would be easy to pity or empathize with Dolores, but to me, for most of the book, she is an unlikable main character- which I believe is exactly what Lamb wanted his readers to think. Every time something bad happens to Dolores, she acts or lashes out, sinking into her depression and the mindset that she is alone, unloved, and unworthy. Even when someone helps her and shows her differently, she pushes them away. Parallel with the story, when Dolores lashes out, Lamb pushes away the reader intentionally- but just when you think that you’ve had enough of this book, something else keeps you reading.

It’s complex and I’m not sure if I’m explaining it eloquently enough, but to me, that’s where the power in this book is. It’s an excellent account of someone who has struggled their whole life with mental instability, with abuse, and with self-worth. It’s raw, turbulent, and emotional. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I turned my dislike for Dolores around, and was silently hoping that she would be able to stand up for herself by the book. By the end, I was smiling at the pages, glad that Dolores learns how to love and be loved.

However, I still don’t think I loved this book. Even though it was powerful, I still struggled overall with the read. I personally resent the amount of disgust shown for Dolores’ weight, and the comparisons to a beached whale. I get that that adds to her difficulties and kicks the girl when she’s down, and that it represents a lot of what our culture thinks and says about fatness, and I realized that this book was written way before the body positivity movement- but it still managed to tick me off many times. If you want a reason why, shoot me a message and I’ll get into it there.  I also hated that once she was skinny, it made her more worthy of love. I also know that Dolores’ mental issues, the whole “come undone” part of the title, was a struggle that the reader went along for the ride with, but I just felt so uncomfortable there with her, like I shouldn’t be witnessing what I was.

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In conclusion, I would recommend this book to others, but only if I really knew the person I was recommending it to, and I don’t think I’ll be rereading it. I understand why so many people recommended it, because it is so powerful, but can’t say that it became a new favorite.

Warning: There are many triggers in this book for victims of many types of abuse, as well as those with mental illnesses. I won’t list the types because I don’t want spoilers, but if you think you are interested but have these types of triggers, please be advised.

 

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I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

I’m almost at a loss of words when it comes to this book. How could anyone read it without their heart shattering?

I guess to start, I’ll be the first to admit, politics are not my favorite subject. I’ve never liked confrontation, and I rarely paid attention to international conflicts. On September 11, 2001, I was a terrified fourth grader who didn’t understand what was happening in the world- but I was mollified by the promise that American soldiers were going to protect me from the terrorists. Growing up, I realize and confess, I was put in a privileged American bubble and only heard scraps of information about the war on terrorism and the conflict in the Middle East, mostly because I didn’t seek out information.

Now, as an adult (who is still working on adulting) I’d realized that I needed to wake up and pay attention to what is going on in the world. I read the headlines every day from various media outlets (because contrary to popular belief, just because it is on the internet doesn’t mean it must be true), and form educated opinions about current events. I still keep many of those opinions to myself, but I’ve come to enjoy discussing what is happening in the world- although at times (especially under our current administration) it tends to get me down- with family and friends.

At any rate, I Am Malala has been on my TBR for a long time. I knew it was a must read, and I had heard about Malala in the news, so I was somewhat familiar with her story… or so I thought, anyway. Reading Malala’s story in her own words not only educated me on the adversity in Pakistan and it’s turbulent history, but also the culture of a woman’s life under the reign of the Taliban.

Malala introduces herself and her family, starting from the day of her attack and working backwards. Her grandfather was a traditional Islamic man who was known for his ability to give amazing speeches in their community. He raised his son to also be a strong man of faith, and despite troubles with a stammer, helped to make him a renowned public speaker as well. As Malala’s father was also a fierce believer in children’s education, and eventually started his own school despite financial and economic hardships.

When Malala was born, her father rejoiced despite the common belief that boys were more prized than girls. Malala grew up in her father’s school and loved the educational environment. She would listen to the teachers tell stories, and when old enough, became a devoted pupil. She was interested in politics and history of her country, and intrigued by human rights. In Pakistan, females were not encouraged to go to school for both religious and economic reasons, with the common mentality being that education was meant for males, and a waste of resources and money on females. There was also the traditional belief to practice purdah, where the females of the household are completely covered and hidden from males that aren’t close family. Malala’s family was more modern in this context. Her father wanted education available to girls, allowed Malala to not cover her face, and encouraged her to speak out for the right of female education.

When the Taliban took over Swat (the area where Malala lived), extreme politics overturned the government, and Malala and her father became a target for speaking out against them. Their school was repeatedly told to shut down and disallow girls, and fined for absurd reasons. The town was terrorized by militant groups raiding homes in search of forbidden property like DVDs, CDs, and TVs- anything that could counter the propaganda being promoted by the leader of the Taliban. Anyone found- or accused- of speaking against the Taliban was targeted and either killed or flogged in public and left to die in the streets. Everything was done in the name of Islam, stating that the reasoning could be found in the Quran- yet many were uneducated and couldn’t read the original Arabic text, therefore relying on the translations and interpretations. Eventually, war came to the area, displacing millions of people in Swat- including Malala and her family. Through the tragedy, Malala and her father stayed true to their beliefs that peace, not violence, was the answer, and that education should be available to everyone.

When the Taliban was driven out of Swat and Malala’s family returned home, normalcy was still difficult to find, and everyone was still living in fear. However, Malala put on a brave face and continued to speak out- reaching locally and internationally- advocating for female education, ignoring the threats on her life. Though she was only fifteen, she was wise beyond her years and had faith in the Islam she knew, not the one projected by extremists. Then, one seemingly normal afternoon, Malala was shot.

As Malala tells her own story, I struggled to fight the heartbreak. This teenager lived in a paradise that she watched transform into a living hell, and survived the nightmare of it all, not losing an ounce of her faith or giving an inch in her beliefs. She is an absolute inspiration, and I was both in awe and shock as she recounted her short 16 years on earth. I personally would go to bed at night after reading a few chapters and have nightmares just from what I had read. As I said before, I live a privileged life, and even my imagination can’t handle what Malala went through.

I absolutely think I Am Malala is a must-read. We owe it to her, and to those who went through, and continue to go through, the fight on terrorism and the fight for basic human rights.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

As the weather outside gets colder, I find myself dreaming of being outdoors more. Of course, in the spring/summer/fall I’m out and about soaking up the whatever kindness the Kentucky weather gives me, but by this time of year, I’m starting to feel the lack of sunshine. So, from my pile of December TBRs, I pulled out Wild, ready for an adventure with some cozy feels.

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Let me tell you, if you haven’t read it yet, the emotional journey in this book will have you cheering on Cheryl and every woman you know who is searching for inner peace. I connected with her as the narrator in the way that I connected with Liz from Eat Pray Love– I felt like her confidant, and she inspired me in so many ways.

First off, Cheryl is not a perfect person. She’s lost her mother, her husband, her family, her sense of identity, and dealing with these tragedies lead her to drugs, adultery, desperation, and poor attempts to escape her reality. She decides that the only way she can figure out how to face her problems is to go on a physical journey- hiking the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) from Southern California to the Oregon/Washington border- alone. Terrified and relatively unprepared, she sets out with her pack (lovingly dubbed Monster) and literally carries her baggage through the wilderness, getting stronger mile by mile.

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It’s excruciating and exhilarating all at the same time. Each step of the way, the reader in inside Cheryl’s head, reliving her past, figuring out how to handle what could come in her future, and yet staying in the moment with her as she sees some amazing views of the country. And, on the occasions that she meets up with those on similar kindred travellers, the reader gets to experience the camaraderie of people who walk the same path for all sorts of reasons.

I’ve seen the movie as well, starring Reese Witherspoon, and no matter which medium you partake in, it’s absolutely worth it. I highly recommend the book (although I know I’m not the only one, and Oprah beat me to it years ago). I’m glad I found this copy on a recent book haul, because it is certainly one of my new favorites.

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Another recommendation from my friend from the stacks at the local public library.

The Nightingale took me a little time to get hooked on the story- it starts off rather slow (in my opinion). We are introduced to an unnamed elderly (but not old, as she would put it) lady who is reflecting on her life, and she eventually winds her way up to the attic and pulls out a memory box. Within the box, she finds documents dating back to World War II- specifically, identification papers of a Juliette Gervaise.

Trapped in the memory, the reader is taken back to France, 1939. We are introduced to Vianne Mauriac, a school teacher, mother, wife. On a perfectly normal day, she learns that her husband, Antoine, is being drafted to fight for France against the Germans. She is upset but permissive, believing that the talk of war is exaggerated and that he would be returning home soon. Imagining life without Antoine by her side was too much to think about for Vianne- after all, he had been there for as long as she could remember, certainly longer than her father had. Dealing with her own abandonment issues was Vianne’s younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol. Rebelling against the traditional French-woman behavior, Isabelle ran away to home far too often, causing her to be expelled from many boarding schools. After the death of her mother, her father had abandoned them by dumping them at a boarding school. Where Vianne found Antoine and befriended a girl named Rachel, Isabelle was left behind, the forgotten little sister. Now as a rebellious young adult, Isabelle is running for another reason- to survive the storm of Germans coming to occupy Paris.

As the start of the war happens, Vianne and Isabelle can’t let go of the hurt from their past. With varying views on the German occupation, Isabelle decides to join the war effort by secretly aiding the Allies, and Vianne takes a more passive route, complying with billeting soldiers in her home and abiding the German command. As the war wages on, the two seem to lead separate lives. Vianne attempts to stay her ground, doing her best to protect her daughter Sophie from the damages of war, and her neighbors when she can, all the while trying to maintain hope that the war will end soon. Meanwhile, Isabelle is running risky operations to save downed Ally airmen, a crime punishable by death, under the noses of commanding German officers. It is only when their two worlds collide again that the sisters begin to realize that they must put aside their past and hope to have a chance at a future.

Hannah took about 100 pages to get me hooked, but when she did, the hook went straight to my heart. As you all know, I have a weakness for historical fiction, and in particular those surrounding WWII. My great-grandfather was a volunteer of the Red Cross and helped liberate concentration camps in Germany in 1944-1945. We found photos that he took during that time after he passed away… and they will haunt me forever. So when I read these fictional stories, I know there is a very similar non-fictional story out there. A biography, even. And it makes me incredibly hurt and amazed that mankind would do such horrible things to each other, and yet people survived, had a will to survive….

I  also wanted to note that while somewhere in the middle of this book, I kept thinking about another novel, Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key, about WWII from the French perspective. I kept mentally comparing the two, and for about 100 pages, I kept thinking that de Rosnay’s was a more gripping read… and then Hannah’s hook got into me. What I found most interesting was that de Rosnay actually worked with Hannah on this novel, a few years after her own came out. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so, and if you haven’t read The Nightingale, the same goes for it. Just be ready to grab a box of tissues.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

“She gave me a complicated smile. “You’ve heard the joke, haven’t you? Are you married or do you live in Kenya?“”

When my book-loving coworker suggested I read this novel, it didn’t take me long to reserve it at the library, nor did it take me long to read it. 350 pages, each one full of a romantic view of life in the 1920’s British East Africa as experienced by Beryl Clutterbuck. Though a fictional novel, Clutterbuck, who becomes Markham after her second marriage, is actually a nonfictional character, as well as the others described in the novel. When I finished reading, I couldn’t stop myself from doing some more historical research, trying to piece together the timeline and get better images of the people involved. I love when a book does that to me- inspires me to learn more.

Anyways, we are introduced to Beryl as a young girl living with her family in colonial Kenya. Her father is running a horse farm as a trainer and breeder of racing thoroughbreds, and Beryl wants to follow in his footsteps. When her mother and brother leave to return to England, she decides Kenya is her home, and she wants to stay with her father on the farm. As she reaches her teen years, she rebels against her father’s wishes to become a more suitable woman by taunting her new governess and running away from boarding school. She isn’t interested in becoming the expected civilized housewife. Growing up in the bush, she’s followed her best friend Kibii step for step as he learned from his tribe how to be a warrior. Matching his courage and skills, Beryl knows she can take on any man’s job with determination and hard work, and succeed. However, when she reaches the age of sixteen, the tables are turned when she learns her father’s business has gone bankrupt, and he must sell the farm and train at another stable, leaving Beryl to decide if she should stay on the farm, go work for her father, or become a wife.

She decides to marry Jock, a man who just moved to the colony near her father’s farm. The merge leaves Beryl with her father’s horses, but also with a loveless relationship. When it becomes obvious that the marriage isn’t going to work out, Beryl decides to separate from Jock to go work as a trainer on her friend and mentor’s farm. A turning point for Beryl, she becomes the first English licensed female horse trainer (at least in Kenya, maybe the world). As her reputation builds for her training, she also gains a reputation for being a nontraditional wife, if you catch my drift. Despite her successes at the racetrack, her personal life causes her difficulties in keeping clients. After some time, she requests a divorce from her husband. He isn’t willing to grant the divorce because he doesn’t want to be seen as a man who can’t control his wife, nor take a hit to his reputation. They fight- him by drinking and getting into physical altercations, her by holding her ground and occasionally another man. As her relationship with Jock flames out, a new one with Denys Finch- Hatton fires up.

While reading, not only does the personal drama keep things interesting, but the romance of living in such wild country in Africa draws you in. I loved imagining the red clay, the safari trips, the rain season, the flamingo flocks near where Beryl exercised her horses… all the imagery was lovely, even in terrifying moments. Because of McLain’s wordsmithery, I was living right with Beryl in the environment that she loved so much.

With so much depth and strength to the characters, the setting, and the overall complexity of human relationships, I’d recommend it to anyone, and especially for those with the additional interest in the female empowerment and equality. I’m amazed at what barriers Beryl broke back in the 1920/1930s, of how much has changed since pioneers like her broke traditional female roles, and of how we are still pushing to get through the glass ceiling today. “Circling the Sun” is a must read.