Reading With Patrick by Michelle Kuo

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My Review:

Heartbreaking, inspiring and a tribute to dedication, Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship  is the memoir of an Asian American Teach For America teacher and her friendship with a poor, black student in Helena, Arkansas.  Their special relationship is in the forefront of the story with race relations, education and the legal system the backdrop for setting.

Michelle had always been encouraged by her traditional Taiwanese parents to get an education, settle down and get married.  But Michelle found the job of teaching troublesome kids in the Delta extremely rewarding. She stuck with it for a couple of years during which her student, Patrick, attended, on occasion.  His home life was less than perfect and his family was not overwhelmingly supportive or encouraging when it came to school.  Most of the people in the small towns were moving to the big cities and those left behind were the poorest and least educated.  After two years, Michelle, feeling pressure to fulfill her own personal goals and responsibilities, left Arkansas to attend Harvard Law School.  Upon her graduation she learned Patrick had dropped out of school and was currently in jail for murder.  Feeling a sense of responsibility, she gave up her life and returned to the Delta to meet with him, try to guide him legally and then continued teaching him while he was in prison.  The beautiful gift she gave him of being his mentor and teacher changed the course of his life. While in jail, Patrick wrote many letters to his daughter, allowing him to grow and prepare for all the work it would take to develop that relationship once he was released, while Michelle developed her inner strength to fight for what she believed in even if it went against the wants and needs of her beloved parents.

I admire the commitment Michelle Kuo made to Patrick; we must tend to the people in the poorest of neighborhoods where mentors, guidance and education are most needed.  She clearly made a difference in her student’s life, but currently, with a felony on his record he has a hard time finding a job.  According to a Random House Q & A with the author, Patrick’s “food stamps recently got cut off because of a federal law that cut off aid for 500,000 of the poorest people in the United States.”  On a positive note, his daughter is in third grade and doing well.

I highly recommend this inspiring story of dedication and human responsibility to teachers and everyone else who is able to contribute positively to our society.

As seen in Goodreads:

A memoir of race, inequality, and the power of literature told through the life-changing friendship between an idealistic young teacher and her gifted student, jailed for murder in the Mississippi Delta.

Recently graduated from Harvard University, Michelle Kuo arrived in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, as a Teach for America volunteer, bursting with optimism and drive. But she soon encountered the jarring realities of life in one of the poorest counties in America, still disabled by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. In this stirring memoir, Kuo, the child of Taiwanese immigrants, shares the story of her complicated but rewarding mentorship of one student, Patrick Browning, and his remarkable literary and personal awakening.

Convinced she can make a difference in the lives of her teenaged students, Michelle Kuo puts her heart into her work, using quiet reading time and guided writing to foster a sense of self in students left behind by a broken school system. Though Michelle loses some students to truancy and even gun violence, she is inspired by some such as Patrick. Fifteen and in the eighth grade, Patrick begins to thrive under Michelle’s exacting attention. However, after two years of teaching, Michelle feels pressure from her parents and the draw of opportunities outside the Delta and leaves Arkansas to attend law school.

Then, on the eve of her law-school graduation, Michelle learns that Patrick has been jailed for murder. Feeling that she left the Delta prematurely and determined to fix her mistake, Michelle returns to Helena and resumes Patrick’s education–even as he sits in a jail cell awaiting trial. Every day for the next seven months they pore over classic novels, poems, and works of history. Little by little, Patrick grows into a confident, expressive writer and a dedicated reader galvanized by the works of Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, W. S. Merwin, and others. In her time reading with Patrick, Michelle is herself transformed, contending with the legacy of racism and the questions of what constitutes a “good” life and what the privileged owe to those with bleaker prospects.

Reading with Patrick is an inspirational story of friendship, a coming-of-age story of both a young teacher and a student, a deeply resonant meditation on education, race, and justice in the rural South, and a love letter to literature and its power to transcend social barriers.

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About the Author:

Michelle Kuo is the author of the memoir READING WITH PATRICK, a story of race, inequality, and the transformative power of literature. She taught English at an alternative school in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

After graduating from Harvard Law, she became an immigrants’ rights lawyer at Centro Legal de la Raza, a nonprofit in Oakland, California. She advocated for tenants facing evictions, workers stiffed out of their wages, and families facing deportation.

Michelle has also clerked for the Honorable John T. Noonan at the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit and taught courses through the Prison University Project at San Quentin Prison.

The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Michelle grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams

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My Review:

Don’t let this exceptional new novel fall under the radar!  Based on war-torn Africa and the innocent people caught in the middle, the stunning debut, The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams takes us to Uganda where a young girl, Lily, goes missing.  The authorities are hard to come by and disorganized, so her aunt, Sabine, a former aid worker, travels from Germany to the village where she was last seen, to trace Lily’s steps and try to understand if she was in danger and kidnapped, or if she had a motive to disappear.  At the same time, a Ugandan woman, Rose, previously kidnapped and emotionally and physically abused by the Lord’s Resistance Army but now back in her village, is looking for her missing boyfriend, Ocen.  Sabine and Rose work together to unravel the intertwined lives of their loved ones, leading them back to their own deep, dark secrets.

Having had aid work experience herself, author Jenny D. Williams takes us on a vividly portrayed journey through Uganda, and  this incredible story was inspired by real events.  In 1996 there was an abduction of 139 school girls from St. Mary’s College in northern Uganda.  Operation Lighting Thunder was the name of the military action by the Ugandan government against LRA forces.  In the book, one of the characters talks about the problems there saying “The conflict in Congo is probably the most complicated war in the world.  Two wars, technically, in the last twenty years, but they overlap quite a bit.  Nine African nations.  Twenty armed groups.  Five and a half million people dead, mostly from disease and starvation.   Large-scale fighting has been occurring in various provinces since Rwanda invaded eastern Congo – it was Zaire, then – 1996.  Ever since, the country has been mired in one conflict after another.”

Jenny D. Williams has traveled and lived in Uganda and then to Germany where she wrote the book.  Her knowledge of the country is evident and her complex characters slowly reveal themselves as we learn about their pasts.   With beautifully expressed emotion and character complexity Williams allowed me to feel the pain and struggles as the story progressed. She provided insight into why the characters are who they are, giving them dimension.

During the frantic search for her niece, Sabine recalls her deceased sister’s comment about being a mother, “It feels as though a piece of my heart exists outside my own body, in another person.  And I can never get it back.”  Sabine is introspective and recognizes why she will never have children, “why would you want a piece of your heart in such a precarious location as someone else’s body?  Why choose that uncertainty, that terror, that utter lack of control?  As she grew older, this approach extended to lovers and friends, because how could she do her job if her heart was elsewhere?  Love made you selfish; love made you choose some above others.  And so all these many years later, her heart was lonely but whole.  Unseen – but intact.”

Visit www.JennyDWilliams.com for more from the author and pick up a copy of The Atlas of Forgotten Places; Beautiful writing and chock full of emotion, this suspenseful, historically rich debut is not to to be missed.

 

As seen in Goodreads:

The Atlas of Forgotten Places is that rare novel that delivers an exquisite portrait of family and love within a breathlessly, thrilling narrative.

After a long career as an aid worker, Sabine Hardt has retreated to her native Germany for a quieter life. But when her American niece Lily disappears while volunteering in Uganda, Sabine must return to places and memories she once thought buried in order to find her. In Uganda, Rose Akulu—haunted by a troubled past with the Lord’s Resistance Army—becomes distressed when her lover Ocen vanishes without a trace. Side by side, Sabine and Rose must unravel the tangled threads that tie Lily and Ocen’s lives together—ultimately discovering that the truth of their loved ones’ disappearance is inescapably entwined to the secrets the two women carry.

Masterfully plotted and vividly rendered by a fresh new voice in fiction, The Atlas of Forgotten Places delves deep into the heart of compassion and redemption through a journey that spans geographies and generations to lay bare the stories that connect us all.

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About the author:

JENNY D. WILLIAMS has lived in the U.S., Uganda, and Germany. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and a BA from UC Berkeley. Her award-winning fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and illustrations have been published in The Sun Magazine, Vela, and Ethical Traveler, as well as several anthologies. A former Teachers & Writers Collaborative fellow and recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant for emerging writers, she currently lives in Seattle with her husband and dog. The Atlas of Forgotten Places is her first novel.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

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My Review:

Wow!  My Absolute Darling is literary fiction at its finest! This vividly written debut is rich in language with full descriptive prose and incredibly complex characters.  Turtle, a motherless teenager living with her reclusive, resourceful, survivalist dad, has an unusual existence.  Some of her days begin with raw eggs and a sip of beer before she goes on the bus to middle school.  With little interaction amongst her classmates and not much interest in academics, her attendance is haphazard.  Not the typical northern California fourteen year old, she spends lots of time wandering around alone outside in nature and is often busy cleaning her gun.  Her large and physically imposing father, Martin, provides sparse supervision and motivation, yet he is all she has, and she says she loves him.  Martin loves her, teaches her everything he knows about surviving in this crazy world, yet they have an unspoken dirty little secret and there is a dark cloud of hatred between them.

The tension between Martin and Turtle escalates as the story progresses, with the death of Grandpa, the new boy in Turtle’s life and Turtle’s journey into adulthood.  When Martin brings home a young girl to live with them, Turtle sees the evil in Martin more clearly, her maturity coinciding with increasing will and courage to plan her escape. The damage Martin has inflicted on Turtle’s self image is seemingly unsurmountable, her self hatred is overwhelming and she constantly battles inner conflict, yet in other ways he taught her survival skills, and she must conjure up the strength to do what she needs to escape.

Emotionally painful and exhausting to read, I needed to put the book down at the end of each chapter to absorb, contemplate and recover, then was immediately compelled to pick it right back up again to continue.  It is crazy to say I loved a book with such distasteful subject matter, but the way author Gabriel Tallent developed his characters and moved me with his writing is a testament to the power of his words.  I highly recommend My Absolute Darling.

 

As seen on Goodreads:

Turtle Alveston is a survivor. At fourteen, she roams the woods along the northern California coast. The creeks, tide pools, and rocky islands are her haunts and her hiding grounds, and she is known to wander for miles. But while her physical world is expansive, her personal one is small and treacherous: Turtle has grown up isolated since the death of her mother, in the thrall of her tortured and charismatic father, Martin. Her social existence is confined to the middle school (where she fends off the interest of anyone, student or teacher, who might penetrate her shell) and to her life with her father.

Then Turtle meets Jacob, a high-school boy who tells jokes, lives in a big clean house, and looks at Turtle as if she is the sunrise. And for the first time, the larger world begins to come into focus: her life with Martin is neither safe nor sustainable. Motivated by her first experience with real friendship and a teenage crush, Turtle starts to imagine escape, using the very survival skills her father devoted himself to teaching her. What follows is a harrowing story of bravery and redemption. With Turtle’s escalating acts of physical and emotional courage, the reader watches, heart in throat, as this teenage girl struggles to become her own hero—and in the process, becomes ours as well.

Shot through with striking language in a fierce natural setting, My Absolute Darling is an urgently told, profoundly moving read that marks the debut of an extraordinary new writer.

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About the Author (seen on book cover):

Gabriel Tallent was born in New Mexico and raised on the Mendocino coast by two mothers.  He received his BA from Willamette University in 2010, and after graduation spent two seasons leading youth trail crews in the backcountry of the Pacific Northwest.  Tallent lives in Salt Lake City.

The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion

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My Review:

The Best of Adam Sharp is like a fantasy that materializes; the story of wishful thinking from a middle aged man in a status quo relationship with an adequate job.  In the story, Adam’s lost love of his life, an Australian actress, gets back in touch with him after 20 years and he is faced with the decision to stay in his ho hum relationship with his ok wife or to pursue his old flame to see what would be.  Adam struggles with the decision but ultimately chooses this once in a lifetime second chance, to meet up with his love from the past.  What happens next is not what you would expect, and some crazy things ensue. This quirky love story is well paced and throughout the book, author Graeme Simsion travels down memory lane referencing songs of the past. Nostalgic, romantic and mildly humorous, the story did include some bigger issues related to parenting and relationships, but I didn’t feel much emotional connection to any particular character.  I was curious to know what would happen next, but for me, the best part of The Best of Adam Sharp was the music mentioned throughout the story, including The Beatles, Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder and The Rolling Stones.  A cute story for 50 year old music lovers; the “playlist” is in the back of the book if you want to preview it!

As seen on Goodreads:

From the #1 bestselling author of The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect, an unforgettable new novel about lost love and second chances

On the cusp of turning fifty, Adam Sharp likes his life. He’s happy with his partner Claire, he excels in music trivia at quiz night at the local pub, he looks after his mother, and he does the occasional consulting job in IT.

But he can never quite shake off his nostalgia for what might have been: his blazing affair more than twenty years ago with an intelligent and strong-willed actress named Angelina Brown who taught him for the first time what it means to find—and then lose—love. How different might his life have been if he hadn’t let her walk away?

And then, out of nowhere, from the other side of the world, Angelina gets in touch. What does she want? Does Adam dare to live dangerously?

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About the Author:

Graeme Simsion is a former IT consultant and the author of two nonfiction books on database design who decided, at the age of fifty, to turn his hand to fiction. His first novel, The Rosie Project, was published in 2013 and translation rights have been sold in forty languages. The sequel, The Rosie Effect, is also an international bestseller.
Graeme’s third novel is The Best of Adam Sharp, a story of a love affair re-kindled – and its consequences.
Graeme lives in Australia with his wife, Anne Buist, also a published writer ( Medea’s Curse, Dangerous to Know).

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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My Review:

In The Underground Railroad, Cora is a slave in the early 1800’s working on a plantation in Georgia.  She is an outcast, has been abandoned by  her mother, and has been asked by Caesar, an educated slave, to travel on the underground railroad to escape slavery and the horrible conditions.  Ridgeway, the slave catcher is in hot pursuit of Cora as she is on the run and travels to other states by train.  In each location black people are treated differently; in Georgia the slaves are needed to work on the plantations, in South Carolina the black people are free to work and have homes yet they are secretly being sterilized so as not to grow the population.  In other states the white people are afraid of being outnumbered so they want to kill all the black people.  The horrific examples of torture and attitudes of white people are based on history, and the gory details are unapologetically presented throughout the narrative.

This was not a fun book to read. Graphic descriptions of torture, oppression, beatings, murders and struggle are uncomfortable, but it is crucial to know our attitudes and actions of the past, that it is remembered and never repeated.  Author Colson Whitehead was effective in portraying history, but did not create characters I could connect with; I was rooting for Cora but I did not tap in to her emotional state or feel what any of the other characters were feeling.  I was disgusted and upset with how people were being treated but I was disconnected from their hearts. I am not sure if the author wanted the reader to feel Cora’s anxiety when she was on the run, or her sadness, but it was interesting for me to read a book about slavery, such an emotionally charged topic, and not shed a tear.  I wonder if the author were a woman writing from Cora’s perspective would my reaction have been different….if I were black would I have related to and empathized more with the characters emotionally?

The element of magical realism, the actual underground railroad, is a clever way to depict how the slaves escaped and traveled from place to place, but for me it created more questions.  The idea was developed a bit, the trains were unpredictable and they stopped in random states, train stations were manned by people who helped the slaves hide, but I wanted to know how the system was built, who dug the tunnels and laid the tracks, it was a physical system in the land…how did slave owners not know about it?  I prefer the magical realism in Exit West by Mohsin Hamid where the idea of doors leading to other countries is not developed any further that a brief explanation but serves the purpose of transporting the characters to another time and place.

The Underground Railroad is an important book that depicts history; a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Winner, it has been recommended by Barack Obama and is an Oprah’s Book Club 2016 selection.  Read it at your own risk.  Would love to know your reaction to the book so feel free to comment.

 

As seen on Goodreads:

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

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About the Author:

I’m the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. I’ve also written a book of essays about my home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, I live in New York City.

My latest book, The Underground Railroad, is an Oprah’s Book Club pick.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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My Review:

Stay With Me is a story about a Nigerian young couple who married for love, Yejide and Akin, as they faced the challenges of infertility.  In their culture, having children is expected, and they are desperate to become parents.  Yejide’s mother died at her birth so she hopes her feelings of belonging to no one will be rectified once she has a baby.  Akin’s mother is relentless and goes behind her daughter in laws back to present other women to her son so he can become a father.  The couple had agreed polygamy was not for them but the mother persisted and they unwillingly accepted another wife.  Desperation to become pregnant leads Yejide, a modern, working woman, to superstition and ritual and she convinces herself she is with child; saddled with the burden of male pride, Akin does his own scheming to make sure there is a baby in their future.  When Yejide finally gives birth, there are feelings of betrayal and jealously amidst the joy.  The political unrest in Nigeria is the backdrop as this powerful story travels back and forth from the late 1980s when the couple first meets to 2008.  The emotional journey of this imperfect marriage packs a punch every step of the way.

Author Ayobami Adebayo sheds some light on cultural traditions and expectations Nigerians aim to adhere to.  In this compact, hard hitting 250 page novel, we experience the course this troubled marriage travels, the joys of births and the sorrow of deaths, hopes, superstitions and brutal realities.  With complex characters that make difficult decisions to guide their paths, Stay With Me is heartbreaking, revealing, and a must read debut.

As seen on Goodreads:

Yejide and Akin have been married since they met and fell in love at university. Though many expected Akin to take several wives, he and Yejide have always agreed: polygamy is not for them. But four years into their marriage–after consulting fertility doctors and healers, trying strange teas and unlikely cures–Yejide is still not pregnant. She assumes she still has time–until her family arrives on her doorstep with a young woman they introduce as Akin’s second wife. Furious, shocked, and livid with jealousy, Yejide knows the only way to save her marriage is to get pregnant, which, finally, she does, but at a cost far greater than she could have dared to imagine. An electrifying novel of enormous emotional power, Stay With Measks how much we can sacrifice for the sake of family.

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About the Author:

Ayobami Adebayo’s stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and one was highly commended in the 2009 Commonwealth short story competition. She holds BA and MA degrees in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. She also has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she was awarded an international bursary for Creative Writing. Ayobami has been the recipient of fellowships and residencies from Ledig House, Hedgebrook, Threads, Ebedi Hills and Ox-Bow.
STAY WITH ME- UK (Canongate, March 2017), Nigeria (Ouida Books, April 2017), US (Knopf, August 2017), KENYA (Kwani?, August 2017) is her debut novel.