Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

Niru, a senior at a prestigious private school in Washington DC has the perfect life. His family moved to the United States from Nigeria. His mother is a doctor, his father a CEO, and his older brother a medical student. Niru is bound for Harvard in the fall. But Niru holds a dark secret—he doesn’t like girls, a sin that would bring shame to his strict family. He keeps this to himself until his best friend Meredith, who has long-harbored a crush on him, falls apart when he won’t respond to her sexual advances. He finally admits that he thinks he’s gay. She installs apps like Tinder on his phone. From these, his father learns of Niru’s sexual orientation and begins a quest to exorcise Niru of the devil homosexuality. Niru is trapped between what he thinks he should be and what he is. Madeline, daughter of DC political insiders, feels pushed away by Niru and nurses her own resentment towards him leading to a violent confrontation.

Certainly, this book was well-written and timely, but I just didn’t like it. I had a difficult time maintaining focus and I disliked virtually ever single character except perhaps the little seen Global Literature teacher Ms. McConnell. With Niru and Meredith being only eighteen, it’s understandable they would make a chain of poor decisions but it’s harder to tolerate the lack of empathy from the adult characters. Although the very end introduces some possibility of reconciliation and redemption, for me, it was too little and too late to redeem the book in my eyes.

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The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

A group of pregnant women due in May joined the “May Mothers” mommy group in Brooklyn. Because one of the mothers, Winnie, was feeling depressed, the group arranged an outing to a bar on the Fourth of July. That night, Winnie’s son, Midas, was abducted. Three of the May Mothers, Colette, Francie, and Nell, become caught up in the Baby Midas case.

This book was such a light “beach read” type book, I sometimes felt I was losing brain cells while reading it. And a particular narrative device made me feel manipulated in a gimmicky way. At the same time, it was a quick read that captured my attention.

What is Real?

The Velveteen Rabbit“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

From “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams

"House Rules" by Jodi Picoult

98426814-75DA-4CEC-A9A8-A074EBECAD1ERecently, NPR recommended five books from the bestsellers of the previous six months, and on that recommendation, I decided to read House Rules by Jodi Picoult. I enjoy reading books in clusters – books about WWII, books about informed consent, etc – and Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) has been a theme of my summertime reading. In Picoult’s novel, Jacob, an eighteen year-old-boy, diagnosed with AS, has a razor-like focus on criminal forensics. He watches the fictional CrimeBusters (a nod to CSI) reruns daily and keeps detailed notebooks of the cases; he subscribes to academic journals on forensic science; and with the help of a police scanner, goes to crime scenes where sometimes his advice, though unwelcome, gives investigators the perspective they need. However, when Jacob’s social skills tutor, Jessica Ogilvy, is reported missing, and then later found dead, Jacob is arrested for the murder. His Aspergian traits – flat affect, self-centeredness, single-minded focus on one topic, the need for a strict adherence to a set schedule, twitches (stimming), lack of eye contact, aversion to touch, and meltdowns – are read by many, including his family, as indication of guilt. (As far as I can tell from previous reading, Picoult is fair in her representation of AS; in her acknowledgements, she mentions that an AS teenager read a draft of the novel and gave her feedback, of course, in a frank and unflinching manner.)

The premise of the novel was intriguing to me, and, as I mentioned, Picoult was fairhanded (yet perhaps too pedantic) in describing AS. However, the execution was disappointing. First, I found the five main characters – Jacob, Emma, Theo, Oliver, and Rich – to be fairly unsympathetic. This did make me think quite a bit. I found it ironic that I had so little empathy for the characters, especially since a lack of empathy is characteristic of AS. I wondered if this was deliberate, so we could feel more of Jacob’s world, or if it was sloppy writing that made the characters unidimensional. I don’t have children, much less a child on the autism spectrum, but I found myself feeling sorry for Theo, Jacob’s younger brother, who is forgotten in the wake of Jacob’s needs. Emma, their (single) mother, seems unaware or unconcerned about Theo. This may be the way it is for families who have a member with AS, but it struck me as unfair. Second, each of the five characters has chapters corresponding to their points of view – and each of them had a unique font! I found this gimmicky and distracting. (An aside: I just started reading another book on NPR’s list, The Lake Shore Limited, and while I haven’t read much, I noticed it has the same structure: alternating chapters by character. Is this about the NPR list or about today’s novels?) Each of the ten sections of the novel was introduced by a Case History – a crime solved using innovative forensic methods, with the final of the Case Histories discussing Jessica’s death. I found this slightly gimmicky, too, but less distracting than the different fonts. Third, given the title of the book “House Rules” and the tendency of people with AS to obey rules, the mystery of the story is fairly obvious, though I was curious about how it would be revealed.

Despite my criticisms, this is a quick, engrossing read – good for the beach or a flight, though I’d wait until the book comes out in paperback.