Girls Burn Brighter

Girls Burn BrighterGirls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Poornami and Savitha meet soon after Poornami’s mother dies of cancer. It seems her father views this as little more than an inconvenience. Poornami won’t be able to marry until a year after the death, and the loom Poornami’s mother operated stands empty, reducing the family income. Poornami’s father decides to hire a laborer, and Savitha, near Poornami’s age, joins the family business. While her father and Savitha weave the saris for which their region is known, Poornami spins cotton thread. As part of her wages, Savitha receives meals at the family home, but she and Poornami are only allowed to eat after the patriarch. Sometimes, he takes seconds, leaving very little for the teenage girls to share.

Immediately, the girls develop a strong bond of friendship, with Poornami in awe of Savitha’s zest for and enjoyment of life, and Savitha telling Poornami that everything is bland and colorless except her. They look forward to seeing a movie for the first time together, and Savitha starts staying at Poornami’s during the night so she can work on an indigo sari for Poornami while still completing her tasks for her father. Poornami even sabotages a meeting with a potential husband because he lived too far away for Savitha to visit. But after a harrowing ordeal, Savitha leaves the village, taking only the half-finished sari, and Poornami, alone, marries into a family that values her only for her domestic labor. So begins Savitha’s quest to find freedom and Poornami’s journey back to Savitha.

The women encounter domestic abuse, prostitution, human trafficking, poverty, and sexual violence as they struggle to maintain the internal hope–the light that burns inside–that allows them to press forward despite the numerous setbacks and overwhelming odds. Although some of the men with which they cross paths are kind, or at least helpful, the majority are predatory and treat the women as objects or investments giving them the feeling they are owned and have little agency, though both of them in turn use men, and Poornami is particularly adept at reading people and manipulating the men around her. Still, these moments are few.

About halfway through the novel, the setting moves to Seattle, and it is interesting to read how Savitha and later Poornami react to America. At one point, Poornami reflects, “What a mysterious country, she thought, how small for all its vastness.” The move also complicates Savitha’s efforts to escape her bonds since she is unable to speak English, and, even when people might be trying to help her, she can’t understand them. One moment of clarity comes when a character points a gun at her forehead. “”Now she understood. The whole night now a violence of understanding.”

Overwhelmingly, this is a novel of false starts and setbacks, and when Savathi finally realizes that “all the beacons of the world, standing all in a row, couldn’t save her,” it’s easy to understand her hopelessness. In fact, it was hard to imagine how the characters maintained a drive to press forward when they faced so many obstacles. There were times I had to put the book aside because the pain and devastation were so completely relentless. With a somewhat ambiguous ending, there’s nothing to halt the despair. So while the novel is well-written, it is difficult emotionally. I found the book valuable for the depiction of the oppression of Indian girls and women, particularly of a particular social class but I questioned if the presentation was the most effective possible.

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We Are Not Yet Equal

we are not yet equal.pngIn 2016, Carol Anderson shocked readers with her book White Rage which revealed the insidious and often hidden racism underlying laws and institutions in the United States. Here, she and Tonya Bolden have adapted the book for a young adult audience. The well-written and engaging book begins in the aftermath of the Civil War and continues through the Obama Presidency and traces the lost opportunities for providing equality to all. Over and over again, the United States reaches a fulcrum, a moment in history, where inequities could be redressed: the Civil War, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Era, the Obama Presidency. Rather than use those watershed moments to boldly and justly address past wrongs, the government, supported by a large swath of white citizens, undermines the gains to maintain the status quo of white supremacy.

For example, instead of holding Civil War rebels to account, the federal government under Lincoln and Johnson prioritized reunification. Oppressive Black Codes went unchallenged by the federal government. Johnson in particular stymied efforts of Congress to redress the evils from centuries of slavery. Though Congress overturned his vetoes of legislation of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill in 1866, Johnson’s pardon of Southern rebels meant that their elected representatives were leaders from the Confederacy. Poll taxes and unfavorable decisions by the Supreme Court undermined efforts to provide rights to blacks.

After reading this book, I feel completely and utterly gutted and outraged at the lack of justice and compassion reflected in the actions of the country’s leaders, lawmakers, and many citizens. Although there was a time that new racism was disguised by an ideology supporting color-blindness, under Trump, spewing hate based on race has become acceptable once more.

I learned so much. While I knew that Southern states were resistant to the Brown decision, I didn’t realize the lengths to which they went to prevent integration. Several students were without education for years while local and state governments delayed implementation. Though I was aware of the challenges to voting rights through voter ID laws, many of the specific examples presented here were new to me.

Sadly, I became disillusioned with Presidents Lincoln and Eisenhower, Lincoln for failing to name slavery as the cause of the Civil War and Eisenhower for failing to use the power of his office to enact the Brown decision. Nixon and Reagan’s racist policies disguised as tough-on-crime stances were not surprising. I also didn’t know the extent of the Supreme Court’s role in undermining progress. With some exceptions, like Brown, their rulings weakened protections of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, undercut the Voting Rights Act, and rang a death knell for affirmative action.

I regret not reading White Rage before We Are Not Yet Equal because I can’t compare them. I can attest that the latter is an important stepping-stone to dialogue on ways to halt this chain of oppression. Although written for a young adult audience (and seems appropriate for such an audience in terms of content and language), adults will find it enlightening as well. The material presented in the book is important and necessary.

Although I have few criticisms of the book, I did find the chapter on the Voting Rights Act more technical and less engaging than the other chapters, though the information was important. I thought the weakest chapter was on Obama’s administration. Though it related the rancor and disrespect Obama faced, it seemed to be less grounded in research than the rest of the book. Perhaps my biggest complaint though is that there is no guidance on where to go from here. The author ends with hope that knowing about white rage can lead to a challenge of its racist consequences, but offers nothing beyond that. Maybe it will be the subject of her next book–and I would definitely read it!

Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc. for an advance reader’s copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Instructions for a Funeral

Instructions for a Funeral.jpg

David Mean’s short story collection, Instructions for a Funeral, contains provocative and heart-wrenching stories about fatherhood, relationships, addiction, and regret. The title story, “Instructions for a Funeral” finds William Kenner delineating his last wishes to his lawyer and in so doing relating a betrayal by a friend and an encounter with organized crime. In “Terminal Artist,” the narrator learns that a friend he thought had died from complications from surgery during cancer treatment might have instead been the victim of an “angel of mercy.” After challenging a rich town boy to a fight for saying he hated Okies, ranch hand Frankie catches the eye of Sarah Breeland who saw in him a complicated kindness.

Two sets of stories are interconnected; the rest stand alone. However, the stories share common themes, one being a sense of fate, destiny, or premonition and how memory can retroactively give certain events or moments significance. For example, one character considers the time immediately before learning his wife had an affair: “On the penultimate day, as I now think of it, the point through which the rest of my life with Sharon would seem to bow, or, rather, bend, so that everything that transpired after that afternoon seemed to lead to the day when Sharon confessed to me, admitted that, yes, she had been seeing X, but that she had broken it off with him, let go of him, was how she put it.” Forgiveness also appeared in multiple stories as did the creation of stories. Ultimately, all the stories seemed to have thematic cohesion with the exception of El Morro which didn’t fit as well in the collection.

Overall, I liked the writing style, but I did find some devices the author used to be distracting at best, at worst, irritating. In multiple stories, the phrase “I thought, I think” or a close variation is used a total of ten times. Although it points to the fallibility of memory and furthers the theme, the sheer volume of the phrase made it lose meaning. Another frequent device was a parenthetical comment followed by an exclamation point (e.g., “I still despise that phrase!” or “Yes, fucking navels!”) which I found off-putting. Finally, the sentences and the paragraphs were unduly long. I found myself frequently rereading because I’d get lost in the prose. As I progressed through the book, I got more accustomed to the style, but it did make for a challenging reading experience.

I wasn’t sure if we were to assume the same person narrated all the stories, but in any case, in many stories, the narrator was a writer and meditated on the art of writing (with two stories explicitly about writing). In “Terminal Artist,” for example, the narrator reflects, “I’d never be able to use her death in a story. I’d have to find some other way, I thought.” Several times, this idea of using the events in the narrative in a story arises. On the one hand, it is interesting to think of how stories are constructed from real-life events and then are manipulated and reformed by the author, but the idea came up so often, it felt overdone and lost effectiveness.

That said, I enjoyed the collection and came away feeling touched. Ultimately, it was through the stories and the retelling that the events gained meaning or, as Means describes it, provides a state of “deeper grace.”

Thank you to Netgalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Grass

Grass by Sheri TepperGrass by Sheri S. Tepper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to the dominant, ruling religion, Sanctity, the plague doesn’t exist. Yet, people on every planet are dying from a virulent virus. Every planet, that is, except one, Grass, notoriously suspicious of anything or anyone coming from “elsewhere.” Desperate, the Hierarch sends his nephew Roderigo “Rigo” Yrarier and his family, Marjorie Westriding, Anthony, and Stella–even though they are Old Catholics–to learn what makes Grass different in the hopes of finding a vaccine or cure. As avid horse people, Sanctity believes, the Yrariers have the best chance possible of bonding with the bons, the Grass aristocracy, since the bons are obsessed with riding and hunting. They begin training with a riding master at a young age until they are ready to join the hunt.

As Rigo becomes ensnared in the local mania for the hunt, Marjorie, intuitive, wise, yet remote, seeks out answers that will save the universe. She befriends bon Sylvan bon Damfels, commoner, master carver Persun Pollut, and Sanctity penitents Brothers Mainoa and Lourai as she navigates the closed and secretive society of the bons. What she learns could save humanity–or hasten its demise.

Although the book started out slowly for me, and I worried about reading a book where a ritualized hunt was so dominant, I found that once Marjorie’s character was introduced, I became engrossed in the narrative. Underneath the compelling mystery of curing the plague lies a number of themes, many of which are echoed in Tepper’s other works. On Terra (earth), at least, governments are dominated by religious rule, certainly not to the benefit of women or lower socioeconomic classes, and the book challenges theocracy. Religion is also a means of reproducing patriarchy. As Father Sandoval councils Marjorie when she complains of Rigo’s infidelity, a wife’s obedience will solve problems in a marriage. Sanctity was completely devoid of women except as reproductive vessels. Brother Mainoa minces no words: “The shitheads are wrong…Not just a little bit wrong, but irremediably, absolutely, and endemically wrong.” While Grass is largely secular, tradition demands male dominance. In the book, men are driven to demonstrate their masculinity, as is evidenced by Rigo’s seduction to Hunt, but the costs are high. The book also criticizes those who endlessly debate ethical positions while failing to act and questions the limits of duty and mercy.

While some passages were slightly heavy-handed and the science was confusing (at least to me), I enjoyed reading the book once I got over my initial resistance. It’s definitely a must for those interested in feminist science fiction.

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The Healing Power of Mindfulness

healing power of mindfulness.pngThe Healing Power of Mindfulness was originally published as parts V and VI of Jon Kabot-Zinn’s 2005 classic book Coming to Our Senses. This volume is updated and with a new foreword by the author. In it, Kabot-Zinn relates the powerful connection between mindfulness and healing which he describes as coming to terms with things as they are, not clouded by emotions or narratives that might inhibit our awareness of the present moment. This healing through mindfulness practice promotes a number of positive physical and emotional outcomes.

Although the book was very interesting and inspiring, it wasn’t what I expected. I thought there might be practical instructions on using mindfulness to heal emotionally and physically, but this is not a how-to book. The basics of mindfulness meditation are covered in other volumes in the set as well as in print, online, and virtual resources listed at the close of the book. Instead, The Healing Power of Mindfulness discusses the ways mindfulness meditation promotes positive outcomes. It provides the answer to why one should commit to a practice of mindfulness.

My favorite chapters are those that are concrete and/or based firmly in Kabot-Zinn’s personal experience. Relating to physical healing, I enjoyed reading about Christopher Reeve’s remarkable resilience after the horse-riding accident that paralyzed him. Though his doctors believed he would show no improvement, he persisted until he felt the wiggle of a single finger. Even when he didn’t experience the outcomes he’d hoped for, he always felt that doctors could learn from the process and help others with spinal injuries. Poignantly, the author relates his experience with his father’s Alzheimer’s and how that inspired him even more to be present in the moment. One study showed that patients with psoriasis who engaged in guided meditations during phototherapy, needed much less time to remove skin eruptions than did patients in the control condition.

The book also deals with emotional or spiritual healing. One chapter, for example discusses neuroplasticity and how mindfulness can actually change the processes in our brains to promote habits of being (or non-being) associated with positive emotions. A mindfulness practice can reduce stress. It can even help prepare us for death, our ultimate and inevitable fate.

Mindfulness also applie beyond the realm of the individual. Kabot-Zinn discusses how organizations (which he calls orthogonal institutions) can promote a spirit of mindfulness. Using dialogue instead of discussion embraces the ideal of mindfulness and can heal relationships and conflicts between people, groups, and even countries. After attending a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction workshop, a judge who instructed jurors before a trial to listen with mindfulness. If only that would happen more!

Though the text was taken from a book published in 2005, it doesn’t feel dated at all. Kabot-Zinn has updated references. When discussing the Super Bowl and the Patriots, he reflected on the team’s more recent successes. The same chapter lauds Colin Kaepernick’s efforts to bring awareness and justice to black victims of police violence.

The book is very dense in some places, and I felt like I had to read some sections multiple times (and maybe need to read again). At times, Kabot-Zinn used very complex (and long) sentences that added to the feeling. Although the book stands on its own, I think it would be more comprehensible after reading the other books in the series. For example, the body scan was mentioned several times, and though I am familiar with it from other sources, the practice itself was described in an earlier volume. If you didn’t know the premise, those sections would be inexplicable.

I am not consistent meditating or practicing mindfulness, but this book certainly has inspired me to recommit to a mindfulness practice!

Thank you to Netgalley and Hatchett Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.