Category Archives: 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge

A WOMAN IS NO MAN by Etaf Rum

A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum takes on a tough topic: three generations of Palestinian women facing lives of restriction, abuse and shame – in America, in the 2000s, no less.

Isra is born in Palestine and married off to a Palestinian-American man named Adam when she is only 17. She moves to Brooklyn, where her life is reduced to her in-laws’ house. She waits each day for her husband to come home, rarely venturing out or doing anything more than preparing meals and cleaning alongside her strong-willed mother-in-law Fareeda. When she produces daughter after daughter, rather than the sons her culture prizes so highly, she sinks deeper into shame and depression. Many years later, her oldest daughter Deja faces the same future her mother did at the same age: a planned marriage to another Palestinian man and the same claustrophobic cycle of housework and servitude.

Is there hope for these women, or at least for future generations? How can these cultural expectations be changed to allow for more fulfilling, equal lives for women? That’s Rum’s question and agenda in writing A Woman Is No Man. For what goes on for these girls is pretty shocking from a modern perspective, but it’s largely invisible. Who knew this was happening in the shadow of one of our most modern, progressive cities?

A Woman Is No Man has been a big book this year, including being selected as a Book of the Month choice, and I am certainly glad that Rum is shining a light on these women and this culture. That said, I found the book to be really repetitive and somewhat of a slog. Rum hammered her theme home over and over, with little plot progression or character development. These women had the same internal dialogue going the whole time. This of course enhanced the repressive, claustrophobic nature of their lives – it was a claustrophobic reading experience! – but it made me enjoy the book a lot less. I kept saying, “Yes, I get it,” in my head as I was reading. I also think this book is a good example of “show don’t tell”. Rum – a debut author – should trust her readers more. We can handle more nuance and subtlety. So while I appreciated the story and the characters, I was overall frustrated by the overall book.

Nicole and I are discussing A Woman Is No Man on our podcast The Readerly Report next week – I’ll drop a link here when the episode airs.

LOOK HOW HAPPY I’M MAKING YOU by Polly Rosenwaike

The short story collection Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike is a kaleidoscope of perspectives on motherhood. The collection roughly follows a chronology, starting with the first story about a woman who is trying to get pregnant and sees the same cute baby on the bus every morning en route to work. Other stories feature women who are pregnant but don’t want to be, women who get pregnant unintentionally, women contemplating single motherhood, new mothers with postpartum depression, women who have lost their mothers.

Rosenwaike’s perspective is fresh and honest, reflecting the often conflicting feelings women have at these points of transition in their lives. The women are smart and funny, emotional and real. This is not a book extolling the magic and mystery of motherhood, but one that puts the experience of parenting through several lenses to get at the many emotions it inspires.

I don’t usually like short stories that much because I find them unsatisfying in terms of character development. This collection overcomes that challenge a bit – the women in these stories are pretty similar, leading to the impression that this is the same character going through all of these different experiences. A degree of continuity throughout the book sets it apart from other story collections. The end result is a look at motherhood that, while not linear, covers a lot of ground.

I especially loved the last story, which made me gasp in recognition.

Someday we will tell you this story. How helpless we felt, how weak, how unprepared, how we couldn’t imagine you falling asleep on your own – and for years you’ve been doing it: lying down in your bed in the dark and trusting that soon the darkness will overtake you. It will please you to hear this, the way it’s pleasing to think of oneself as a baby: tiny, goofy, not quite yourself. To think of your parents younger, uninitiated, baffled by parenthood, people in their own right.

I am a few years past many of the the experiences Rosenwaike addresses in Look How Happy I’m Making You, but her expressive, accessible writing is evocative and insightful, deftly drawing me right back into those years. I really liked this collection and look forward to what Rosenwaike writes next – hopefully a novel so I can delve more deeply.

This book satisfied the short stories category of the 2019 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge.

EDUCATED by Tara Westover

Educated, the juggernaut memoir by Tara Westover, needs no introduction, but for those who may have just returned from time travel or a few years of hibernation, it’s the story of the author’s life growing up in a extreme, survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. At 17, Westover managed to separate herself from her family and go to college at BYU and graduate school at Cambridge. The book is about how education – she never attended school until college – opened her mind to understand her family and how her upbringing had affected her, often negatively.

Educated is a harrowing read, as there are many times when Westover and her parents and siblings were in grave physical danger, whether from a car accident or a gruesome accident at her father’s junkyard. Her parents did not believe in doctors or medicine and were deeply distrustful of government institutions like schools or hospitals. When her brother Luke suffered a horrendous burn when a fuel tank exploded, he was treated with natural remedies and painkillers. When her mother suffered severe head trauma in a car accident, she recovered at home, treating her frequent migraines with herbs.

Westover also experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father and one of her brothers, leading to a near-constant atmosphere of fear and tension at home. She is honest about the impact this abuse had on her as a young woman: she tried not to feel anything at all so that she wouldn’t have to face the pain that they caused.

I admire Westover’s remarkable resilience, as well as her clear, unflinching writing. Her ability to teach herself all that she missed growing up without schooling is astonishing. And her loyalty to her parents, despite their repeated failure to protect her from dangers at home or to take responsibility for the pain suffered by her and her siblings, is a testament to the power of family and upbringing.

I am glad I read Educated, but I can’t say that I loved it. It’s not an enjoyable read, for sure, given the nature of her upbringing. But even beyond that, there is a coldness there, a distanced retelling of her family’s stories that makes it hard to appreciate their full impact. Westover is probably still processing all that happened to her, and the book is clearly part of that process of coming to terms. I am not sure that she is fully on the other side yet. I wonder whether the book would feel more complete if she had waited a few more years to write it, when everything was a little less raw.

I listened to Educated on audio, and it was narrated by acclaimed performer Julia Whelan (aka the author of My Oxford Year and Grace Manning on “Once And Again”). Whelan won an Audie for Best Female Narrator for this performance earlier this year. Her narration was measured and unemotional, almost bordering on angry. I wonder how much her performance contributed to my sense of remove from the book, and whether reading it in print would have made for a different experience.

GOLDEN CHILD by Claire Adam

At the beginning of Golden Child by Claire Adam, Clyde, the father in a family of four in Trinidad, returns home from his job at an oil refinery. He learns that one of his twin boys – Paul – has disappeared, leaving his wife Joy and his other son Peter at home. Peter is an exceptionally smart boy who tested into a private school and is on track to go to college in America, while Paul, who had complications at birth, has been labeled “retarded” and struggles to keep up in school. Paul’s disappearance, coming on the heels of a recent burglary at their modest home, sets events in motion that will test the family’s love for and commitment to their two sons.

Golden Child is a tough read. I enjoyed the foreign setting of rural Trinidad and reading about the challenges the family faced in trying to move up. Clyde is a hard worker and doesn’t want assistance – financial or otherwise – from family members, even those who offered to help his sons with their education. His commitment to independence and self-reliance is tested when it becomes clear that Peter is unique and deserving of opportunities that Clyde cannot provide without help. Yet his acceptance of that help turns out to be the family’s downfall, as it brings with it menace and danger.

The decisions faced by Clyde and Joy are beyond painful, and Golden Child is a pretty stressful and sad book. It’s kind of a hard book to describe – it felt almost like a fable to me, written in a simple but literary style. I found it to be memorable, propulsive and ultimately, devastating.

Golden Child is the second book from Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint, SJP for Hogarth. Her first, A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (reviewed here) also explores complex family relationships and sibling dynamics in a non-American culture. I am impressed with SJP’s picks and eager to see what she releases next.

INHERITANCE by Dani Shapiro

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro is a memoir about the author’s discovery that the man she had always considered her father was not, in fact, her biological father. An Ancestry.com DNA test she did on a whim – her husband was doing one, so she decided to do it too – revealed that Shapiro and her half-sister were not, in fact, related, setting into motion an intense quest for truth and answers surrounding Shapiro’s conception. When Shapiro made this discovery, both her parents were already dead, forcing her to piece together the circumstances of her birth with little help from others.

I’ve read a few of Shapiro’s novels, but she is best known for her memoirs. And I can see why – her writing is clear and precise, honest and compelling. She takes her readers through each step of her path to understanding how she was conceived via a sperm donor – and whether her parents knew. She flashes back in time to instances during her childhood where she felt she somehow didn’t belong with her Orthodox Jewish family. Shapiro adored her father, and Jewish culture and custom were something she shared with him (even though she doesn’t really consider herself a religious person). Despite her fair complexion and blonde hair, Shapiro identified as a Jew growing up and resented when people pointed out that she “didn’t look Jewish”. Yet learning that her father was not her biological father explained confusion and distance she felt growing up, but also left her feeling rootless and without an identity.

I think I would enjoy reading about Shapiro’s trips to the supermarket – that’s how much I enjoy her writing – but this story of secrets and discovery was engrossing. You might be tempted to ask whether, at age 54, this news should really have had this much of an impact on the author, who is, after all, a successful, married author and writer. Yet whenever I had those thoughts, I kept reading, and really came to understand just how disorienting the discovery was for her, and why it was important for her to find her biological father. Good writing will do that.

I listened to Inheritance on audio, narrated by the author, and it was excellent. I feel lucky to have heard such a highly personal story read by the person who experienced it. Shapiro’s narration is like her writing: consistent, clear and eloquent. The audio was easy to follow and I was always eager to return to it.

Inheritance was a very good memoir and a good read – well worth the time.

WHEN YOU READ THIS by Mary Adkins

When You Read This by Mary Adkins is a modern epistolary novel told through emails, texts and blog posts. Smith Simonyi is a PR executive who has recently lost his assistant, Iris, to cancer. Iris had written a blog for a community for dying people, and he discovers after her death that she wanted him to have her blog published. He reaches out to publishers to gauge interest in her blog, while also starting up a correspondence with her sister, Jade, who is still deeply grieving and unwilling to open her sister’s writing up to the public.

Most of When You Read This is made up of emails between Jade and Smith, blog posts by Iris, and correspondence between Smith and his clueless college student intern and his increasingly frustrated clients. As Jade and Smith get to know each other better and Smith confronts some of his own issues, including his relationship with his paralyzed mother and his gambling addiction, the reader also gets an appreciation of what Iris meant to both of them and the guilt they each feel about her death.

When You Read This is a pretty fast read. It’s a little quirky and at times pretty funny (I don’t usually laugh out loud when I read, but I did several times while reading it), but also quite poignant. Iris’ blog entries are honest and sad, as she comes to terms with the end of her life at age 39. There is also a voyeuristic element to the book, as you know you’re reading things you’re not supposed to be privy to.

When You Read This is a realistic look at grief and relationships, with a modern, updated feel, thanks to its format. I picked it up at the recommendation of a few bloggers and I am glad I did.

THE ONES WE CHOOSE by Julie Clark

This year I made a resolution to read only books that came highly recommended by sources I trust. For the most part, I’ve stuck to that resolution, and the results have been stellar. I’ve only deviated a few times, with mixed results. One book I didn’t finish, and the other was The Ones We Choose by Julie Clark, which I picked up on impulse at the Elliott Bay Bookstore because the premise looked interesting and it had some 5-star Goodreads reviews.

The Ones We Choose is a debut about paternity, identity and expectation. Page is a geneticist living in southern California with an 8 year-old son, Miles, who she conceived using a sperm donor. When The Ones We Choose opens, Miles is asking more about who is father is and complaining that he’s different from everyone else because he doesn’t have one. Paige, meanwhile, is dealing with paternal issues of her own. She is leading a study on the role of oxytocin in fathers and whether levels of that hormone can predict the strength of paternal bonding with children. She has a complicated history with her own father, who has come and gone intermittently her whole life, leaving her feeling extremely protective of her own emotions and even more protective of her son’s. And finally, her romantic relationship with a kind, understanding man is at a crossroads, as he becomes increasingly impatient with her unwillingness to open up emotionally and let him get close to her son.

Fathers, fathers, fathers.

Unexpectedly, Paige comes face-to-face with her sperm donor – someone she and Miles have a connection to – and she has to decide whether to reveal their connection and cause reverberations for all parties involved.

I enjoyed The Ones We Choose. Clark has a nice handle on relationships, particularly those between women. She also does a good job with realistic dialogue and the ways people interact, physically and verbally. (In an interview in the back of the book, she said that as a 5th grade teacher, she spends a lot of time observing kids and how they behave.) There are also interesting explanations throughout the book about genetics, sperm donation, and related topics, which I liked a lot.

My one complaint about The Ones We Choose is that the theme of paternity was just too strongly and conveniently threaded throughout. I read in the interview that Clark didn’t make Paige a geneticist when she first started writing, and I kind of wish she hadn’t in the end. It was all too much – her issues with her father, her use of a sperm donor, her abandonment issues – and on top of all of it her own research on what makes fathers bond – or not – with their kids. There are too many parallels (and coincidences!) throughout the book, and it all felt a bit contrived. The book would have been more powerful if she had focused on one or two threads along this theme, rather than the four she included.

The Ones We Choose is an interesting and well-told story, and for a debut novel it is very promising. I’d like to read more by Julie Clark.