“Another Mother: A Memoir” (author Ross Kenneth Urken) – Emma’s Book Review 10 of 2020

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Another Mother is not only a memoir about the author’s life, but also includes a condensed biography of Dezna Sanderson, the woman hired by his parents to care for him and his sister when they were children.  Why would a Jewish American man growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, be so invested in discovering his Jamaican nanny’s past?

Before I started reading this book, I actually assumed one of Ross Urken’s parents, or at least one of his grandparents, must be from Jamaica.  He had recently hosted a book launch in Kingston, to which my own mother had been and purchased my copy, so it was a logical explanation for his deep connection to our country.

Once I had read a couple chapters, which (by the way) are named after some of Bob Marley’s lyrics, I realized that I had jumped to conclusions way too quickly – Urken is not part-Jamaican.  However, his keen interest in our island is clear as the Jamaican manners, patois and cuisine, which Dezna instilled on her young charge, are lovingly demonstrated in his prose.  In fact, what this author learned from her as a child, he carried straight into adulthood and proudly flits between the two throughout the book.

Amidst his literary prowess, it becomes apparent that once Dezna passed away, the adult Ross begins to pursue his quest to unravel the truth about Dezna’s past.  Through happenstance, Ross meets some Jamaican Jews in New York and uses this as an excuse to go to Jamaica on an exploration to find old Jewish graves across the land of wood and water.  When they hit Black River in St. Elizabeth, he sneaks off to meet some of Dezna’s children and so begins the journey to acquiring an entire new family he now calls his own.

Near the end of this story, but undoubtedly not the end of his life’s story, Ross makes reference to the book Are You My Mother?  Indeed, Dezna was his second mother, so I suppose Ross Kenneth Urken is part-Jamaican.

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“Someone” (author Alice McDermott) – Emma’s Book Review 9 of 2020 (a little late!)

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Firstly, I want to acknowledge and apologize for this tardy post.  It was my children’s mid-term break, then I had a week of my own intense work, and lastly we had our first case of COVID-19 in Jamaica, so our PM decided to close all schools (for which I completely grateful).  I have also been instructed to self-quarantine at home for at least 14 days due to my pre-existing autoimmune illness and the fact that I am on immunosuppressants.  So, now I am at home with two boys, 24 hours each day, homeschooling and trying to write!

Personally, I found this novel rather confusing and, as a result, it was difficult for me to fully engage in the wellbeing of the protagonist, Marie, who leads quite an ordinary life in Brooklyn, New York.   Alice McDermott, who is a critically acclaimed author, haphazardly jumps between Marie’s childhood, marriage, teenage years, motherhood and old age, taking most of the other characters with her as she does so, but nothing truly exciting happens.  I suppose that’s the point of the ordinary life led by Marie.

There is much merit in McDermott’s writing, however, as her descriptions of the people and surroundings in this novel are thorough and vivid.  Indeed, these were exactly what prevented me from giving it all up for another book.  I would recommend Someone to anyone who appreciates literary prose, but if you’re looking for something exciting to happen, this is not the novel for you.

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“A Woman is No Man” (author Etaf Rum) – Emma’s Book Review 8 of 2020

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Imagine being born in the land of the free, the United States of America, Brooklyn no less, but your grandparents still expect you to live by their Arab culture in which they grew up.  You are a teenage girl in high school, by the way, and college is not even an option because you must be married and sent off to live with your spouse’s family before it’s considered too late.  You’re lucky if you get to choose between several suitors, picked out by your family of course, because many girls are not graced with that privilege.  Moreover, it’s a privilege to be picked by a man’s family, especially if your family is poor, so it helps if you are attractive.

This is the life of 18 year old Deya, the eldest of four girls, and the year is 2008.  She desperately wants to go to college but her grandmother, Fareeda, refuses to entertain the idea because one must simply accept that a woman is no man.  After all, Fareeda herself has had to accept the plight of being someone’s wife, enduring domestic violence at a level incomprehensible to the rest of us.  Deya also desperately wishes she knew more about her mother, Isra, who supposedly died in a car accident with her father, Adam, and when she gets the opportunity, she chases after the truth at great risk.

Meanwhile, the author Etaf Rum takes the reader back to 1990 when 17 year old Palestinian, Isra, arrives in New York the day after her wedding to Adam, Fareeda’s son.  Their family fled poverty in Palestine some 15 years previously, and work tirelessly running a shop in Brooklyn.  Adam is the eldest of four children.  The youngest of Fareeda and Khaled’s kids is their only daughter, Sarah, who is expected to eventually suffer the same fate as every other female within their culture.  She and Isra become fast friends, bonding over forbidden books, which Isra hides in secret places of the dark basement bedroom that she and Adam share.

Isra comes to realise that the life of an Arab woman is no different in the United States.  She must still scrub the house clean, spend hours cooking for the men in the house and serve them when they return from work.  She does not have the freedom to even go shopping for food without her husband or father-in-law present.  Despite living to serve the men and be at their beck and call, baring a girl is dreaded amongst them all, so the resentment Fareeda feels towards Isra, when she keeps giving birth to girls, is insurmountable.  By the way, Isra is 22 years old when she is pregnant with her fourth girl, and is so emotionally and physically broken by Adam that she no longer has joy for her babies nor her books.

Despite the detailed descriptions of the oppressive lives of these women, you won’t want to put this novel down until you’ve reached the final word, when you’ll come to see that, indeed, a woman is no man.

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“The Sense of An Ending” (author Julian Barnes) – Emma’s Book Review 7 of 2020

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This piece of literary art, written by the acclaimed writer Julian Barnes, explores the notion of one’s memory in a most deep and philosophical way.  It can be perplexing until the proverbial penny drops, leaving the reader with possibilities of their own past, which she or he might never have imagined.

The novel commences with the narrator, Tony Webster, recounting his time in sixth form when he and his two best mates befriend a new boy, Adrian Finn, who continuously makes simple statements with profound meanings, leaving his friends and teachers simultaneously confused and impressed.  Adrian’s apparent search for the truth provokes us to question the memories we have from our own past.  He quotes Patrick Lagrange a couple times to demonstrate this: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”  This quotation remains with us for the entirety of the novel.  It becomes even more relevant when time skips forward forty years and Tony looks back at the years he spent at university with his first love, Veronica Ford, who broke up with him and subsequently began a relationship with Adrian Finn…..before the unthinkable happened.

Just as the characters in this book seem to set out to purposefully mystify one another, so too does the author baffle his readers with esoteric musings, which can leave one unhinged.  However, by the last page of this short novel, Barnes does give us some sense of an ending, which will likely stay with you for an extended period.

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“A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story” (author Linda Sue Park) – Emma’s Book Review 6 of 2020

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Linda Sue Park has taken the childhood experiences of Salva Dut and crafted his courageous feat of fleeing on foot from the war in Southern Sudan in the mid-eighties, having lost his family, into a book that reads more like a novel than a biography.  At the same time, she jumps to 2008 to recount the story of Nya, another Sudanese child who must walk miles every day to fetch water for her family.

Park captivates her audience with a story about perseverance and persistence.  She guides us along Salva’s journey across the Nile River and through the Akobo Desert into Ethiopia, crossing the Gilo River twice – the second time swimming for his life to avoid being shot by soldiers or eaten by crocodiles, then back through part of the Abobo Desert and towards Kakuma in Kenya.  Salva does finally bring himself to safety as he arrives at Ifo refugee camp, Kenya, in 1992, seven years after that fateful day in school when his teacher ordered the class to, “Go! All of you, now!”

The vivid writing of the author will almost allow you to feel Salva’s physical and emotional pain, while releasing endorphins as he triumphs over every endured adversity, including extreme thirst and hunger, and ends up in a position to help Sudanese people 24 years later.  Beginning both the story of Salva and the one of Nya more than 20 years apart, Park brings it all together at the end in 2009, when we learn how our past can help shape the future of fellow humans.

An absolute gem to be shared with the entire family!

“Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions” (author Johann Hari) – Emma’s Book Review 5 of 2020

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First comment: Eye-opening!

I would never have known to buy a copy of Lost Connections, nor had I previously heard about it.  However, last week, when I saw it sitting on top of a pile of books that were bequeathed to me by relatives who have recently visited, I decided, in my plight to diversify my reading, to give it a go.  If you recall from my second review this year, I do not ordinarily like self-help prose, but this book is well worth picking up and perusing.

A sufferer of depression from childhood, Johann Hari has done justice to the pandemic problem of mental health by thoroughly researching his topic and laying it out in a most comprehensive and cohesive way.  Traveling extensively around the world, interviewing countless people affected by depression, their doctors and many other scientists, Hari set out to uncover, “The real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions.”  He has a most engaging writing style, even drawing in the readers who don’t suffer from depression, and he makes you want to share his findings with every person who struggles with mental health, despite being on anti-depressants, along with professionals who prescribe these drugs.

Johann Hari delves into depressed people’s disconnections from their work, other people, meaningful values, childhood trauma, status and respect, the natural world, and a hopeful or secure future.  He discusses the real role of genes and brain changes, and then he brings it all home by showing us how to make the reconnections most people, even the happy ones, have lost in the last several decades.

As I was poring over one page after the other, I’d often be thinking to myself, Okay, but he hasn’t considered x or y.  However, the next thing I’d know, the author would answer my thoughts.  This happens throughout the book, demonstrating to me that Hari is not only thorough when it comes to his work, but he clearly has a capacity to connect to people, one of the very solutions he insists is key to combating depression.

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“Three Women” (author Lisa Taddeo) – Emma’s Book Review 4 of 2020

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OMG what were these women thinking?

This might certainly be your first thought, once you’ve started reading about the three women in Three Women.  It took eight years of research and writing for author Lisa Taddeo to compile this non-fiction book about the sex lives of three ladies: Lina, Maggie and Sloane.  Lina breaks up her passionless marriage by having an affair with her ex of eons ago; high school student, Maggie, threatens to break the marriage of her English teacher; and Sloane is very happily married to her husband, who is turned on by watching his wife have sex with other men, some within a threesome and some of whom are married.  Everyone has children, except for Maggie, a child herself.

Written in the most delicious literary prose I’ve come across in a long time, Taddeo pulls us into the three stories, leaving us insatiable at the end of each chapter as she switches from one protagonist to the other, much like the protagonists themselves, whose insatiable desires never seem to be completely satisfied.

The actions of Lina, Maggie and Sloane might make you bonkers, truly.  It seems as if their choices are informed and that they should know better.  However, as Taddeo reveals their pasts and explores deep and disturbing realities, which surround each of their circumstances, your sentiments might be replaced by rage towards an inherently misogynistic past that has plagued our planet for millenniums.

I did not want to stop reading this book and only did so because there were no more pages.  Simply put, Three Women will leave your head spinning and you’ll immediately want to lend it to a friend, provided she/he will get through it within a couple days, giving you someone with whom you may discuss it.

“Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown” (author Anne Glenconner) – Emma’s Book Review 3 of 2020

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How apt it is that while reading Lady Glenconner’s book about the dramas she and Princes Margaret endured throughout their lives, the British Press have been creating quite their own histrionics over Meghan’s and Harry’s choice to pull back from their royal life and duties.  Their exit is hardly surprising and Lady in Waiting gives some insight into the fabricated tales published by newspapers, which can destruct the very core of any human being.

Anne Coke (pronounced Cook) was born into aristocracy, grew up with Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, married Colin Tennant (he became the 3rd Baron Glenconner), with whom she had five children, and went on to become a trusted Lady in Waiting for almost thirty years to Princess Margaret.

Anne takes us into the depths of retrospection of the fascinating life she led, making us belly-laugh in one chapter, then wrenching at our hearts with despair in the next.  Her marriage to an outrageously flamboyant and moody man, Colin, alone would send the best of us into a tailspin, as she spares no details of his excessive behaviour.  His immense wealth afforded them a life full of dichotomy between the extravagance of their aristocracy in the UK and the lack of basic utilities, like plumbing and electricity, in Mustique, the Caribbean island which Colin bought in the 50s and eventually catapulted to fame.  What their wealth did not protect their family from were tragedies.  Lady Glenconner writes about these with clarity, her British stiff-upper-lip barely wavering, and you almost have to re-read the pages to make sure your eyes didn’t just deceive you.

Throughout the years, Princess Margaret remained a very close friend to the couple and this book is as much about her life as it is about theirs.  A petite woman in stance alone, Princess Margaret was apparently assertive and confident, fiercely loyal to her sister and the Crown, and thrived in her independent freedom during the countless times she spent in Mustique at the villa gifted to her by Colin Tennant.  One wonders if she had been a young person in this century instead of the last, would she have shed tradition and protocol for a more permanent pathway of freedom, like her great-nephew Harry is choosing to do now.

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“The 5 Love Languages of Children” (authors Gary Chapman & Ross Campbell) – Emma’s Book Review 2 of 2020

IMG_5803I’m usually not a fan of self-help books, or navel-picking reads, as my mother calls them.  The reason for this is because one can fall into the trappings of self-hatred and inadequacy, taking the proclamations and advice of authors as gospel.  I’m not implying that the authors’ intentions are such, as I do believe there are many who simply want to help us.  However, all 7.2 billion people in the world couldn’t possibly fall together under the same umbrellas of wisdom in any of these books.  Many may read one book and relate to it, others may not.

According to Gary Chapman, PhD, and the late Dr. Ross Campbell, each child has their own love language, which he or she responds to the best: 1. Physical Touch; 2. Words of Affirmation; 3. Quality Time; 4. Gifts; 5. Acts of Service.  While all children, and all people for that matter, may respond positively to all five of these things, one will stand out from the rest and make them feel the most loved.

Champman is the bestselling author of The 5 Love Languages® series and helps many families form lasting relationships amongst themselves through counseling, seminars, radio programmes and his books.  Dr. Campbell worked as a clinical psychiatrist for more than 30 years, specializing in the parent-child relationship.  He also wrote How to Really Love Your Teenager and How to Really Love Your Adult Child.

Whilst reading The 5 Love Languages® of Children, I couldn’t help but feel and see how I have gone wrong.  I fell into the very trap of self-degradation, which is the reason why I don’t read these books!!  That said, I have been raising my kids with so much love, giving them the attention and the time I believe they need.  What I’ve come to realize is that there are gaps my husband and I must fill, and these might be negating even the positive part of our parenting.

This book is not a long read and is quite simple in its formula, so it is one I’d recommend to parents, particularly if you have noticed your child acting up in any way, however small.  It was recommended to me by my son’s grade two teacher, who is one of the most thoughtful, kind and responsive teachers I’ve come across.  This woman seems to live by responding to each of her students according to their individual love languages, so kudos to Champman and Campbell for writing the book and sharing it with the world.  It’s not only made me pay attention to the love language of each of my boys, but it’s even given me food for thought when it comes to my husband, myself and our relationship as a couple.

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“Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad” (author Krystal A. Sital) – Emma’s Book Review 1 of 2020

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Secrets We Kept depicts the very essence of living conditions in rural parts of Trinidad, allowing you to almost detect the stench of extreme poverty, from which Krystal A. Sital’s grandmother sought to escape. “House, lan, and motohcah,” my grandmother says, “dah is all meh evah wanted.”  This sentiment is repeated several times in Sital’s tale of her grandparents’ and parents’ courtships and domestic unions, demonstrating the hold the men had over women and their daughters.  The emotional and physical brutalities these women were forced to endure from their husbands was considered the lesser of the evils on offer.  The women in general didn’t stand up for one another, however, because there was a constant threat that they would suffer a beating of their own if they did.

When this book begins with Sital’s grandmother, Rebecca, hesitating to give the American doctors the go-ahead for treating Shiva’s (Sital’s grandfather) life-threatening condition, the reader might well conclude that this old Trinidadian woman is heartless, as her children believed her to be.  However, Krystal is certain there is more to the story.  Isn’t there always?

Amidst descriptive renditions of aromatic Trinidadian home-cooking, heavily influenced by their Indian ancestors, Sital’s mother, Arya, along with Rebecca, release and reveal the years of torture they both faced at the hands of Shiva.  We discover that history does in most ways repeat itself, as Arya sought the same, “house, lan, and motohcah,” like her mother, in an unrequited quest to escape the subservience of women within their culture.  Some of the prose is hard to read, not because parts are written in raw Trinidadian vernacular, but because the physical battering these women took is difficult to stomach.  That said, every adult human being should read this book, or at least one like it, for it relates the reality of millions, perhaps even billions, of women and girls around the world.

Whilst poring over the pages of this well-written book, one cannot help but feel the need to be a better parent and person, wondering if the last time you scolded your own child might have been a little harsh, for the damage could be irreparable.

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