THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett

I was glad to finally be able to sit down with this Book of the Month feature and all-around popular Bookstagram book, The Vanishing Half.

The concept intrigued me. Stella and Desiree are twins and both born light-skinned Black. Both of them wanting to escape the confines of their small town and to live a fuller life experience, they run away to New Orleans. But one twin, Stella, after easily passing as White, decides to leave her twin and join a race that was not quite her own, but one in which she had fewer limitations. Even Stella’s husband is unaware of her true racial identity.

Negroes always love our home towns even though we’re always from the worst places. Only White folks got the freedom to hate home.

From the 1950s to the 1990s, this interwoven, generational story captured my imagination with thoughts of ‘what if it were me‘ as well as ‘how could she do that?!‘ indignations. Just what the author, Brit Bennett, was aiming for, I’m predicting. What decisions lead us to live lives filled with secrets? Are they our decisions that determine that trajectory or are they the decisions made long before we are born? What masks do we each carry daily?

THE VANISHING HALF was an engaging story that explored racism, abuse, wealth and poverty as well as familial relationships and the ongoing dichotomy of mother-daughter relationships. How do we determine and define ‘family’? While provocative and a page-turner, VANISHING seemed to wrap up quickly and ended fairly abruptly and open-ended.

Perhaps I always think this, however, about characters I’ve invested in…

Start small.

 

Discouraged. Frustrated. Lost. Broken. How does a middle-class, middle-aged white woman with a janky back who likes to read and mess with plants, make any kind of difference in the world of equality? Days like yesterday – oh so many days… – leave me confused and aimless when considering how to contribute to the good. The equality. The healing of the broken and divided.

This picture is from Ink and Fable ‘s Instagram post this morning in which she talks about going back to the words. Back to the text. Her phrase leapt out and followed me around all morning long.

Oh sure, my big, gigantic, pie-in-the-sky dream would be to own a children’s bookstore. But perhaps a *slightly* smaller step would be to buy, read, publicly review, and donate books written by and about people of beautiful color to my local public schools. We often hear about the importance of POC seeing POC in movies and books in order to recognize themselves in important and significant positions. And I agree. But it’s also important for ALL of us to see people of color in those roles. And at the earliest age possible.

Watching the news at night I keep sighing and thinking we’ll never repair our nation’s divisiveness. And maybe we won’t, as adults. But what if our focus was on changing the minds of our youngest? Enabling, empowering and elevating equality in our very youngest minds? Teachers want to see it happen. Gifting them with the books of diversity might be a teeny tiny way to help change the discourse early on.

Read books from people of color. BUY books from authors of color.

We get overwhelmed with all the things that need to change and wonder how we can POSSIBLY make a dent in it. (Of course we all can to some degree.) But changing the conversation that happens on playgrounds and in curriculum is blaring to me like a foghorn today.

Thank you, Patience, for your thoughtful post. You’ve lit a fire under my frustration and helplessness…

 

A WOMAN IS NO MAN by Etaf Rum

I will admit, it makes me a little nervous to review a book that a) has been popular and critically acclaimed, b) promotes gender equality and c) (most importantly) is about a culture with which I have very little to no connection. So I step into my thoughts very cautiously.

A WOMAN IS NO MAN grabbed my attention very quickly and did not let go. Some reviewers have commented they thought it was repetitive, but I think the repetitivity was a significant part of the overall story. Two common phrases came to mind while reading this book: ‘The sins of the father shall be visited upon his children’ which is the biblical version of ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’.

Short review: I enjoyed the book and felt invested in each of the characters.

The longer version of my review involves a fair bit of cynicism (or is that discernment?) In general, any time I read a book that seems to rail against religious belief, I tend to wonder if the author is simply angry with the people involved in her particular religious story. Could the abuse in this book have happened in any familial situation? I think the answer to that is a resounding yes. We see this generational abuse evident in other cultures as well. But certainly, the Arab community has the reputation of patriarchal dominance and female submission – at any cost. This cyclical abuse is not something that is just portrayed in movies, but we have heard the testimony of it from many who have emerged from its conservative stronghold.

I am certain that many Arab women can identify with the stories of the women we are introduced to in this book. Isra, Fareeda, Deya and Sara lived in the same way their mothers did – in Palestine and even after immigrating to Brooklyn. Many of their customs are based in the pursuit of family cohesiveness. But many are also driven by pride and the protection of community reputation. In A WOMAN IS NO MAN, physical abuse of women is widely sanctioned for generation upon generation. It seems to be an accepted aspect of life for females – another responsibility like ironing, cooking, caring for their children and the occasional beating from their spouse. The yearnings of the female characters to want more for their life and the lives of their children, eventually led to freedom for some. Others, to a deeper understanding.

I would hate for readers to come away from this book with a distaste for the Quran or any form of organized religion and cultural traditions. Mostly, I would regret that any reader walk away with the idea that the traditional family structure is not enough to satisfy some women. And yet I also want to honor the inherent struggles of ancient customs and cyclical abuse. Overall, I hope a curiosity is raised in readers that would encourage us all to research further into what it means to be a Palestinian Muslim woman and or an immigrant from the old country, asking ourselves, Is this one woman’s story or does it mirror many Arab-American stories?

This felt like a quick read and one in which I was engaged to the point of thinking about the characters throughout the day. I applaud all authors that can foster that kind of relationship between reader and character. The book’s ending seemed abrupt. I was left with many questions about what happened after and did they survive. But that’s the point of a good story, right? Do we need to know all the answers? Is our imagination given the freedom to finish the story as we would hope to see it end? I commend Etaf Rum for championing women and allowing the reader to peek inside an unfamiliar world.

I’m glad these stories are a part of my understanding now. They have widened my worldview. I would recommend this book to others with the caveat that you read it as one author’s tale and not a collective assumption that all Arab-American families are the same. Rum will take you gently into a world you may know very little about. Let your curiosity guide you throughout the book and even more so after closing the back cover.

THE MOMENT OF LIFT by Melinda Gates

It was nice to hang out with Melinda Gates for a few afternoons recently. That’s what it felt like. As if sitting across the table from her, asking her questions about her life – which is my favorite kind of memoir.

I listened to this book on audio. I have found that memoirs and autobiographies are a genre I really enjoy listening to vs reading from a physical book. When they are narrated by the author, I truly feel like I know them on a deeper level than mere news coverage or entertainment news. The Moment of Lift was no exception.

It takes a unique spouse to be married to someone as universally known and as powerful as Bill Gates. Melinda talks about this openly and how they have had to navigate their relationship throughout their marriage. Known for their extravagant philanthropy for global poverty, it was comforting to read about the universal challenges all relationships face.

Their work with the marginalized in society is creating major shift changes in cultures and in particular, opportunities for women worldwide. Melinda talks candidly in this book about her birth control campaign for third-world women and how it aligns with her personal faith but not quite aligns with her relationship with the Catholic church (while not condemning the Catholic church.) In a group interview she had with a mother in Africa who had gotten an IUD a few years ago, she asked if there were any words of advice this women would give to the younger mothers in attendance. The mother replied, “When I had two children, we could all eat. With more children, we could not. When you can’t take care of your children, you’re just training them to steal.” In many poor nations, women were continually telling Melinda that if they had the opportunity to plan their pregnancies, then they could take better care of the children they had, could work harder for the family’s income and would make happier wives for their husbands.

Over and over again I found myself wanting to bookmark her words and insight…

Overcoming the need to create outsiders is our greatest challenge as human beings. It is the key to overcoming deep inequality. We stigmatize and send to the margins people who trigger in us the feelings we want to avoid. If we’re on the inside and see someone on the outside we often say to ourselves, “I’m not in that situation because I’m different.” But that’s just pride talking, we could easily be that person. It scares us because it suggests that maybe success and failure aren’t entirely fair.

I went into this book with a great respect for Bill and Melinda Gates. Reading the last page of the book found me with an even greater admiration. They are deeply cognizant of differing world cultures and traditions while also promoting basic human decency for men, women and children. I am profoundly grateful for the work they do.

To whom much is given, much is expected. – Luke 12:48

THE WATERGATE GIRL by Jill Wine-Banks

I’m really excited about this book. Honestly, Watergate was *around* when I was a kid, but I was too young to understand it. I just knew adults were talking about it – when it happened and years afterwards. ⠀

Jill Wine-Banks was an assistant prosecutor during the Watergate hearings. Her house was burgled, her phones were tapped, and even her office garbage was rifled through as she worked on some of the most important prosecutions of high-ranking White House officials. This book is her perspective of a monumental time in American history. ⠀

Thank you, Henry Holt Books, for this gifted copy. I am thrilled to get started!