REVIEW: Caste

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”

Isabel Wilkerson has written an important book. Long-listed for some awards, and short-listed for others, it was named the #1 Non-Fiction Book of 2020 by Time magazine, and Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club.

Despite all that, not everyone will read it.

Everyone should.

Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist has written a powerful, disturbing, and heartbreaking account of the American caste system. I know there are people who hear the word “caste” and think, not here! Or that’s only in India or other places. Wilkerson, through impeccable research of caste systems in India and Germany easily proves that a caste system is fully alive in America. Her book gains more credence as she weaves in stories and examples of our caste system at work. Like the time when a little league team went to a public pool to celebrate their win and the one black child on the team was not allowed in the pool and was relegated to eating his lunch on a blanket outside the fenced area. When his coaches pleaded with the lifeguard to let him in, the cleared the pool of everyone, and placed him on a raft, while one lifeguard pushed him around the pool repeatedly saying, “Don’t touch the water. Just don’t touch the water.” It’s no surprise a teammate recalled this incident saying the boy was never the same after that outing.

As hard as it is to read these stories, it’s imperative we do; especially if we have had the privilege of being born to the dominant caste. It’s our role to dismantle the confines of our caste system, rewrite policy, open doors, extend the seats at the table to everyone.

Wilkerson writes:

“In our era, it is not enough to be tolerant. You tolerate mosquitoes in the summer, a rattle in an engine, the gray slush that collects at the crosswalk in winter. You tolerate what you would rather not have to deal with and wish would go away. It is no honor to be tolerated. Every spiritual tradition says love your neighbor as yourself, not tolerate them.”

I couldn’t agree with that sentiment more. I have never felt good about the idea of tolerating another person. We need to connect, understand, respect, and support one another. And while we need more empathy, it’s not the cure-all to eliminating this struggle for power that has been ingrained for centuries.

“Empathy is no substitute for the experience itself. We don’t get to tell a person with a broken leg or a bullet wound that they are not in pain. And people who have hit the caste lottery are not in a position to tell a person who has suffered under the tyranny of caste what is offensive or hurtful or demeaning to those at the bottom. The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.”

I believe that all of us in the dominant caste have a responsibility to make the world better for everyone, not just those who look like us. One way to start is by understanding how we got here. Wilkerson’s book is a great place to start.

REVIEW: The Midnight Library

“Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

The average adult makes approximately 35,000 decision a day – some consciously, others not. And each decision results in a specific direction or outcome that would be different, were we to make a different choice.

At 35, Nora Seed is sad. She’s just lost her retail job at String Theory, a guitar shop, that she’s held for 12 years. Her cat, Voltaire, was found dead on the side of the road. She’s estranged from her older brother. She does not want to live and is certain she will not be missed. So she makes a choice to end her life.

But life had different plans.

Nora doesn’t die. She ends up in a sort of limbo, in between life and death, at the Midnight Library. Staffed by her elementary school librarian, Mrs. Elm, Nora is presented first with a doorstop of a book that holds all of her regrets. There are so many, she can only read a couple at a time. Mrs. Elm has her close the book and focus on the choices she can make. Each book in this infinite collection, is a version of her life that goes a different way simply by making a different choice.

But Nora is done making choices and she’s ready to die. She want’s to die.

Mrs. Elm says if that were the case, she would not have ended up at the Midnight Library.

“Want,’ she told her, in a measured tone, ‘is an interesting word. It means lack. Sometimes if we fill that lack with something else the original want disappears entirely. Maybe you have a lack problem rather than a want problem. Maybe there is a life that you really want to live.”

And so, an adventure of sorts begins. Whenever Nora steps into a new life, she can stay and settle in, or if she remains disappointed, she can return to the library. There is a catch though, while there are infinite books meaning and endless amount of lives and possibilities, there is not an endless supply of time. The duration of her time to decide is unknown.

What could end up being a book of doom and gloom or pointless repetition ends up being a gem of a story — no, stories — about the possibilities that life can offer. The audiobook version narrated by Carey Mulligan as extra depth. Author Haig delivers so many good nuggets about patience, kindness, creativity, and curiosity. And there are important reminders, like this one:

“There are patterns to life . . . Rhythms. It is so easy, while trapped in just the one life, to imagine that times of sadness or tragedy or failure or fear are a result of that particular existence. That it is a by-product of living a certain way, rather than simply living. I mean, it would have made things a lot easier if we understood there was no way of living that can immunise you against sadness. And that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness. You can’t have one without the other. Of course, they come in different degrees and quantities. But there is no life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness for ever. And imagining there is just breeds more unhappiness in the life you’re in.”

The Midnight Library came into my life at an important time. When I, along with so many others, are dealing with major Covid pandemic fatigue. When I, along with so many others, have a loved one that deals with depression. When, I along with so many others, are getting by turning off the news, and turning to books. Especially books that remind us there is so much to experience in this life, even if every day isn’t picture perfect.

REVIEW: Anxious People

The first book of a new year is important. I always want to start strong, with a book I really enjoy. It feels like a way of starting the year off on a good note. Last year, despite all that was bad in 2020, I read some really good books. I kicked off the year with The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane and adored them both. This left me equal parts thrilled and terrified that I had read the best books I would read in 2021 before the end of February. And that was mainly true. You can check out my best and worst reads of 2020 column I co-authored with my Snotty Literati partner, Jennifer Spiegel.

So after the complete shit-show that was 2020, I was excited to turn a new page, pun intended, and was hoping my first pick of the year, Anxious People by Fredrik Backman would deliver.

The premise is a failed bank robber bursts into an open house and takes eight extremely anxious people hostage. Everyone, including the bank robber, is not who they seem. On appearances, they are annoying, irritating, total idiots. But as time passes, and times is invested, we learn there’s so much more than that superficial first layer. And as I read it, I knew this was the best book I could have chosen to kick off a year that is still recovering from the pain of the previous twelve months.

I hope Mr. Backman knows how special this book of his is. I am considering writing him a letter. Do people still do that? In the meantime, I will address him here.

Dear Mr. Backman,

Thank you.

Thank you for writing a book that so fully captures how idiotic, complex, annoying, beautiful, flawed, genuine, short-sighted, short-tempered, and insightful, and caring people can be. Thank you for writing a book that reminds us how far patience and a kind gesture can go. Thank you for writing a book that made me roll my eyes, laugh out load, and catch my breath. Thank you for writing a book that is a great reminder that it’s really hard some times to not be an idiot, that we are all idiots at one time or another, and we would all be a little better off if we offered up a little grace.

Consider me a forever fan.

New Year, New Commitment

I have really let my posting drop off into the abyss over the last couple of years. Most of my book posting happens on Facebook or Instragram (@OneLitChick). However, I am committed to posting here too.

Let’s start with the Best and Worst of 2020 reads. It’s a year in review type of column that I put together with my writing partner Jennifer Spiegel under our review moniker, Snotty Literati.

Check it out and feel free to share your best and worst reads in the comments!

Apologies

You may have received an email with a link to my site promoting content I did not publish.

My site had been hacked. I have removed that content, the administrator that hacked into my site and changed my site password.

My apologies for the alarm.

One Lit Chick

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina has been on my bucket list of books forever. At almost 900 pages of classic Russian literature, featuring characters with complicated names that come with coordinating nicknames, it’s not a book you mindlessly pick up to take to the beach. First of all, it would take up your whole dang carry on. And second of all, Maggie Gyllenhaal performs—not reads, performs—an audio version of it. So, set some time aside, 36 hours if you are going to hang with Maggie, and get ready for the long haul. And when you’re ready, check out the longest book review I have ever written about the longest book I have ever read.

Warning: There are spoilers ahead, but I give you ample warning. I can’t read almost a thousand pages (or listen for almost the length of a work week) without getting really into the specifics. But first, let’s cover some basics.

Who’s Who?

Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky (aka Stiva) (aka Oblonsky). He’s married to Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya (aka Dolly). Wealthy. Five kids. He’s a cheater cheater pumpkin eater.

Then there’s Stiva’s pal Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin (aka Kostya) (aka Levin) a poor farmer who lives out in the country and is in love with Kitty.

Kitty (aka Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shchebatskaya) is Dolly’s sister. She’s not in love with Levin, and in fact, she refuses Levin’s marriage proposal because she’s in love with Vronsky. #Drama!

Vronsky is a Count. Of course he is. And he’s hot, single, has money and is also known as Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. Oh and he’s hopping in the sack with our leading lady, Anna Karenina.

Anna (aka Anna Arkadyevna Karenina) is gorgeous young wife of old and boring Karenin. She’s also the mother to Sergei Alexeyitch Karenin, or, Seryozha.

Karenin (aka Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin) is a Senior Statemen that is super concerned with his reputation and not at all happy with Anna.

There’s other characters of course, but these are the main ones and just referencing their names and nicknames probably accounts for 100 of Tolstoy’s 900 pages.

Digging In

Tolstoy has written a fascinating and epic novel of people falling in and out of love, making good and bad choices, and suffering the consequences and benefits that come from love—despite the fact that I am not sure I would call Anna Karenina a love story.

It’s more a social commentary on a young woman’s short-sighted choice to go out on her marriage—her unhappy and loveless marriage to a man twenty years her senior—that results in Karenin issuing Anna an ultimatum. She can either leave him—and their young son forever—in favor of divorce and Count Vronsky or she can keep her son and stay married, but cut off the Count. In a decision many would disagree with, Anna chooses the Count.

If you’re still with me, that means she chose to leave her son. It’s a rather shocking choice. Rarely do we look favorably upon women that choose men over their child. And, you have to remember, this was written in 1877. It was a time when women were often forced to marry young, religion prevented divorce, and the laws were not in favor of women.

And of course her relationship with Vronsky develops it’s own challenges. They have a child. A child he can’t claim as his own, because, as it turns out, Karenin won’t divorce her. Anna grows jealous of Vronsky as cheaters often do—worrying that their partners are doing to them what they initially did to their spouses. Funny how cheaters become an untrusting lot.

Spoiler Ahead!

Is it really a spoiler if the book was written over one hundred years ago? Well, I can’t share my thoughts without spilling my guts.

Anna kind of loses her mind. She spirals and and sees no way out of her situation. Karenin won’t divorce her. Vronsky can’t assure her enough that his intentions are true. She misses her son with Karenin and dislikes her daughter with Vronsky. She’s miserable and she wants others to suffer the way she perceives she has. In her misery, she recalls being at a train station years earlier, with Vronsky, when a man falls under the tracks. It’s this shocking memory that gives birth to an idea.

Yep! She throws herself under a train! A FREAKING TRAIN! And, yet, if ever there were a person’s demise so breathtaking, I think this was it. It was stunning, in a freak-show-can’t-look-away kind of way and I backed up the audio recording multiple times to hear sweet Maggie’s voice articulate it again and again.

Let’s pause for a moment.

A FREAKING TRAIN!

The Swoonworthy Part of Anna Karenina

And then, the love story that did work out—Kitty and Levin! If you recall, Kitty initially spurned Levin in favor of Vronsky. Unfortunately, Vronsky only had eyes for Anna and this left Kitty humiliated and deathly ill. Levin, still heartbroken and pining, was secretly glad to learn Kitty was single and perhaps a little deserving of the illness. Knowing Levin and Kitty should be together, the Oblonskys orchestrate a social gathering that will facilitate a meet up. Who new such a meet up would turn into a total meetcute? I will spare this spoiler; but know it involves a cryptic love note the two write each other during the party that sets the record straight and results Levin asking for her hand marriage. This scene I could also play again and again. I can’t even with the cuteness. That Tolstoy knows how to court!

The wedding day is hilarious, their relationship is full of professional bickering and a child is born. The overly contemplative and super philosophical Levin questions if he’s truly happy and learns the answer during an afternoon storm that puts his young bride and son in harm’s way. Levin and Kitty are total #CoupleGoals.

So super dramatical, right? Right. And I loved it. I loved almost every minute of it. There were some agricultural politics and Russian business mumbo jumbo that was a little snoozeworthy. But the voyeuristic view into these characters lives and choices was wholly satisfying. So much so, I am pretty sure I want to read it again. And I don’t read anything again. Certainly not 900 pages of something, Maggie or not.

The Alice Network

The Alice Network is historical fiction beautifully told between alternating chapters that focus on Charlie St. Clair, an unwed pregnant woman in 1947 New York who is looking for her lost cousin Rose who has disappeared while living in Nazi-occupied France; and Eve Gardiner, who in 1915 was living in France while fighting the Germans as one of very few female spies in the Alice Network.

In 1947, Eve is drunk and bitter, and she’s Charlie’s best help in finding Rose. But can Charlie convince Eve drop drop her hibernation act and put down the booze?

Great storytelling. Super compelling. I really couldn’t put it down. Plus there’s handsome Finn. Better than a lot of historical World War I/World War II fiction out there. Oh, and the audio version c’est magnifique!

4/5 Stars

The Sympathizer

I’m not a typical fan of Pulitzer winners… but I went ahead and read The Sympathizer and reviewed it for my side gig, Snotty Literati. Here’s what we thought.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, a PhD-level Neurologist and Psychiatrist, spent three years in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. He survived that harrowing experience, not by any force of luck, but rather through knowing he had a purpose in this life. That purpose bred hope, and that hope sustained him until he could safely emerge on the other side of hate and continue living a life of meaning that he chronicles in his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. I am super late to this book and decided now—in a time when so many of us are hanging onto hope—was as good a time as any to read this book. My friend, and fellow Book Babe Jill, joined me in reading it and we decided an actual conversation was absolutely necessary. I was all, okay, twist my arm… and here we are.

Lara: So, I was trying to figure out how I have missed this book for so long and I came to an embarrassing realization. I kept thinking it was over 1,000 pages (do I dare admit I was confusing him with Victor Hugo and Les Misérables?) and it also sounded super philosophical and scholarly (not that there’s nothing wrong with that).

Man’s Search for Meaning covers a miserable period in world history and it is a bit philosophical. But it’s way more accessible and impactful than I ever expected. Ever. And, it’s under 200 pages! What did you think? Can you believe you hadn’t read it until now?

Jill: I will see your embarrassing realization and raise you by one unit of mortification. I hadn’t even heard of the book before you told me about it! That said, how did I miss it? It’s superb!

The Holocaust is indeed one of the darkest, saddest periods in all human history. While Frankl does lean towards the philosophical and his work is grounded in psychiatry and logotherapy (psst…go off and research this on your own…fascinating!), he humanizes what could be very dry theories through the telling of his own concentration camp stories. It’s short, accessible, and deeply impactful for these troubled times we now find ourselves in.

Lara: The premise of Frankl’s memoir is simple and profound:

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how’.”

This hit me. Hard. And I totally agree.

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Jill: My first life and business mentor taught me the phrase, “Put the what before the how.” My life motto btw. In Frankl’s case, the “why” and the “what” are the same concept. It’s the focus on a person or a goal that is much bigger than ourselves that keeps us moving forward through the most difficult of times. The thought of our children, for example, can push us to do things we never thought we were capable of. I think what Frankl proposes so beautifully is that it’s not about what you would die for. It’s about what/who you will live for.

Lara: Exactly! And what I love about his explanation is that what is meaningful to us is as unique as we are. He shared the story of the fellow prisoner whose sole purpose for staying alive was to get back to his scientific research. He had spent his life dedicated to research and all of his findings were documented back home in his journals. That meaning kept him going. For someone else, it was returning to his family as he felt his life’s purpose was to be a husband and father.

Here’s the other thing Frankl is onto. We need to have purpose in our lives, no matter where we are in our lives. In fact, the sooner we determine our purpose, the better, because that is what will carry us through uncertain or challenging times.

 Jill: Yes! Each of us finding our purpose, our “why”, is what keeps us going. The tough thing is that it usually takes us many years into adulthood to figure out what gives our lives meaning. We play at stuff, and check things out, but very few of us settle right into lives that bring us joy and fulfillment.

Lara: I totally agree with this. Imagine how much better off we would all be—and the world would be—if we all uncovered our purpose in the first half of our lives.

Jill: If we could figure it out sooner, we’d have more happy people living lives on purpose. There is a great deal of suffering in the world, particularly in the US where we have so many options, around figuring out what we want to “be when we grow up”…what our ultimate “why” is. I loved that Frankl helped his fellow prisoners learn their “why” for survival through conversation and visioning of their future. And, it was a win-win for him. He helped them AND kept his research going, thereby finding his own “why”. As you said, so simple, yet so profound.

Lara: It reminded me a lot of Louis Zamperini, whose story is told in the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Zamperini was an Olympic runner who fought in WWII. His plane was shot down and he spent a mind-boggling 47 days afloat a raft in the Pacific Ocean. He was captured by the Japanese and survived three years in prison camps. Zamperini could always see himself alive and on the other side. Always. Just as Frankl could. That ability to know we have a role in this life, beyond this interruption (be it a prison camp, or a simple set back) is crucial to our ability to endure.

Jill: I haven’t read this book yet, but it now must go to a higher place in my TBR stack. The book that I read most recently that holds a similar ideology is The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau. Guillebeau submits that pursuing happiness isn’t the game. The real happiness is in the pursuit itself. Frankl noted this about pursuing success and happiness:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

Lara: I love that sentiment. We need to quit thinking of happiness as an end goal… I will be happy once I lose that weight/get that job/find my soul mate. Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage also dives into this concept. It’s really good stuff.

Were you as surprised as I was to find that there were moments—very brief moments—of humor and art and music Frankl and the other prisoners were able to create or experience while in the camps?

Jill: This actually didn’t surprise me. There is so much research that supports how art and music can be used to heal. Did you see the story going around on social media for a while about the 90-year-old man in a nursing home that had barely spoken in years, but one day when a piano arrived at the home, he started playing jazz and talking about his days in a band? I mean…amazing, right?

 Lara:  I did see that! And was amazed. And cried and all that. I am also a firm believer that humor is essential to our health. Even in the smallest doses. I think of what a little levity can bring to a challenging work project or tense negotiation. I can only imagine the sense of hope a smile or laugh can bring to someone experiencing something as horrific as imprisonment. That said, it can’t be easy; but it’s essential to survival.

Let’s talk about another big theme in the book: Love. Frankl writes:

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

I know this had to resonate with you.

Jill: It did. Especially the bit about seeing potential not yet actualized in another, and using love to help enable the other person to actualize potentialities. That is an overwhelming thought to me. That I have the power to enable people through love. Another great passage and one of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read lies in the last line of this quote:

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

This is where Frankl got me. When we make the choice to do everything through love and in love…for ourselves, each other, our fellow humans, all sentient beings…what can be achieved (and endured) is remarkable.

Lara: The other day I saw the coolest print. It declared Kind is the New Cool. This is exactly what Frankl and others before and after him have been saying and proving is vital to our survival as humans and a human race. We need more love, acceptance, appreciation, and respect.

Jill: This is where it gets really tricky for many of us. There can be true evil in the world. We experience it daily by watching the news. How do we extend love to those that are unlovable? His quote is simply the best:

“Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.”

Lara: What I take from that quote, is that to be able to find the kindness and the humanity, we have to break down the group connect on an individual level. It’s only at that one-on-one level that we can truly break through barriers of difference and achieve common ground.

Jill: Yes, it feels like something very crucial, very basic is missing in our world right now. We need human connection and kindness now, more than ever.

Lara: Thanks for chatting this really important book up with me. It’s a worthy read now, and really any time. We hope you will check it out!

Ill WIll

My Snotty Literati Column’s latest review is Ill Will. Check it out now!