5 stars


“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.

Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott

Infinite HomeIf supermodel Kate Moss and superpopstar Taylor Swift had a love child, I am convinced it would be Kathleen Alcott. But super looks aside, this young woman is super talented and has written what I am confident will be one of my favorite books this year. And because I loved it so much, I want everyone to read it and love it just as much as I did! I loved it so much that if you read it and don’t love it, I probably won’t be able to take it, and I certainly won’t want to hear about it. But I will still like you. Probably.

Kathleen Alcott’s Infinite Home is the story of misfits and castaways connected by their physical home—a New York brownstone managed by Edith, a widow, who is estranged from her adult children. Edith’s residents include Edward, the depressed stand-up comic who is no longer funny; Adeleine, a gorgeous and anxious agoraphobe, who connects to life through things, not people; Thomas a young artist rediscovering life after a stroke; and my favorite, Paulie, a thirty year old man living with Williams Syndrome and the innocence and wonderment of a child.

At the start of Edith’s declining health, her absent son Owen intervenes seeking to evict everyone and take over the building. This threat creates fear, connection, and experiences the the tenants could have never imagined. The result is at times humorous and heart wrenching.

The writing is lovely. I went back over a number of the passages… needing to savor them more. Passages like these:

Regarding Edith’s husband’s death:

“In the first months without him, Edith marveled at how many different types of quiet there could be.”

A glimpse of the endearing Paulie:

“One night he got out the Christmas decorations Claudia had asked him to please leave in the closet for the rest of the year and he pulled out the string of white lights that pulsed. He brought them up to Thomas’s floor and bunched them into a knot and put them in a big glass jar and plugged them in right next to his door. Hell thought Thomas would like how he had put everything bright in one place and tangled it all together.”

It’s because of sweet Paulie, that I want to travel to see the magic of the fireflies. Read Infinite Home and you will want to go too.

5 Stars

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at NightHaruf is one of my favorite authors. A quiet storyteller that delivers heartbreaking works of staggering genius. Our Souls at Night is the story of Addie and Louis, both widowed and in their 70s. Addie walks down the street to Louis’ house one evening with a unique proposition:

I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.

What? How do you mean?

I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.

And so begins a different kind of relationship. One of great intimacy. One that shares secrets, past stories, dreams, companionship, and complications. This book will likely make my list of favorites for the year. Possibly even an all-time favorite. The writing is beautiful. It broke my heart and made it smile.

C is for Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Let me start by saying I was less than thrilled to be reading Cutting for Stone. Before you get the wrong idea, let me clarify that statement. I really wanted to read this book. I was actually excited when it came up for my March Book Club. But then the excitement quickly faded and I realized that it was sixhundredandeightyeight pages (gulp) and I would have just a week to read it (unlike my fellow book clubbers who would have a month). Forget the gulps. This was freak out time.

Fortunately, having done this book-a-week thing before, I had a bunch of cheerleaders in my court. Friends who believed me able to do this much more than I believed myself. So, with that support, I dove into Vergheses ambitious and epic tale of two brothers.

It quickly turned out to be one of my busier weeks in the world of life. And in two or three days’ time, I had only knocked out 110 pages.

Uh oh.

But then the weekend came, and with my folks here and taking it easy, and the kiddo with his dad… I plowed. I read and read like I have never read before. And I finished CUTTING FOR STONE in a whopping three days. A feat achievable only because the book is tremendously good.

Written by a physician, Cutting for Stone is a complex and multilayered story of Mary Joseph Praise, a devout nun, who dies while delivering conjoined twin boys. Left parentless, the boys, Marion and Shiva are raised by doctors at the Missing Hospital in Adis Ababa, a hospital that cares for the poorest of poor.

Marion narrates the saga which spans over 5o years, multiple contents and conflicts that cover coming of age, connection, betrayal, renewal and redemption. Any so many ways and at so many levels, it is a love story. Love for others, self, our place in the world and our ability to impact our surroundings.

Two of my favorite passages (and there are a far many more) from the book:

“As the twin boys struggled after birth, and her colleagues struggled with the loss and shock around them, they remembered Sister Mary Joseph Praise’s regular directives: Make something beautiful of your life. As the boy’s adoptive mother contemplates her own place in the world: Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted?”

There’s too much story to cover in this review, and in no way could I summarize it as beautifully as Verghese tells it. Cutting for Stone is a perfectly woven, entirely engrossing novel about human experiences, while likely different from our own, tell a story we can all identify with and appreciate.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 688
Genre: Fiction

D is for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Jean-Dominique Bauby

It’s official: Size does matter. At least it does when it comes to books; and especially when we are talking about books that need to be consumed within a week. I found myself just yesterday afternoon still putting off the March book club mandate of 600+ pages and in an absolute tailspin about what to read this week that was short on pages, high on interest and starting with a letter of the alphabet that I hadn’t yet covered.

Oh boy.

Enter: One bookstore, a perfectly blended chai tea latte, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. At 131 pages, I knew I had hit the knock-it-out-in-one-sitting jackpot. But where the book lacks in length, Bauby more than makes up in heart.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is Bauby’s memoir, painstakingly dictated to a speech therapist through his only means of communication: The blinking of an eye. At 43, Bauby was full of life, living in France and working as the editor of French ELLE magazine. On the way to an event with his teenaged son, Bauby suffered a massive stroke to his brainstem and was left completely paralyzed–only to retain the functions of his brain and left eye. This type of outcome is often referred to as being “locked in” with no ability to communicate, yet complete awareness of one’s surroundings, total cognition in tact. A sort of total confinement–imprisonment for a crime not ever committed.

And yet, Bauby is heroic in his effort to live. He connects with a speech therapist at the hospital who knows he is more than his incapacitated shell. She patiently works with him, and together, they devise a way to communicate with Bauby blinking at letters of the alphabet she shows him. Once realizing this capability, Bauby works with her to document his story painstakingly “written” one letter at a time.

His story, it turns out, is remarkable; especially when you know what he had to go through to tell it. Add to that only the merest traces of self pity or anguish and you have a completely compelling story. Bauby uses the strength of his mind to call up memories of his past (with his children, his work) and imagines a future he know he won’t ever have (lying next to and caressing his girlfriend, experiencing delectable food). Rarely is there anger; sometimes there is sadness. More often than not, Bauby expresses humor, humility and grace sharing the simplest of details that we so often take for granted.

One of these simple details, his love of letters from friends and how they helped him get through the darker days of his recovery, Bauby beautifully wrote:

“I hoard all of those letter like treasure, One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship.
It will keep the vultures at bay.”
Unfortunately, Bauby won’t have that opportunity. Just two days after his memoir was published, Bauby passed away from heart failure. He was making so much progress in his ability to communicate and connect with others that I found this truly heartbreaking. Despite the sadness, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a worthy read (and as I now understand, a well received movie that I will have to check out). Bauby’s story is both devastatingly simple and overwhelmingly complicated. He provides us a great reminder that we are more than our bodies–that there is so very much to appreciate in this life.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 131
Genre: Memoir

Week 52: How Reading Changed My Life – Anna Quindlen

This week has been a gloomy and doomy weather week. Bitter cold temperatures for our desert clime: rain, wind and some even said they saw snow! While I didn’t see any, I saw perfect weather for curling up with a good book; fitting that this is the last week of my book-a-week project. It also seemed rather fitting that during this last week of gray skies and personal contentment that I slide How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen off the shelf. Not sure how it took me so long to read this book that I have owned for a few years and yet it’s a bit serendipitous stumbling upon it now after a year of doing more reading than I have ever done before.

How Reading Changed My Life is lifelong reader and Pulitzer-prize winning writer Anna Quindlen’s account of her most favorite of pastimes. Reading trumped everything for Quindlen, and for that I felt an instant kinship.

“I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement or even learning. I read because I loved it more than anything other activity on earth.”

Many of my current friends can’t imagine me as a shy or quiet person, yet reading was my primary activity of choice up until high school theater pulled me in. Prior to that I had a very small circle of friends, preferring one-on-one interactions over large groups. Looking back I recall Barbara, a girl who preferred her nose in a book rather than sparking up a conversation… a perfect pal! We were bus riding friends, always saving a seat for one another, respecting each other’s quiet ride to school, only the rustle of a page turned passed between us. And even now, years out that quiet and insular shell, I love to read more than I love to do most anything else.

Quindlen shares not just her love of reading and the importance that various books have played in her life, but the value of connection found in reading–especially among women.

“Women seem to see reading not only as a solitary activity, but an an opportunity for emotional connection, not just to the characters in a novel but to those others who are reading or have read the same novel themselves.”

Is that really surprising, though? Just look at the number of book clubs that have sprung up in recent years. Almost everyone I know is in a book club or knows someone who is. My own club has been going strong for over seven years and it is for all of us, one of our most looked-forward to and favorite “me” times of the month. The diversion it creates away from work, children, partners, chores, bills and all the other to-dos gives us opportunity not just to catch up, but to escape for a few hours and talk intelligently, passionately, with no holds barred or judgements rendered on the opinions we share about the book we have just read.

Also not surprising is the popularity of book clubs (and reading in general) amongst women. This is not the same, Quindlen states, for men. She pulls some interesting, although not shocking, data from a 1991 Gallup poll on the differences men and women share regarding reading:

  • Women are more likely to find reading a more relaxing pastime than watching television.
  • College-educated women reported reading an average of 25 books over the space of a year… men only 15.

She goes on to interview bookstore owners, uncovering that women are more likely to read novels, versus men who pick up more biographies and historical books. Just another example of the different ways women and men are wired.

As I flipped through the pages and began taking notes of some of Quindlen’s recommended reading, I began to think about how reading has changed my own life. Certainly, as I was a young adult, it was pure escapism and comfort. In college, my reading for pleasure all but disappeared and was replaced by the large text books, carried in a backpack or satchel that bore a deep indentation on my right shoulder. It wasn’t until 2003, and nine years after college, that I really returned to my childhood love of reading. I proposed the idea of dining and dishing on books to some friends, and on a whim we started a book club. Not only have I read some fantastic books, but I have made and kept some fabulous friendships. Books are one of my favorite topics of conversations and is one of the things that bonds me and some of my closest friends. Truth be told, I probably won’t trust you if you don’t have books–even a single book–in your life.

Over the years, reading has indeed changed my life. It changes the life of everyone I know that does it. When the structure of the words on the page bring tears to your eyes, remind you that you are not alone, or make you laugh so hard your stomach aches, you have been changed in the simplest and most profound ways.

I couldn’t have guessed what a single year of reading a book each week would do for me, but it did more than I could have imagined. Sure I watched less television, but surprisingly, it didn’t cut into my time with the kiddo, my friends or other pastimes. I felt more connected to others (my kiddo and book-loving blogging partner, in particular) this year, more objective and empathetic. Just being exposed to so many different people and circumstances inhabited in the many pages I devoured (over 13,000) will do that for you.

So many people wondered why I would take something like this on, offered me encouragement and praise or lamented they too should read more. I think you all know that I would never discourage anyone from picking up a book; I will always think there’s value in doing that. But the reality is, anyone who embarks on any kind of personal project needs to do so with a real affinity for what they are undertaking and not because the “feel they should.” But just know, that if you do decide to boost your reading, even if only by one book, it will change you.

Grade: 5 stars
Pages: 96
Genre: Memoir

Week 50: The Spirit of Christmas – Nancy Tillman

I have always loved Christmas. It’s absolutely-without-a-doubt my favorite holiday of the year. The twinkly lights, beautiful songs, delicious food, parties and get-togethers, finding the perfect gift, time off and all that goes into getting ready for Christmas are all things I look forward to. Sure there’s the stress of the holiday and the anxiety around getting everything done (some years I do, some not so much). And even now as a mother, I admit, I have lost a little sight on the the true gift of Christmas as I search for that “one” toy the kiddo wants (and throwing a few extra things under the tree while I am at it).

In the nick of time, however, a special surprise arrived when we received The Spirit of Christmas by Nancy Tillman (a gift from my parents). It’s a gorgeous book with unique and wonderful illustrations and a story that anyone who celebrates Christmas can appreciate. The spirit of Christmas, Tillman writes, is love.This is an especially important message for me this year as it is the first year of just me and the kiddo for Christmas. My other immediate family is all out of state. Fortunately, we do a pretty good job bridging the distance and staying connected. The Spirit of Christmas, in just a few short pages, reminded me that it’s not important to check every item off my list this month, but the connection I have with the kiddo and my loved ones.

I mean, isn’t that obvious? Sure it is… when you take a minute to slow down, take some deep breaths and are willing to say “no” to the next thing asked of you.

The Spirit of Christmas was a great interruption to the hustle and bustle I have been feeling lately. I think I got a little more out of it than the kiddo did. And, that’s okay. The Spirit of Christmas is now officially one of the holiday to-do’s that must be read each year at the start of the season and maybe even a few times during it.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 32
Genre: Children’s

Week 48: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

Ever read a book that you can’t stop talking about it–even before you have finished it? Then once you have finished it, the chatting up really begins? You are recommending it to everyone you encounter, reader or otherwise, and then you have spent so much time talking about it that you kinda forgot to review it on your blog because you have talked about it so much you felt like you have already reviewed it, extolling its greatness from the rooftops… or at least by the water cooler at work? Well, this blabbermouth is finally sitting down and making her recommendation official. The book I just can’t stop talking about is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.I don’t care who you are or what you do. I don’t care what you like to read and what you don’t like to read; I just really hope you read. And when you do, you should read this book. (Really I do care; this tough talk just helps me make my point all the more strongly).

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the stunningly true story of a young, black woman growing up in the Baltimore area. Henrietta came from a long line of poor black tobacco farmers without formal education or any real financial means. When illness struck, they relied on the trust and generosity of Johns Hopkins to provide care, at no cost–a trust that was broken when Henrietta Lacks died from cervical cancer in her early thirties.

What Henrietta and her family didn’t realize (for years), was in turn for her care and treatment, doctors retained samples of her cells and tissue upon her death. These specimens were not obtained through informed consent. And unbeknownst to anyone, these specimens would literally change the course of medical history.

Henrietta’s cell and tissue samples were the first that could be maintained and reproduced outside of the human body. Not only did they stay alive, they multiplied at a never-before-seen rate. Her cells were shared with scientists around the world and brought about advancements such as the vaccine for Polio, an understanding of HPV and other cancers as well as other women’s health issues. Completely unaware of their mother’s contribution to science, for many years Henrietta’s descendants were (and still are) living without even basic medical coverage. Ironic, isn’t it?

Have I hooked you yet? If I haven’t, consider this: Henrietta’s cell research (which still goes on today) brought to light serious and ethical concerns around medical consent, the need of specimens for advancements in medicine and whether or not individuals or their families should be compensated for providing or donating cell or tissue samples that lead to cures and medical advancements. The medical community is split on the issue and even after reading this wonderful book, I am not sure where I stand. I know that Henrietta and her family had a right to know her cells were being used. I also know that her family–especially her family (and everyone in the country for that matter)–should have access to medical care delivered by providers they can trust.

As a liberal arts minded person with no penchant for anything to do with math or science, I never would have guessed I would have devoured a book like this. Thanks to Skloot’s extensive research, compassion for the Lacks family and storytelling talents, I couldn’t put it down. The book alternates chapters between Henrietta and her family’s lives and the science and medical communities’ use of her cells for personal and professional gain. The perceptions and opinions the Lacks family has today of the medical community is understandably complicated. But for once, someone told Henrietta’s story truthfully, and for that the Lacks have found a small piece of peace and honor for the woman they hardly knew.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 384
Genre: Non-fiction