Volume 21 Number 1

"What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.”

Epictetus, Stoic philosopher
Oct - December 2017

Archives

SMALL GREAT THINGS
Written by Jodi Picoult and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
ISBN #: 978-0345544957
Random House Publishing Group

The PC World and the Real World Collide

Best-selling author Jodi Picoult writes about right, wrong, and race in Small Great Things, a novel about hard choices, justice, and the inherent prejudices in American society. Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth starts a routine checkup on a newborn and is abruptly reassigned to another patient. The white supremacist parents don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery with several babies. Does she follow orders or save a life, and will saving it cost her her career? 

Though the cause of death is uncertain, Ruth Jefferson is charged with murder. The story unfolds from three viewpoints: Ruth’s; the infant’s father—a skinhead named Turk’s; and Ruth’s public defender, Kennedy McQuarrie, a white professional woman who winds up questioning her own views about racism. 

The plot is nuanced and sharp. It is as complex as the characters that interact under trying circumstances. Picoult digs into multiple issues with unflinching candor as she looks at the case and the people involved through three divergent points of view. 

With a consummate writer’s skill, Picoult exposes flaws in both our medical and judicial systems as well as the hard choices that individual humans must make in the course of their lives. She gives reasonable attention to compassion, prejudice, privilege, injustice, conviction, race, and each person’s past. 

On her web page, http://www.jodipicoult.com/small-great-things.html, Picoult advises readers to “Know the difference between equal and equitable. Equal means THE SAME. Equitable means FAIR. If you had a blind student in your classroom would you give her a written test? No, you’d give a Braille one with the same material on it. Likewise it is important to realize that because people of color may be at a disadvantage (because in health care, jobs, education) it is necessary to level the playing field, to make success fair and possible for all.”

She is probably speaking to readers of all races. Did you think she was just talking to you? Read the book to find out why that is not the case. Picoult’s writing is always first rate, and this book is no exception. 



IN THE QUIET
Written by Eliza Henry Jones and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
ISBN # 978-1460753392
Harper Collins

Exploring Connections, Joy, and the Reality of Grief

What if you could watch the ways your family and friends cope after you die? What would you discover? Remember? And what would you risk?

Cate, the narrator of Eliza Henry Jones’s In the Quiet, lingers as her husband and children cope with her fall from a beloved horse on the family’s ranch in Australia. Her thirteen-year-old daughter, Jessa, finds her, dead on the path. Her family is both drawn together and pulled apart as they deal with the loss of Cate and the financial problems of the farm.

From the other side, Cate shares both her observations and memories as she watches her family and friends. It’s a unique look at what she had, what she lost, and how life moves forward, and we never lose track of the point of view as she reveals more and more details to us. 

Eliza Henry Jones is a talented young author, still in her twenties. She started this novel on the last day of a writer’s residency, and six years later she had an original, complex look at how death can alter both family and friends. In an article in the Meanjin Quarterly, the author says, “As In the Quiet grew into a novel, I wanted to explore grief as I have seen it. I wanted to explore connection, joy and the reality of grief. That it comes in waves. That there are peaks and troughs. That grief and the rituals, ceremonials and stories that make it, paint themselves differently for every person, for every loss. Grief is wild and trembling and full.” 

Eliza Henry-Jones was born in Melbourne in 1990. She was a Young Writer-in-Residence at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre in 2012 and was a recipient of a Varuna residential fellowship in 2015. She is trained in grief, loss and trauma counseling. Immerse yourself in her luxurious prose and character-driven exploration of life, love and loss. In the Quiet is available online and in bookstores.

 

In Hubble’s Shadow
Written by Carol Smallwood and Review by Aline Soules 
ISBN #: 978-1941830444
Shanti Arts

We Are Not the Center of the Universe

As Carol Smallwood states in her introduction to In Hubble’s Shadow, humans “have a very strong tradition of still believing that our species is absolute, that things do revolve around us as human beings, that we are the ones around whom the sun rises and sets.”

From that premise, she explores the world, knowing, as both she and Edwin Hubble know, that we are not the center of the universe, but privileged to hold a place in the universe that allows us to see the world in all its myriad forms. Her poems travel from existence itself (“Prelude—the Universe”) to the smallest of things (“Two Gloves in the Post Office Lobby,” “Grandmother’s Cookies,” “Ice in Lemonade”) to the world beneath our feet (“Epilog—Little is Known”).

Just as Hubble, the astronomer, explored the minutiae of the universe in space, Smallwood focuses on the minutiae of life to reveal and illuminate the universe in a different way.  Her sections—The Universe, On the Road, The Hearth, and Sea-Change—each take a different approach to examining the small.  

In “The Universe,” she explores patterns.  “Even though it was yesterday I studied the waffle pattern on a cone,” she writes as the opening for “Before I Have to Go Home.”  “Photographs” begins with the view of the earth from space (“naked blue marble / with cloud wisps”) and ends with a child’s view of a globe where Florida is orange and Japan purple.
     
In “On the Road,” she begins with “My Side Road in Spring,” an unpaved road with puddles that lead her to “subterranean dreams” and “fields of melting snow with fiery / lava churning below.”  She ends the section with an “Ode to Mud,” where the dirts roads are “harbingers of spring…reflecting / your place in the universe.”

“The Hearth” stays close to home—three dolls, kitty, cookies, bugs, and more dirt roads.  Everyday items, like a washing machine, ice cubes in summer, tips of yellow onion plants emerging in spring wrestle with the realities of blood tests and cancer.

“Sea-Change” stays with the small—a jewelry box, dry leaves, a field—but also stretches out to the larger universe of the changing seasons, dreams of flying, and looking to the sky for tranquility.  
What’s interesting in all of Smallwood’s work is how she manages to put together myriad disparities to create a whole. Thematically, these poems are drawn together by the overarching concept of exploration of the universe, but the poems themselves are as diverse and disparate as poems from different authors. The poems are long and short. They are long-lined and short. Their stanza structures vary considerably. Yet, her voice shines through, along with her ability to convey ideas concisely in a rich tapestry of images. 
 

Aline Soules’ work has appeared in such publications as Kenyon Review and Houston Literary Review.  Meditation on Woman (Anaphora Literary Press) and Evening Sun (Andrew Benzie Books) are available through amazon.  Her blog is at http://alinesoules.com.  

This review originally ran in Compulsive Reader  May 7, 2017.

Don’t Leave Yet: How My Mother’s Alzheimer’s Opened My Heart
Written by Constance Hanstedt and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
ISBN #:  978-1631529528
She Writes Press

Compassion and Forgiveness

What do you do if your only parent is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s? What do you do if you recognize the warning signs too late? Does it change you forever, do you walk away, or does the love grow stronger? Constance Hanstedt struggles with these issues, her mother’s bitter disposition, and her sister’s issues in Don’t Leave Yet: How My Mother’s Alzheimer’s Opened My Heart.

Hanstedt rises above old expectations by facing her fears and conquering them. She is the adult and a role reversal happens in part because of her mother’s unrelenting negativity and in part because she’s returned to her Midwestern home town after years away. Like all Alzheimer’s patients Hanstedt’s mother loses her memory and her ability to care for herself. However, she maintains a sly ability to manipulate her children and feel like she is in control. 

One of the strengths of this book is the way that events in the present, whether the daughters are packing up the mother’s house or visiting her in the hospital, trigger memories in the narrator’s past. We get a full picture of the family dynamics and how they have changed. As Hanstedt thinks of what she had, what she overcame, and all that she will be losing when her mother is gone, she experience two new emotions: compassion and forgiveness. Despite the fact that she realizes she is not ready to lose her mother, she tells her it is okay to go. That is a gift I wish I had given my mother, and maybe I did without saying the words.

This beautifully written book is sometimes poignant, sometimes frightening, and often filled with love. It is clear, authentic, and courageous. All kinds of sensory details help bring it to life. It will resonate with everyone who has ever cared for a loved one. 

For younger readers as well as the rest of us.

I originally reviewed this book for Story Circle Network, http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org/index.shtml
  

Be Light Like a Bird
Written by Monika Schröder and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
ISBN #: 978-1623707491
Capstone Young Readers

Moving Forward

What do you remember about middle school (formerly called junior high)? Loneliness? Unfairness? Wanting to be cool? How about your parents divorcing or not being allowed to ask questions? Did you ever try to get revenge against the injustices of the world? All of these elements play a role in Monika Schröder’s middle grade novel, Be Light Like a Bird.

When 12-year-old Wren’s father comes crashing to earth in a flying accident, she is devastated. She’s lost her birding buddy, her dad, and the parent she was closer too. Her mom is strangely cold, cleaning out papers, donating clothes, and refusing to discuss the loss with Wren. It only makes matters worse when Wren and her mother move 3 times in less than a year, leaving town each time the mother breaks up with the man she is dating. Wren is tired of trading one middle school for another. She faces loneliness, peer pressure, some mean-girl bullying, and a geek with his own loneliness issues. She finds an issue she cares about and starts a petition for preserving a wetland filled with wild birds that is about to be converted into a garbage dump. By the end of the story, Wren is learning to trust peers and adults, including her mom,  in the same way she trusted her dad.

I’m always amazed at the way MG and YA authors can tug on heartstrings with a few words. Schröder does this well. The stakes are real and Wren’s struggles are authentic. Schröder, a teacher, has tapped into the concerns and emotions of several types of middle grade students. The good guys are all three-dimensional.  The book contains important messages about speaking your truth and doing the right thing. Wren will be a role model for many quiet middle graders. Schröder recognizes and respects her audience. Like all good MG and YA novels, Be Light Like a Bird can be read and appreciated by adults as well as the pre-teens it’s written for. You can find out more about the author on her website: www.monikaschroeder.com.