Wave

Book cover: Wave by Sonali DeraniyagalaOn the morning of December 26, 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, husband, and two young sons in the tsunami that claimed the lives of over 230,000 people. The family had been vacationing in Deraniyagala’s native country of Sri Lanka, enjoying their beachfront hotel. In one horrifying instant that all changed: a massive wave leveled everything in sight, including the hotel the family had always stayed at during their visits. Deraniyagala was separated from her family during their frantic attempt to escape, swept away in the churning water. She miraculously survived, but when she woke up, her world as she knew it had changed forever.

The thing that struck me the most about this book was the detached and brutally honest way Deraniyagala writes about her experience during and after the disaster. She’s not the most “likeable” person; she bluntly recounts many of the thoughts that ran through her mind as she mentally prepared herself to receive confirmation that her family was dead; those thoughts include irritation towards a child crying for his parents in the hours after the tsunami. As her despair sinks deeper, so does her affability. Deraniyagala acts out in ways I’m sure she never could have fathomed before the tsunami.

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The Free

Book cover: The Free by Willy VlautinLeroy Kervin is an Iraq war veteran with a traumatic brain injury. He’s been living in a group home for years now, unable to feed or care for himself. He wakes up one night with uncharacteristic clarity and he’s able to see it all: his life now vs. the life he had long ago built with the love of his life. The sorrow is too much, and he can’t bear the thought of losing this newfound clarity again. He’d rather die than go back into that muddled state, and he winds up in the ICU after a failed suicide attempt.

Freddie McCall works the night shift at the group home and is the person who finds Leroy. He, too, has lost a lot. He once had a wife and family, but his marriage fell apart when one of his daughters required numerous medical interventions to correct a condition she was born with. With Freddie always working to pay for the medical bills and his wife staying home to care for their daughter, the stress took its toll. His wife and daughters now life far away with another man, while Freddie is on the verge of bankruptcy and still works two jobs in order to send money to his young daughters.

Pauline Hawkins is an ICU nurse at the local hospital. Everyone likes her, but her job is starting to wear her out and she dreams of switching jobs and becoming a school nurse. She is single and refuses to be tied down to any man, even though she’s already tied down to one in particular: her father, who is difficult and suffers from dementia. She takes care of Leroy, but it’s another patient who steals her heart. A troubled young runaway with abscesses on her legs obviously needs help, but she keeps running off with heroin addicts.

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Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored

Book cover: Notorious Victoria by Mary GabrielIn 1870, with the help of Cornelius Vanderbilt, she and her sister were the first women to run a brokerage firm on Wall Street. In 1872, she was the first woman to run for president (with Frederick Douglass as her running mate). And at a time when respectable and well-connected suffragists were still strategizing ways to get their foot in the door to address Congress, the mysterious Victoria Clafin Woodhull seemed to come out of nowhere, waltz past the channels that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had so carefully fought to establish, and become the first woman to address Congress on the subject of women’s suffrage.

Not bad for a woman who came from an impoverished family of con artists.

Regardless of her sketchy upbringing — she and her sister were pushed to perform as clairvoyants, among other things — the brazen Victoria Woodhull knew how to stay in the spotlight. After they opened their brokerage on Wall Street, she and her sister became something of a spectacle…who ever heard of women on Wall Street? She channeled her notoriety into a successful newspaper that she used as a mouthpiece for her radical views, but these views would ultimately be her downfall.

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Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

Book cover: Orange is the New Black by Piper KermanOrange is the New Black first caught my eye a few years ago when it first came out. I kept going back and forth on it. It looked intriguing, but I was also wary of the whole prison-as-told-through-the-eyes-of-a-privileged-white-lady thing. And ultimately, that’s why I put the book on the back burner for so long.

Fast-forward a few years, and we all know that turned out. OITNB was helmed by Jenji Kohan, picked up by Netflix, and shot into fawning fandom. I, like many others, ended up marathoning Season 1 in like two days. And all the while? I was going, “ARGH, WHY DIDN’T I READ THE DAMN BOOK BACK IN THE DAY?!!” (At which point it was too late because the waiting list at all of the libraries was insane.)

Anyway. I finally got a hold of the audiobook through the library, and predictably, I really enjoyed it. The book is about Piper Kerman, a responsible woman with a job and a fiance…and an almost-ten-year-old felony drug case hanging over her head and threatening to send her to prison for an undetermined amount of time. Years ago, when Kerman was a carefree college grad, she started a relationship with a woman also happened to organize drug smugglers. Kerman was lured by the seeming glamour of it all, traveling around the world with her well-to-do girlfriend, but then it became a little too real: she was pressured into smuggling drug money. She didn’t get caught, but it freaked her out and she left that part of her life behind her. Or so she thought. Almost ten years later, Kerman was named in an investigation to bring down said drug smuggling ring. It’s how she found herself eventually doing time in a federal women’s prison.

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The Gods of Heavenly Punishment

Book cover: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody EpsteinWhen people think of Japan and World War II, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are probably what come to mind. For some reason, people seem to forget the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945, but it claimed more lives than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, left millions homeless, and burned down half of Tokyo. Jennifer Cody Epstein’s The Gods of Heavenly Punishment revisits these attacks through the eyes of multiple narrators: Cam, a pilot who participated in the Doolittle Raid; his wife, Lacy; Anton, an architect who helped build some of the great buildings in Tokyo and who was then hired by the government to figure out the best way to burn Tokyo down; his son Billy, a soldier in the army who is sent to Tokyo during the Occupation; and a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl named Yoshi, who serves as the thread that holds all of the stories together.

The book moves forward chronologically, but each chapter alternates to a different point of view. As a result, readers get to imagine World War II from different perspectives: that of the anxious wife awaiting the return of her husband; of the soldiers (on both sides) who signed up for service for a variety of reasons and must bear witness to the aftermath of war; of the architects of all of the destruction, and most importantly, of the survivors.

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