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Before yesterdayFinding My Wings

RELEASE DAY REVIEW: If You Want to Make God Laugh

16 July 2019 at 17:59


  • If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais (Putnam) July 16, 2019
  • In 40 words or less: At the start of Mandela’s presidency, South Africa’s changes are seen through the lives of estranged white sisters and a black teenager. Living in a community wrestling with conflicts of old and new, the women confront secrets that define them.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: South Africa
  • Time: 1994
  • In her second novel, Bianca Marais once again uses a defining moment in South Africa’s history as the backdrop for her story.

If You Want to Make God Laugh is told in three voices – Ruth, a fading socialite; Delilah, Ruth’s sister who returns from decades as a nurse in the wild; and Zodwa, a teenage girl with dreams of educating herself to be a part of the New South Africa.

After the breakup of her marriage, Ruth returns to the family home to lick her wounds and figure her next move. Out of the blue her sister, Delilah, appears, having received a letter that a gunshot has left someone dear to her in very critical condition. Zodwa fails in ending an unexpected pregnancy, endangering her prospects for an education, and dashing the hopes of her mother who is herself facing serious health challenges.

Laugh is a novel of three women each taking charge of her own life within the realities of the “new” South Africa. In this novel, politics are less a player than the periodic conflicts the women face in dealing with those seeking to wrest back the power and prestige of the Apartheid days. This is also the period when AIDS became rampant in South Africa, with misinformation, superstition, and prejudices. Bigotry, denial, and a profound lack of medical resources and support for patients and families created a far larger crisis for a country undergoing political and social upheaval.

Bianca Marais is a wonderful storyteller, clearly distinguishing her characters and their voices. To help frame her stories, she paints a full picture of the setting so the reader can visualize the space or location without any sense of being bogged down with details.

As an early reader of both of Bianca Marais’s novels, I’ve had the opportunity to take them in, unencumbered by the opinions of others.  Hum If You Don’t Know the Words (review here) sent me searching for more on the Soweto uprising. Even those generally well-informed, had little access at the time to on the ground reporting. “Seeing” the events through the eyes of the characters gives a different perspective on history.

For me, Laugh is a more universal story, colored by the historic changes in South Africa. It is a novel of finding oneself, creating family, and forgiveness.  The issues Ruth, Delilah, and Zodwz face are also very contemporary – sexual abuse, militant white nationalism, the AIDS crisis, and women needing to reclaim their lives from trauma. In both books, Bianca’s love of the country of her birth shines through.

While each stands on its own, Hum definitely begat Laugh, with connections from one to the other. It is reassuring to see beloved characters return, if briefly, and know in fiction, as in life, there is influence from one generation to the next.


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‘The Fox Hunt’: Encounters with the “other”

6 August 2018 at 19:04
  • The Fox Hunt by Mohammed Al Samawi (William Morrow) 2018
  • In 40 words or less: Mohammed Al Samawi’s curiosity and drive to create his own life brings him to question traditional Islamic teachings and work for NGOs in Yemen. His exploration brings international contacts in the interfaith and peace communities and endangers his life.
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Locale: Primarily Yemen
  • Time: 21st century
  • This memoir tells the story of meeting and learning about “the other,” those supposed enemies who may be far more like you than you’d imagine. It is a story of being open to learn about mistaken prejudices, and being willing to trust the good in others.

Mohammed Al Samawi was born in 1986 into a prominent Zaidi Shia family in Sana’a, Yemen, in the northern area of the country. His parents, both doctors, expected much from their children, including adherence to traditional Islamic law. A stroke left young Mohammed with lingering weakness on one side of his body. Kept from the games of the other children, Mohammed focused his attention on learning English and reading everything he could.

Through much of his teen years, Mohammed had little reason to question the Islamic teachings of his Shia community. Christians, Jews, and particularly Israel, were enemies of Islam. Southern Yemen, including the port of Aden, was dominated by the Sunnis, aligned with Saudi Arabia and the militant Muslim Brotherhood. The differences between the sects paled when dealing with infidels.

As a more modern, affluent and educated household, there was a computer and internet access in the Al Samawi home. Mohammed used this to explore the larger world, beyond his economics classes and became curious whether the teachings about Jews and Christians were really true. Mohammed sought out a job with an NGO rather than remaining a clerk in his father’s medical practice. This position provided his first opportunity to meet a Christian westerner on an ongoing basis. Wanting to learn more about both Christians and Jews, he went to the experts he could find – Google and Facebook.

The balance of the book is about the blossoming of Mohammed as a social activist, connecting to a network of people worldwide interested in Middle East understanding. Through his connections, he was invited to and attended conferences outside of Yemen, the only representative of his country. As civil war brewed within Yemen, these efforts endangered Mohammed’s life and threatened his family. In the hope of escaping before things worsened, he was sent to Aden, a city crumbling under lawlessness.

From the start, it is known that Mohammed made it to the U.S. But it is how he got to the U.S., who helped him and the lengths to which virtual strangers went to make it happen that is extraordinary. This is a book about the power individuals and social media can have to do good if so motivated. It also speaks to diplomats at all levels, in many countries, that go above and beyond to make things happen. There are many bad actors as well, thieves and partisans who act solely on ethnicity or family ties.

Mohammed names names in this book, from friends of friends to US senators and Indian diplomats. In the acknowledgments, he also mentions the person that assisted him in organizing this memoir and putting it to paper. At a time when selfishness and isolationism seem to be at a multi-decade height, this story is a reminder of what can happen when people are asked to do the impossible and get it done.


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On the road again: Cincinnati to Louisville Day 2

5 August 2018 at 23:39

Continuing our journey, with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad as our soundtrack, we left Cincinnati, crossing the Ohio River into Covington, Kentucky. If Cincinnati has a bit of a southern vibe, the minute you cross into Kentucky somehow you ARE in the South.

We were a bit short on time but had an ambitious agenda for the day. A must stop was Carmichael’s Bookstore, the oldest independent bookstore in Louisville and it opens at 8 a.m. on Sunday! The staff was well informed and welcoming. When I asked about a local writer or title I was directed to a book I’d been eyeing for months. Southernmost by Silas House is a story of grappling with tragedy and truth, tolerance and forgiveness. It’s published by Algonquin Books, an independent press dedicated to literary fiction and nonfiction that gets people talking.

No trip to Louisville would be complete without a pilgrimage to Churchill Downs where Triple Crown dreams are born. In the upper 90’s, the weather wasn’t suitable for (wo)man nor beast and there was no racing scheduled for a while. Nevertheless, the museum has great displays about the horses, jockeys, owners, and trainers that make the Kentucky Derby an annual American classic. There is a breath-taking film shown on a racetrack-shaped surround screen that brings that captures a day in the life of Churchill Downs.

There are several tours of Churchill Downs offered. Our walking tour took us through all the spectator levels overlooking the historic track. Information about the architectural and requirements to maintain the facility was interesting, the multiple pricing scales to see the Derby, less so. At the tour’s end, a visit to the jockey area where the silks are kept, the weigh-in occurs, and the jockeys relax when not racing really was the highlight.

Our last must-see of the day was for the baseball-lover in me. Louisville Slugger has been the best-known manufacturer of baseball bats for over a century. A desire to help a slumping Louisville ballplayer has turned into a company known worldwide. Though not the only manufacturer of bats for major leaguers, they are the largest and count the many of the biggest stars as their customers. For each, they maintain very specific measurements and offer the choice of ash or maple and special stains and paints. Small escorted tours take visitors through the manufacturing process, without phones or cameras, of course, where staff members answer any and all questions. Time is well spent in the exhibit area where game-used bats from many of the historic greats of baseball history can be seen. The evolution of baseball is seen in a historical context. Before we left, there was the chance to hold game-used bats from Hall of Famers as well as current stars. I choose Hank Aaron and Ryan Zimmerman.

At the suggestion of a long-time friend, our one night in Louisville was spent at The Brown Hotel, where Southern hospitality is the only language spoken. For almost a century, the hotel has been a landmark in the city. We only scratched the surface of the sights in Louisville, a fine reason to return. Next stop:  NASHVILLE!

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On the road again! Nashville bound – Day 1

27 July 2018 at 10:45

Before the era of total connectivity taking a vacation had a very different meaning. There was no phone or laptop to leave at home if you wanted to truly disconnect. On the flip side, having access to one’s work and other obligations from the road can make it possible to be away from home or work longer without being out of the loop. And you can get great ice cream recommendations from friends while on the road – more about that later!

There are large swaths of the US I have never visited. Among the top spots on my list was Nashville, so Dan indulged me by crafting our annual DC=> Hilton Head, SC, summer trip via Music City. None of this shortest distance/least time route as calculated by Waze for us! No, our goal is to take the opportunity to explore places that we have not seen.

STOP 1 – Cincinnati, OH: After a dinner pizza break in Breezewood, PA, we continued on and spent the night near the West Virginia line. Driving through Wheeling early in the morning brought a lovely sight. The soundtrack to the drive was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the terrain a reminder of the difficult miles that slaves seeking freedom and settlers had to traverse to find home. Shortly before noon, we arrived at the American Sign Museum. Out in an industrial area of Cincinnati, it is a true gem. They have gathered advertising signs from all eras of American industry, with wonderful audio descriptions. Thanks to the staff of the museum, we headed to Findlay Market, the oldest municipal market in Ohio, to find lunch. Wandering through the outdoor stalls, we came upon a familiar face, Teeny Morris, owner of Teeny Pies, one of our daughter’s housemates during their time in Chicago. It is very good to know a top-notch baker!


There were two more major events planned for Cincinnati. Once we dropped our bags off at the hotel, formerly the Cincinnati Enquirer Building, we walked to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Open since 2004, the museum tells the story of the search for freedom from the arrival of slaves on our shores until today, worldwide. It is an ambitious effort and the targetted exhibits are well done. Its location looking across the Ohio River to Kentucky is echoed in a film of abolitionists aiding fleeing slaves leaving Kentucky.

I am a big baseball fan. The Cincinnati Reds were hosting the Milwaukee Brewers for a late afternoon game, so off we went. As practiced fans, we beat the heat by choosing seats in the shade and were lucky enough to score Rosie the Red bobbleheads! The Great American Ballpark is very roomy with great sightlines and wide concourses. It also has two huge screens with different player info and more advertising than I’ve seen at any other park.

Daughter #2 had been in Cincinnati recently on business and sent us to Nada for dinner, noteworthy for people in our area because they are expanding to Pike & Rose very soon. And then we took our Facebook friends’ recommendations and found Graeter’s ice cream nearby on Fountain Square, listened to live music and chatted with some Milwaukee Brewers fans before calling it a night.








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Following ‘The Underground Railroad’

25 July 2018 at 16:42
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday) 2016, (Random House Audio, Bahni Turpin – Narrator)
  • In 40 words or less: Cora’s self-sufficiency makes her an outcast among the slaves on the Georgia plantation. When Caesar, another slave, prevails on her to escape with him, Cora’s journey to find a free future and reclaim her past begins.
  • Genre: Literary fiction
  • Locale: Georgia and north
  • Time: Approximately 1840’s
  • Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, Colson Whitehead uses magical realism and time-shifting to supplement the realistic and inhumane treatment of so many. Juxtaposing the attitudes of the slaveholders and those that maintained the railroad is fascinating. The villainy of the slave-catchers and the complacency of those standing by paints a portrait of the pre-Civil War US.

It took me far too long to make Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad my own. Two years ago, Whitehead spoke at the BookExpo America Book & Author Breakfast, attended by the book trade, librarians, and bloggers or book group leaders like me. He is a charismatic speaker and it was clear that this book would make waves.

Several times a year, Dan and I head out on an extended road trip. This July’s was the most ambitious. We headed from the Washington, DC area to Hilton Head, SC, via Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. It seemed fitting to choose The Underground Railroad as our audiobook since the characters Whitehead created traversed much of the same terrain.

Cora, the central character of the novel, is young and alone after her mother escapes the Georgia plantation and is never heard from again. All she is left by her mother is a tiny patch of land in front of their shack where Cora plants yams, supplementing her food supply and marking her independence. Cora is deeply hurt and angry that her mother has neither sent for her nor been in touch, though she clearly wasn’t captured and returned as a runaway. Very smart, Cora knows how to read and hides this knowledge since it could endanger her. She has only one friend and rebuffs efforts advances by any man, understanding that she is safer on her own.

Caesar, another slave on the plantation, has observed Cora and recognizes that her self-sufficiency and intellect would make his chance of escaping the plantation more likely. After several efforts, the two of them take off, heading to the underground railroad. Whitehead’s railroad is the literal conveyance that often comes to mind among those that are just learning about the period. There is a network of conductors, secretly assisting runaways on their journeys.

As Cora and Caesar travel from state to state, Whitehead creates different milieus that challenge their move to freedom. In each locale, the response of the residents to those seeking freedom is completely different as well. Whitehead’s descriptions draw the reader in and convey the terrifying situations that interactions with the residents and the terrain demand.

As I mentioned at the top, this was the audiobook we listened to as we made a big loop through many states that were on the real Underground Railroad. Looking out the window as the story unfolded, I gave more thought to the difficulty in traversing rivers, often with slave-catchers in pursuit and few swimming skills. I imagined the darkness and the dangers from run-ins with animals, trying to forage for food, and wondering if the one farm nearby was shelter or danger. The narrator, Bahni Turpin, gave distinctive voices to all the characters and created a picture that made the hours seem like minutes. While I should have moved this great novel to the top of the pile much sooner, I am grateful I waited. The combination of the book and the journey made this an experience I won’t soon forget.





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Escape to ‘Manhattan Beach’

8 July 2018 at 18:02
  • Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Scribner) 2017
  • In 40 words or less: Eddie Kerrigan could do no wrong in his daughter Anna’s eyes. After he disappears, she helps support her family during WWII at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, pushing the limits of “women’s work.” Anna never stops wondering what happened to her father.
  • Genre: Literary fiction
  • Locale: New York
  • Time: 1930’s and 40’s
  • Jennifer Egan has a new twist on the Rosie the Riveter story, set in a working-class neighborhood in New York. From page one, Anna is smart and strong-willed, equally devoted to her family and her personal success.

The Depression has seen a reversal in the Kerrigan family fortunes. While Eddie loves his wife and both daughters, his wife Agnes has to devote almost all her attention to Lydia, disabled from birth and homebound. Agnes left a dancing career to raise her family, only retaining her exquisite costuming skills to help in its support. In Anna, Eddie sees a buddy, ready to accompany him on his rounds, and keep his secrets when needed. Financial pressures and the stresses of living in close quarters draw Eddie away from home, often with little explanation.  One day he just doesn’t return.

Almost a decade later Anna secures a technical job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, ensuring that precision parts meet specifications. Her off-hours are focused on her mother and her sister, whose physical needs are becoming more taxing. Anna makes the acquaintance of another worker who draws her into a life of nightclubs and men who are living on the edges of legality. Anna meets the nightclub owner, a man she met as a child on a visit with her father and gives him a false name, one of several secrets in her new life.

The tedium and low pay of the jobs reserved for women send Anna in search of alternatives at the Navy Yard. The most difficult position is that of a diver, working on the hulls of ships and performing repairs in total darkness underwater wearing hundreds of pounds of equipment. Against many odds, Anna is given a chance to compete for a spot.

Jennifer Egan has the knack for storytelling and enriching it with the little details that take a novel to the next level. For lovers of New York, there is the flavor of New York life, it’s neighborhoods and social fabric. If the role of women in the war effort is your thing, it’s there in spades. And then there is organized crime, the black market, and its prominent place in the entertainment business of the era. If told on its own, the family story of the Kerrigans would be compelling. Egan doesn’t play it for pathos, rather as cards the family has been dealt. This novel has all the attributes that the individual reader or book club seeks out – conflict, fully developed characters, and a setting that supports the plot in all its details. Manhattan Beach is consistent with the high-level writing people expect from Jennifer Egan.