The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee

downstairs girlJo Kuan makes hats that the ladies of Atlanta adore, but she was fired because Mrs. English worried that employing a Chinese girl might hurt her reputation. Besides, she says, Jo is a saucebox. Old Gin arranged for Jo to get her former job back as a lady’s maid for spoiled, short-tempered Caroline Payne, but what Jo really wants is to write for the Bell family’s local newspaper. She knows a lot about the newspaper business, since she and Old Gin secretly live in the Bell’s basement, and she eavesdrops through an old abolitionist’s listening tube right under the print shop. Jo overhears young Nathan Bell worrying about declining subscriptions, so she forms a plan that will benefit them both. When she anonymously submits an “agony aunt” advice column to the paper, subscriptions begin to climb, and Jo takes on the pseudonym “Miss Sweetie.”

Chinese immigrants were brought into the South for a brief span of years to take on the manual labor formerly filled by African slaves. In the post-reconstruction, segregated region, they occupied a social position just slightly above blacks, but certainly outside of the realm of wealthy whites. In this novel, many Atlantans reacted to their existence with surprise and confusion. Since Jo was wittily articulate and had a flair for fashion, her presence seemed an affront to the wealthy, simpering debutantes.

Young Jo lives in a world of secrets. No one knows that a Chinese girl is the true identity of the controversial, pro-suffragist Miss Sweetie, nor does anyone ever ask where she lives. On the other hand, Jo does not even know her own parents, and she is similarly in the dark about her exact relationship to Old Gin, the only guardian she has ever known. Old Gin is filled with secrets of his own, both about the past and about his dealings with the shady characters that flit through the stables at the Payne’s estate, where he works. While Jo schemes to uncover the frail old man’s situation without his knowledge, she has learned that information can be powerful. Jo holds several secrets in her pocket that gain her a bit of privilege, but she is well aware that her hard-earned life could easily collapse like a house of cards.

Stacey Lee has created an immensely likeable and intelligent protagonist in Jo Kuan. This diligent and hardworking young woman is so focused on straining upward for herself and Old Gin that she pushes her own feelings away. Ever practical, she ignores her heart, since she knows that romantic relationships across ethnic boundaries are illegal in any case. In her carefully regulated society, crossing boundaries leads only to punishment and shame. Lee skillfully weaves the political issues of Jim Crow laws and women’s suffrage into a coming-of-age tale filled with family entanglements and the fierce struggle for individual freedom.

Very highly recommended for teens and adults.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The World That We Knew, by Alice Hoffman

World that We KnewHanni knew that the Nazis would soon find them. Her mother was too sick to move, so she had to stay in Berlin to care for her, but she would find some way to get her fourteen-year-old Lea out of the country. Hanni pled to the rabbi’s wife, but she refused to help them. However, her daughter, Ettie, overheard the plea and offered to use forbidden kabala magic to help Hanni if she would pay for her and her sister to escape, as well. The women gathered to create a golem that they named Ava, an inhuman creature who looked like a young woman and was tasked to protect Lea at all costs. Before Ava could be discovered, the four young women boarded a train bound for the closest safe place: Paris.

As the reader knows, Paris was anything but safe during World War II, and the four fugitives struggle to stay alive and save their loved ones over the remaining years of the Nazi regime. Not all are successful, but those who survive evolve into beings fit for the new world being born.

With her gift for magical realism, Hoffman moves the plot into interwoven stories, crossing and knotting many strands. Danger, courage, love, and sacrifice define the choices that they make. Alice Hoffman has been an author I have appreciated many times over the years, and in this novel, she is finally writing out the true-life story that a fan related to her decades ago. In The World That We Knew, Hoffman combines two of my favorite genres, historical fiction and a hint of fantasy. Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Two New Ones for Kids

Look Both Ways, by Jason Reynolds

Look Both WaysThey go to school together, but these kids have different challenges and joys. Jason Reynolds writes ten interwoven short stories that reveal the lives of a diverse group of young people as they navigate the ten blocks from school to home. Heartbreaking, heartwarming, sometimes funny and sometimes gross (an entire story is based on booger jokes), these kids will give you hope for the future of our cities that you may not find on the evening news. Reynolds is a master storyteller, so this middle grade book is an accessible, sneaky introduction to short stories for your kids. Be prepared: the lightly written emotional undercurrents will knock you flat.

 

I Am Walt Disney, by Brad Meltzer; illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

i am walt disneyBrad Meltzer was a successful adult thriller writer who hit a gold mine when he decided to write some biographies of worthy role models for his kids. The series is called “Ordinary People Change the World,” easily recognized by the big-headed caricatures on these small picture books. One of the latest is I Am Walt Disney, which gives a child-oriented overview of the man whose youthful scribbles evolved into spectacular animated movies that changed the world. He called his childhood home in Marceline, Missouri, “the happiest place on earth,” and then grew up to create fantasy parks with the same motto, vacation destinations that have families saving their pennies for a week in paradise. Eliopoulos draws four-year-old Disney with the same mustache and suit that he sports in later life, moving through his precocious teen and young adult years, his marriage, and his mature awards and achievements. On a recent talk show, Meltzer revealed that the Disney company was so appreciative of the “Ordinary People” series and its values that they opened up archives for this slim bio that had never been public before. All of the volumes in this series are highly recommended for your four- to eight-year-olds.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of Look Both Ways and a library copy of I Am Walt Disney. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not express those of my employer or anyone else.

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Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads SingHer mother walked down the dirt road out of the marsh to escape her violent, drunken husband in 1952, when Kya was only six years old. Without her protection, Kya’s older brothers and sisters slipped away, as well. Kya was the youngest. For the most part, her father seemed to forget that she existed and spent days at a time in the bars in town, leaving his little daughter to fend for herself in the marsh. Every once in a while, he left a little money on the table, and Kya learned to start the boat motor and buy grits at the store. She ate the edible weeds in the yard, and during a short stint of sobriety, her father taught her to fish. The truancy officer got her to school for one day, but it didn’t stick. The kids were so mean to the “Marsh Girl” that Kya hid whenever the official lady came back, so eventually she gave up.

Kya’s life changed when Tate, a boy from the town, started to leave her gifts of rare feathers. She remembered that her mother had been an artist, and she learned to draw and paint the feathers and then all of the tiny creatures in the marsh. She organized her specimens, and when Tate taught her to read, her collections grew into full-fledged scientific pursuits. Although she did not mix with the townspeople, she did spy on the group of popular kids her own age throughout the years, especially the high school quarterback, Chase Andrews.

Interspersed with the chronological narrative of Kya’s growing up are chapters set in 1969, when a couple of little boys discover the dead body of Chase Andrews under the fire tower. The sheriff and the town doctor cannot figure out how he died. There were no footprints leading up to the tower— not even Chase’s own. No tire tracks, no fingerprints. On the surface, there seemed to be no motive to kill the most popular young man in town, but in fact, there was no end of jilted lovers and jealous husbands on the suspect list.

The first unforgettable character in this novel is the marsh itself. Owens describes the plants, the animals, the soil, even the very air of lowcountry North Carolina so intimately that the reader feels the heat, the grit, the crawling life of the place in every pore. Kya feeds the gulls every day, and she knows them each as individuals. She scratches a garden together and forages for whatever grows wild. Her collections are labeled with not just the bird’s species, but the placement of the feather and the bird’s gender. She navigates the lagoons by tide and current, watching the weather and the waves. This watery landscape is as much a part of Kya’s desperate story as the plot and the other characters.

What can I say about Where the Crawdads Sing that hasn’t already been said? I am late to this party, but I’m so glad I came. The holds on this book continue to climb in our library catalog, and it’s been out for over a year now. The novel takes place about two hours east of where I live in North Carolina, and yet it’s a world away.

Where the Crawdads Sing is somehow slow and compelling at once, with the sort of ambiguous ending that makes it a favorite for book groups. Kya’s story is unforgettable: a strong young woman, a female-American Émile who struggles to survive outside of the bonds of community, whose essence is formed not by human culture, but from the marsh itself.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

 

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Queen of the Sea, by Dylan Meconis

Queen of the SeaLittle Margaret has never known another home besides the island, and she has never known another mother than the nuns in the convent. A great ship visits them every spring and fall with provisions from the mainland of Albion; otherwise, they work to provide for themselves between times of prayer. Such is the peaceful rhythm of their days.

One day, a ship arrives at the island off schedule. William, a boy about her own age, becomes her friend and playmate. Margaret realizes that William is unhappy and wants to go back to Albion, but he can’t, because his father is in trouble. It is William who lets Margaret know about the political upheaval on the mainland, and it seems that his family is on the wrong side of power at the time. Years later, William has been taken back to Albion, and another ship has come with an imperious young woman, Eleanor, who is in the keeping of the Reverend Mother, who has authority over all of the obedient sisters of the Elysian order on the island. When she overhears a conversation with the Reverend Mother, Margaret learns who her parents are and what grave danger she is in.

Dylan Meconis explores themes of freedom, knowledge, and power in this luminous graphic novel based on the exile of Elizabeth I under the reign of her sister, Mary. Margaret is happy on the island until William is taken to prison in Albion, and she is content to live out her future in the convent until she finds out her true identity, and then she is conflicted over whether or not it is her duty to use her power for good.

This is a large volume with ivory-colored pages recalling medieval parchments. Most of the illustrations are done in rich colors and realistic style, but the style changes with the content. When someone is telling Margaret a story, the illustrations look like a child’s drawings, and when a character is reading from a document, the font becomes Gothic calligraphy and resembles a manuscript. Margaret loves needlework, and the illustrations of her embroidery may be photographs. This graphic novel contains more text than most, and the reader will learn a great deal about the ordinary work of the late middle ages, as well as the inner workings of a religious order. The story is beautiful and compelling, but taken as a complete package, Queen of the Sea offers an experience beyond simple prose.

Graphic novels are not usually my first choice of format, but as a lover of art and history, I can highly recommend Queen of the Sea.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Fountains of Silence, by Ruta Sepetys

Fountains of SilenceMadrid, 1957. Daniel and his parents have traveled from Dallas so that his father can secure an oil deal in Spain. Until recently, the fascist dictator Francisco Franco has kept the country closed to foreign business, but now the U.S. government and major corporations are trickling back in. Daniel is eager to use the new camera that his mother gave him to capture the story of contemporary Spain. He plans to use the pictures in a photo contest he has entered in hopes that his winning photo-essay will help him to gain entry to the most prestigious journalism schools. Daniel’s whole world is photography, but his father wants him to follow in his own footsteps in the oil business. Daniel has a good eye and snaps photos of everything, but when he takes them to Miguel’s shop for developing, the older man warns him to use caution: this is not the United States. There are many dangerous secrets.

Daniel begins to feel the weight of the secrets when he falls for the beautiful hotel employee, Ana. She tells him that she cannot have dinner with him because the hotel does not allow the staff to interact with clients, but he suspects that it is more than that. Ana lives with her sister, Julia, her husband, Antonio, their baby, and their brother, Rafa, who works in a slaughterhouse. In his off time, Rafa helps his friend, Fuga, train to become the greatest matador Spain has ever seen. While waiting for his opportunity to find fame in the bullring, Fuga digs graves for a living.

Ana’s cousin Purificación works in the orphanage. There are so many orphans since the war, and Puri loves all of the children and hopes to find good homes for them. Puri wants to be perfect; she never asks questions, and she truly believes that Franco loves the people of Spain and is doing his best for them. Lately, however, Puri’s world has begun to get tangled with Fuga’s.

Ruta SepetysRuta Sepetys brings us another stunning tale from hidden history, just as she did in her superb first book, Between Shades of Gray, the story of her grandparents in Stalin’s Russia. Americans are generally uninformed about Francisco Franco’s regime that lasted for decades in Spain, partly because it began at the same time that the United States and most of the rest of the world were becoming embroiled in World War II. After that conflict ended, we were all engaged in putting our countries and our lives back together, and yet Franco continued in power for years. He did not die until 1975, and some of his policies lasted until the 1980s.

Sepetys fills Daniel with this sort of benevolent ignorance. He is optimistic, looking forward to college and a successful career, with an American belief that if we all see something bad, we will challenge it and fix it. His biggest problem is that his father doesn’t approve of his career choice, so it takes him a while to understand that Ana’s problems are overwhelming and complex, and he only narrowly avoids ruining the lives of people he cares about.

Although the plot is propelled by the forbidden romance that is growing between Daniel and Ana, the novel is carefully researched. Sepetys inserts selections from government documents between the chapters, showing what diplomats and bureaucrats knew—and didn’t know—about the Franco regime. Today, many people wonder whether American investment in Spain at the time may have allowed the dictator to remain in power longer. Sepetys herself wonders how far an outsider should go to tell the tale of another culture, especially in light of one particular shocking secret from which the Spanish people are still struggling to recover.

Beautiful writing, an absorbing story, and the slow revelation of one nation’s hidden horror make The Fountains of Silence a compelling novel. These are stories that we wish were not true, but we must expose them so that we will have our own eyes open to the terrifying extent of human depravity, and to be aware of those around us who are forced to be silent. Furthermore, we need to open these wounds to sunlight so that they may heal.

This novel, as well as everything else by Ruta Sepetys, is highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which will be released in October, 2019. Get your pre-orders in now. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Enneagram Reading

Everywhere I went—podcasts, blogs, articles—I kept hearing about the Enneagram. Pastors and staff announced themselves by a number on their websites: “I’m a three!” What did it all mean? I pulled in a few books to find out.

The word Enneagram comes from the Greek, ennea for “nine” and gram for “a drawn figure.” Hence this nine-pointed diagram:

Enneagram

It looks like some kind of an occult symbol, but it’s just a tidy way to picture the nine types of personality. This diagram shows the names that Riso and Hudson created for the types, but there are variations.

Understanding the Enneagram RisoUnderstanding the Enneagram, by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, was the first book that I read on the subject, and it’s a great one to demonstrate the history and depth of this ancient tool. No one agrees on the origins of the Enneagram, but around the turn of the 20th century, spiritualist George Gurdjieff brought it into modern times, and since then, psychologists and others have refined the ideas into a usable model for business management and spiritual counseling.

My husband and I took many of the online tests for personality typing, and the Enneagram Institute– Riso and Hudson’s organization– has one of the best and most secure. You can find it here. There is also a test in the book.

Each of the nine personalities has particular characteristics with strengths and weaknesses. For example, Type 2, “The Helper,” loves to give to others, but could become resentful if he doesn’t receive love in return. Number 4, “The Individualist” may have great artistic sensibilities, but also has lots of emotions that can lead to major drama. Number 6, “The Loyalist,” is an excellent friend and parent, but may spend her life worrying about every little thing. In a healthy state, each type can make magnificent contributions to the world. Most of us live in an average state, with positive and negative effects of our type showing up according to life’s circumstances, but when we are in a psychologically or spiritually unhealthy state, our types have particular pitfalls that could cause personal, relational, or workplace problems.

Riso and Hudson’s book is suitable for deep study, and indeed, I borrowed it through interlibrary loan from a college library. For anyone who thinks that the Enneagram is a party topic, the research and attention to clinical use in this volume will prove them wrong.

Essential EnneagramThe Essential Enneagram, by David Daniels and Virginia Price, is a slender volume containing a pared-down explanation of the instrument. On the other end of the spectrum from the Riso-Hudson book, it gives a quick background with a simple method for typing. If you are curious to find out your type—and the types of all your family and friends—The Essential Enneagram will do it for you. Accurate and accessible.

 

Not a horoscope. Human beings are always seeking to find out more about themselves. Our lives are busy, and we find ourselves using certain behaviors and giving the same responses without thinking too much about it. Why does one person respond to taunts by running away, another by yelling, and yet another by a punch in the nose?

Astrology assigns personalities to people according to how the stars and planets were aligned at a person’s birth. In this case, everyone born in a certain month would have the same personality controlled by forces completely external to oneself.

Myers-Briggs is a personality typing tool used by many businesses that measures only four psychological characteristics: introversion or extraversion, detail-oriented or not, etc. They use it to help a work team to understand one another, or, more controversially, for hiring people into a certain position. It considers a personality to be fixed. “This is me. Get over it.”

The Enneagram teaches that we are all born as our true selves, but within the first three years of life, we develop behaviors that help us to cope with what life throws at us. Our parents, siblings, and environment affect each of us in different ways. Number Ones, for example, find out that being good and doing everything perfectly makes other people like them. They grow up to be dependable, responsible people who want to make the world a better place. They are cause-oriented individuals who can be critical perfectionists driven by quiet, seething anger. Number Nines, on the other hand, find out that keeping the peace makes them feel better. They grow up to be excellent compromisers, bringing warring parties together, and they are always the pleasantest person at the party. Because of their inability to confront, their anger can become passive-aggressive, and they easily become depressed and withdraw from life.

The point of the Enneagram is to help people to recognize and strip away the coping mechanisms we’ve accrued, especially when they begin to hurt us. We can learn from the other types and take on the strengths of all, moving each of us closer to the true selves we were born to be.

Road Back to YouThe Road Back to You, by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile, is a thorough yet conversational guide that is geared toward spiritual healing. Coming from a Christian perspective, Cron and Stabile present an explanation of the Enneagram and a test to find your type, followed by a deep dive into each of the personality types, beginning with a list of characteristics, a description of the best features of that type, the most unhealthy possibilities, the type as a child, the type at work, and the ways that type can heal.

The Road Back to You is the most personal of all of these works, with the authors identifying their own types, the way they interact with their spouses and children within their types, and their interactions with friends or relatives of still more types. They are vulnerable about their own weaknesses and give a hefty dose of grace to difficult matches. For example, type 8, the most powerful type on the Enneagram, who never back down from confrontation and never hesitate to say exactly what they think, not realizing how they affect the people around them. One might think that Type 8’s are terrible people, but healthy 8’s can be heroic and natural leaders. Cron’s daughter is also a Type 8 who was in law school when the book was published, and he witnessed her response when her younger brother was bullied by an older man. She completely and calmly obliterated him verbally, and then went on with her dinner. Cron was simultaneously terrified and proud. For reference, President Trump is a Type 8.

Liturgists PodcastFor the layperson who wants to use the Enneagram in counseling and spiritual healing, The Road Back to You is probably the best resource I have found. Cron and Stabile were guests on The Liturgists podcast shortly after the publication of this book, and they go through each of the nine personality types on the show. You can find that recording here.

There are professional counselors who use the Enneagram in their practices, so if you were startled to find yourself neatly tucked into a type, or if you see yourself as a type with certain wings—we won’t even get into that here—the Enneagram may be very useful as a shortcut for healing. In any case, remember that the point is not to find out your type and then revel in your weaknesses or even your strengths, but rather to use your gifts to do good in the world and to work to reverse your weaknesses and return to the “real you” that God created.

As they say in Enneagram-Land, now go and do the work.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of all of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else, although they should, since I am a Type One. The Enneagram diagram was taken from www.enneagraminstitute.com.

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