*** Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper

Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church reminded me of Educated, which also stars a young woman brought up in a fanatical family, but with a very big difference: here, while fed a dizzying diet of one-sided Bible stories, the author is also encouraged to read the entire book, go to school and college, and not only browse the internet, but also be the voice of the Westboro Baptist Church online.

I found the story of how she slowly realized that the church, founded by her dictatorial and intolerant grandfather, was based on a lie, and that the coercive methods he employed were unacceptable, fascinating because of two things. One, she manages to talk kindly about the people involved, especially her mother, even as she details the errors of their ways. And two, she describes very clearly how painful it is to leave a church that is also her family, since it means that she will literally never see many of her relatives again.

 

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*** The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, although it stands on its own, and, coming twenty years after it, it further highlights the eerie intuitions of the author about men-led dictatorships, not to mention the MeToo movement. Written cleverly and seamlessly by three women, one with considerable power and two who can only be described as rebels, it describes how the bleakest of oppressive powers can be brought down by apparently powerless agents. Chilling, but inspiring. I almost gave it four stars.

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*** The Perfect Predator by Steffanie Strathdee and Thomas Patterson

Written as a memoir, mostly by the scientist of the title, The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug tells a spellbinding story of a very sick man, her husband and co-author, who endured months of severe illness, much of it in ICU, while fighting antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. In the end, an extremely experimental procedure involving a customized bacteriophage (the unlikely shape on the cover of the book) won the battle, propelled by a formidable phalanx of scientists with FDA connections, led or at least inspired by the first author. From a scientific perspective, it’s an amazing tale. From a societal perspective, it feels a little strange to see the deployment of such formidable tools being engineered solely through the connections of the principals–but reviving bacteriophage therapy may well serve many other patients in the future.

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** A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio

The heroine of A Girl Returned is suddenly thrust into a new family, which turns out to be the biological family from which she had been adopted, but she did not even know she was adopted. From one day to the next, she move from a comfortable life to a life scrabble existence, sharing a bed with a younger sister since there is literally no place for her, and scrounging for information about her adoptive mother, who seems to have disappeared entirely, and the reasons why her biological parents allowed her (entirely informal) adoption. The mood of the book reminded me strongly of the Ellena Ferrante series (perhaps because it has the same translator), but I liked it much more in that it focused on the emotions of the two girls (the adopted one and her sister) more than the events of their life.

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** The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You weaves together a personal memoir of escaping Iran with accounts of other refugees, mostly from Iran, languishing or having languished in various camps, waiting for an acceptance from a host country.

The author’s escape and subsequent resettlement in Oklahoma City, with her Christian-convert mother and her younger brother (her Muslim father stayed in Iran, and eventually remarried) is told eloquently, even if the circumstances are quite different from those of other refugees, especially since her mother was an educated physician with more resources than most. She speaks movingly of the stress of the unknown, of the waiting, of the requirements to adapt to new rules and a new culture.

When it comes to other refugees, it’s more complicated. She makes a great point, similar to what Aayan Hirsi Ali makes, that creating a credible refugee “case” is virtually impossible for people fleeing persecution–and on the other hand the task of those who check the truth of persecution story is arduous. Since opening borders is not politically sustainable, we can’t just admit all who self-declare as refugees, and for that she has no practical suggestions.

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*** Semicolon by Cecelia Watson

Before I picked up Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, I was not aware that this, to me, innocuous and helpful punctuation mark could generate much passion. But the book opens with this quote, “The semicolon has become so hateful to me that I feel almost morally compromised when I use it.”  Really? Even when the mark is used properly? In any case, the author takes us through the creation, history, and usage of the semicolon, including some amusing examples of misplaced ones that created serious legal challenges. She also confesses that she once gave up using dashes for Lent. How’s that for punctuation passion?

It’s a fun, short, and spirited book. As a bonus, enjoy the wonderful woodcut illustrations that start each chapter.

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*** A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Virginia Hall, the heroin of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, was a spirited, rich, well-educated woman who dreamt of a career in diplomacy. But barred from it by discrimination against women and the disabled (she had been amputated of a leg after a hunting accident), she instead launched a highly dangerous mission to help the French resistance against the Nazi occupants, and indeed the French government that collaborated with them. Under a flimsy cover as a journalist, she organized networks, befriended everyone, and coordinated shipments of money, weapons, and supplies. The author provides abundant documentation from archives and interviews, with the result a lively, even griping story. (It is a little puzzling that she gets the famous poem used to announce D-day slightly wrong,)

Virginia Hall would be treated callously after the war, as perhaps could be expected of smart women at that time. Shame!

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