Yokohama Yankee : My Family’s Five Generations in Japan by Leslie Helm

Tyokohamahe author’s German great-grandfather Julius Helm first came to Japan in 1869, and spent most of his life after that developing a thriving shipping business.  Being on the “ground floor” as it were, of Japan’s first major economic development since it was opened to outside trade,  his business was in a unique position to capitalize on Yokohama’s bustling port.  As a company, Helm Brothers existed throughout two world wars, fires, earthquakes, and Japan’s rapid postwar changes.

The author writes about his extended family and how they managed to coexist for over a hundred years in a culture that never completely excepted them.  The family was biracial (Julius had married a Japanese woman) and as the world wars entered their lives, certain members of the family wound up taking different sides in the conflicts.

Yokohama Yankee is a rich observation of what family and identity really mean.  The author has to come to terms with personal prejudices and attitudes to  Japanese culture and his own Japanese heritage, as he returns repeatedly to the country for work, for genealogical research, and for pleasure.  He and his wife also adopt two Japanese children, and it proves to be a challenge to raise them as Americans, and to have an appreciation for their birth country.

The book is beautifully illustrated with many paintings  and vintage photographs of Japan from the 1800s to the present.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

Jodi and Todd have been together for twenty years.  They met when he ran into her movingsilent wife van, and Todd’s life has been a series of collisions ever since – mainly with other women.

Jodi largely turns a blind eye to Todd’s affairs.  Due to his expanding renovation business, they live in a stylish condominium in Chicago, where Jodi is quite happy to hold court as household diva and still manage a small caseload of clients as a psychologist.

It is an ordered and protected world that Jodi inhabits, and she’s fine with Todd’s transgressions so long as he’s home for dinner and makes the mortgage.

It’s the last affair that Todd has that threatens Jodi’s carefully balanced existence – and it will mess up his own life until the bitter end.  Maybe Todd should have thought more about Jodi…

The Silent Wife is a quiet exploration of affluent “normalcy” and what it takes to destroy it.  The book lacks the shock value of Gone Girl, to which it’s been compared, but give it a chance.  More a psychological simmer than a sensational thriller, The Silent Wife will catch you quickly enough, and the ending will surprise.

The book also continues a trend of fiction in which the main characters are not likeable.  The read is worth it – you’ll find out, drawn out through the novel, what makes Jodi and Todd tick, or not.  Denial is part of the game.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

thousandThe description of Iowa farmland in the first few pages of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel didn’t catch my attention, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to read further.  However, when a friend told me that she’d read it twice and highly recommended it, I gave A Thousand Acres another try and soon became caught up in the story.

Larry Cook is a successful farmer.  He’s gradually increased the size of his farm and now owns a thousand acres; other farmers come to him for advice.  He’s managed his money so well that he’s never needed to go into debt.  He’s getting older, though, and he’s decided to form a corporation turning over ownership of the farm to his three daughters and their husbands.  Ginny and Rose live on the farm, in houses very close to his; Caroline has become a lawyer in Des Moines.

This decision, and the return of a neighbor, Jess Clark, who’d left for Canada to avoid the draft, change family dynamics.  Rose tells Ginny about shocking secrets from the past.  Larry goes off into a storm, cursing his daughters.  Rivalry ends the close relationship between Ginny and Rose.  Ginny’s early comment, “Our farm and our lives seemed secure and good,” ceases to be true.

According to the critics, the novel’s plot is in many ways similar to that of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Although I haven’t read that play since college, I could see some of the similarities – and reading the novel has inspired me to reread King Lear.  The novel stands on its own, however; reading Shakespeare’s play is not a prerequisite!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

White Collar Girl by Renée Rosen

Jordan Walsh, a journalism graduate, lands a job as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune.  Herindex goal is to cover local politics and to expose scandals in Mayor Daley’s Chicago.  However, in the 1950s, male reporters dominate the newsrooms, and Jordan’s job involves covering social events and celebrity sightings and writing such articles as “Gifts for Your Boss on His Birthday.”  While covering a wedding, she makes some contacts at the Police Department and City Hall and begins to move towards the meaningful career of her dreams.

When she becomes engaged to Jack Casey, a reporter from another publication, she discovers that marriage may conflict with her job.  Jack seems to resent her successes at work, and he and his parents assume that she’ll give up her career to become a typical 1950s wife and mother.

Also, Jordan and her parents are still grieving for her beloved brother, killed by a hit-and-run driver.  The police have never found the driver who hit him, and Jordan starts doing some investigating of her own.

For White Collar Girl, the author did a lot of research on Chicago history and on the newspaper world of the 1950s.  I enjoyed the details from that era, especially the brief appearances by real people, including Marilyn Monroe and Ann Landers.  Jordan’s personal life and professional achievements will keep readers turning pages!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Big Tiny : A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams

big tinySimplifying daily life is a varied journey.  For some, it’s whittling down possessions, so, as it’s said, they stop possessing us.  For others, it’s moving to the country, where things are at a slower pace.  And yet for others, it’s house size – the McMansions and their sheer magnitude don’t cut it anymore.

Enter the tiny house movement, where folks willing to pare down to the bare essentials are building houses the size of tool sheds.

Enter Dee Williams, who took the tiny house path years ago and became a big advocate for the lifestyle.

Dee had a very active life.  As she entered her forties, a serious heart condition got her to slow down and think about her reality – namely that of paying a mortgage on a big house that wound up defining her existence, with the constant repairs and expenses.

Dee met Jay Shafer, an early mover and shaker of the tiny house movement, and was hooked on the possibilities of building her own little castle.

Dee wasn’t afraid of power tools and wasn’t daunted (too much) by the prospect of her modified existence.  She was fortunate to have a great circle of friends, and some happenstance encounters with strangers who were happy to help her along her 84 square foot journey.  It also helped knowing people who didn’t mind Dee parking her little house in their yard when it was finished.

The Big Tiny is funny, boisterous, and unflinching.  Dee lets you know that she isn’t perfect, and that building a tiny house wasn’t a couple-of-weekends jaunt.

Dee is still active – check out padtinyhouses.com (Portland Alternative Dwellings).  She also makes an appearance in the documentary Small is Beautiful, which is streamable via Netflix.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Obama’s eloquent, thoughtful memoir begins with his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia and51LCJdzcSNL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_ continues with stories about his job as a community organizer in Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods and about his visit in 1988 to relatives in Kenya.

A major focus of this book is Obama’s relationship with his Kenyan father, whom he knew only from conversations with his mother, his maternal grandparents, and his Kenyan relatives and from a one-month visit when Barack was ten years old.  From his father, the young Barack learned much about what he wanted to be like – and also about what he did not want to become.

Obama’s life story has been quite different from the biographies of other U.S. presidents, and, whatever your political views, I think you’ll find it fascinating!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Anansi_BoysFat Charlie Nancy has a solid life – a decent job in London, a devoted fiancée – but a life as boring as drying paint.  Then his father dies, and things change.

His dad passes away happily, as the life of the party at a karaoke bar in Florida.  At the funeral, Fat Charlie learns that he has a brother, and that his father was Anansi, the trickster god.  And when his brother Spider comes calling, Charlie’s routines end.

He goes out partying with his brother and wakes up with a stranger.  After Spider “subs” for Fat Charlie during his hangover, the job situation gets…odd, when his cliché-spouting menace of a boss takes a strong interest in Fat Charlie’s computer and suddenly gives him a bonus and time off.

Spider also takes a fancy to Fat Charlie’s fiancée Rosie and things get very strained between the two siblings, enough for Charlie to wish his charming, otherworldly brother gone.  He enlists the help of a supernatural kind, the kind that makes a flock of birds an unholy menace – and Fat Charlie realizes he’s gone too far.

In Anansi Boys, Gaiman reworks sibling rivalry into a rollicking yarn that flirts with the mythological and primordial.  Gods and nature spirits interact with and (more than occasionally) become humans.  And shy Fat Charlie…becomes a lot more himself in a bumbling and humorous hero’s journey, as he saves the day for many, reconciles with his brother, and gets the girl, although I won’t say who or how.

It’s all in the story and the song – and being sly doesn’t hurt.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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