Book Review – Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

Belong to MeBelong to Me by Marisa de los Santos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos is a charming book about friendship, secrets, and what it means to be family.  It is narrated by three characters: Cornelia, a former city-girl settling down in the suburbs with her doctor husband; Piper, the Queen Bee of the suburbs and Cornelia’s across the street neighbor; and Dev, a 13 year old boy who is the son of Cornelia’s first friend in town, Lake.

Cornelia moves to a suburb of Philadelphia after a decade or so in New York City ready to settle down and have a family.  Her husband, Teo, is a doctor who she has known since childhood.  Piper is a materialistic, judgmental, status-driven, keeping up appearances at all costs, housewife in Cornelia’s new middle upper-class neighborhood.  At first Piper is icy toward Cornelia – criticizing her dead Mums on the front porch, suggesting ways to landscape, and telling Cornelia she can’t sit in the front seat of her car because she is so small the airbag would hurt her were it to deploy.  Cornelia takes this amazingly in stride and begins to build a friendship with Piper.

I wanted to dislike Piper until I saw her relationship with her best friend Elizabeth. They’ve raised their children together, go on vacations together, and Elizabeth is the only who can see through Piper’s icy facade.  Elizabeth is dying of cancer and the news that it’s terminal hits Piper hard.  She neglects her marriage to take care of Elizabeth, her children, and Elizabeth’s husband, Tom.  It’s by observing Piper’s friendship with Elizabeth that the reader, and Cornelia, gets to see the human side of Piper.

Cornelia’s first friend in town is also a newcomer herself, Lake, and a waitress at a local Italian restaurant.  Lake moved her and her son, Deveraux (“Dev”), to Pennsylvania from California after testing proved how truly exceptional Dev is.  Lake is unusually guarded and Cornelia can’t figure out why.

I really, really enjoyed this book.  It was one that took me a week to read (I usually read a book in 3 days or so) because I wanted to savor every last bit. de los Santos’ writing is beautiful.  I knew exactly who was narrating each chapter without looking because Cornelia, Piper, and Dev all had very distinct voices.  I surprised myself by ending up like Piper’s chapters a lot more than Cornelia’s, when she is the protagonist of the story.  I felt like Cornelia’s life and marriage was almost “too perfect.”  Teo is a doctor, he’s incredibly good looking, and he is very nice.  The only flaw in Cornelia’s life was that she was desperate to become a mother and that hadn’t happened yet for her.  She was also incredibly gracious to keep giving Piper chance after chance when she didn’t deserve it.

Piper’s character was the most developed.  We learn she is ashamed of her past and where she came from which fuels her incessant need to keep up appearances and be at the top of her social circle.  I loved the chapters with her and Elizabeth.  Every woman wants a real female friendship that is honest and tender.  By the end Piper isn’t the “Queen Bee” anymore, but is a person who is more true to herself.

Dev’s chapters were very intellectual and thinky and it took me a while to figure out where he belonged in the book.  His and Lake’s relationships are fraught with secrets that are revealed toward the end.  Dev is a very smart kid and knows that Lake is up to something and he figures it out before anyone else does.  I don’t know how Dev comes to forgive Lake because I’m still angry with her a month after reading the book (which proves I become too emotionally involved with fictional characters). de los Santos does a great way of tying up and tying together all the characters’ stories by the end.

All in all, this was a lovely book.  One I would recommend and read again.  It made me want to read all of de los Santos’ books.  I definitely like her style.

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Book Review – Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

ZeitounZeitoun by Dave Eggers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is a true story account of one family’s experience and devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun lived and worked in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit.  Abdulrahman (known as Zeitoun) is a Syrian immigrant and the Zeitouns are practicing Muslims.  The Zeitouns have weathered many hurricanes during their time in New Orleans and at first the family is not concerned about the storm.  After repeated warnings, Kathy evacuates to Baton Rouge with their four children while Zeitoun insists on staying behind to take care of their painting/contracting business and rental properties.  Zeitoun weathers the storm and the eventual breaching of levees and flooding of the city.  Zeitoun bought a used canoe years ago and is now able to put it to good use by helping some of his neighbors and abandoned dogs.  After a few days with fewer people to help and the city becoming increasingly polluted and dangerous, Zeitoun beings to plan to leave and join Kathy and the kids in Phoenix (where she eventually ended up).  That is, until Zeitoun is arrested in his own home for looting and is put in prison for 23 days without being given access to his Constitutional right of one phone call.  They won’t even tell him what the charges are against him, but he does have a few guards tell him that he’s Taliban, or a terrorist.

For the most part I very much enjoyed this book.  It is a fast read and I read it within three days.  I read the first 100 pages within a couple of hours.  I enjoyed reading about Zeitoun’s early life in Syria and how he came to live in America.  I also enjoyed reading about Kathy’s history of growing up in a large Christian family and eventually converting to Islam.  Kathy’s journey to conversion helped me understand the Muslim religion in a ways I had not thought about before.

I liked how this novel focused both on Zeitoun’s experience in the city and also in jail juxtaposed against Kathy’s experience fleeing the storm, keeping connected with and worrying about her husband, and the absolute torment she went through when she hadn’t heard from him in two weeks and feared that he was dead.

Mostly I was outraged reading this book.  Knowing that a jail was built within a couple of days of the storm when all of that man power and resources could have been used to rescue people trapped in their attics, under freeway passes, and at the Superdome made me sick.  The jailees had access to toilets and food but not those trapped in the Superdome?  Where were the priorities of those in charge?  I was also outraged that a man could be arrested for and jailed for 23 days without any proof of a crime being committed (he was on his own property when he was arrested!) and denied a phone call or medical attention.  And he was lucky because others who were falsely accused were jailed for months by FEMA.  Heck of a job, Brownie?  I think not.  You think that can’t happen to you as a citizen of the United States, but oh yes, it can.  Reading this book brought me back to the outrage I experienced seven years ago watching all these tragedies, travesties, and injustices happening in the United States of America in the 21st Century because of incompetent government officials and agencies.

The only thing I disliked about the book was all of the descriptions in chapters of Zeitoun’s hero brother that really had nothing to do with the story.  I kept skipping over them because they were boring. I wanted to get back to the action of the book.

Eggers wrote about the Zeitoun family in a book called Voices from the Storm, but felt that their story was so compelling that it deserved an entire book.  The book ends in 2008 with an update on how the family is doing now, but a lot can change in four years.  Once lauded as a Katrina hero, Zeitoun is now anything but.  He is currently in jail for domestic assault against is now ex-wife Kathy and just recently he has been accused of trying to solicit someone to kill Kathy, her new boyfriend, and her son from her first marriage.  Finding this out just a few days after finishing this book really put a damper on the hope I held for the Zeitoun family and their future.  At the end of Zeitoun Kathy talks about Zeitoun becoming increasingly more religious and fanatic and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  What he went through in those 23 days of jail after Katrina has irreparably harmed his mental state and his family forever.

The story of the Zeitoun family is about one of the country’s greatest tragedy’s and failings, which in my opinion, lead to a very tragic end to a once stable and happy family.

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Book Review – The Book of Mormon Girl by Joanna Brooks

I read this in February but in honor of my friend Joanna being on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on August, 9, 2012, I thought I’d post this review somewhere other than on Goodreads.

The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American FaithThe Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith by Joanna Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brooks’s memoir of growing up as a Mormon girl in the orange groves of Southern California is one of the most personal memoirs I’ve ever read.  As a Mormon girl myself, there was much in this book I could identify with.  Not growing up in a particularly religious home where Mormonism was worn as a badge proud upon our chests, I couldn’t really relate to how Brooks describes her devout childhood.  However, Brooks description of her time at BYU and her faith transitions after that is something that is very close to my heart.

It felt like my heart was weeping while I read the last few chapters of this book as Brooks describes what it is like to be a liberal/feminist in a very conservative church.  While she was at BYU people would leave alcohol on her doorstep because she opposed the Gulf War.  They’re reasoning was that opposing the war was already an act of apostasy, so why not take it the whole way?  This is a mentality that I’ve never understood.  Just because we have political differences, does not mean I’m any less a member of this church.  Brooks describes how hard Prop 8 was on her, being both Mormon and a Californian, and this is something I could perfectly relate to.  How do you rectify your God given feelings of love and acceptance for all of God’s children with direct mandates from your church?  I related to Brooks’s struggle, and her last chapter gave me a lot of hope.  I refuse to give up, and so has she.

Brooks was at BYU the same time my sister was there, and they were actually friends and involved in the feminist group on campus.  Because my sister has such a fondness for Brooks, and because I’ve gotten to know her through online interactions with her blog, “Ask Mormon Girl,” and we’re Facebook friends, I regarded this novel with much more warmth than I would have reading a total stranger’s memoir.  Basically, I’m saying I’m already biased for Brooks, so it’s not a surprise I would love her book and give it a good review.  Ignore my bias, and know that it really is a wonderful, brave book.  Brooks has a lot of chutzpah living her live to publicly when Mormonism and questions about the church are on the forefront of so many minds right now.

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