Shelter from the Storm


By Jung Yun

Published 2016

Read Oct 2017

The Characters:

  • A mid-thirties couple with student loans, credit card debt, and their house financially “under-water”. He’s a biology professor who immigrated to the US from Korea with his parents when he was four years old.  She is the daughter of a local Irish cop and is staying home with their four-year son, old until he goes to school, and studying for a master’s degree in the meantime.
  • His parents who live nearby in a more exclusive house and are wealthy from his patents. He was born in Korea but received his PhD in the US and is a successful engineering professor at the same college as his son.  She has never worked outside the house but has spent much time and money decorating their home.

The Situation:

  • The son and wife decide they must sell their house to begin dealing with their debt. They are considering staying with his parents while they rent it in the interim.
  • The son has spent much effort keeping his parents out of his own family’s life but also has chosen to stay in his hometown to be near them.
  • His mother is found wandering naked in the green space between their housing development and his parents.
  • The parents have suffered a home invasion during which the wife and their housekeeper have been brutally raped and the father has been severely beaten.
  • The parents are unable to stay at their home for some time and need to stay with their son and family.

Yun tells a story of personal disappointment, family obligations, racial discrimination, parenting, cross-cultural marriage, domestic abuse, debt, and more using a violent crime to drive the characters to confront these issues.  The reader is privy to the son’s thoughts and feelings and his interpretations of the other characters’ thoughts and actions.  Yun rapidly engages our sympathy for all of these characters and we hope the situation can draw the family together while we simultaneously understand that’s not going to be simple to accomplish.  We cringe at the some of the decisions the son makes which will further complicate his life while we see they aren’t totally surprising, especially considering the horrific event with which he and his family are trying to cope and the family’s past which they have buried.

The author effectively drives the reader, as well as the family members, to confront the issues he raises.  As the novel progresses we begin to recognize that his themes are actually universal that we all must address.  That is the magic of this novel.

Atwood’s Madd Addam Trilogy

The Madd Addam Trilogy

By Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake:  Published 2003; Read 2011 and Oct 2017

The Year of the Flood:  Published 2009; Read 2011; partly re-read Oct 2017

Madd Addam:  Published 2013; Read 2013; partly re-read Oct 2017

By Margaret Atwood

Caution:  in discussing my experiences with these book there will be spoilers.

Margaret Atwood is a remarkable writer who wove an interesting tale across this trilogy.  I haven’t been able to find out if she planned to write all three books or even the second book but they work together very well.  Her interest in the impact of technology on society and the planet are prominent themes here.  She describes her work as “speculative fiction” and indicates accurately that much of the technology she includes isn’t made up—it’s already in laboratories.  The question she explores is “where will this technology lead society if we don’t think about how we’re using it or about to use it”.  This isn’t her first (or last!) set of books about the breakdown of society and the rise of secure Compounds where the “haves” live and work (here generally focused on using biological technologies in new ways for profit) and the wild, dangerous Pleeblands where the rest of humanity lives and works.    In this set of books she also explores the theme of the role of spirituality and religious practice in our lives.  As expected from Atwood, she shows the dark side of religion-for-profit.  She also explores the ability of religious practices (note she differentiates this from religious beliefs) to provide a framework for guiding people through crisis.  She also explores if the propensity for developing religious practice is an essential aspect of the human DNA and can’t be eliminated without eliminating humanness itself.

All three books use a structure a mix of action forward in the present and discussion of the history of the characters provided either through action/dialog or story-telling by a character to him/herself or another.

Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood cover similar time periods.  Each book opens in the same “present”–shortly after The Waterless Flood, a world-wide disaster of unknown origin to the reader initially.  In each book, a survivor (Jimmy in Oryx and Crake) or survivors (Toby and Ren in The Year of the Flood) tell the reader how they are dealing with their circumstances following the apocalyptic pandemic.  None of them are certain that there are any other (human) survivors.  Jimmy is fully aware of other survivors—the “Craker children” which were created by Crake and with whom he shares an interesting relationship which is developed over the course of the book. The “present action” aspect of each book progresses the characters in this post-apocalyptic time to the same ending scene, whereby Jimmy, Toby, Ren, and others come together in the same place and time.  Both books end with no clarity of what will happen next in this encounter or thereafter.

In Oryx and Crake, the primary character with whom the reader interacts is Jimmy.  As Jimmy is dealing with the hostility of his current situation, he recalls his childhood and adolescence as son of scientists employed in a Compound.  He meets Glenn while in high school in the Compound and who also is a product of a broken marriage, poor parenting, and the impacts of our current culture if it proceeds to coarsen unchecked.  That is, they spend much of their time taking drugs, getting drunk, watching pornography and playing violent video games.  They also share an interest in complex games and discover a web-based game, Extinctathon, run by MaddAddamm; Glenn takes “Crake” as his game name.   Following graduation, brilliant Glenn goes to the well-funded Watson-Crick Institute and “word-guy” Jimmy goes to the run-down Martha Graham liberal arts school.  Jimmy recalls his days at college and post-college which involve a continued amount of drugs, drinking, pornography, and sexual conquests.     I frankly had some difficulty staying with the book, hearing about Jimmy’s “interests”, his lack of desire to do anything productive with his life, and the general terrible state of society.  However, once Crake contacts Jimmy to join his well-funded project, over which he has sole control, at a company in a Compound, I became much more engaged with the book as it began to reveal what had happened.  Crake’s life work is taking a different path than intended by the for-profit company for which he works.  While the plan of his company and their competition at other Compounds is to take to a whole new level  genetic modification, gene splicing, and development of new species (like the Pigoons)—tailor made babies,  Crake is inventing a new species that will replace the current human species.  Crake also recruited Oryx, a girl Jimmy and Crake had first encountered as a child in a porn show on the web and for whom Jimmy has carried a life-long crush, to teach the Craker Children what they need to know.  My recent re-reading of this book, prompted by an upcoming book discussion of it, was much more positive than my first reading.  Now not naïve of the overall story, I could see the seeds of various aspects of the story I missed initially—when I read it without the benefit of any “blurb” about the book that would have informed me about its plot.

In The Year of the Flood, there are two primary characters that are survivors of The Flood and whose history we learn:  Toby and Ren  They were both previous inhabitants of a Pleeblands complex created by God’s Gardeners did not die during The Waterless Flood.  They now are trying to survive in the aftermath, also possibly as sole survivors on the planet. We learn that Toby’s parents were financially ruined while trying to deal with her mother’s failing health and she eventually loses both parents.  She eventually becomes an employee of a vicious man who likely will kill her soon but she is whisked away from harm by members of the God’s Gardeners, a green sect building a community fed by the gardens they build on roof-tops, and doing other things that aren’t apparent to Toby or the reader until later in the book.  Toby never becomes “a believer” but does begin to practice herb-based homeopathic remedies she learned at the Martha Graham liberal arts school, becomes an Eve in the sect, and continues Gods Gardner member Pilar’s bee keeping and mushroom growing after Pilar passes.  Ren is a pupil of Toby after she comes to the Garden with her mother, Lucerne, who has left her Compound scientist husband, and Zeb, Lucerne’s new lover.  Zeb is also clearly not “a believer” but is clearly associated in some way with Adam One, the sect’s leader.  Zeb teaches a course on survival post-the Waterless Flood that Adam One anticipates.  The flashbacks cover Toby’s time at the Garden as well as the departure of Ren, Zeb, and Toby from the Garden prior to The Waterless Flood.

An important, and in my opinion a delightful, element of The Year of the Flood are the sermons given by Adam One, and the songs the God’s Gardeners  sing after the sermons.  The sermons are given at celebration such as The Festival of Arks, Saint Euell’s Week, Mole Day, April Fish Day, and The Feast of the Serpent Wisdom.  I listened to an audio-version of the book and the songs were set to music.  Not being one to read poetry nor poetry within a novel, I might have otherwise missed Atwood’s wonderful words in these selections from the God’s Gardener Oral Hymn Book.  Nearly every day in The God’s Gardener’s oral calendar is named for a saint (such as Saint Rachel Carsen).  Adam One’s creation of a set of religious practices is fascinating and provides, to Toby’s surprise, grounding for her post The Waterless Flood.

MaddAddam begins immediately after the final scene in The Year of the Flood and  Oryx and Crake.  Atwood provides a several page summary of each of these two books so the reader has the required background to begin this part of the trilogy.  The “present action” story in this book takes the reader forward post The Waterless Flood as a group of survivors from the God’s Garden sect and the MaddAddam group wrestle with building a new community which will now interact somehow with the Craker Children they’ve met through Jimmy.  They are also working to heal the physical and mental wounds of Amanda, Ren’s friend from God’s Garden, who was abducted by the Painballers (men whose de-humanizing punishment when jailed was that of televised gladiator games), as well as protecting their community from the Painballers who still roam the area.  The story also shows us more about the Craker Children.  Atwood develops the character of one of them, Blackbeard, as he matures (very quickly per the species’ design) and describes his role in dealing with the Painballers and the pigoons, a man-made species we’ve learned about in Orxy and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

The historical part of this novel is that of Zeb and Adam One, who we learn are brothers and children of a corrupt for-profit minister who founded the PetrOleum Church and then pilfered great sums of money from its parishioners.   Zeb’s voice tells his story to Toby.  It connects together various strings of the overall history of Crake, God’s Gardeners, and MaddAddam.

Toby tells a few parts of Zeb’s story to the Crakers as she has been propelled into the role of providing them a daily story now that Jimmy is in a delirious state due to infection of a wound he received in Oryx and Crake. (Jimmy had been recruited into this role originally played by Oryx.)

As MaddAddam ends, we see that Crake’s vision has not played out as planned.   In particular, he has not eliminated the propensity of human nature to develop religious practices that are important element of humanity and provide a humane grounding for individual and community growth.  Atwood thus emphasizes her theme that unbridled technology always has unintended outcomes.

This trilogy is an interesting one.  The first two books cover essentially identical time periods but from two perspectives—a boy/man growing up in a safe, privileged, wealthy Compound; a woman living in the unsafe,  desperate Pleeblands.  The third takes up from where each leave off, telling the story of two men dealing with rejection of for-profit religion and fighting against the current progression of society and its horrid results for the planet.


Of the three books, The Year of the Flood was most engaging for me from the very start of the book. Toby is a strong, independent, but not perfect, woman who frankly admits her lack of faith and her limitations, but preserves for survival in the Pleelands and post-The Waterless Flood.   Ren’s story is interesting and provides a different view of Jimmy’s high school period as they were both at the same Compound.  These voices, combined with Adam One’s sermons and the hymns, as well as the cast of interesting supporting characters and sub-plots within the God’s Gardener story make The Year of the Flood my recommendation if only reading one of the first two books and remains my favorite among the three books.  I anticipate that the male perspectives in the other two books and their descriptions of drugs, sex, and pornography as part of their lives made these books harder to read.  However, I do recommend reading the entire series.  Atwood’s writing is tremendous—she creates a believable world that could be quite close in the future; she develops interesting characters, has interesting themes, and uses wonderful language to convey it all.

Grief Unabated

Mr. Ives’ Christmas

By Oscar Hijuelos

Published 1995

Read Oct 2017

This novel is not about a single Christmas in Mr. Ives’ life but rather many of them and the time in-between.  We learn on the very first page that Christmas time was always special for Mr. Ives. In particular, in that first small chapter we learn that being in a church at Christmas time was an extremely powerful experience for him.  In that section we also learn that he was a foundling but adopted by a man also substantially moved during Mass.  We learn in the very next section, on page 8, that Mr. Ives’ son Robert was murdered a few days before Christmas, just six months before he would have entered the Franciscan order as a young seminarian, and that for the rest of Mr. Ives’ life he has struggled with this loss. “A kid, now a man, whom Ives should have long forgiven but couldn’t, even when he tried to—Lord, that was impossible—so filled was his heart with a bitterness and confusion of spirit that had never gone away.”  So in a few short pages the stage and tone for the novel are set.

Through the course of eights sections comprised of numerous short unlinked chapters with multiple shifts forward and back in time, we learn the story of Mr. Ives:  being in a foundling home; being adopted by someone who was a foundling himself; memories from growing up; studying at the Art Students League where he meets his to-be wife Annie McGuire; their courting and having a family; working at the advertising agency and making enough money to move out of the city to the safer suburbs, which he never does; meeting and becoming lifelong friends with Luis Ramierz, a Cuban who works at the Biltmore, his wife and family; the murder of his son at age 16 by a Puerto Rican boy, aged 14;  subsequent interactions with the murderer’s family and later with him directly; middle-age and retirement life; the Christmas-time encounter with the paroled murderer of his son; and his marriage to Annie.

Through the descriptions of Mr. Ives’ life we also receive many details of life in New York City at the various stages of his life.  We learn a bit about the parallel evolution of New York City over this time with respect to the businesses and customs that fade away while Mr. Ives progresses through his life in a rather trudging way, always burdened by his sorrow following Robert’s death.

Mr. Ives’ life is divided into two parts—before and after Robert’s murder.  After the murder, Mr. Ives does many good works, has a successful career, and remains faithful to his family.  However, his grief never abates.  He and his wife drift apart as a result of his grief, but they remain committed to the marriage and family.  He continues practice of his religion and has a mystical experience which he wishes to understand but can’t.  The book ends in Church at yet another Christmas with Mr. Ives meditating about Christmases past and being once again filled with the promise of a final blessing that would be his when Jesus calls him to join him.

Author Hijuelos chooses to provide the story and some of its interpretations by telling them to us directly versus using a “show-me” approach available with dialogue.  The narrator focuses on telling us about Mr. Ives’ experiences, his thoughts, and his dreams.  There are a few time when he directly tells us about Luis Ramirez’s perspective.  Hijuelos is also direct when connecting Mr. Ives’ story to Charles Dickens and his work.  I personally was not engaged well by this style and had to work harder than I would prefer to stay with the novel to its end.

The novel is unique in that engages directly with the themes of the role of religious practice, the experience of celebrating Christmas, and the struggle of grief following loss a loved one “too early”.   In particular, Hijuelos engages with the theme of grief that never ends nor even fades for a devout person.


Non-sameness confronted

This is How It Always Is

By Laurie Frankel

Published 2017

Read Oct 2017

This book first showed up for me on a suggested summer reading list.  I looked into it and decided to consider others on the list instead.  Then the book appeared on a discussion group list for the 2017-2018 season and I was confronted with choosing to read or not participate in a book discussion group I very highly value.  So I read it.  Be advised that this essay contains “spoilers” and some personal considerations.

I didn’t want to read about a transgender three year old.  I didn’t want to read about the decisions the parents might make. I didn’t want to read about a boy who said he wanted to be a boy at age three and his parents let him. I didn’t want to confront the fact that this was a real question for some people.    I didn’t want to be preached to by an author with an agenda.

After reading most of the book I found an “Author’s Note” at the end of the book.  We learn that the author has a daughter who started as a son.  We get no further details about that fact.  She clearly delineates that the book is not her daughter’s story nor her family’s story nor her own.  The book is informed by all of that, however.  I appreciate that the note is there and I appreciate that the author seeks to tell an informed story.    My overall comment:  The author tells the fictional story of Claude/Poppy  in a generally engaging way and I was informed  and enriched by it.

At times I was annoyed that the life Mother-Physician Rosie and Father-Writer Penn (as they describe themselves) create for themselves and their family was too perfect.   Doctor mother, stay at home and writer father, big house full of rambunctiously interesting boys  who enjoy listening to dad’s fairy tales nightly for more years that seems conceivable, all in Madison WI (a pretty progressive town as I know from personal experience while a grad and post-doctoral student there).  Claude’s a articulateness at age three (which is likely attributable to his highly articulate environment and inherited IQ) enables him to proclaim at age 3 that he wants to grow up to be a girl, an idea for which he shows much commitment.  Perfect parents so tolerant of all their boys’ weirdness (one son is quite adept at creating interesting practical—but knitted—items) so they take transgender into stride –at least until he starts kindergarten.  After a few days of being forced to change into boy clothes before going to school his parents let him go as a girl.  Not surprisingly for a progressive community like Madison, the school is apparently well equipped to handle this; Claude’s classmates accept it in a heartbeat; the parents are generally supportive (“you’re so brave”).

But even Madison, Wisconsin isn’t progressive enough so they pick up the household and move to Seattle, WA which the parents expect to be sufficiently safe for Claude.  The author (almost finally) provides two sources of conflict at this point—-the eldest son is very unhappy they’ve chosen Claude’s interests over his and the really big one—they decide to keep Poppy/Claude’s situation a secret.  All is nearly perfect again—a playmate for Poppy/Claude right next door in a family that becomes a “best family friend” for the Walsh family.  Son Ben likes the change the move allows for him.  The twins are unaffected by the move.   But all is not preface after all.  Dad recognizes some serious decisions are ahead as Poppy/Claude gets closer to puberty and Mom wants to not think about it.  Son Roo flunks an English class after turning in an assignment that the teacher and parents interpret as homophobic.  Then the efforts spent on keeping their secret are unraveled as Poppy/Claude is outed in fifth grade.

The author does a generally good job of “showing versus telling” us about the very real issues confronting transgender individuals and their family.  She uses the exercises provided the parents by  a Madison “multi-degreed social-working therapist-magician”,  Father-Author’s investigations into transgender issues post-puberty, and Mother-Physician’s volunteer experience in Thailand to inform them and us about the realities this family will need to confront about Poppy/Claude.  The author also helps the reader confront our culture’s focus on gender as one of the most significant aspects of identity and what we do to ourselves and each other as a result of that focus.  She exposes some realities for the lives of people trapped in the wrong body.  She reveals there are decisions pre-puberty that could actually be responsible ones and that these decisions are life-shifting ones for both the person and the family.  Fortunately she helps you to this possible opinion while ending this story before the family must make such a decision.

Throughout the book the Author-Father has been spinning a fairly tale, first for his wife as he wooed her and then for his boys, that is both autobiographical for the family and instructional for his audience.  Fortunately he eventually calls out the family on the fairy tale aspects of their lives and tells all of them that fairy tales must address the “hard stuff” and “the rest of it” too.  Their fairy tale doesn’t answer the hard questions ahead and recognizes that their love and strength will be required and challenged as they make the decisions.

Thus the author does address the challenges the family has faced to date and tells us there are even more challenges ahead, but where this family will go next is left for us to consider.  The more important consideration the author leaves with the reader is how that reader will move forward in their views of the reality that she presents in the introductory quote from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods:

It is always “or”?

It is never “and”?


This particular quote resonated with me very strongly.  While I’ve advocated for the concept of “and” vs “or” for decades, I’ve never considered how it does or doesn’t apply to gender.  I can’t yet advocate strongly for enabling a transgender journey for a three year old but maybe it really is better if you do if you can be clear it’s a reality for that child.


I appreciate that the author raises the question of why our culture is so focused on gender classification from birth and compartmentalizing what’s acceptable for each (of two only) gender and what’s not:  dress, play, jobs.  It’s accepted that Rosie is a physician, a “boy” job until reasonably recently, but Penn “doesn’t work” according to much of their community.  Our culture has broken down many previously gender specific roles and rights—girls can be educated, drive cars, own property, do “boy” jobs, make money, remain unmarried and choose to not be a mother, even live with and marry another woman.   We don’t always appreciate the strides our culture has made in this regard until we realize that not all cultures in the world allow these “basic” rights.  Less accepted but becoming more “normal” are men who choose to be stay-at-home dads or do “girl” jobs.  In our culture, acceptable “girl” dress has included pants for some 50 or so years.  Girls can enjoy “boy “games and play “boy” sports with boys in high school.  Even the Boy Scouts soon will let girls participate fully in their most prized program of seeking the Eagle Scout title.  So it seems the social pressure to declare a gender identity isn’t forced on a trans girl very early.   But our culture does not accept boys wearing “girls” clothes to school so parents are faced with a situation that will likely stretch their parenting skills and force uncomfortable decisions at a pretty early age, especially as a large fraction of kids attend day-care and/or pre-school.


Good books often lead the reader to read more—more from that author, more about a topic, etc.  This book definitely met this bar. I was prompted to (finally) read the chapter on Transgender in Far From the Tree:  Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, an extraordinary book that covers a wide range of “non-sameness” situations including Dwarfism, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, and Crime.   While the author doesn’t delineate in this book, I became aware of the benefits of suppressing puberty for a transgender child, the decisions that transgender can or must make, and the suffering that transgender people experience throughout their lives.  I now can allow this “non-sameness” situation into my consciousness and discuss it.  Author’s mission accomplished?


I look forward to the upcoming book discussion of this novel.  I expect the capable leader to enable an extraordinary experience for all participants.