Waiting for Tomorrow

Waiting for Tomorrow

By Nathacha Appanah

Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan

Published 2015 (French); 2018 (English)

Read Dec 2018

This slim volume uses an interesting structure to tell the story of Anita, an immigrant from Maurituis  and an aspiring journalist/writer, and Adam, “a woodcutter/ cabinetmaker/ painter/ surfer/marathon runner/ only son” and architecture student from the countryside of France.  The opening section is entitled “Today” as is a chapter in each of the three parts.    In these passages, we learn a small bit of their future state—Adam is in jail, Anita is at home with daughter Laura, who is now confined to a wheelchair, and someone named Adele drowned the same day as Laura’s accident.  Through three parts Appanah tells Adam and Anita’s story—how they met, their early days falling in love in Paris, moving to Adam’s home province, Anita’s ambivalence about being a stay-at-home spouse who originally had different ambitions, their struggles to juggle two careers while raising a small child, their desires to retrieve what they once had as a young couple in love with their artistic paths still open.  We eventually meet Adele and slowly learn her story and how that story becomes engaged with Anita and Adam.  I won’t give away more here. 

Appanah uses little dialogue but rather relies on beautiful descriptions of her character’s thoughts and their encounters during their days to paint pictures of Anita and Adam and their travel through life together and as individuals. Her approach managed to show me their struggles and progress—I didn’t feel she was merely “telling” me, something that dialog often accomplishes. 

It’s apparent the paths Anita and Adam are taking are going to result in a collision of some sort.  The “Today” passages spell out the result of that collision but Appanah effectively delays disclosure of its details to very near the end.  Appaneh leaves the future ambiguous.  She also leaves the reader with the dilemma to decide how they now feel about these characters whose struggles they have witnessed and whose futures this reader hoped would be closer to the ones they were beginning to track towards.   

Bech: The Book

Bech:  A Book

By John Updike

Published 1970

Read Dec 2018

John Updike was a prolific author, writing the well-known “Rabbit” series and countless stories and essays published in multiple journals, most notably The New Yorker.  He wrote a series of short stories in the 1960’s, published in The New Yorker, about Henry Bech, a Jewish author who published a successful novel “Travel Light” and a few stories in the 1950’s and then enters a “dry” period.  Bech:  A Book is a compilation of these previously published stories plus the final story in the book as well as 2 appendices and an introduction.  The first appendix is a collection of Bech’s diaries during his travels for the state department and a couple of letters written during this period; the  second appendix is  a bibliography of Bech’s writings of the period and items written about him. The forward is supposed to be written by Bech to Updike.  Updike continued to write additional stories about Bech, his “Jewish alter-ego of sorts”  and collected these stories in two additional books published well after this book. 

In this book, the focus is on Bech’s “dry period” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’sfollowing the publication of “Travel Light”.  During this time Bech travels for the US State Department to various communist states and lectures at various remote schools and spends more time being a literary figure than an author.  Unlike “Rabbit” and John Updike himself, Bech is a confirmed bachelor for this series of stories.  

The character of Bech isn’t particularly appealing.  He enjoys having a relationship with a woman but has no interest in any form of commitment.  In this set of stories he leaves one sister to take up with another.   He has no real understanding of what the State Department wants him to accomplish on his trips to the communist countries and there is no indication he undergoes any useful debriefing.  He takes speaking engagements at remote places for the money they pay him.  He’s riding the wave of his previous literary success and is conscious that may be the end of his literary output, of which he is honestly concerned.

I don’t classify this book as “classic” as it doesn’t pass my simple criteria for “published more than 50 years ago” although it is close to meeting this criteria.  The book is witty and the language is really quite wonderful.  As it seems the book was written as entertainment for the author and for his contemporaries I’m not sure we will be reading this in another 50 years unless the reader is studying literary trends of the mid- to late -1900’s.       

The Leavers

The Leavers

By Lisa Ko

Published 2017

Read Dec 2018

The author tells her story through the voices of the two major characters via a number of flash-backs and flash-forwards. 

Deming Guo is 6 when his mother, Polly, disappears mysteriously.  His sections tells his perception of the story:  his last day with his mother; living in the Bronx with Polly, his boyfriend Leon, his sister Vivian and Vivian’s son Michael;  early days with adoptive parents Peter and Kay Wilkerson; and present time (age 22) as he struggles to gain a footing in the music scene with high school friend Roland after he has dropped out of college.  Deming is renamed Daniel Wilkerson when he is adopted and moved to a small town six hours from New York City.  He is continually conflicted about his feelings towards his American parents while missing his Chinese mother and especially by not knowing why she left.  He can’t follow, with conviction, Kay and Peter’s preferred path for him to be a college graduate although he makes some stumbling steps along that road.  Deming/Daniel is contacted by his boyhood friend, Michael, and he slowly and painfully finds a path to his mother, now in China, while wrestling with his feelings for Kay and Peter and while wandering into his future.  

Polly’s sections are written as though she is talking to Deming.  Through her voice we learn that Peilan Guo was born and raised in a small village outside Fuzhou, China.  She left her village as a teenager to work in the city of Fuzhou.  A boyfriend from the village eventually went there as well and Peilan became pregnant.  To avoid marriage she left, with financing from a money lender, and entered New York City illegally.  She lived in Chinatown in a makeshift dormitory with other Chinese immigrants seeking to pay-off their debt to a moneylender.  After the baby was born, she eventually turned to a common practice for immigrants from China and sent her son to China to be raised by his grandfather until he is was ready for school.  Deming returned to Polly in Chinatown when he was five and his grandfather died. After Polly met Leon, another undocumented Chinese, she and Deming left their dormitory in Chinatown to live in the Bronx with him, his sister, Vivian, and her son, Michael.   Polly wanted to leave NYC to go to a job in Orlando, Florida but both Leon and Deming object.  Near the end of the novel we learn from Polly what happened the day she disappeared and how she accidentally became so completely separated from her son.

 Through this engaging story Ko exposes us to some reasons why people are willing to risk much to enter the US, what they are willing to endure to stay here, and the consequences they face when things go wrong.   The picture she paints of Peter and Kay is somewhat unflattering, but it does cause the reader to consider the child involved in a foster care turned adoption situation and the special issues associated with cross-cultural adoptions.  Deming/Daniel and Polly’s stories come to some resolution by the end of the novel but their next steps remain somewhat ambiguous which was appreciated by this reader.    Ko offers much for discussion and the book should be a welcomed addition to a book discussion group. 

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian

By Han Yang

Published in Korean 2007

Translated by Deborah Smith

Published in English 2015

Read Dec 2018

I thought that my first experience with Han Yang (and also translated by Deborah Smith), Human Acts, would prepare me for Yang’s unusual choice of topics and feeling seared by her treatment of it.  Not so.

 The Vegetarian  is composed of three parts, each part from a different person’s perspective and with their voice.   In the first, Yeong-hye’s husband, self-described as always taking the “middle course in life”, describes his life with his seemingly bland wife and its disruption when she decides to become a vegetarian.  “I had a dream” is her only response to his question “why?” We are introduced to her sister and brother-in-law and to her parents who are all mystified by her behavior.  Her father strikes her and tries to force her to eat meat.  He fails and she hurts herself and ends up hospitalized.  Throughout this section, the Yeong-hye’s husband only considers his wife’s change as an inconvenience to himself.  He initially is dismissive and, after she apparently tells him about the dream that caused her to become a vegetarian, he doesn’t want to hear more from her about her dreams which are clearly becoming more consuming and difficult for her.

The second part is told by the brother-in-law about his extraordinary interactions with Yeong-hye after she has been released from a hospital and after her husband has divorced her.  This male relative also is focused on himself and his unusual desire to create a film with her in it with little regard for Yeong-hye.   His final encounter with Yeong-hye causes her to be hospitalized again and precipitates the end of his marriage.

 The third part is told by Yeong-hye’s sister who is trying to help her while she is a patient in a mental hospital and falling farther into an unreachable state.  The sister is devoted to Yeong-hye, visiting her monthly and then weekly after Yeong-hye had disappeared into the woods during an unsupervised walk.  It was “a miracle” she had been found as she was standing so still and silently while the rained poured down on her.  The sister has a dream herself in which Yeong-hye communicates she is becoming a tree.  Only the sister is self-reflective and reveals she is trying to understand her sister.  She recalls their childhood and changes in Yeong-hye which she hadn’t previously noticed.  She tries to understand her own motivations for marrying her husband, who, she considers, never really loved her and who has also been as quiet as Yeong-hye had become.  She blames herself for not understanding earlier that Yeong-hye was fully withdrawing into herself.  She tries to continue managing her business, be a (now) single mother, and stave off the consequences of insomnia she herself is experiencing now.  When Yeong-hye is admitted to the latest hospital, “the reason she gave the doctor, was this worry about a possible relapse.” Yeong-hye stops eating completely, and tells her sister she is becoming a tree and only needs water; she asks her sister “Why, is it a bad thing to die?”.   The sister realizes “Now she was able to admit to herself  what had really been going on.  She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminds her of.  She been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.  And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

Yang leaves us many questions including:  Why did Yeong-hye marry her husband?  What are Yeong-hye’s dreams about and why did they start? What role does Yeong-hye’s father play in her slow then quickening descent? Her husband?  Why are food and clothing the things Yeong-hye avoids?   Why is Yeong-hye’s husband the only one of the three narrators who isn’t impacted by her mental state/breakdown?  Why are Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law and sister so impacted by her situation and what will become of them? Will the sister be able to hang on for the sake of her child at least or will she cross the boundary Yeong-hye (and her husband?) had?  

What is Han Yang trying to tell us about mental health issues—about “the patient”, about those who love them, about those who are charged with caring for them? What is it that keeps any of us from slipping across that boundary?   I anticipate much discussion will spring from these and other questions.    Yang forces us to face questions regarding mental health and provides us no answers. Likely because there are no simple answers but avoiding the questions isn’t the answer either.




By Tara Westover

Published 2018

Read Dec 2018

The author of Educated earned her PhD shortly after her 27th birthday and approximately ten years after she first left for Brigham Young University at age 17.  That she left for BYU seems extraordinary considering she had never attended any school previously. An older brother had a few years of public school (and earned a PhD as well) and had previously graduated from BYU.  He encouraged her to apply to BYU—study for the ACT exam to and attain an adequate score on the ACT exam and BYU would accept her as home-schooled.  . 

But Tara wasn’t home-schooled beyond learning to read.  Nor did she have a birth certificate until she was nine.  Tara’s world was defined by her father, a Mormon and separatist who is convinced that the family must prepare for both the End of Days (and was amazed the world survived Y2K), and the invasion of their property and their murder by the government.  He convinced Tara that the government would come after them, as they did the separatist Weavers, because they home-schooled.  Only when Tara was in college did she learn about what really happened between the government and Weavers, as well other historical events including the Holocaust and the assignation of Martin Luther King, Jr, to cite a few.

That Tara physically survived to turn 17 is remarkable as well.  Her father ran a salvage business and operated equipment with no thought to safety for himself or his “employees” (his children including very young Tara).  A near-fatal fall of brother Shawn while at work results in a severe head injury, which may have amplified his temper to the vicious and nearly deadly level he exhibits.  The leg of severely burned brother Luke is saved by Luke being placed in a barrel of cold water.  One car accident leaves Tara’s mother with a severe brain injury and brother Tyler with damaged teeth.  A second car accident puts Tara in bed with a neck injury.  Reading these sections almost feels voyeuristic. You know everyone survives but how? 

If that’s not enough, brother Shawn is clearly verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive towards Tara, her sister, and girls that, for some reason, are attracted to him, and to his wife.  Tara’s mother witnesses some of Shawn’s attacks on Tara but does nothing to stop them.  Brother Tyler likely saves Tara’s life in one instance when he arrives home after being away; Tyler prompts her to get away by going to BYU.  Tara’s father doesn’t believe her accusations about Tyler because there is no evidence beyond her recollections and what others have told her about their experiences.  Again this feels voyeuristic and believable only because it’s not a novel.

Tara does attain an acceptance level score on the ACT exam through self-study and with some tutoring from brother Tyler.  However getting to BYU doesn’t get her away from the brutality of her family as she returns home between semester breaks and for several summers.  During these times she both enjoys Shawn’s company and is attacked by him.  She slips back into her role in the family and accepts her surroundings and corresponding conditions. 

It takes Tara 10 years to complete her studies at BYU (BA), Cambridge (as a Gates Cambrige Scholar) (MPhil), Harvard, and again at Cambrige (PhD in History), which is actually a rather short period of time compared with most students.  Simultaneously, Tara is taking a tumultuous mental journey as she faces into the reality of her family and upbringing.  She details in the book some of the drama that accompanies visits home as well as the help she’s offered by her bishop at BYU and other friends and teachers (and refuses to accept).  She acknowledges that she suffered mental breakdowns (although she doesn’t use that name) and that years of counselling was required to help her progress this mental journey.   

The author’s preface includes these statements:  “This story is NOT about Mormonism nor any other form of religious belief.  In it there are many types of people, some believers, some not; some kind, some not.  The author disputes any correlation, positive or negative between the two.”  While I appreciate her statement, the Mormon religion certainly plays a role in Tara’s story.  The only reading material she was allowed was religious writings and texts of the Mormon Church. She acknowledges this provided her a very narrow take on the world including the one true acceptable path of women in the world.  She also credits this reading material limitation with teaching her how to deeply read material she couldn’t understand. Her bishop at BYU certainly places a significant role in helping her and without him it’s likely she wouldn’t have acquired funding required to complete her BYU degree or get to Cambridge.  In her attempts to talk with fellow Mormon students about her confusing feelings, their guidance reflected their own church upbringing and was often limited to what Tara already knew she should do:  pray for guidance. 

Certainly Tara’s parents are not average Mormons.  Tara suggests her father’s behavior is consistent with bipolar depression.  Certainly the sudden change from dark depression to extreme vitality leading him to require the family to travel in hazardous conditions back from trips to Arizona, resulting in major car crashes is consistent with manic episodes being triggered by a change in sunlight.  His ability to lecture for hours and his deep preoccupation that the End of Days was near and nothing in the “outside world” (healthcare, government, schools, etc) should be trusted greatly impacted the condition of the household and may have been fueled by manic episodes.  Tara’s mother’s interpretation of what it means to be a good wife helped further split the family from the rest of society and from protecting her children from her husband’s behavior and choices. 

Fortunately Tara does escape from this upbringing.  She tells us “I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.”  Further she implies that while she now has several degrees granted by institutions of higher education, her “education” was learning to be the person she’s become which includes isolation from some of her family and coming to terms with that. 

All of us struggle to become our own person, to separate from our parents.  Some of us face the dilemma of weakened ties with our families while we’re going through that process.  Sometimes the ties stay weakened and sometimes the ties become even stronger eventually.  Tara’s story teaches us about the impact of living in a very isolated state, devoid of schoolmates, teachers, and other human contacts that provide us glimpses of realities that are different from our own and that ultimately help us on our maturation journey.   We don’t yet know how Tara’s story will fully turn out.  We can only hope that the connections she has with some of her brothers and with her mother’s family will be enough to provide the family warmth we all crave and need if the break with her parents can’t be healed.   It seems she anticipates that may be the case on both accounts. 

Locking Up Our Own

Locking Up Our Own:  Crime and Punishment in Black America

By James Forman Jr.

Published 2017

Read Nov 2018

Forman divides his thoughtful and thought-provoking book into two parts:  Origins and Consequences.  Having read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, I already was aware of at least some of the consequences of arresting and convicting persons on drug possession:  an extraordinarily large percentage of the black population behind bars, sometimes for decades, lives forever damaged for pleading to felonies to avoid being jailed and losing their children to the foster system being but two.  This book tells of similar outcomes but provides a new perspective on some of the origins of the evolution of drug laws that had these impactful and unintended consequences.

The author is a son of former SNPP (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) members, schooled in NYC and Atlanta schools, and a graduate of Brown University and Yale University Law School.  After clerking for Sandra Day O’Connor when she was on the Supreme Court, he was a public defender in Washington, DC from 1994 to 2000 and co-founded the Maya Angelou School which opened in 1997 to 20 students selected from the DC court system to provide them education, counseling, and employment opportunities.  These experiences provided him a front-row seat in a majority black city with a black mayor, a black police chief and majority black police department, black judges, black bailiffs, black court reporters, and black lawyers, including Eric Holder, the US Attorney General for DC.  He taught law at Georgetown University from 2003-2011 and is currently a Professor of Law at Yale University.  His training as a law clerk and as a scholar is apparent in this book which is well referenced and indexed.

In this book he explores a painful question:  how did a majority-black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?  The book often focuses on laws enacted in Washington, D.C. and their corresponding consequences but the author ties this together well with trends in law enforcement, drug law evolution, and their impact in other states and nationally as well.

I provide here some highlights of what I learned from this book:

  • The Home Rule Act was passed by Congress in Jan 1975 giving, for the first time, the ability of Washington, D.C. to elect a mayor with substantial executive authority and for a city council with significant legislative power. The city was approximately 70% black at the time.
  • In 1972, the National Commission on Marihuana an Drug Abuse published its findings in a report entitled “Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding” which indicated “experimental or intermittent use of this drug carries minimal risk to the public health and should not be given over-zealous attention.”
  • Jimmy Carter suggested in 1977 that Congress consider decriminalizing the use of marijuana
  • Marijuana was not decriminalized in Washington, D.C. nor in most states nor nationally at this time:
    • The heroin crisis was wreaking havoc in the black community. Crime was escalating as addicts stole to support their habits.  Safety from crime was and remains highly desired.
    • Black church leaders campaigned against decriminalization.
    • A message that marijuana was a gateway drug to harder drugs was spread and heard despite lack of evidence for this.
    • The Black community was hesitant to support legalizing additional drugs that, like alcohol, might “keep black people drugged and down”.
  • There was a huge push for increasing the fraction of black police officers in the Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.
    • Blacks were eventually hired into the police department where they found good pay and benefits but continued discrimination and limitations on their authority and where they could police.
    • The fight against discrimination within the police force was a long and hard road but eventually police were promoted into higher ranks and became police chiefs in many cities including Washington, D.D.
    • It was supposed that black police could “tell the difference between criminals and non-criminals” and apply appropriate force when policing. Moreover there was an expectation that black policemen would use their role to help the overall movement for black equality.   In reality, blacks were attracted to the pay, benefits, and stability of the job but didn’t generally join the force with a social agenda in mind.
  • Washington, D.C. did pass laws prohibiting sale or use of handguns. This did not slow the use of guns which were widely available across city boundaries. Many black-majority cities considered laws restricting guns but chose against them to prevent their population from being at a disadvantage to whites in the surrounding suburbs.
  • As crack cocaine hit the streets, crime rate soared even higher and the murder rate exploded.
  • The phenomenon of blacks hurting blacks (most black murders were committed by other blacks; blacks distributed drugs to black; etc) was not ignored. The black community saw safe streets as a primary goal.
  • Although political leaders advocated for drug treatment programs, and more beds in the existing ones, and for better health care, schools, job opportunities etc that would hopefully address some of the causes of drug use and crime associated with drug distribution as a one of the few viable “careers” available, drug laws and drug enforcement were seen as the main tools available to make streets safer.
  • Eric Holder was US Attorney General for Washington, D.C. and implemented an automobile version of New York City’s famous “stop and frisk” policy. Holder wanted to finding guns in cars.  He knew, and stated such, that there would be a very large number of innocent people stopped.  A consequence was a tremendous amount of fall-out for those who didn’t have guns with then but had small amounts of marijuana.
  • The call from politicians for longer minimum and maximum sentences was long echoed by black leadership as a primary mechanism for dealing with the issue.
  • Tougher policing and tougher sentences did not stem drug use or crime. The first black Washington, D.C. police chief resigned after the murder rate rose instead despite his efforts otherwise.
  • In 2014 a poll of whites and blacks regarding crime and criminal justice policy showed that 73% of white thought that courts in the D.C. area did not deal harshly enough with criminals and 64% of black had the same opinion. Although the racial difference is significant, it is also interesting that 64% of the black population thought criminals were not treated harshly enough although the vast majority of inmates were black.
  • The beds available for drug treatment remain insufficient. There is sometimes heard “well person x failed despite their drug treatment program stint so maybe they don’t deserve another chance because it won’t work this time either.”  We rarely hear that “jailing doesn’t work so let’s do less jailing”.
  • Marijuana was decriminalized in Washington, D.C. in 2014.
    • Crime had come down dramatically
    • The harm inflicted by marijuana criminalization was now apparent
    • Black ministers now concluded that marijuana was a gateway to the criminal justice system. Previously they voiced an opinion that marijuana was a gateway drug to harder drugs.
  • The trend to release federal prisoners convicted of non-violent drug crimes is meant to undo some of the harm inflicted during the height of the 80’s war on crime but may not be enough—it’s too easy to cross the line to “violent” crime accidentally. Also recall most prisoners are in local and state jails, not federal ones.


Not surprisingly the author doesn’t have any known solutions to offer.  He does warn us not to be complacent thinking that we are in the right having a “no tolerance” for those who have committed violent offenses, since violent offenses include any crime committed with any weapon whether it’s used or not.  It’s important to figure out how to help people get past their previous unlawful acts and allow them lives beyond those acts.  This isn’t going to be easy but is worth figuring out.   He challenges us to believe that everybody does deserve a second chance and help in making that chance happen.  We can play a role in this on many levels.  Voting for returning voting rights to felons who have completed their sentence is a meaningful example.  Giving someone committed of a felon a job after they have completed their sentence is another extremely meaningful example.  Do we need to call anyone convicted of a felony a “felon”?  Can we call them a person who has been convicted of a felony instead?  The author tells of a young woman who lost her job simply because she was arrested while on probation even though she was not prosecuted—a fallout victim of Holder’s stop and search policy.  Think about whether it “just makes sense” to not hire felons, to allow them to vote, etc etc.  These “sensible” things aren’t really so sensible-if we believe people shouldn’t be condemned as less than human for life for acts committed in their past for which they have served out their penalty.   We can all play a role in being part of a solution if we are willing to think and have an opinion we form ourselves thoughtfully and not just because someone else has proposed it “just makes sense”….


I strongly recommend this book.  Although it is clear that the author was personally impacted by the stories of his clients and the students his school served, Forman’s language is even-handed and non-judgmental, and his statements are backed up by references from credible, often scholarly, resources.  The notes section forms about 1/3 of the total length of the book.  This book has added to my understanding of the difficult challenges facing the black population in the US, and therefore the entirety of the US, and did provide me a sense that I can be part of the solution if I choose.