THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko: A Review of an exceptional immigrant story

Lisa Ko’s 2017 novel, winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction awarded by Barbara Kingsolver (for a novel that addresses issues of social justice) is an excellent novel. It is the story of Deming Guo, aka Daniel Wilkinson. The title indicates that everyone in his life leaves, or he leaves other people.  It is an intricate story of “love and loyalty.”

As the story begins, we find Deming with his immigrant mother, Polly, who works in a nail salon struggling to survive in The Bronx. One day Polly does not come home from work, and her boyfriend and his sister, Vivian, the mother’s roommates are not sure what  to do with the ten year old.  Deming, of course, wonders why his mother left him, then soon, why Vivian left him with social services who allowed the Wilkinsons, a middle-aged, white couple who are professors in upstate New York to adopt him.

This is not just an immigrant story, but a mystery that has many surprises along the reader’s journey through the novel. The book deals with expectations: parental expectations ; middle-class expectations, from both biological and adoptive parents; and  Deming’s own expectations from life.  Because of the last, he (Daniel) becomes a slacker, somewhat directionless and lacking purpose. The writer’s point of view alternates between Deming’s and Polly’s, spinning out extraordinary  lives of both main characters. There are happy moments and sad ones as well.  The setting spans the globe, presenting “one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read.” (Laila Lalami, author).  I agree.

THE FIRE BY NIGHT: A REVIEW OF A WWII NOVEL

Teresa Messineo’s debut novel, The Fire By Night, is a “once in a lifetime story of war, love, loss, and the enduring grace of the human spirit” (Lauren Willig, NY Times bestselling author). It chronicles the war experiences of Jo McMahon working in field hospitals at and sometimes behind the front in occupied France and Kay Elliott, an army nurse as well, held captive in a squalid POW camp in Manila.  The author spent seven years researching her setting and topic, often interviewing military survivors of WWII, who were eager to have their stories told–accurately.

The book is both historically and medically accurate, and appeals to the emotions of the reader without becoming maudlin or “sappy.” The author deals with the women’s “place” and lack of status in the war, as well as the raw emotion brought out by their experiences, some of them told in rather graphic and gory detail.

Both women find out that life goes on after war, loss, emotional trauma, and discrimination and misunderstanding by those who “mean well.” It is a fast read that kept this reader turning pages and up late to “see how it all comes out.”

LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren: A Review

The Amazon review that made me want to read this 2016 memoir read like this, “I’m a mathematician and don’t always appreciate good writing, but this [writing] was amazing!” And, indeed, it is, both in the sensitive, poetic descriptions of the life of trees, plants and other botanical organisms and in the narrative of the story. The relationship between Hope and her more-than-assistant, Bill, was one that had me “rooting for them” to get together, but Alas, it was not to be.

Many themes are explored in this book, including struggles with mental illness, women of science, botany, friendship, motherhood, and many more–enough to keep the reader turning the pages to see what is next. It is funny in places, downright scary in other places, and touching and warm in between.

This book makes scientific facts fascinating!