Review: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris & Jeff Warren

Review: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris & Jeff Warren

I received a digital ARC of this book from Spiegel & Grau (part of Random House) on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Spiegel & Grau for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

Stumbling Upon Meditation
Admittedly, in February when I received this book, I wasn’t searching for a book on meditation—I was scrolling through available books on NetGalley and 10% Happier caught my eye. I was going to be starting yoga teacher training shortly and anything that might give me ideas for theming a class or making a mind-body connection sounded appealing. I was also at a point in my own yoga practice where meditation sounded like a next step—the power yoga I do a CorePower is constantly pushing me physically; meditation would be the mental push that came next.

Set Up and Structure
Strictly speaking, 10% Happier isn’t really a How-To Book on meditation, but rather, it’s an engaging mash-up of memoir of a meditation road-trip with nonfiction explanations of how to address common roadblocks to meditation and demystifying the practice. Interspersed within this narrative are meditation vignettes that, as the book progressed, were surprisingly well-matched for the text. For example, when addressing the common stumbling block of not having time to really sit and meditate, one of the ways Harris and Warren come at this is by introducing the idea of moving meditations—meditations on the sense and feel of every-day activities, bringing mindfulness to the feel of a toothbrush on gums or water hitting skin in the shower. There then appears a meditation vignette on exactly this practice. For those feeling like they just need rest, not something in their head, there are practices for restful meditation and self-compassion meditation.

As I read, admittedly I skimmed the vignettes. Most of the time while reading, I wasn’t in a place—physically or mentally—to stop, drop, and meditate when a vignette came up. I also don’t know that I understand how it’s possible to meditate while simultaneously reading something. For me the vignettes were less guides to meditate, than an introduction to how that particular practice or focus would work in a meditation so I was familiar when I came back to it.

Book + App
Harris and Warren realize that reading and meditating probably doesn’t go hand-in-hand for many people and the idea of memorizing the “rules” of a meditation ahead of time so I can do it “right” later probably isn’t the point. There’s a 10% Happier app where all of the guided meditations that appear in the book can be found—however, there is a cost here. This app then begs the question of why the book is necessary. If you’re sold on meditation and just want samples to guide you through meditations of different kinds and lengths, you can probably skip the book and go to the app. The app, it should be noted, does cost $100 a year ($8.33 a month) and comes with a seven-day free trial. The book is obviously significantly cheaper, but without the benefit of the guided audio. (Full Disclosure: I’m not at a place where I’m pulling that $100 trigger; however, there are legitimate studies that show that imposing a “cost” on something can make it more likely that we use it—we’ve invested $100 into the practice and so we’re more likely to practice than if it were totally free. So, I’m not buying it today, but I’m not ruling it out.)

Heavy on the Normal, Light on the Woo-Woo
If, like me, you think meditation sounds like a good thing you should try tomorrow (and tomorrow and tomorrow), this is a book you may want to pick up. I appreciated the background and the “why” of each of the meditation options. 10% Happier isn’t just about selling you the benefits of meditation (several time Harris insists this is not the purpose of the book, though of course they come up) but rather about bringing meditation down to something that seems less hard and never-achievable, and more like something anyone can do at any time. Harris and Warren, while being a little woo-woo (particularly Warren, not really Harris), made meditation seem like a totally normal thing that, well, normal people do.

Indeed, Harris has rather interesting “cred” for an author of a book on meditation. As he makes clear on literally the first page, he once suffered a debilitating panic attack live on ABC’s Good Morning America during a time period when he was engaging in some “recreational” stimulating activities…namely cocaine and E to combat an undiagnosed mild depression. (Apparently this video is relatively easy to find on YouTube but I refrained because it seemed cruel to add to the view counts and, well, I actually have no desire to watch someone have a mental health emergency that people consider “entertainment.”) Meditation is how he restores his equilibrium now—both a cheaper and healthier practice than his previous recreational activities. (It is important to note that Harris also takes a respectful stance towards the benefits of meditation for mental health. He makes it clear that meditation can help depression and anxiety but never presents it as a cure for either—a line I think is critical to maintain.)

Harris is also a terrible poster-child for holier-than-thou, which normalized the practice. One of the takeaways of this book is that if Harris—a news anchor with a high stress job, perfectionist tendencies, and some anger issues—can keep meditating, then I certainly can. Throughout the text, Harris and Warren (who has diagnosed ADD) both talk about where they still have room to grow in their practices, where they still “mess up” or get stuck. 10% Happier isn’t a book about people who’ve already arrived, but rather a book of people somewhere in the middle of their journeys, turning around to offer a hand to the people just starting.

Recommended
If you’ve been vaguely interested in meditation but not sure where to start or if it can possibly fit into your lifestyle, 10% Happier is definitely a book worth picking up. The value in it for me was less the meditations (though I will come back to them), but rather the explanations of what meditation looks like in the real world and how accessible it truly is for different people with different capacities at different times. Right now, my boss is taking her first vacation where she is unreachable in about twenty years (not exaggerating). I’m stepping up to fill her shoes and it’s already feeling overwhelming after two days. I do not have the capacity to add a twenty-minute practice to my day because to do so would be sacrificing time when others need me at work, when my partner needs the 45 minutes of attention I can afford to give him right now, or the sleep I desperately need to keep this going for three weeks until my boss is back. And yet, Harris and Warren have a meditation for that. At a time when I think I can “afford” it least from my time, yet need it most, 10% Happier has introduced me to ways that this practice can work for me.

Notes
Published: December 26, 2017 by Spiegel & Grau (part of @RandomHouse)
Author: Dan Harris & Jeff Warren
Date read: July 7, 218
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Spring 2018 Wrap-Up

Spring 2018 Wrap-Up

I didn’t do a wrap up for May since there weren’t many books I didn’t want to write about as their own posts or theme posts (look for a post on writing about mental illness coming soon-ish).   In May, I finished seven books and two audiobooks for a total of 2,143 pages; 23 hours and 28 minutes of books. June was also seven books, one very long audiobook (Children of Blood and Bone) for 2, 354 pages; 17 hours and 54 minutes. For the year, that brings us to 15, 841 pages for the year; 187 hours, 31 minutes. You know, in case you were wondering.

And without further ado, here are some mini-reviews of some of the books I enjoyed in June that, oddly enough, are all partially or totally set in California.  Accidental theme?

The Ensemble
“What’s inner harmony?” Brit asked. Daniel laughed, but she continued, “No, really. How can you harmonize with yourself?”

Daniel stopped laughing abruptly. He folded his hands on the table. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I contain many pitches. It’s about moving from polyphony to harmony. People are so much music. People don’t recognize that enough.”

The Ensemble is one of those books that getting a lot of hype—more than one book subscription chose it this summer, Girls Night In chose it for their July read, and Modern Mrs. Darcy chose it as one of her Summer Reading Guide books. This is a book that, for once, mostly holds up to that hype. The Ensemble follows leader Jana, prodigy Henry, scrappy Daniel, and quiet Brit—the Van Ness Quartet—over the span of almost twenty years making music together.

If you’ve read much around here, you’ll know that I talk quite a bit about balance—books that hit the right note (pun intended!) of lightness of story with depth of substance. The drama—driven by external events and internal conflict—kept the book moving at a comfortable clip so I never felt bored while reading. At the same time, The Ensemble was highly character driven—Gabel drew you into the world of these four characters—they made you care, they made you a little mad, a little crazy with their choices. All four of them were also relatable—despite the fact that I’ve never been in the professional music world, I could see something in each of them that I identified with (except maybe Henry. No one has ever accused me of being a prodigy at anything). The quartet’s world was also accessible—you hear about “world building” in the context of fantasy books but Gabel had to do a fair bit of that here. The majority of her readers are probably not within the world of high-stakes career musicianship and it would have been easy to make the book insider-ish. I never felt like I didn’t understand what was happening, nor did I feel like Gabel was speaking down to me. There were no awkward asides, no characters explaining things in a way that felt unnatural. Gabel masterfully opened this world as she revealed her characters. The Ensemble is a definitely a worthwhile summer read.

Far From The Tree
Far From The Tree is the story of three siblings, separated at birth—Grace and Maya were both relinquished at their births while Joaquin was removed from their mother’s care around age 1. None of them knew about each other before now. While Grace and Maya seem to have had it “easy” by being adopted, you quickly realize that families are complicated, whether formed by choice or blood. Joaquin, having been in foster care for almost seventeen years, seems to finally have it good and yet, people can always disappoint you. As the three come together and begin to search for their birth mom, the search will turn up more than any of them ever expected.

The more YA I read as an adult, the more I wish YA had been like this twenty years ago (yes, I am that old), or that I had known where the books like this were when I was the target audience of the YA author. Far From The Tree tackles tricky subjects—teen pregnancy, adoption, foster care—with grace and depth while using situations and language that are appropriate for a high school audience.   Even the children’s birth mother is shown grace as the children discover who she is and how she came to make the choices she made. As a final note, Benway also made an effort to include diverse characters—Maya is a lesbian while Joaquin is mixed-race. I loved these characters, I appreciated the depth Benway brought to the adoption conversation, and I never felt like I was being preached at or that Benway was taking the easy way out on difficult topics.   Studies show that reading books makes readers more empathetic—with books like Far From The Tree I can see how that is the case.   This is a book I highly recommend for both adults and young adults alike.

Goodbye, Vitamin
Goodbye, Vitamin is thirty-year old Ruth’s chronicle of an unexpected year at home following the end of her engagement and her father’s diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s. As a child, Ruth’s father kept a small diary of funny things she said and did, little milestones. Ruth’s documenting of this year at home is the reverse—while she does write much about her own life (particularly at the beginning during the set up), as she settles into life in her parents’ house again, she chronicles her father’s life. His moments of brilliance even as the disease progresses. As the year goes by and Ruth finds her place again with a family she had lost connection to, Ruth writes less until the last chapters have only a few entries per month. Goodbye, Vitamin is poignant and short—I actually felt it was a little too short. I think Khong’s point was that Ruth was reforming her connections to her family and to what life could be as she wrote—as Ruth actually engaged with them, she spent less time writing. What it felt like was that Khong ran out of steam and the book petered out. This really was my only criticism. Ruth won’t be everyone’s favorite protagonist—in many ways she has the sense of life happening to her rather than having agency in her choices as the book opens (I mean this more about her job and place in life, and not in her fiancé’s being a total ass). I wasn’t wild about her as the book began, but I stuck with it and she leveled out for me and I grew to care about her a few “months” (chapters) into the book and, by the end, wanted more of her.

Well that’s it, friends.  Did you read anything good in May or June? I’d love to hear your spring recommendations, dear readers.

Header picture credit: Annie Spratt

Review: A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Review: A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Note: I drafted this post before the decision issued yesterday in Trump v. Hawaii upholding the Muslim ban.  I enjoyed A Place For Us and felt it was relevant when I finished it almost a month ago–today it feels even more relevant.  No matter what the president and the courts have said, Muslims have a place in this country.  This is our generation’s Korematsu and I hope that we feel shame over it sooner rather than later.  If you are of the Muslim faith or from an immigrant family and have stumbled upon this blog, hear me say clearly that you are wanted here.  <3

I received a digital ARC of this book from SJP for Hogarth on NetGalley. I’m grateful to SJP for Hogarth for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

And it is in these moments that the fabric of my life reveals itself to be an illusion: thinking that I am free, we all are, that we could grow around your loss like a tree that bends around a barrier or wound. That I do not need to see you again. That the reality of our life as it is now is the best that we could have done and the best we could have hoped for.

Synopsis
Set on the day of an oldest sister’s wedding, A Place For Us, introduces the reader to a Muslim Indian-American family whose estranged youngest son has returned for the celebration. Though A Place For Us, Mirza explores themes of one’s place within a family, a family’s place within a community, and a Muslim and Indian community’s place within 21st Century American society. Told in shifting narratives through the decades leading to the wedding, A Place For Us shines as a deeply relevant, debut novel.

Structure
A Place for Us bounces around in time, which will drive some readers a little crazy, though Mirza writes within this structure as well as it can be done. The modern starting point is older sister Hadia’s wedding, for which Amar has come home for the first time in years. We’re told he’s been gone; from there the book flashes back in time to show us why and what it took for him to come home today.   There is no date headers/signpost when the timeline changes—the narrative simply shifts and you determine through what people are talking about how many years forward or backward you are within the children’s lives. This could be really confusing, but in Mirza’s hands, it’s as clean and clear as it can be. She has major events in the children’s lives as signposts that come up fairly quickly. These events and/or comments about the children’s ages or school grade are peppered in early within new sections so you can quickly place it within the narrative.

This has the effect of making the narrative read like a puzzle—you can pretty clearly understand the piece in your own hand and with a little study, you can see where it goes. Each piece makes you form one idea as you read and that idea is confirmed or changed when another character’s point of view and experience appear several vignettes later.

The other thing that helps this structure be less jarring is that the book is told in third person by an omniscient narrator so you can tell when the perspective shifts to another character and who that person is. Several perspectives and times appear within most chapters so when Mirza shifts time and person, there is a paragraph break and symbol that indicates a change so you know you need to be looking for a different time and character. I enjoy when authors use non-linear timelines; just be warned this structure (in addition to the themes and content) make this book one that does require a little more energy and focus to really dig into.

Character Development
The bouncing in time reveals different characters to varying extents. The early chapters are heavy on Hadia and Layla, the three children’s mother. The center picks up more with Amar and the ending is almost entirely Rafiq, the father.

At its heart, A Place For Us is about Amar’s place within the family as much as it is about the place of an Indian Muslim family in modern American society.   It is interesting then that Hadia and Layla are the ones to introduce us to Amar and Rafiq—these two women largely form our opinions of the boy and his father before either of them is allowed to influence our feelings of them much.

Hadia comes across in her own vignettes and others as mostly likeable. She isn’t perfect—she makes (but recognizes) her mistakes. She is perhaps the only character whose presentation didn’t change how I felt about her through the book. Layla’s early chapters make her seem sympathetic; yet later chapters made me reform my opinion. In her efforts to do the best for her children, she does things that hurt them, never really realizing her role in creating the current system of estrangement we have now. You don’t see her mistakes until after you’ve met and been hearing from her for a while, though, so the shift felt like a betrayal—not on the part of Mirza whose writing here is masterful, but by Layla. I trusted her and my trust was broken.

The contrast to this is Rafiq—we don’t meet him on his own terms until the end, when our opinions of him are fully formed by what others have said about him. This gave me the opposite experience of Layla—I hated him, until he had a chance to speak for himself. He is still a deeply flawed man whose choices contributed to where we find our characters today; however, Mirza made me care about him in the end. To go from where we started to wanting the best for him at the end took one hell of a writer and I can’t wait to see where Mirza writes next.

The only odd choice Mirza made in structuring her book and introducing her characters this way is that it feels we never really meet Huda, the middle child. She is present only in relation to the other children and never the focus of a vignette. She was left only partially formed for me. Other reviewers have noted this as well. She serves a purpose—she was the partner to Hadia, so Amar felt more left out as the third-wheel-child. She also became the most devout, a foil to Hadia’s middle-ish (still religious) path and Amar’s opposite. To an extent then, leaving her out isn’t an option since she has these purposes in the story. But if she is going to be included, it feels like she deserved (and didn’t get) the same characterization as the others.

Finally, Amar. It is hard to talk about Amar and his characterization without giving away plot points that are best left discovered as they come up. I will say that Mirza’s characterization of him made me love him deeply despite his flaws. I could see where Amar was coming from, see how he was (in many ways) a victim of well-intentioned but harmful actions by others, and yet, Amar wasn’t ever fully painted as a victim. He made bad choices for which I felt he was still responsible, but I could see why he made those choices. I loved him most.

Identity
This structure and presentation of characters raised questions of identity that have rarely plagued me as a white woman. I have almost never felt out of place because of my race and have certainly never felt out of place within larger society.

Yet, for this family, there seems to be an unanswerable question about where they belong. September 11th occurs when the children are older—somewhere around middle and high school. They’ve had a relatively peaceful childhood living in an area that has a large Indian Muslim population within a larger white population, so the children have friends in both groups. Within the larger population, the events of September 11th uncover the latent racism of those around them. Amar thought he knew his a place amongst his classmates, only to discover he was wrong. On a micro-level, the family chafes at times with their place with the hierarchical Indian Muslim community. On the individual level, there is the question of how Amar fits within the family—a question everyone tries to pretend isn’t even a question until his piece is gone.

The presentation of the characters and narrative structure also raised questions about the way our identity (as we are perceived by others) is formed. On the one hand, we meet Layla largely through her own explanation of her actions and discover later there is more to the story as others talk about her. Conversely, I formed a (negative) opinion of Rafiq without ever really hearing from him at all in the entire first three-quarters of the book. But then, when I did meet him and could see how the questions of identity colored where he was coming from in in his parenting of Amar and his siblings.

Ending (Very, very mild spoiler)
I suspect that this ending may affect how some readers feel about this book. There’s ambiguous endings and then there’s A Place For Us somewhere a few miles beyond that.

I desperately wanted there to be more to this book. I wanted to keep flipping, to know what happened. For there to be a chance at absolution. And yet, if A Place For Us is to feel authentic, it is hard to imagine a scenario where everything I wished and hoped for these characters could come true. It is a kindness then, that I don’t know. There is a still a chance that all of the members of this family can reconcile. That there can be a place in this world for them together as Indian Muslims and that there can be a place for each of them individually within the family. If the book does not say otherwise, there is hope.

Notes
Published: June 12, 2018 by SJP (@sarahjessicaparker) for Hogarth (@hogarthbooks)
Author: Fatima Farheen Mirza (@ffmirza)
Date read: June 2, 2018
Rating: 4 1/2 stars

Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

I received a digital ARC of this book from Grove Press on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Grove Press for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

You eliminate the parts of your life that others find strange—maybe that’s what everyone means when they say they want to “cure” me. These past two weeks I’d been asked fourteen times why I wasn’t married. And twelve times why I was still working part-time. So for now I’d decide what to eliminate from my life according to what I was asked about most often I thought. Deep down I wanted some kind of change. Any change, whether good or bad, would be better than the state of impasse I was in now.

Synopsis
Keiko Furukura has been working at the same convenience store since she was eighteen. While this was fine when she was just starting out, she’s thirty-six now, unmarried and childless. Keiko is content among the contents in the aisles of her store; however, her family and friends are worried, and their worry is starting to upset the careful order of Keiko’s days. To assuage everyone’s worries and restore her own equilibrium, Keiko resolves to make the changes that will lesson their scrutiny and return her to her quiet life—except that along the way, Keiko discovers that the life she wants and the life others want for her may not be reconcilable.

Setting
As you can guess from the title, much of the action takes place in a Tokyo convenience store where Keiko has spent over half her life as a part-time employee. Though translated, the book is easy to read; the only nuance necessary for an American audience to really appreciate the story is to understand the place of convenience stores in Japanese culture. A Japanese convenience store is not simply a 7/11 offering old hot dogs and questionable coffee. Japanese konbini are safe, brightly-lit, spaces that also sell fresh food you would actually want to eat. Japanese culture in general highly values excellent customer service; accordingly, konbini employee behavior is pretty tightly prescribed. This blog includes pictures of a poster instructing konbini employees on how to appear and interact with customers. This one has an excellent summary on things that set konbini apart from their American cousins.

Character Study
With that introduction, Convenience Store Woman is a character study of Keiko set largely within the walls of her konbini. The early parts of the book have flashes of Keiko’s early life—where she finds a dead bird on the playground surrounded by mourning children and responds by taking it to her mother because her father enjoys eating birds (presumably a different kind of bird but I’m not actually sure)—Keiko believes she is contributing something good while her tiny compatriots and their parents find her to be a monster for not mourning the tiny death in the park. Similarly, Keiko ends a fight in first grade by hitting a boy over the head with a shovel—everyone was yelling to stop the fight and this was the most expedient way to do so.

Having learned that her instincts and interpretation of social cues are apparently wired differently from those around her, Keiko turned inward. She is an expert observer and mimic, designing the details of her life—her clothing, her speech patterns, her topics of conversation—around those she sees and hears from her fellow coworkers. Keiko’s life is ordered and neat, she knows what to do and what to expect at any given point in her day-to-day life. Her only moments of discomfort occur when others around her question why she is still working at the konbini and why she has never had a boyfriend.

Though it is not stated anywhere in the book or in any interviews with the author, Keiko’s presentation strongly reminded me of someone on the autism spectrum. She thrives on order and being given clear expectations and instructions for her speech and behavior. She is extremely rational—the moment with the shovel as a child is less an example of how Keiko might be prone to violence (she’s not) and more an example of how she isn’t bound by social convention in coming to the most expedient resolution to the problem everyone identified.

Ultimately, whether she is or isn’t on the spectrum, isn’t the point here—Keiko is who she is, labels or no. Keiko’s different wiring is what makes Convenience Store Woman such a fascinating character study. She is not someone who resists convention for the sake of being different—indeed, she can embrace conventions in speech and dress when to do so makes sense in her life and abhors standing out. That this is decidedly not Keiko is highlighted by the appearance of another character, Shiraha—a character who drove me so nuts I almost stopped reading.

Turns Out Entitled Men Are Everywhere
Shiraha is entitled—simultaneously trying every way to not work while complaining about how we’re all going back to the stone-age and he’s so put upon. We should apparently pay him just to grace us with his presence and bad mood. He resists doing what he’s told and fitting in seemingly for the sake of resisting. He is everything bad in the stereotypical white man, except he’s Japanese in Japan. I suppose it means they’re everywhere.

But seriously, his character speaks in sweeping, offensive paragraphs that nearly turned me off the book. I can see his use as a foil to Keiko and appreciate that a male was used to further a female’s character development but this “depressing Paleolithic nightmare man” is far less charming and fun to read than your usual manic pixie dream girl. His character was designed to be this over the top; I just have an internal limit of misogyny I can read, even when it serves a purpose in a work of fiction. Murata hit it with Shiraha.

Structure
While Convenience Store Woman is narrative fiction, very little actually happens (and nothing dramatic). Instead the interactions and events serve to introduce another layer of Keiko to the reader and, in some ways, Keiko to herself. In trying to change her life, Keiko comes to appreciate what it is she can and can’t live with for the sake of others.

This narrative structure has the effect of making Convenience Store Woman a slower read. The mercy here is that the book is remarkably short—it’s 176 pages and I moved through it fast enough on my kindle that the progress bar made me double-check to make sure I’d received a full book and not a sample. This length is just right for the book—because so little happens, much longer would have felt like the book dragged. Instead, I felt like I got to know Keiko just the right amount for both of us and then was able to close the book and move on.

Notes
Published: June 12, 2018 by Grove Press (@groveatlantic)
Author: Sayaka Murata (Ginny Tapley Takemori, Translator)
Date read: June 10, 2018
Rating: 3 ½ stars

Review: Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard

Review: Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard

I received a digital ARC of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

Visible Empire: Epigraphs

Atlanta has suffered her greatest tragedy and loss.
-Mayor Ivan Allen

Many people have been asking, “Well what are you going to do?” And since we know that the man is tracking us down day by day to try and find out what we are going to do, so he’ll have some excuse to put us behind his bars, we call on our God. He gets rid of one hundred twenty of them in one whop…and we hope that every day another plane falls out of the sky.
-Malcom X at the Ronald Stokes Protest in L.A.

Foundation/Synopsis
The foundation of Visible Empire is the 1962 fatal crash of an Air France jet transporting 121 of Atlanta’s art patrons—the wealthy, white, upper-crust of the city. From there, Pittard builds her tale of those left behind—the grieving remainder of the muckety-mucks, the white serving class, and the subjugated black population of the city. From here we meet Roger, grieving the loss of his mistress and parents-in-law; Lily, reeling from the double-yet-different-losses of her parents and Roger; Piedmont, an African-American youth pulled into Robert and Lily’s orbits at a time of upheaval in his own life; and Stacy, a white serving class woman who sees an opportunity and takes it.

Invisible and Visible Empires
The title Visible Empire is actually a nod to the full name of the Ku Klux Klan—the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. If the Invisible Empire of the KKK is the shadowy, hooded phantoms that move at night, the overt racism of 1962 Atlanta is the Visible Empire. It is the status quo of wealth and privilege that is ignored until tragedy literally falls from the sky. Black men and women were beaten and died every day in the South in the 1960s and no one batted an eye. Over one hundred white people from Atlanta die, and suddenly the world is watching.

Pittard makes her intentions clear in the quotes she chooses for her Epigraph, including the two quotes I started this review with. The loss is seen as monumental to the city—The New York Times runs articles on this great loss and its impact to the city. In contrast at the time, The New York Times hadn’t once run an article on the massive loss of black life in the city in the preceding years. While most of us see the KKK as extremist and wrong, far fewer examine the status quo of white privilege that sees the loss of one hundred white lives as catastrophic and the poisoning of hundreds of black lives in Flint, Michigan as old news. Visible Empire was set in 1962 but in many regards could be set today.

Characters
The story is presented through a series of alternating character vignettes. Robert is a journalist, embroiled in an affair with a younger colleague who was on the doomed flight. Lily is Robert’s wife, pregnant with her and Robert’s first child, sent reeling at the loss of her parents and her abandonment by Robert. Intersecting with their story is that of Piedmont, an eighteen year-old black youth on the precipice of identity—faced with the choice of whether he will accept the status quo, keep his head down, and stay safe or whether he will stand and fight, link arms with other black men and women in the south saying that they have had enough. Finally there is Stacy, a character whose story is only tangentially connected to the Robert-Lily-Piedmont narrative. Stacy has grown tired of her hardscrabble life, believes she deserves more, and takes an opportunity to impersonate one of the left-behind upper class Atlantians.

Robert
Robert’s character is interesting—when I sat down to describe him, I can only come up with negative descriptors—he’s the epitome of white privilege, married into money, selfish, and willing to throw away everything—and yet—of course!—because he’s white, his bad choice roosters don’t really come home to roost. I should hate him. At times I did. But damn it, Pittard make me want the best for him. There’s something about him that made me want him to stop throwing everything he had away, to stop making bad choices, and to set things right.

Lily
Much like her name, Lily is the pure white character in the book. She’s the virtuous, wronged woman, the woman in need of rescue. While she’s one of the muckety-muck class, her tragedy makes her sympathetic and her treatment of Piedmont shows the reader that she’s not really like one of them. Lily is perhaps the most trope-y of the characters, acting her part as the damsel in distress. When Robert leaves, Lily starts to learn to stand on her own. Though Piedmont quickly enters her life and she gets another man she can lean on. I’m torn on whether I think she ultimately learned to stand on her own or just switched out her men. She’s likeable and it’s clear Pittard made an effort to make her seem independent. I’m just not entirely sure it worked. Where Piedmont became a vehicle to present Lily to the reader, in many ways Lily served that role for Robert. I had no problems with Lily as I was reading and was sympathetic to her and what she was going through; yet the longer I sit with the book, I’m not sure I really got to know her.

Piedmont
Pittard is a white author and I’m a white reader so my ability to analyze the characterization of Piedmont, the only black main character, is limited. With that said, of all the characters, Piedmont seemed the most well-rounded to me and was my favorite character. Where Roger’s wrestling with who he is as a man reeks of privilege and self-pity, Piedmont’s exploration of what it means to be a black man coming of age in 1962 Atlanta seemed real and drew me in. The choices he makes are understandable, though often unwise (so, fairly typical of an eighteen year-old). And yet, as a reader you still root for him. When he stands on his own or interacts with Roger, he is at his strongest. When he interacts with Lily, he faded a bit for me—partially as a consequence of Pittard using his interactions with Lily to provide opportunities for growth for her. I want the best for him and though I recognize he is simply a fictional character, there’s a part of me that hopes wherever he is, he turned out ok.

Stacy
Distinct from the Lily-Robert-Piedmont story line is that of Stacy/Anastasia. I have to admit that I hated her character, though this seems intentional on the part of Pittard. Stacy has a sympathetic enough backstory to give her a likeable dimension, though the choices she makes reveal fairly quickly that her brother’s accusation of her narcissism is accurate. Just when I was at the point of thoroughly hating her, there’s an unexpected twist in her story. She goes from being the con artist to the mark. This created a conundrum for me—I didn’t like her as a character, I felt sorry for her victim; but then these roles shifted. Stacy’s entire storyline, while intersecting with Lily-Robert-Piedmont enough that it didn’t feel entirely disparate, stood alone. It raised questions of who we consider victims and who we consider perpetrators. It introduced a “poor white” element to the story that was otherwise missing within the exploration of rich Atlanta’s relationship with its black population.

My major issue with Stacy’s storyline is the treatment of the two LGBTQ characters who appear in Stacy’s chapters. We are given enough background to see how they came to be the way they are (which isn’t to say how they came to be gay, but how they came to be the kind of people who make the kind of choices they make). Neither is portrayed particularly kindly and both are villains in their own rights—this negative portrayal felt stereotypical to me. An LGBTQ character can absolutely be a villain in your book; however, if you’re going to have negative gay characters, it feels like you should damn well include at least one virtuous one. To Pittard’s credit, everyone in this book is behaving badly except Piedmont and arguably Lily so it’s not like the only evil characters are gay; yet this treatment still felt unbalanced.

Recommended
Ultimately, I do think the point Visible Empire attempts to make is an important one.   The book is well-written and it moves at a good pace—my dislike of Stacy made her chapters feel long at times, though this had more to do with my feelings for the character than it did with missteps in Pittard’s writing. Pittard is obviously skilled at making you feel strongly about her characters—I rooted for Robert while being exasperated with him and thinking he did not deserve my affection. I felt sorry for Stacy at the same time I would never want to actually meet her in real life. Visible Empire isn’t going to make my top ten list for the year but if you are interested in historical fiction and/or books that explore racial themes that still apply, I do think it is worth your time. It is one I would recommend for someone looking for a book that reads a bit lighter in writing style but packs a message and for book clubs, since I think this book will draw a diversity of opinions.

Notes
Published: June 5, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (@hmhbooks)
Author: Hannah Pittard (@hannahpittard)
Date read: May 22, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Review: The Secret Token by Andrew Lawler

Review: The Secret Token by Andrew Lawler

I received a digital ARC of this book from Doubleday on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Doubleday for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

To die is tragic, but to go missing is to become a legend…

Synopsis
In 1587, 115 British citizens come to colonize America disappeared from Roanoke Island, leaving behind almost no traces, except for the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree. In the four hundred-plus years since, little has been discovered to explain where these men, women, and children went. To date it remains one of history’s great, unsolved mysteries. In The Secret Token, Lawler sets out the history of the colony, the search for answers, and the meaning these answers would have on the racial and cultural identity of those who trace their ancestry to the island.

Structure
Lawler structures his book in three parts that read, in many respects, like vastly different mini-books. The first section is almost purely historical narrative setting up how the colony came to be, who the major players were on the relevant voyages, the historical struggle between Spain and Britain for (essentially) world domination, and how it came to pass that the colony was lost. This section reads like a straightforward narrative history that, to be honest, almost lost me. There’s only so much history of dead white men (plus Elizabeth) that I care to read. Though, I’m pretty sure Sir Walter Raleigh’s playboy ways were left out of the history books my public schools used. (And, in Lawler’s defense, he makes this section about as interesting as it can be, given the available historical record).

If this doesn’t sound interesting to you, take heart–the next two sections have an entirely different tone and slightly fewer white men. The second section focuses entirely on the search for the colony—beginning almost immediately after their disappearance and continuing to the presently obsessed archaeologists still sifting through the North Carolina marsh silt on their weekends. The first chapters in this section on the immediate search provided the bridge that segued into the (in my opinion) more interesting searches of the modern era. While some of this remains in a narrative historical style, Lawler begins to include himself in the story. He describes interactions with historians who not only provide Lawler the relevant history but express their frustrations and theories. This section also includes some of the more eccentric characters who are still out there searching. Their inclusion shows the hold the mystery of the colony still has on people, making the book feel relevant and a little bit tantalizingly voyeuristic. As Lawler is sucked deeper into the subject matter of his own book, his writing takes on hints of the obsession that infects many of those he’s interviewing and invites the reader along for this ride. In this vein, Lawler leaves no stone unturned—evaluating each archaeological and cartographic find, including the controversial (and possibly faked) Dare Stone.

The last section, and the reason this book earned my 3 ¾ stars, looks at the myth through the lens of race. One of the reasons this myth still holds such sway is that what ultimately happened to the Colony and to baby Virginia Dare—the first white child born in America—has lasting implications to both those who cling to white supremacy and those who claim first nation heritage in this part of the country. Within this section, Lawler also discusses how the area came to be home to many African slaves and their descendants, making this area of mixing bowl of races. When the government sought to maintain white supremacy, the Native American descendants were successfully pitted against their African neighbors in a bid to create a racial hierarchy that preserved white supremacy.

Race and Identity
My grandmother was born in North Carolina, one of twelve children and the eldest girl. Her name was Virginia Dare Moore. When I learned in elementary school that the first child born in the colonies was named Virginia Dare, I thought this was the coolest. Until very recently, when I thought about possible kid names (not pregnant, not trying), I thought about naming a girl after my beloved Nana. My dad had mentioned in passing on an occasion that my grandmother always hated her name and I never knew why. After reading this book, I suspect I know.

Beginning in the 1800s and particularly at the turn of the 20th Century, Virginia Dare was adopted as a white supremacist icon. One of the most likely possibilities of what happened to the colony is that it was absorbed into the local native population—there are no remains that suggest they died on the island (by natural or other means) and they did leave behind the word Croatoan (the name of a local tribe/area) carved in a tree. The problem with this answer to the Roanoke mystery if you’re a racist white woman who wants the vote but wants to maintain the white status quo, is that it necessarily means that white women mixed with native men (and vice versa) and had mixed race children. Enter virginal Virginia Dare who lived with the natives because she had no other choice to survive but stayed apart, a shining, white example completely without historical basis in fact.

On the other side, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the possible ancestors of the tribes who once lived on and around Roanoke Island. If the colonizers mixed with any tribe, their descendants may be members of the Lumbee Tribe. This tribe, while recognized by the state, is not formally recognized by the federal government, which means they are denied many of the benefits afforded to officially “recognized” Native American tribes. One possible method to solve the mystery would be to trace lineages of the White family in Britain (Virginia Dare’s grandfather) and compare the genes of those identified descendants to those in the Lumbee tribe. Many members of the Lumbee (and many Native Americans period), however, have resisted this suggestion. For some, there is the real fear that the information gathered would be misused (a belief well-supported by how our government has historically treated first nation peoples as well as the story of Henrietta Lacks). For others, there is a question of what it would reveal. A handful of Lumbee who have agreed to participate have discovered that their genetic markers indicate they are majority white and have significant African-American ancestry as well. For those in the community whose identity is defined by being Lumbee, by having native ancestors, these tests have the ability to call everything they know about themselves into question.

The myth of the Lost Colony of Roanoke is not then, just a straight-forward question of what happened to 115 people in 1587. Rather, the myth extends to the convenient and often false narratives we still tell ourselves about who is “pure,” who belongs, and who we are.

Recommended
As a Virginian with North Carolinian roots, I grew up hearing about the Lost Colony of Roanoke and thought it was fascinating. I was never told and never realized the significance the still mystery has to people today or the racial underpinnings of the theories. The Secret Token is a book that will stick with me for a while—much like A More Beautiful and Terrible History, it calls into question the history I learned as a child and the motives of the creators of our national history and myths.

Notes
Published: June 5, 2018 by Doubleday (@doubledaybooks)
Author: Andrew Lawler
Date read: May 30, 2018
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Review: A More Beautiful and Terrible History by Jeanne Theoharis

Review: A More Beautiful and Terrible History by Jeanne Theoharis

I received a free copy of this book from Beacon Press via LibraryThing. I’m grateful to Beacon Press for their generosity and, because I was fascinated by this book, was happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

The recounting of national histories is never separate from present-day politics. What of the past is remembered, celebrated, and mourned is at the core of national identity—and the process of what is told and not told is often a function of power…Racial injustice is America’s original sin and deepest silence. The ways the country came to honor the civil rights movement were not simply about paying tribute to these courageous acts and individuals in the past but also about sanctioning what will—and will not be—faced about the nation’s history and presence….While these tributes honored the movement, they simultaneously depoliticized the scope of the struggle, distorted the work of the activists honored, demonized Black anger, and obscured ongoing calls for racial justice through a celebration of a nearly postracial, self-correcting America.

Synopsis
In A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Professor Jeanne Theoharis examines the myths of the Civil Rights Movement and contrasts these

myths with the real history, the forgotten youths and women and the ignored cities in the North and West that featured prominently in the actual movement. While I was not terribly surprised by what Theoharis presented as the unvarnished history of the Civil Rights Movement (of course women were involved. of course segregation was occurring in the North), the history presented in this book is a sharp contrast to what I learned every February (and only in February) from grade school through high school. While memory fades over time and its been over twenty years since elementary and middle school, I will go so far as to say I think I learned more from this book than I ever learned in my history classes growing up.

In many ways, A More Beautiful and Terrible History reminded me of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. Theoharis goes one step further than Loewen (or than I remember Loewen going) and explains why these myths are so useful to those interested in maintaining the status quo. She demonstrates how these myths are weaponized against the current movement to delegitimize Black Lives Matter, #NoDAPL, and others.   These connections were the icing on the cake for me in this book—it is not enough to acknowledge that we have made history convenient in our retelling but to see why these myths were created, how they were useful then, and how they are being used now made Theoharis’s work an urgent, timely read.

Credentials
I will admit that one of the first things I did upon receiving this book was flip to the author’s picture. I was surprised to see that Theoharis is white. Her author’s note reveals that Theoharis’s family escaped the Armenian genocide that the United States still refuses to acknowledge. As she notes, “[g]rowing up Greek-Armenian in my politically active family made the importance of the histories we tell and those we deny potent and visceral.” With this foundation, Theoharis has published or co-published numerous works on African-American history, including an NAACP award-winning biography on Rosa Parks. (Unfortunately for me, this means that Rosa Parks isn’t addressed as deeply in A More Beautiful and Terrible History as I would have liked because Theoharis didn’t want to repeat herself.   The only logical result of this is that The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks was added to my TBR.)

A Readable Academic Work
A More Beautiful and Terrible History is a bit more of an academic book than I typically pick up for a non-fiction read. I tend to stick to more narrative non-fiction—having been a history major in college, I’d prefer my history now come in story form, please and thank you. And yet, when LibraryThing posted this book as a giveaway, I found myself drawn to it. Theoharis’s work is an academic work that I can see a professor assigning in American history or historiography classes. Her work is thoroughly researched and her sources are well-cited (the last thirty-plus pages are notes). The writing, while clear and concise, is not a narrative. And yet, with the minor caveat that it dragged a bit in the middle (as noted below), I found A More Beautiful and Terrible History to be surprisingly readable for a popular audience.

The depth of her writing made me take this book one chapter at a time—I only picked it up when I had the attention span to really dig into a chapter and sit with what she was saying. If I was tired or limited for time, I picked up something else. I recommend this as the way to read A More Beautiful and Terrible History. This isn’t a narrative to fly through, nor is it a book that deserves to be skimmed.

Organization
The book is organized thematically, with chapters examining the forgotten Jim Crow North, the long struggle that preceded the successes (i.e., the Montgomery Bus Boycott didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor was Rosa Parks an accidental activist), the racism of the “White Moderate,” the media’s bias against the movement, the placement of the Civil Rights Movement within the larger global anti-poverty and anti-war movements, the young people who pushed the movement forward, the women who led, and the active demonization of the movement by the government. Overall I liked this organization—I highlighted my copy on almost every page and this thematic structure will make it easier to find things later or revisit specific chapters. The only downside to this meant that certain examples were used repeatedly and, at times, started to feel repetitive. The fight to desegregate schools in New York, for example, appeared in chapters on the Jim Crow north, the long struggle, the media bias, and the importance of students to the movement. While a different point was made each time this example was raised, it did start to make the book drag a bit. I’m not sure there is a solution to this since a purely chronological presentation would have been difficult to follow and these large-scale but forgotten events were the perfect examples for the points Theoharis was making. If you decide to pick this one up and similarly feel the book dragging a bit, know that after chapter six (young people), these examples are replaced by new ones and the last third of the book picks back up.

Exceptionalism & Austin, Texas
As an Austinite, it is easy to believe we live in an exceptional city—we are the blue dot in the red sea. If we are exceptional then, the things that apply to everywhere else—racism, sexism, and homophobia—do not happen here. We are enlightened. We are different. We keep Austin weird.

And yet, several months ago, when there was a bomber leaving packages around the city, the first bomb barely made the news. The second bomb didn’t make national news until there was a third. The first bomb killed an African American man. The second an African-American teenager—a teenager whose talent and exceptionalism is highlighted every time he is mentioned. It is a grave loss to our community and to music that Draylen’s life was cut short. But this would be true even if Draylen had not been a rare talent at the bass but simply a C student who loved to play pick-up basketball. The city wasn’t really brought to its knees in fear until a bomb went off in an affluent, mostly white neighborhood. Austin’s greatest sin is that it believes it is exceptional while being just as racist as much of the rest of the country.

I have a friend who moved from Austin several years ago because, among other reasons, it just became too hard to be black here. To have her child be the only black child in his class. To be attacked in the carpool line by a angry Lululemon-wearing mom because her talk at Blogher about America not being here for people of color went viral. To know that if she called the police from that carpool line, it was likely Lulu-Mom who was going to be believed.

Conclusion
In many ways, Austin is a microcosm of what Theoharis presents in A More Beautiful and Terrible History. We have, as Austinites and as Americans, bought into the lie of our exceptionalism. We believe that this history was inevitable because America will always do what is right. We are self-correcting and needed only the nonviolent encouragement of Martin Luther King Jr. to correct what was an exclusively Southern problem.

As members of BlackLivesMatter and others calling for racial justice as demonized daily in the news, it is more vital than ever that we read works like this to see where we came from, what really happened, and the ways those in power and in the media use the lie of our exceptionalism to maintain a white status quo.

Notes
Published: January 30, 2018 by Beacon Press (@beaconpress)
Author: Jeanne Theoharis
Date read: May 26, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Faith Frank hired me, originally, based on nothing. She took me in and she taught me things, and more than that she gave me permission. I think that’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be. -Greer

Synopsis
The Female Persuasion tells the story of Greer Kadetsky whose life turned out nothing like she expected. She was supposed to go to Yale and yet finds herself at the local college, Ryland, where a chance encounter with Faith Frank—feminist icon—changes the trajectory of her life. It is this meeting and subsequent relationship that provides Greer the scaffolding of the life she builds for the next decade, informing who she is as a person, providing her the job that starts perfectly yet leads her to a moral crossroads. Interspersed with Greer’s chapters are stories from her friend Zee, Faith Frank, and boyfriend Cory. In these we see Zee build her own life, independent of both her parents and Greer; how Faith became The Faith Frank; and what it means to love your family and do “women’s work” through Cory. Even without a Trumpian figure, The Female Persuasion explores, with a casual wit, how it feels to live with and navigate through current gender politics.

Conflicted
I listened to the audiobook of The Female Persuasion with conflicted feelings—I found the characters interesting, the dialogue between characters snappy, and the writing fresh. Told from several points of view, The Female Persuasion gave me points I could connect in most of the characters.  I could also understand why the major characters were making the choices they were making—which isn’t to say they made only good choices. Rather, Wolitzer’s characters stayed true to their development such that they made choices consistent with who they were as people. At the same time, I felt this niggling discomfort each time I turned the audio back on in that the book, while engaging, fresh, and snappy, also had a glaring hole in it. The Female Persuasion might more accurately be titled The White Female Persuasion. While this review will be centered around the almost exclusively white lens here, I want to be clear that this is still a book I enjoyed and one I’d read again. I don’t regret the time I spent on this book and the writing style and voice pushed Wolitzer’s prior book, The Interestings, up my TBR list. Because I think it is important to recognize the limitations of works we enjoy, this review will be more negative than usual, particularly for a book that I gave 4 stars. Essentially—this review focuses on what cost The Female Persuasion that last star.

I should also note that there are many people who knew me as recently as five years ago who will find this critique out of place coming from me. To be transparent in where I’m coming from—I’m a relatively recent arrival at the Feminist camp as a refugee from complementarian evangelicalism. I am not well-versed in the scholarship. I’m aware that the concept of intersectionality within feminism was introduced by bell hooks, though I’ve not (yet) read her works. There are things I may get wrong in this review or, more likely, my critique here will be necessarily somewhat surface level—both because I do not have the foundation to make this a true critical analysis and because you’re here to read a book blog, not a ten page seminar paper. I welcome any critique you have—any point you think I’ve missed—as well as any books you think I should read. The only comment that isn’t welcome today is a defense of White Feminism.

Limitations
So why do I feel like the The Female Persuasion is a story limited to a White Feminist perspective? There are, in fact, a few characters of color, though with one exception, they are typically limited to peripheral characters—at Loci for example, Wolitizer mentions at least one woman as being of color but that description is where the representation ends. These women do not engage in any dialogue in the scenes in which they appear that raises any points related to how women of color have experienced injustices differently, how their layers of race and possibly class have made their experiences of sexism different. The only character who could be considered a person of color whose viewpoint is directly presented is Cory—Greer’s boyfriend who is a first-generation American of Portuguese descent. (A quick Google search indicates there’s an ongoing debate about whether people of Spanish and Portuguese descent who are not from Latin America “count” as white or not. I’m not about to wade into this debate. For purposes of this discussion I’ll “count” him as being of color since he is presented as having what is typically considered the immigrant experience—his parents don’t always speak great English and work traditionally menial jobs, like housekeeper. He also changes his name from “Duarte” to “Cory” to sound less ethnic.) Zee is Jewish, though how this might have impacted her experiences with sexism doesn’t really come up.

As I recall, the only place where a person of color comes close to engaging in any kind of discussion about intersectionality is Zee’s African-American coworker, Noelle. When they first meet, Zee is in a Teach-for-America-esque program in Chicago. Noelle is, understandably, skeptical of Zee’s qualifications as well as her commitment. This one section from Zee’s perspective in conversations between these two women is where race becomes a topic. And yet, it is a topic removed from the larger feminist discussion. Zee fits into the larger narrative as a character study of feminism—she is an example of the plethora of Gen-Y woman learning to stand on her own in this “Man’s World.” Her experiences of moving across the country to start something new felt familiar to me, the way it will to many women my age. And yet, the way race is slotted into Zee’s story, it’s done in a way that manages to separate the discussion from Zee’s experiences as a feminist. The introduction of Noelle would have allowed Wolitzer to have even just one character voice what it is like to live as both female and black and yet this never really happened. Zee is the most minor of the major characters and Noelle a missed opportunity within Zee’s development.

My Life On the Road
This omission in The Female Persuasion was made all the more noticeable to me having just finished Gloria Steinem’s autobiography, My Life On the Road. Steinem discusses early in the book travels around India and learning about what community organizing looked like there. When the National Women’s Conference took place in Houston in 1977, she described the efforts expended before and during the conference to make sure that women of color had their experiences and voices heard, including working with various groups within others—for example of Chicanas and Puerto Rican women who both had much in common and unique needs and concerns—to make sure that women of all groups were represented in the compiled list of recommendations made by the conference. Even though I had not listened to The Female Persuasion yet, I was struck over and over by Steinem’s diverse experiences, her insistence on being where the people were, not being the leader, and deliberately including women of diverse backgrounds. While Steinem is by no means perfect, she is generally recognized as having values and positions that are deliberately inclusive of women of color and different classes. Though it started slow, I found her autobiography fascinating and worth the Audible credit.

So then back to The Female Persuasion. As I noted when I started, I enjoyed this book. I could see myself in Greer and Zee (though Faith seemed a watered down feminist icon to me after Gloria).   While the writing wasn’t particularly fancy or “literary,” it was snappy in the way my friends and I are when we get going. And yet, there is this glaring hole. For me, as a white cis-woman, I am not directly harmed by the omission of women of color, except to the extent that only seeing people like me means I’ll never be exposed to stories unlike my own. There isn’t anything that I noticed that was stereotypical or trope-y, women of color just aren’t really there.

Doing Better
And yet, like the catchphrase “silence is violence,” absence is a problem here. It is far too easy as a white female reader to never read a story featuring a woman of color. I can pat myself on the back for being a feminist and enjoying this feminist book and never realize that I’m only imbibing stories of White Feminism. It is easy to purposefully or even inadvertently avoid being exposed to the ways that race and class intersect with gender to make harder for women at these intersections. To an extent then, it is incumbent on writers and artists who produce art that appeals to women, like The Female Persuasion, to intentionally produce diverse works and for publishers to publish and market them. While it was far from a perfect book, Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things strikes me as a good example here—many of the people who read mass-produced contemporary fiction like Jodi Picoult probably aren’t reading a lot of hard-hitting stories that discuss the ugliness of white supremacy and what it is like to be black today. And yet, Picoult knew she had a platform and Small Great Things was the result.

At the end of the day, I truly enjoyed The Female Persuasion and think it deserves much (if not all) of the hype it is getting. I look forward to seeing what Wolitzer does in the future and hope that in future books, she features more diverse stories and characters.

Notes
Published: April 3, 2018 by Riverhead Books (@riverheadbooks)
Author: Meg Wolitzer (@megwolitzer)
Date read: April 26, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Review: Text Me When You Get Home by Kayleen Schaefer

Review: Text Me When You Get Home by Kayleen Schaefer

I received a free e-version of Text Me When You Get Home from Dutton Books via NetGalley. I’m grateful to Dutton and NetGalley for their generosity in providing a copy for me to review. All opinions are my own.

“Text me when you get home” is not an aggressive rallying-cry like the anti-Donald Trump, pro-woman “This pussy grabs back,” but it does mark a sea change. It’s a way women are saying, through our care for each other, that our friendships are not what society says they are. We’re reclaiming them. We’re taking them back from the shitty words they’ve been smothered by for way too long:

Women can’t get along.
They’re probably lesbians.
Women who say they like each other are lying. What a bunch of catty bitches.
Women ditch their friends when they meet a guy.

What we’re doing by holding each other close in whatever ways we can is lifting our friendships out of these stereotypes. We’re not going to let the kinds of relationships we want to have be undermined any longer.

When I look back on my early life, I am not one of those women who can identify a string of close girlfriends. I fully admit that I was not the easiest child to be friends with—my social skills weren’t great, I was intensely competitive over intellectual things, and—quite frankly—holier-than-thou. For most of the first three decades of my life, religion provided a set of rules to follow. I was not a rule-breaker. Rule-breakers are bad.

What would have been a natural friend group among my peers at church constantly felt like an exclusive clique. I had no problem finding someone to sit with or hang out with during youth group events. But I would quickly come to discover during these events that I typically wasn’t invited when one of the girls wanted hang out one-on-one with someone or even in a smaller group. I was a second-tier friend, never best-friend quality. But for my proximity and attendance at the various church youth group events, even this semblance of having female friends likely would have nearly disappeared.

In high school, I did have friends I considered at the time to be close friends. Looking back, I can see that much of what prevented these friendships from being deeper was my own issues, including their legitimate fear of my judgment if they confided in me what they were doing or feeling. (Sex! The horror.) I didn’t realize at the time that these friendships were essentially one-sided. With my confiding in them but their being unable to return the trust. The result of this kind of relationship was the severing of these friendships once we went to college. I’m not sure I spoke to any of the girls I thought were my friends again after that, outside of running into them somewhere. Indeed, when I visited my parents in the years after high school, the only friend I ever made a point to see while I was home was male, my friend since first grade.

College was an improvement, with deep friendships at the time with two women in particular. And yet here too, “friends forever” didn’t last. I probably haven’t talked to these two women in almost ten years. While I have stayed in contact with two other women, the friend I have stayed closest with since college is, again, male. He is the person I always make a point to see when I visit my family.

It is only as a thirty-something woman that I developed the kind of female friendships Schaefer celebrates in Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship. I have my ride-or-die, show-up-at-my-house-at-midnight-if-I-call women now. We have a group text that is active at least once a day. They quite literally saved me when I was leaving my abusive ex-husband several years ago.

But Tell Me About the Book
While Text Me is, as the title indicates, a study of modern female friendship, it is equally a memoir. Schaefer grounds her exploration into the evolution of what female friendship means within her own experience. My experience detailed above (minus the oppressive influence of religion) is similar to Schaefer’s experience detailed in the book. Like Schaefer, I saw other women as my rivals. There was a scarcity of attention—adult approval, male gaze, teachers’ accolades—and girls were my competition. As an adult I can see that this is entirely untrue but it has taken decades to learn.

Schaefer dissects her time spent in high school, college, and shortly after having her priorities, time, and even relationships centered around men. This resonated with me as well. Having felt like I was being left out of deep female friendships that other women around me seemed to have, it was easy to fall into thinking that I was just better friends with guys. In many ways it was a comfort to me to see that Schaefer experienced this too—that in her job as a journalist and in her early adult years she also fell in this trap. One of the dangers here, as Schaefer identifies, is that as you center your life around male approval, you grow farther and farther from other women. This doesn’t even require that you have close male friendships instead—merely feeling like you have to be the kind of woman that your male acquaintances and coworkers approve of often means you have to seem to not be “girly” or like other women. This desire for male approval turns into pushing other women away. It was on the one hand heartening to see my experiences set out so clearly by another woman and sad to look back and see how so much of my struggle and feeling alone didn’t have to be this way. I made choices and this is my bed to lie in, yes, but these were also many of the choices society was pushing me to make at that time.

This book is, however, also about the evolution of friendships. After lamenting her male-centric experiences in the first few decades of her life (and providing the context and referencing studies that explain why she felt this way), Schaefer discusses the recent phenomenon of women delaying marriage and the role female friendships are playing for these women.

Lighter Nonfiction
As far as literary value goes, I found Text Me interesting and engaging, but much of the material stays fairly surface-level. (This isn’t necessarily a problem—many people don’t want to read an academic work and I mention this more so that you know what you’re getting if you pick this one up). For example, Schaefer discusses the myth of the mean girl and its uses to divide girls but stops here. She doesn’t take the analysis much farther, though this would be an opportunity to explore how society’s insistence on dividing women from each other is a tool of patriarchal power structures whose existence is ensured when women are separated from each other. Given how Schaefer structured her book, however, this level of critique would feel like a tangent. While she cites a variety of sources from interview quotes of starlets to published academic papers, the studies cited are centered around Schaefer’s personal revelations which makes the book both more personal but also, by necessity, less academic. There are endnotes so for readers who want to explore a topic more fully, that is an option.

Text Me is also absolutely peppered with pop culture references—while Schaefer details her experience as well as those of other women she personally talks to, the almost the entirety of the rest of her examples derive from pop culture. She cites Leslie Knope’s love of Ann Perkins as well as the women of HBO’s Big Little Lies. In discussing the history and evolution of friendships, she cites older television shows as well, yet even these I had mostly heard of. While this was effective for me as a thirty-something reader in 2018, it does make me question the longevity of this book.

Intersectional Experiences
It should also be said the Schaefer is white and this is her memoir. She makes an obvious effort to discuss pop culture featuring minority characters including Girlfriends, Living Single, Insecure, and The Joy Luck Club and even has a short section pointing out the lack of representation of friendships of women of color in pop culture. She devotes several pages to the friendship between Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King. And yet, the limitations of Schaefer and her friend circle as well as the under-representation of women of color on major television networks and in movies means the vast majority of Schaefer’s discussion and examples are centered around white women. In the next week I actually have a post planned to discuss Meg Wolitzer’s most recent book The Female Persuasion and its limitations of being centered in White Feminism, particularly as contrasted against Gloria Steinem’s autobiography. Which is say, that as a reader I try to consider things like the whether authors acknowledge the varied experiences of women of color and consider how the intersection of things like race and class make the burdens of being a modern woman that much heavier.

I don’t feel like Schaefer does present women of color often, and yet I perceived in her writing that Schaefer knew this was a limitation of her work and acknowledged where she could that women of color have different experiences and yet are less widely represented and considered. I think Text Me is a book that will appeal mostly to white audiences because it may be harder for a woman of color to see herself in Schaefer’s repeatedly white examples, and yet this isn’t a function of Schaffer’s blindness or willful indifference to this limitation.

Conclusion
I really enjoyed Text Me When You Get Home and blew through it in a few days. It was easy to read, particularly for a nonfiction book. I felt like Schaefer presents a story that will seem familiar to many women my age and the book is more effective for this connection. Schaefer made significant points about the way we socialize girls to dislike other girls and how women perpetuate their estrangement from other women by seeking male approval (difficult to fight given that positions of authority are often occupied by men), yet these points are largely made through her personal recollections or television examples. It was an interesting technique that could have gone off the rails but worked. I found the pop culture references to be mostly well-used though I also see how these may turn away some readers who would prefer to see more academic studies and less HBO.

Text Me made me really look back and see how my relationships with girls and women evolved in my own life over the last three decades. Looking back at the way I treated women who I wanted to be friends with, I’m left thankful for the women I have now—Ritz, Shelby, Brittany, Sarah, Elora, Rachel. For Paige, Erica, Kelly, Sara, and Carly—I’m sorry for the countless times I wasn’t a good friend to you when we were younger. I hope that in the years since Mount Pleasant, CHHS, and William & Mary that you found your ride-or-die women. Text me when you get home?

Notes
Published: February 6, 2018 by Dutton Books (@duttonbooks)
Author: Kayleen Schaefer (@iknowkayleen)
Date read: May 6, 2018
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Featured Image and Photo credit: rawpixel

Review: Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

Review: Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

I received a free version of Rainbirds on CD from Penguin Random House via LibraryThing. I’m grateful to Penguin Random House and LibraryThing for their generosity in providing a copy for me to review. All opinions are my own.

 

“Remember this, Ren. Sadness alone can’t harm anyone. It’s what you do when you’re sad that can hurts you and those around you.”

Synopsis
Rainbirds follows Ren Ishida on his journey to the fictional, remote town of Akakawa in the wake of his sister’s murder. What should be a short trip to wrap up her affairs becomes an escape for Ren—an escape from the expectations and failures of his own relationships in Tokyo and into the life of the sister who hid so much from him over the last decade. Ren stays in Akakawa, taking Keiko’s job and moving into her rooms in a local house. The farther he steps into Keiko’s life, the darker things become, until it isn’t clear that Ren himself will survive the trip unscathed.

Genre
This is a book that perhaps was mis-billed for me. That is to say, I expected a thriller going into the book—the beginning chapters set in motion the story of a grieving brother, come to the small town where his sister lived and was recently murdered. Ren is on a quest to find his sister’s killer, though he quickly comes to realize he didn’t know her nearly as well as he thought. While this plot provides the scaffolding for the book, at its heart, Rainbirds is less a noir mystery and more a character study into grieving Ren. That said, the noir feel remains—this may not be a noir thriller but it starts dark and stays dark. Throughout the book, I had the feeling of impending storm clouds—an expectation, a crackling of electricity in the air, the surrounding foggy darkness. If you like dark, slightly creepy literary character studies, don’t let the early chapters turn you off. This book may be right up your alley.

Audio
I have mixed feelings about the audio of this book. On the one hand, I usually enjoy audio of any books set in different countries or with non-American characters. The audio usually adds to the experience, setting forth the cadence of the speech, the different emphasis and pronunciation of what are otherwise familiar English words. And the names and places are almost never ones I could get right without audio—case in point here, the book takes place in the fiction “Akakawa.” If I had to read that, I’d probably have emphasized (very incorrectly) the middle “kak” where the audio narrator pronounced it “Ah-kah-kah-wah” – no kaks involved.

But I digress. Rainbirds seemed like the kind of book I usually love on audio. My issue here, however, was that this book was gloomy in the extreme. I do most of my audiobook listening while driving so the combination of the gloomy mood, melodic male narrator, and almost no action meant that there were times when I had to stop listening. This was, for example, not the book I could listen to while driving three hours home at 1am after a concert and stay awake and alive.

This is not to say that I don’t recommend the audio of this book. The voice of the narrator was well-chosen and it was produced well—I just personally need a little more action in my audiobooks.

Lolita
One of the characters Ren becomes entangled with is a student at his cram school—Rio Nakajima, whom Ren nicknames Seven Stars after the brand of cigarette she smokes (much as Humbert Humbert renames Delores, “Lolita”). Though Rio is not prepubescent, she is seventeen and Ren (though in his early 20s himself) is her teacher. When the two inevitably become sexually involved—I say inevitable because by the time it finally happens it has been so long set up that it’s impossible to miss where this going—it reeks of Lolita. Seventeen is a good distance from twelve and she does attain the age of consent in the book; however, in the process of discovering what happened to Keiko, Ren also uncovers family events that have led Rio to be as damaged as she is. This is not a well-adjusted seventeen year old who happens to be wise above her years. This is a damaged, childlike, aged-too-fast seventeen year old who has no business becoming romantically entangled with her teacher. This entire relationship still bothers me, even though I finished the book over a week ago.

With that said, Goenawan is a talented writer—though Ren tries to avoid scenarios where he would be alone with Rio, the course of events forces the intimate meeting. The set up allows you to sympathize when Ren, even where the idea of a teacher engaging in a sexual relationship with a student is something that you normally think of as a hard line “no.” Though Rainbirds wasn’t ultimately a book I loved, the ability of Goenawan to make me empathize with someone I found morally problematic—during the very scenes I found problematic—makes me want to read her future works.

Connections
The characters were more interconnected than I expected, with the players forming a web—much like small town America, everyone knows everyone and one person is always related to another. These connections also created a bit of a subplot where Ren uncovers and solves another little mini-mystery as he digs for more information about his sister. These chapters could have felt like a tangent; however, learning more about the people in his sister’s life opened doors to him to learn more about Keiko. The diversions were short but worthwhile.

These connections and diversions also provided some unexpected little bursts in the book of “I didn’t see that coming.” The problem for me and why I’ve been sitting with this book is that, for all the little bursts I didn’t see coming, the one I would have wanted—the identity of the murderer and some kind of conclusion—never popped. Instead, the conclusion fizzled, like a balloon slowly leaking air.

Ending (Very, Very Mild Spoilers—No Killer Identified)
Having had more time to think about it, I found the ending ultimately unsatisfactory—Ren does achieve a sense of closure in that he (and therefore the reader) determines whodunit, but by this point, the story had petered out so much, that it felt lackluster. Does Ren even care that he got his answer? I honestly couldn’t tell. He’s discovered something of himself—something perhaps he didn’t want to know. Where the previous connections and reveals crackled, the final reveal felt as if it didn’t matter. If Ren didn’t care that he had his answer, should we?

And here I come back to the thought that perhaps this book was mischaracterized. When I set aside my disappointment over the finish, over the sense that the mystery was no mystery at all, I’m left with a character study. A slow-burn, creepily noir character study into Ren, yes, but more his sister. In searching for his sister’s killer, the person Ren really finds is her, but far too late to do anything about it.

Notes
Published: March 6, 2018 by Penguin Random House
Author: Clarissa Goenawan
Date read: May 2, 2018
Rating: 3 ½ stars