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

Mini-Reviews and a belated April Wrap Up

Mini-Reviews and a belated April Wrap Up

April Book Drought and Reading
I didn’t think I’d finished terribly many books in April, but looking back finished more than I thought–just almost none of what I planned.  The books I assembled at the beginning of the month wound up being overwhelmingly heavy in theme and tone, so this both slowed me down and caused me to insert some fluffy, unplanned reads to give me a break while keeping my momentum going–that’s a thing other people do, right?

The books I finished this month where Monster, Home Fire, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, Evicted, Pachinko, Queen of Hearts, Salvage the Bones, Crenshaw, My Life On the Road, Meaty, and The Female Persuasion.  The last three of those are on audio.  So for April that’s 2742 pages read and 31 hours, 55 minutes listening.  For the year, 11,344 pages and 146 hours, 18 minutes listening.  Time well spent, I think.

This month was, however, an utter failure for #theunreadshelfproject.  While four of those books were ones I already own (and I bought but immediately read Home Fire so we’re counting it), Amazon gave away something like eight books for free for International Book  Day and I purchased Miss Burma during Independent Book Store Day.  So we’re deeper into the red on the unread books.  But still–five!  I read five books I own.  I may never catch up but it is fun trying.  One should always have goals.

Monster
I came across Monster in a list at the library about books for Black History month, in a If-You-Liked-The-Hate-U-Give-You’ll-Like-This list.  I would agree that it makes a good flight pick along with Dear Martin and The Hate U Give.  The three books consider similar themes and provide alternative sides to a similar experience.  Unlike the other two, however, Monster is the story of a teenager who wasn’t killed by police, but rather has been accused of felony murder for allegedly participating in a robbery gone wrong that left a man dead.  The book is written in first person narrated by Steve Harmon, the child accused of the crime–however, in order to cope with what is happening, Steve presents it as if he is writing a film for one of his classes.  The entire book reads like a screenplay.  This unusual device works, providing the remove Steve need to tell his story while still giving the reader a sense of what is happening around him.  Frankly, it also makes the book incredibly quick to read relative to the page length–I think I finished it in under two hours.  The book won the first Michael L. Printz Award (best book in teen literature), ALA Best Book honors, Coretta Scott King honors, and was a finalist for the National Book Award when it was published.  It was a powerful book, even more so for the unexpected gut-punch in the last few pages.  Just when I thought I could breathe, Walter Dean Myers delivered one last visceral blow that was true to the book and true to how black boys are treated in this country.  It’s not an easy read but one I recommend.

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy
I’ll admit that I was hoping for an adult Westing Game –this wasn’t that.  (Though it’s probably being unfair to hope for another Westing Game.)  This was a fun little diversion–a thriller set in the midst of a highly dysfunctional family after the patriarch dies.  (I guess novels set in well-functioning families don’t typically produce enough plot to merit books?).  Jacobs had a knack for presenting most of the characters in fairly well-rounded ways–even the minor characters weren’t flat or simply plot devices.  As a result I managed to sympathize with almost all of the characters–even the bad actors and hate everyone at some point–kind of how I feel about real people.  No one is perfect, everyone has their own internal motivations, and someone is always going to make a choice that I disagree with.   Though the sub-title of the book is “A Novel In Clues” and the book is about a mathematician, absolutely no math background is necessary to enjoy this book.  It wasn’t the best thriller but it was a diversion when I needed one and may be worth checking out if mysteries are your wheelhouse.  Though there’s a fair amount of death, there’s no gore.

Queen of Hearts
Queen of Hearts is being billed as Grey’s Anatomy in book form.  This is….accurate-ish.  There’s less going on in Queen of Hearts since Martin is working with less space than a Grey’s Anatomy season and the drama is (mostly) in the past, just come to revisit Zadie and Emma.  They’ve had a good run with relatively little drama since their intern years in medical school a decade ago, but that doesn’t make a good book.  Enter stage left, Zadie’s McDreamy from her first intern year, bearing secrets for what really happened ten years ago.  The book was deliciously fluffy and dramatic, had some mystery elements (what really happened that year?), but stayed pretty well in the popular fiction lane.  I was bothered twice by body-shaming comments made about people who were overweight.  This wasn’t surprising giving that Martin is herself a doctor and health professionals often seem particularly prone to assuming size is indicative of health, but was disappointing and distracting.  It also ended a bit too neatly (which is not the same as happily) for me–I think Martin could have left a few loose ends hanging and it would have felt more true to life.  Ultimately, if you’re looking for a fluffy, plot-driven beach read, Queen of Hearts is a good one.

That’s it for my late update.  You reading anything fun for May?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Header Photo Credit: Liv Bruce

Author Talks: Mohsin Hamid & Colson Whitehead

Author Talks: Mohsin Hamid & Colson Whitehead

It has been a truly excellent fortnight of bookish events in Austin. The Mayor’s book club for the spring culminated in a reading and Q&A with Mohsin Hamid, author of Exit West—my absolute favorite book of 2017 and one of the my top-ten-of-all-time books (co-hosted by BookPeople, a fabulous indie bookstore in Austin). The Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas then hosted Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, another phenomenal book and a top-ten read for 2017. My only regret is that I didn’t make it to Meg Wolitzer at BookPeople in between these two. I’m just finished The Female Persuasion—if I had been further into it and realized how much I liked it (but also how much I have questions about the whiteness), I probably would have made it happen.

Mohsin Hamid
Hamid began by reading a selection of his work—his speaking voice was measured and low and gave his words a haunting feel. The head of the Michener Center for Writers then began a dialogue during which I felt I couldn’t take notes fast enough.

Hamid talked about the idea of migrants—that “to be a migrant is to be a human being” and that we are all migrants through time. Everyone in the modern world is, in many ways, in a state of transience—we experience life as a series of moments that are lost as the pass. As we pass through life we ultimately lose everything. And yet, while this is on the surface a depressing thought, when Hamid said it, it sounded mournful and yet beautiful. If everything is passing and we lose everything, why do we fight so hard to keep migrants out, to be the person who gets to define things like purity?

Exit West was, in part, a study on what it means for the dichotomy between migrant and native to evaporate. If the lines are fluid and all borders porous, these words lose their meaning. And if the dichotomy disappears, then so too must ideas like purity. Indeed, with the advances of technology—with cell phones as current, ubiquitous doors between worlds—ideas of religiosity vs. secularism and masculine vs. feminine are wearing thin. While some are reacting to this thinning by digging in and insisting on the divide, in Exit West Hamid explored what it means to have this dichotomy thin in a way that recognizes that you can move apart from ideas, from a place, from a person lovingly. That you can say goodbye without having to win.

With all of this loss, Exit West becomes a book about attrition (his words—of course. Because he is brilliant with words). His characters lose their country, their families, their homes, their technology, and ultimately even their identities as they once knew them. Here again Hamid returned to the idea that the basic predicament of human life is that we lose everything—so what happens when he takes it all from his characters at an accelerated rate? And yet—as Exit West so lyrically and eloquently demonstrates, even amidst all of this loss, there is beauty and hope left. You can lose everything and still experience beauty, hope, and joy.

Other driving forces for Hamid were the ideas of truth and decency. When we live in a world where everyone is trying to tell us there is no truth or decency, Hamid wrote a book where everything is exactly what it says it is (to us, the doors are metaphors but within the story the door is literally a door) and everyone is trying to be decent. In a world defined by loss but also truth and decency, these two are what enable that beauty and hope Hamid wants us to see is still in the world.

The final theme that came up repeatedly was the idea of purity. In concept, it seems like such a good thing—purity, cleanness, inviolate. And yet, in real life, purity is very rarely a good thing. Rather it is a weapon that inspires shame at best and violence at worst. Hamid noted that “if we are to live in a world where purity is valued and migrants are bad, then there is no place for me.” We have to recognize purity for the dangerous construct that it is.

Colson Whitehead
Like Hamid, Whitehead began by reading a selection from his work –in this case, The Underground Railroad—but this is where their talks diverged. In contrast to Hamid, Whitehead was remarkably funny and self-deprecating—not what I expected. (Though, to be fair, I hadn’t read up on Whitehead besides reading his work—no interviews, no videos, no visit to his website. I supposed I expected the writer of a Pulitzer and National Book Award winning book to be serious and speak with furrowed brows—like a serious person with a serious forehead.)

Instead, Whitehead talked about becoming a writer because it meant he could never leave the house, stay in his pajamas, and not talk to people. (These are also the top three reasons I too would become a writer if I could.) His brow furrowed only when interrupting people in the audience who, in the midst of their questions, prepared to spoil some twist or turn in the book.

I enjoyed his backstory in that I didn’t get any of this sense of personality or humor from The Underground Railroad (for rather obvious reasons). When discussing why he writes about the characters he does he noted, that he “could have written a book about an upper middle class white person who feels sad sometimes but there’s a lot of competition” for that book. When he talked about being a writer, he said that you should just accept that “no matter what you are working on—a book about slavery, etc.—someone smarter and better than you has already written it.” Just accept that. And then “don’t focus on them. Focus on you.” If you know someone has already done it better, there’s no pressure to be the best. There’s just the pressure to write as you on this topic.

He then turned to discussing The Underground Railroad more directly. While writing a book about the Railroad occurred to him early, he waited—he talked about not being a good enough writer yet and saving this idea until he could do it justice.   He talked about the States being states of American possibility and drawing broader connections to other historical events. In North Carolina when Cora hides in the attic from the people who would kill her, this felt reminiscent of Anne Frank—this was, in fact deliberate. Having North Carolina presented the way it did was a deliberate effort to make a connection to Nazi Germany where the Nazis apparently studied American slavery and racism, using some of our language as their model.

Whitehead also discussed Cora, the main character and her being the most different from him than any of his other protagonists. He noted that if you are writing and your protagonist is coming too easy, then you are probably not putting in the work you need to in developing his or her character. In other places, his characters served as plot devices—he needed Ridgeway to be a slave catcher and to drive certain plot events forward. So he included him to move the plot and then figured out who he was as a character and came back and filled him out later—indeed, the vignette of Ridgeway was apparently one of the last-written sections for this reason. It is important to note, however, that you do actually have to come back. You can’t just put in a character to move the plot forward and never come back to them to see how they walk and talk.

The other quote Whitehead left me with is that he “owes no responsibility to the reader.” He mentioned this within the context of questions he often receives. Apparently he is frequently asked about whether he feels responsible for what people know or how their sense of history is altered (possibly incorrectly if they read The Underground Railroad too literally) and he vehemently noted that he doesn’t owe anything to his readers in this sense.   I appreciated this stance. While I don’t think it applies to everyone—there are people writing morally reprehensible things, words that are then put to ill use in violent ideologies and those people are responsible (see previous note re: slavery and Nazis); however, for someone writing fiction like Whitehead this is true. His work is not inciting violence or hatred—he therefore doesn’t owe the reader any obligation to stick solely to the truth in presenting his world and his characters. There is a difference between being true to the time period in which one writes the book and being so slavish that one cannot include magical realist elements like an actual underground railroad.

Conclusion
I’m not one of those “leave the house” kind of people. A good night for me is the Thai takeout from just up the street, a Red Sox game on mute on the television, book in hand, puppy on lap (or more likely puppy on feet, puppy on lap, and third puppy begging to be petted at my side because while I’ll never be a cat lady, my descent into puppy-lady has begun). While I wound up meeting some other Modern Mrs. Darcy book clubbers at Mohsin Hamid, my plan for that one was actually to go by myself before I realized others were going. And I went to Colson Whitehead by myself. Normally, I’d look at an event like this and plan to go but then the night of, already be in pajama pants and decide re-dressing and leaving my house wasn’t worth it.

And yet, I would miss out on experiences like hearing both of these men. Both of these talks wound up being the highlight of my week. I’ll probably still never be a movie by myself kind of person (I’ve done it once), I need to remember how lovely these two experiences were. If you have a chance to see an author you love, I encourage you to go—to put real pants back on, pay that $6 to park downtown, and go hear the words of the person who wrote this book you love. I’m certainly glad I did.

Header/Featured Photo Credit: Marcos Luiz Photograph

MMD March: Stay With Me by Adyobami Adelbayo

MMD March: Stay With Me by Adyobami Adelbayo

I think I did believe that love had immense power to unearth all that was good in us, refine us, and reveal to us the better version of ourselves. And though I knew Akin had played me for a fool, for a while I still believed that he loved me and that the only thing left for him to do was the right thing, the good thing. I thought it was a matter of time before he would look me in the eye and apologise.

So, I waited for him to come to me.

Delinquent (Oops?)
I’m not sure I’ve been quite so delinquent on posting a book that had a sort-of-deadline built into its relevance but here we go. I read the MARCH book club selection for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club and finished timely (March 4th!) and yet haven’t felt like I’ve had a chance to really sit down and process everything that is this book.

Synopsis
Stay With Me follows Yejide, a Nigerian woman who has been unable to have a child with her husband Akin. The story follows Yejide as she takes increasingly desperate steps to have and then keep a child.

Avoiding the Spoilers
It is hard to discuss this book without spoiling the events. This was a book I experienced with no extra information besides what appeared on the flap-copy. I didn’t know what exactly Yejide and Akin were willing to try or how each of those steps would result. This will be a short review—I want to review it because it is so well done but do not want to spoil any of the little events in the middle along the way. So I apologize now for my brevity and vaguess—do not let this deter you from reading but rather take it as a sign that you should pick up the book and see for yourself why I am rating it so highly.

Loss
The most prominent and obvious theme in Stay With Me is one of loss. There is the loss of children—each loss different in its means and impact—but also the loss of relationship and self. As is common in couples who experience this kind of loss, with each step Yejide and Akin take to have a keep their children, the two are driven further apart. Steps taken to have the child that will ultimately strengthen their marriage become the wedges between them. With each loss, Yejide also loses parts of herself. A chipping away so subtle that it isn’t clear until whole sections have been sheered off that this was happening. At a apex in the plot, Yejide makes a choice to initiate the loss herself—when you have had what you love most repeatedly wrenched from you hands, at some point initiating the coming loss feels like the only way to protect yourself, to try to keep a shred of agency. I am not sure I have ever read another book that explores the myriad facets of loss and its impacts so effectively.

Structure
The book does jump around a bit in time and narrator—the bulk of the story-telling is from Yejide’s point of view, though every third or fourth chapter is Akin. The chapters are not labeled so the reader has to realize the narrator has changed—this was somewhat disconcerting at times, though it was easy enough to realize this had happened within a few sentences. It didn’t bother me and it seemed a deliberate choice made by Adebayo to deliberately disrupt the narrative and leave the reader feeling as disrupted and off-balance as Yejide and Akin. The abrupt narration change did, however, both some readers—the handful of negative reviews on Amazon mention this. The time jumps are labeled, so while they are also abrupt at times, it is clear you’ve moved forward or backwards in time.   This kind of structure almost never bothers me—I like non-standard devices and techniques and I like to see authors play with things like this. This is, however, something it keep in mind if this style is something that usually impacts your ability to connect with a book.

Characters
To me, Yejide was a likeable narrator, drawing me in. Though we have nothing in common on paper—I have never even been to Nigeria, I have never tried to have a child—her experiences and the way Adebayo has her narrator speak to the reader made me feel a connection to her. She is well fleshed out—flawed but in ways that make sense for her experiences. She makes terrible choices at times, but by the time these happened, I connected with her so deeply I understood why she made the choice and was making it along with her. Stay With Me is a fascinating character study and makes me want to read more of Adelbayo’s work.

Because Yejide is the main narrator, I had a biased view of Akin. I felt affection for him early, as he supported Yejide. But as he and Yejide few further apart, I came to pity him, to see him as weak. Here again, this speaks to the power of Adebayo’s narrator. Stay With Me manages to simultaneously present Akin in the way his wife sees him, to have her thoughts color his presentation; yet just enough of his own character shines through here and there in his chapters that you still see him as a fleshed out person. He isn’t merely a foil or a plot device for Yejide’s development. He is his own character and I enjoyed digging for his real personality under Yejide’s assumptions about his motives.

In the discussion Anne hosted with Adebayo for book club, it came up that some people found all of the characters unlikeable and they struggled to finish. I was surprised by this assessment—Yejide and Akin seemed like people to me. Real people are not always likeable. And perpetually likeable characters are boring. Adebayo introduced both Yejide and Akin so thoroughly that I understood why they were making the choices they made; I understood why they were hurt and thus why they hurt others. I didn’t find either of them irredeemable or so distasteful that I wanted to stop reading.

The other fun little note that come up during the discussion is that all Yoruba names mean some thing. For Yejide, anyone who met her would know someone died before she was born—they would assume her grandmother but in Yejide’s case it was actually her mother who died giving birth to Yejide. Akin’s name means a courageous man—an ironic touch the more you get to know him.

Highly Recommended
I feel again that I need to apologize for being so vague—I feel like I’m saying “You should read this book but I can’t tell you why! You just should!” Obvious triggers surrounding child loss notwithstanding, this is a book I highly recommend if you like character-driven books. There are also sufficient events to keep the book moving, with moments of crisis, so even those who need more heavily plot-driven books will find something here to keep them reading. The entirety of the action occurs in Nigeria and Adebayo is herself Nigerian (I believe she said she was Yoruba), making this a book for both #diversebooks and #ownvoies.

Flight Pick — Americanah and the value of listening to books by foreign writers
Anne’s flight pick to read with Stay With Me was Chimamanda Adiche’s Americanah. I actually “read” (listened) to Americanah early in 2017 so I didn’t revisit it last month. I felt like listening to Americanah last year was particularly helpful—there is a cadence to the writing that was accessible to me as a white American reader that wasn’t available if I had only read the book. Indeed, having listening to Americanah I felt like I could read Stay With Me and even Freshwater better—the speech and cadence of the Nigerian English stuck with me and aided my reading. If you haven’t ever listened to an audiobook of a Nigerian writer, I recommend your first book be one you listen to—it will make the experience of that book and subsequent books richer.

Notes
Published: August 22, 2017 by Knopf
Author: Ayobami Adebayo
Date read: March 4, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Featured Photo Credit: Alexis Brown

Review: Educated by Tara Westover

Review: Educated by Tara Westover

I received a digital ARC of this book from Random House on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Random House for their generosity and, because I was fascinated by this book, was happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

I started Educated as part of a buddy-read with Rachel of Reading Brings Joy, thinking I was behind because everyone else had already started. And then I finished the book approximately thirty-six hours later, pausing only to sleep and fulfill my dog-walking duties at the Humane Society. Had I been reading this during the week, I might have called in sick to finish.

Synopsis
Tara Westover grew up off the grid in Idaho, raised by survivalist parents whose distrust of the establishment extended to traditional schooling and medical care, relying instead on an extreme version of Mormonism and faith-healing. In her formative years, Westover endured extreme neglect at the hands of her parents and physical abuse at the hands of an elder brother who was never held to account for his assaults. When Westover was sixteen, she was admitted to Brigham Young University where the world expanded in ways that would leave her irrevocably changed. For Westover these changes were ultimately incompatible with the person her family expected her to be. Educated is the story of how Westover, now a Ph.D. in history, was formed by her childhood experiences, survived them, and even thrived in spite of them.

Every Trigger Warning for Everything, Ever
The story featured in Educated needs every trigger warning. Westover and her siblings suffered pretty severe physical abuse, extreme neglect, and shocking child endangerment. There is some of the most triggering gas-lighting I have ever read and, if memory served, just about the only trigger warning this book doesn’t need is rape—though misogyny and gender-based verbal and physical abuse occurs. For people leaving oppressive faith subcultures, portions of this book may also be triggering as much of the abuse within Westover’s family was cloaked in religious language to excuse the oppressors and justify their actions. While I found this book absolutely fascinating and was able to push past some of these triggers for me, this is not a book to read if you are in a place where you need to be gentle with yourself or are particularly triggered by child abuse, gas-lighting, or spiritual toxicity.

Controversy
The Amazon reviews for this book are a bit different than most since mixed in with the general reviews are reviews submitted by family members and family friends. Several of the family members who are still within the fold gave the book one star and claim it’s all fiction (This is probably half of the current one-star reviews). The boy Westover dated in college, Drew, posted a review and indicates that the sections that are within his knowledge are presented accurately.

Her brother Tyler at one point also posted a review, though his was slightly less congratulatory. He questioned Tara’s recollections of some of the events, though he admitted within the review that he wasn’t there for some of the events she described. He seems to have taken his review down since I can’t find it anymore—if I recall it was a three or four-star review, so overall positive and supportive for her.

Stranger than Fiction
Some of the other negative reviews question the overall veracity of the story. Westover’s memoir is fascinating in a terrifying way—it’s one of those truth-is-stranger than fiction and if this weren’t her real life, her editor would have been telling her to tone it down. I am hoping/assuming that after the Frey debacle many years ago, memoirs like this are more thoroughly fact-checked than they used to be. I’m not bothered by family members still toeing the party line in the Amazon comments, but the book is so fantastic that it screams for a fact-checker to confirm at least the scaffolding of the story—Westover’s absence of a birth certificate, absence in school, lack of a documented medical history, and other things that woud be independently verifiable.

I would also assume (dangerous, I know) that Westover as an academic would understand what it would do to her reputation and career if she were caught fabricating this kind of memoir. It isn’t meant to be an academic exercise but I can’t imagine many prestigious universities want to give tenure to professors or otherwise employ historians caught fabricating New York Times Bestsellers. With this in mind, I’m left with believing Westover’s story as the truth. She’s the victim, she has no real reason to lie, and the consequences of this being fabricated are far too damaging to make it worth the risk to her professionally.

Delivery
Westover’s delivery is matter-of-fact—so matter of fact some reviewers have commented on it sounding almost rote. For a less eventful story, this delivery would have definite drawbacks, chief among them putting the reader to sleep. For Westover’s story, however, it worked. She doesn’t have to use lyrical language or drip adjectives over her sentences to gain attention and doing so would have been overkill here. The action here very much speaks for itself.

With all of the craziness of Westover’s childhood events, the story moves at a pretty quick pace. There are no idylls in the wildflowers, save for the occasional sentence about the woman in the mountain who watched over Westover as she grew up at the foot of the mountain. There aren’t really “slow” parts so much as there are slightly less-shocking moments in between the shocking ones.

The only criticism I have of Westover’s delivery is that it did feel at times like one horror after another. I wondered if there were good times Westover could have shown. I was left with the sense that a kind of Stockholm Syndrome kept her in place, which could certainly be accurate. But even the worst parents can have some redeeming moment—some snippet in time when they are capable of showing love.  I didn’t feel Westover showed the reader any of these times (or if she did, it made no impression and there could have been more). I believe it was hard for Westover to leave—but the hits-keep-coming feeling and the sense of why it was so hard to leave would have been better modulated with a few more moments of levity and love, if they were available for Westover to tell us.

Recommended
Though this is a work of nonfiction, Edcuated is so fast-paced, this work almost served like one of my palate-cleanser thrillers—I gobbled it up and it reset my reading after a string of more literary and slower works. The emotional rollercoaster in the book is work, but the reading of it isn’t. If you are in a place where this book won’t be triggering, this is one I highly recommend.

Notes
Published: February 20, 2018 by Random House (@randomhouse)
Author: Tara Westover
Date read: March 31, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Review: The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky by Jana Casale

Review: The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky by Jana Casale

I received a digital ARC of this book from Knopf on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Knopf for their generosity and, because I enjoyed the book, was happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

She thought of herself as little fragments drifting into the universe into tiny pieces and then she thought of each little fragment as separate and singular to herself, and she could not tell if she were only the fragments or if she were ever anything bigger than that….The last thing she heard was the sound of her own heartbeat, improbably consistent, uniquely her own…The sound of her heart to herself, a sound she’d heard so many times, as sound she barely ever listened to.

Synopsis
Leda is a Boston college student, a daughter, a postgrad, a fiancé in love, a young mother, middle-aged, and then elderly. The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky follows the lifecycle of a woman just beginning her life until she closes her eyes for the last time. In the intervening decades, Casale takes us on a journey of what it means to come of age and then to simply age in a time when what it means to be a woman is constantly in flux.

Identity
At it’s heart, The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky is about the woman we envision ourselves to be when we are young—not as children, but in those college formative years, when the world feels open and full of possibility (assuming of course that you are at least middle class and white—this book probably isn’t going to appeal to you if you aren’t).   As a result of this focus, this book made me uncomfortable, not because of any particular topic touched upon by Casale or even any particular choice Leda makes, but rather, because she reminded me of a time in my life when I wasn’t sure who I was—something that was frankly true until about four years ago. I could be the girl who reads Noam Chomsky. Or, more likely at nineteen, I can be the girl who sees someone reading the book and wants to be the girl who reads Noam Chomsky. The girl who wants that to be how people think of her. Like Leda with the Chomsky book, I carried around an idea of who I was and who I wanted to be for a long time, until life circumstances forced me to accept that the idealized version of myself I was trying to be was killing me. My Noam Chomsky had become the albatross around my neck. We do eventually see Leda settle in to her own skin, though there are times when it is clear that maybe that isn’t something that’s fully possible—there is always someone you’re trying to be, some version of yourself that you want to grow into.

Time
Casale makes a slightly unusual choice for a coming-of-age novel—unlike most novels of this type, Leda is always coming of age—we follow her from one life stage to the next into old age. There is no end to Leda’s growth, she never arrives at any particular, set point and specifically never becomes the woman who reads Noam Chomsky.   The decision to follow Leda through her entire adult life is interesting—the book spans the decades of her entire life, meaning there were times I connected to her and then we passed that point where I could. Indeed, by the sheer nature of the passage of time and changes of Leda, it is hard to imagine that any one reader can fully identify with her. At some point, Leda’s life experiences so outpaced mine that it went from feeling as if I were chatting with a friend over coffee to watching a movie purely as a bystander, with no direct engagement. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing—by the time Leda’s life experiences passed mine, I cared enough about her to keep reading to see where she ended up. I just couldn’t relate any more.

This sprawling narrative did mean that time passed rather more quickly at the end, and I don’t love a novel that accelerates significantly in the last chapters. It was also somewhat awkward in the writing of these last chapters because I thought of Leda as being around my age, placing the end chapters in a future at least forty years from now. With the rate at which technology is developing and changing the way we interact, it meant the Casale had to keep some of the background and action here necessarily vague. This wasn’t a novel about the future—it was a novel about growth that by necessity had scenes in an unknown future. Casale had taken Leda so far that she was almost duty-bound to finish with her, but the constraints of the unknown future impacted these chapters and gave them less depth than the more hearty chapters in the middle of the book.

Feminism
In a world where woman are told to stand up for themselves and to stop apologizing, it is easy to feel as if the expectations of being a feminist are just as hard to fulfill as the ones we’re supposed to be escaping from. Casale captures this tension with Leda—Leda shouldn’t want to move across the country for her partner’s job, and yet she does. Does this make her a bad feminist? When she has a daughter, she doesn’t want her daughter to want the Barbies, but is it feminist or anti-feminist to steer her away from what she loves to something less symbolic of the constraints of womanhood we are supposed to be escaping from? Sometimes being a woman is exhausting—you will almost certainly always being disappointing someone on both ends of the spectrum here, too burn-your-bra for the patriarchy but still too barefoot-and-pregnant for the feminists. It is simultaneously a liberating and constraining time to be alive and Casale captures this tension in relatable ways with Leda’s development.

Style
The initial choppy writing style threw me off at first and if this weren’t a book I had gotten on Netgalley and felt I had to push through to review, I likely would have stopped after a chapter or two. As Leda ages, her voice becomes more confident and the choppy style diminishes, settling into a more readable rhythm. All that to say, the writing isn’t going to win any awards but the style choices that make it more difficult to read initially do fade into a more standard, flowing narrative. It is nowhere near as terrible as Lilac Girls, my evergreen measuring stick for subpar writing.  Casale really started to hit her stride for me when she started describing the pretentious hipsters who populated Leda’s writing seminar in Chapter Six—the chapters are short and it is worth pushing through to this point. I’m not usually a proponent of pushing through if you don’t have to, but I do think this book takes some time to settle in to and it’s fair to give it at least eighty pages before you decide to abandon Leda.

Verdict?
In the end, this is a book that I wound up enjoying and would rate as better than average. I wouldn’t recommend this book widely, rather its one of those books that I would recommend to specific people after knowing them and having a feel for their reading lives.

Notes
Published: April 17, 2018 by Knopf (@aaknopf) available for pre-order now
Author: Jana Casale (@janacasale)
Date Read: January 27, 2018
Rating: 3 ¼ stars

Review: The Line Becomes A River by Francisco Cantu

Review: The Line Becomes A River by Francisco Cantu

Synopsis
The Line Becomes A River is a memoir of Francisco Cantu’s short time with the border patrol, both as a boots-on-the-ground agent and as an intelligence officer. In the years after he left, Cantu befriended an undocumented man and his family—the last third of the book is the story of his interactions with them and the immigration system. Peppered throughout the memoir are policy and historical vignettes about the border.

Conflict
I am having a hard time deciding how I feel about The Line Becomes a River. Before I read it, I knew that activists had disrupted his planned appearance at BookPeople in Austin, protesting his making money off of his experience in the Border Patrol tearing families apart. The impression I had from the article was that at least some of these people hadn’t read the book and were protesting the fact that he had participated in the Border Patrol at all, destroying families and being complicit in the system that has caused thousands of deaths of individuals trying to cross in the deserts at the hands of unscrupulous coyotes. I get this criticism but if individuals who participated in the Border Patrol are not allowed to tell their stories (which would seem to be the logical end of this argument), then we never hear from an entire side of people about what’s going on in on the ground in one of the most contentious, debated places in this country. Having read The Line Becomes a River and listened to how Cantu was unable to continue his work, how he was not able to keep participating in this system, I am less concerned with protesting this aspect of the book.

My biggest concern with this book—and the one that makes me say this is either a four-star read or a one-star read—is that the entire last third of the book tells the story of Cantu’s friend Jose—but I have no idea whether Cantu had permission to tell this story. After leaving the Border Patrol, Cantu works at a coffee shop while studying for his maters degree and befriends a man named Jose Martinez. Jose is undocumented, though he has been in the country long enough to benefit from deferred action against him if he doesn’t leave…except his mother living in Mexico is dying so he does what any family man would do and he leaves. His is apprehended on his way back and Cantu throws himself into trying to help Jose with an immigration claim, including long trips to take Jose’s sons to see him in detention. During this section, Cantu reads from letters submitted by Jose’s friends and family as part of his immigration claim. It was at this point that serious questions arose for me as to whether Cantu had permission to tell this story. While it would be an invasion of Jose’s privacy to tell some of this story before this point, Cantu was speaking of his own experience, of things within his own knowledge. When he begins to read the letters, the only way Cantu could do this is if he copied them, intending them for this kind of use since the letters intended recipient was the immigration judge and its not clear Cantu had permission to read them, much less copy and reproduce them in a book he will benefit monetarily from. I have searched and cannot find the answer, though the fact that Cantu is silent in his thanks and afterward about Jose makes me worry he did not have permission. If anyone can find this answer, I’d love to be able to settle on how I feel about this book.

But Four Stars?
From a purely literary standpoint, the book is marvelously done. I listened to the audio, read by the author. While I can’t recommend him for a second career as an audiobook performer, he did well with his book—lending weight where he wanted it, though the reading was a bit more halting than polished at points. He intersperses his narrative with facts and vignettes from social science studies, providing historical and policy frames of reference for his personal experience. He is a masterful writer of his own experience—his writing is simultaneously beautiful and haunting in places while also being relatable, even for someone who has no personal experience of any kind with the border. It is like nothing else I have ever read and it feels like a necessary read for a layperson trying to understand the border debates.

Morality and Solutions
At its heart, The Line Becomes a River is a memoir—Cantu doesn’t claim to be making wide-reaching arguments about the Border Patrol or immigration policy and enforcement except to be saying that the system doesn’t work—an argument that anyone can agree with (albeit for different reasons) regardless of your place on the political spectrum. As with any police force, the Border Patrol pulls people who want to be kind and fair (Cantu paints himself this way) as well as the bad apples who lean toward the sadistic, and the full-range of the spectrum in between. Indeed, embedded within Cantu’s narrative here are confessions of cruelties that even he commits—destroying caches of migrants’ water and food so that when they return for their water in the blistering, deathly desert, they will find none and be motivated to turn themselves in. Glossed over here is the equally likely choice they will make to press on—desperate people do desperate things and no one crosses the border in a desert without desperation driving them.

As someone who lives in Texas, the border debates feel literally close to home. Living in Austin (the blueberry in the tomato soup, if you’re inclined to gross culinary metaphors), the political bent I’m exposed to tends towards the more liberal. I have clients who will be impacted by the loss of DACA and know people who were at one time illegally in this country. There is a fierce debate raging over the treatment of a detainee who has been sexually assaulted at a detention center approximately thirty minutes from here. In this sense, my only frustration is that Cantu doesn’t go farther in his book and suggest a solution. This is laudable on the one hand, since The Line Becomes a River doesn’t become Hillbilly Elegy with its gross over-allegories. On the other hand, the I want a solution. I don’t know that I want an up-close version of both sides of the debate with no idea how to solve it.

Summary
Because it is not clear whether he had permission, it is hard for me not to feel like this book is, as the protestors at BookPeople alleged, exploitative. While I am not pro-Border Patrol in its current form, I think there is value in Cantu’s story of his experiences—how else do we learn what is really going on there if not from someone who was on the inside—especially someone who is able to see that what he did was not ethical. But here is the line for me—it is one thing for Cantu to be complicit in the system and write to expose that system. It is another to befriend a specific person and then exploit him to the extent Cantu does in the last third of his book if he did not have permission to tell this story. Where the macro exploitation seems excusable for the larger good of exposing this story, the micro hits too close to home for me to make excuses for Cantu as a writer. This ultimately isn’t a book I can recommend in good conscience without knowing the answer to whether Jose granted Cantu permission to share this intimate portrait of his life.

Notes
Published: February 6, 2018 by Riverhead Books (@riverheadbooks)
Author: Francisco Cantu
Date read: March 27, 2018
Rating:1 or 4 stars

March 2018 Wrap-Up

March 2018 Wrap-Up

March wound up being a bit of a scattershot for me—rather than sticking to my reading plan, I threw the rules out the window—I know. Who am I?—and read what I felt like reading. I did read Force of Nature, I Was Anastasia, The Hazel Wood, Stay With Me, Lab Girl, and Freshwater as planned. I started but abandoned Oliver Loving­—not a bad book, just not the right book last month for me. I still didn’t get to Priestdaddy and, though I flipped through it, I couldn’t bring myself to care about reading the middle grade Diverse Books Club offering this month, Finding Wonders. I started but have not finished On the Road, Gloria Steinem’s memoir. I wound up adding a few unplanned books to the reading/listening—The Romanov Sisters, Educated, When They Call You a Terrorist, The Good House, The Line Becomes A River, and This Will Be My Undoing.

Force of Nature
Force of Nature is the second offering from Australian Jane Harper and continues to follow Detective Aaron Falk (or whatever Australians call detectives—I don’t have the book anymore as I had to return it to the library.) This one seemed to follow Aaron less (a little less need to introduce him to the reader in the second book) and stuck fairly close to the story of a team-building camping trip gone very, very wrong. I use mystery/thrillers like palate cleansers—when I’ve read a lot of heavy books and don’t want to think too hard and just want entertainment, they’re perfect. With this in mind, Force of Nature was a fun diversion with a few twists that kept it from being predictable. The Australian setting, particularly this time, felt like an exotic adventure from my couch. I think each of Harper’s books stands alone and don’t necessarily need to be read in order, though knowing who Falk is from the first book made the second easier to read—without it, I’m not sure you’d care as much about him.

 

The Romanov Sisters
I Was Anastasia left me wanting to know more about the Romanovs so I wound up picking up The Romanov Sisters from the library after I finished that one. I think almost to the day that I finished reading Lawhon’s book, Anne Bogel posted a match up recommending it as a companion read. I took it as fate and picked it up. It was a bit dense for a pleasure read—Rappaport heavily footnotes her sources (as she should!) and uses extensive quotes. It was surprisingly readable for what it was, which felt much more like an academic text than a narrative nonfiction meant for a mass audience. I’m not sorry I read it since this is a gaping hole in my historical knowledge, but it was kind of niche—I’m not sure how knowing about three year old Alexey Romanov is going to help me in the future.

I noted in my review of I Was Anastasia that there was less treatment of Nicholas II’s moral failings than I would have liked at the point I was in the book. Rappaport did wind up addressing these briefly, though not as much as I think it probably merited, particularly since she made a point to mention at the end that his image had been rehabilitated somewhat in that the entire Romanov family had been designated as victims of repression. This can be true—no one deserves to be summarily executed in a basement; however, it would be easy to read that book and see the entire Romanov family as a victim when Nicholas had some culpability in the catastrophic failure of his government and the resulting revolution.

The Good House
The Good House had one of the best audiobook narrators and one of the plots I cared about the least. I literally kept listening for the voice, though I couldn’t bring myself to care that much about the actual story or main character, Hildy Good. If you enjoy unreliable narrators and characters you alternately cheer for and hate, The Good House is a solid character study and a book you may enjoy it..I just couldn’t get into it.

 

The Numbers
I know, this section is why you’re still here. I thank you for being as invested in this information as I am. Overall I finished eight physical books and five audiobooks in March for a total of 2569 pages read and 30 hours and 15 minutes listening. That puts us at 8602 pages for the year, and 114 hours, 23 minutes listening, kids. Thanks for playing along.

Only one of the books this month did I already own, though I now own the ARC of Educated so we’re going to count that as two books for #theunreadshelfproject. I also took a few books to the Half Price Books because the only thing harder than reading all the unread books is giving some of them away, thereby bringing that number down.

April Showers
I’ve already actually finished two books this month—the emotionally moving but quick Monster and Home Fire which just jumped into my top ten books of all time list. Katherine (@kathareads) is doing a buddy-read of Pachinko with #readwithkat so I’ll be finally getting to that one this month. The Diverse Books Club focus this month is on Poverty with Salvage the Bones (another that’s been on my TBR! And will count for #theunreadshelfproject) and Crenshaw as the picks. I’d like to add Evicted into the list since that’s been on my TBR and I think will fold nicely into that theme. I’ve got an ARC of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics as well as The Last Equation of Isaac Severy and the The Queen of Hearts from the library. That list will probably keep me busy for most of the month!

Are you reading anything fun this month? I’d love to hear what you’re enjoying these days. <3

Featured image credit: Sushobhan Badhai

Three Books That Confronted My Privilege, March 2018

Three Books That Confronted My Privilege, March 2018

One of the things I have tried to do with my reading over the last year or so is to read diverse voices, particularly diverse non-fiction. I don’t want to only read books where I already agree with everything the author proposes, nor do I want to put a book down solely because it makes me uncomfortable where the thing that is making me uncomfortable is a person of color talking about their own experience. (Books like My Absolute Darling where a white man uses the c-word too much, however, are perfect examples of when I should put a book down just because it makes me uncomfortable). With that in mind, I recently finished three books by Black authors—We Were Eight Years in Power by journalist/author Ta-Nehisi Coates, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and This Will Be My Undoing by essayist Morgan Jerkins. I am not going to pretend that as a white woman I am qualified to “review” them, instead what I hope to achieve here is a summary of each so that you can decide if these are books that would challenge you and your privilege if you read them as well. All three are valuable recent books.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Coates’s most recent offering is a compilation of the essays he wrote for The Atlantic during the eight years of Obama’s presidency, one per year, with commentary of what was going on in his life and the life of many black Americans during each of the eight years. Because the essays were originally magazine articles, there is some repetition among them of certain points or common phrases that, if this were a book of essays, would likely have been edited to fit better. None of the thoughts or arguments that were repeated were long, so the repetition didn’t bother me as a reader, nor did it cause me to go into skim mode. It was just noticeable.   The introductions to each article were interesting in that, while the context was helpful, Coates also comments on the following article—things he wished he had done differently, whether some of his points or predictions held up, and general criticism of his work. As a reader, this was a strange device and it made me wish that the “intro” essays followed the pieces instead. His critique of his own work colored how I read the article and I wished before some of them that I had a chance to form my opinion before reading his hindsight-critique.

Though I read this book weeks ago, two of the essays in particular have stuck with me. The first and one that I didn’t expect to agree with as much as I ultimately did was his article on the Case for Reparations. I grew up in a conservative household and, until relatively recently, regurgitated arguments I’d heard growing up about the evils of affirmative action. For someone who grew up thinking affirmative action was a bad idea, reparations are essentially anathema. While I’ve come around on affirmative action, admittedly my thoughts on reparations before reading this article were generally along the lines of—we probably do owe them something but it would be impossible so why are we spending time on this? The Case for Reparations set out a history I was unfamiliar with, including the history of systemic discrimination on the part of the US government to prevent African Americans home ownership while enabling white families to purchase homes. Where homes are the most common source of wealth and wealth-building in this county, this set African Americans back generations. I found myself convinced by the end of Coates’s argument that, at a minimum, we need to actually study the feasibility of determining what is owed to whom and how that could be brought about.

The other essay that stuck with me was one I remember skimming in parts when I came out in The Atlantic but didn’t read in its entirety until this book. The Black Family In the Age of Mass Incarceration set out a history of how we find ourselves with the largest incarcerated population of any first world country, with vastly disproportionate rates of incarceration between whites and blacks with the same backgrounds. I assumed that the article was going to make a similar argument as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Coates’s argument, however, doesn’t go quite as far as Alexander’s. As with reparations, he does explain how government policies created disparate treatment between the two races that resulted in higher rates of incarceration of blacks and he explains how the current paid prison system only serves to reinforce the high rates of incarceration. (In a nutshell—when prison becomes a business, bodies become the commodities that must be obtained at high rates to keep the business open. And the bodies that draw the least criticism to consume are Black bodies.)

While many of the articles are still available online, there was a power in reading them together with Coates’s thoughts on each year of the Obama presidency, including critique of Obama’s failure to do more for African Americans who won him the presidency and the respectability politics he seemed unwilling to depart from. In some ways, the most powerful essay in the book was the prologue, written after the “black-lash” against the second Obama term that resulted in the election of what Coates calls the First White President. The compilation of all of these articles together along with the essays that introduce them and close the book, make it worth getting a copy of the book and not just re-reading the articles online. This was one of a handful of books that before I’d even finished my library copy, I’d ordered my own to keep.

Notes
Published: October 3, 2017 by One World
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Date read: February 18, 2018

When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir

The focus of probably the first half of When They Call You a Terrorist was not what I expected since Khan-Cullors’s recollections seemed more about her brother’s experience with an inadequate public and prison mental health system than it did on her brother’s blackness. Which is not to say that his blackness was ignored or even that his blackness didn’t greatly affect the way the mental health and law enforcement systems responded to him. I simply didn’t know much about Khan-Cullors before listening (I think literally the only thing I could recall hearing about was her partner’s being detained trying to come into the country from Canada) and so did not expect the lengthy discussion of mental illness. Her compassion for her brother and the way the family tried to treat him and have others treat him with as little force as possible made me hurt for her. (Khan-Cullors reads the book herself, which added to the tragedy inherent in many of the sections.) Because so much of the first half of the book is simultaneously a study of being black and having a mental illness, I would go so far as to say that if you’re interested in hearing about the lived experience of trying to obtain mental health care in a broken system, this is a powerful book for that alone.

Khan-Cullors lived experience was about as diametrically opposed to mine as possible, with the idea of “organizing” being something I don’t think I had heard of in any real sense before Obama came along (and then probably in a discussion of how he wasn’t “qualified” since that was all he had done). In contrast to my privileged and sheltered life, Khan-Cullors was reared in an atmosphere of social organizing, going to a school that focused on social justice issues, and having a diverse group of friends—both racially and on the gender spectrum.

I have literally nothing negative to say about this book because it is her lived experience and, unlike say J.D. Vance, she doesn’t use random anecdotes from her life to cast aspersions on an entire group of people. Khan-Cullors sticks pretty closely to her own story and, in doing so, comes across as credible—one can disagree with her politics but you can’t argue that this was her life.  The audiobook features a short interview with Khan-Cullors after the book where she says that one of her goals was to write a “truth-telling, healing-justice” story. She succeeded.

Notes
Published: January 16, 2018 by St. Martin’s Press
Author: Patrice Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele
Date read: March 8, 2018

This Will Be My Undoing: Living At the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America

Admittedly, of the three books featured here, this one probably made me the most uncomfortable, but mostly because I don’t read very many books that prominently feature essays about labia and vibrators. Which, let me quickly add, were not mentioned for shock value—this wasn’t a book that I felt like I wanted to put down because it veered into the gross-Lena-Dunham-esque territory. There were just a few moments of “oh—I don’t know that I’d talk about that publicly but here we go.”  I will say, this book probably made me the most uncomfortable of the three, though it was an uncomfortable that, like Hunger, was probably good for me to sit with.

Jerkins book is, like Coates, a series of essays—this was a bit of a mixed-bag for me. Each essay stood alone which made the audiobook easier to put down and pick back up but it also meant the stories jumped around in time a bit. The vision I had of Jerkins and her experience at one point in the book was changed when she revealed some piece of her early upbringing in a later essay. I wouldn’t call this book a favorite but it is a book I’m absolutely glad that I read—as I mentioned before, I want to push the boundaries of what I find comfortable and I want to specifically read more memoirs and essays from people of color about what it is like to have lived in their shoes—as Jerkins says, at the intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in White America. I recommend this book specifically because it did make me uncomfortable and because Jerkins’s voice is like none other I’ve heard. For someone so young (oh god, the authors are starting to be younger than I am!), she has a powerful voice and I look forward to seeing what is to come from her.

Notes
Published: January 20, 2018 by Harper Perennial
Author: Morgan Jerkins
Date read: March 19, 2018

Header photo credit: Daniel Garcia