Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Book That's Not For Me

One of my goals for the past several years, and again this year, is to read “the book that’s not for me,” as NPR put it in an article in mid-November about a way to bridge the divide. As a cis hetero white woman, there’s a sizable number of books that ARE for me. But reading books about people whose experiences and beliefs and struggles are different from my own makes me a more educated, critical thinking, empathetic, and loving person.

This seeking out of the book that’s not for me comes in conjunction with asking myself these questions: What am I actively doing in order to do and be better? How am I actively seeking ways to understand people who are different from me? How can I think more critically about my privilege and previous assumptions? Part of this comes in being vocal and forthright in my views, and reaching out to my representatives to urge them to represent my interests. Part of this comes in paying attention to voices that challenge me on my privilege and whether or not I’m truly being an ally. And part of it comes in reading diverse books by and about diverse people. Especially in the current climate, when facts seem to be less important and the experiences of people different from ourselves seem to have no value, I am going to reject that notion and do as much as I can in the other direction.

So in that vein, I wanted to share the first books on my list this year, which I'll most likely finish in the first quarter of the year. Many of these I pulled from lists about diverse books, authors of color, and/or lists about background/history, so for those that I can remember the list they came from, I have included a link.

You can also check out my video where I talk a little bit about each of the books.



Here are the books on my list.

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin.

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Y. Davis. I got this from the Bust Top 20 Books of 2016 list.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois. I purchased this after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates many references to DuBois' writing in Between the World and Me.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This has been on my list for the several years since it came out.
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi. This was on basically all the lists, but I finally bought it because John Green recommended it in his sort of best of 2016 vlog.
Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America by Kali Nicole Gross. This also came from the BUST Top 20 Books of 2016 list.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right: A Journey to the Heart of our Political Divide by Arlie Russell Hochschild. I got this from the NPR article that I mentioned, about reading the book that's not for you.
Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded by Hannah Hart.
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg.
Do you have any books that I should add to my list? Leave them in the comments.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Grown Up Anytime Reading!

A few years ago, some friends and I were waxing nostalgic about the days when we could participate in the summer reading program with the library. As a result, we decided to put together our own grown up summer reading program. I wrote a bit about it on the blog lo those many moons ago. (Our local library now does a grown up version of the summer reading program, but we were way ahead of them.)

Structured sort of like a book club, we select agreed upon subjects/categories and then all choose our own books within those categories.

Recently, many of us got together for a game night and remembered that time, and decided rather than setting a time limit on our program, we'd just leave it open-ended, but still take the journey together, at whatever pace works for everyone individually. God, I love my friends.

Here is my stack of books, with some more information:




  • 90s/Nostalgic childhood read: Boxcar Children and Animorphs. The first two of each of these series.
  • How-to: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I heard about this book a lot while working at the National Writing Project, so I'm glad to finally be reading it!
  • Journey: Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I've consumed Tiny Beautiful Things, which is the only way to explain my relationship with that book. I treat books as sacred things, but my copy of Tiny Beautiful Things is dog-eared and highlighted and annotated. It gives me life and inspiration. All that said, I still haven't read this one, so huzzah.
  • Sci-fi/fantasy (by POC): The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. I've read her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy and I loved it. Looking forward to getting into this series.
  • Book of poetry: The New Clean by Jon Sands.
  • By Stephen King: The Gunslinger, the first book in the Dark Tower series. I had to find one that wasn't going to set my already overactive imagination into overdrive, and I've already read Different Seasons, so...
  • Graphic novel: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. This one also worked out well, since The 5th Avenue Theatre (where I work in Marketing) is hosting the tour of the Fun Home musical next spring. I've listened to the soundtrack but I'm excited to read the source material.
  • Self help: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I know, I'm feeling a little...not pumped for this one, but it's been on my shelf for approximately a million years so in that regard I'll be glad to at least cross it off the list.
  • Nonfiction in politics/international relations: The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I'm considering this on the politics side, even though it's more political history than current events. (Though that wasn't necessarily a requirement for this category.) Also I just love Doris Kearns Goodwin. I read Team of Rivals a few years ago and it was amazeballs.
  • Science in astronomy/physics/etc.: Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Yay!

I have one category that is not represented here. I'm planning on reading You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson (who I know from 2 Dope Queens, an amazing and hilarious podcast she co-hosts with Jessica Williams). The book is being released on October 4, so I have to wait to add that to my stack. (Already preordered!)

More about the whole thing in this vlog!



Looking forward to getting started! 
Do you have other books you would recommend in these categories?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America's Diverse Families—Lori L. Tharps

By examining the ways different families from different ethnic groups confront and deal with skin color differences in the intimate space of the home, we can see where, when, how, and why color bias beings or ends and why it takes hold of some people while others are able to shrug it off like yesterday's news. We can see why a dark child in a Latino family scrubs herself with bleach every night so people understand she is her mother's child. We can see why a blond-haired, blue-eyed biracial girl covers her face with her Black mother's makeup so people recognize she is her mother's child. Colorism isn't just public statistics; it is also private agony that influences identity formation, self-esteem, and personal relationships. (13)

I received this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program, which is one of my favourite things in the world. I love books, I especially love free books, and I love that  as a relative plebeian in the world, I still have the opportunity to get some ARCs. (Some authors receive stacks of ARCS per week. I would love to get there someday.)

I was stoked to win a copy of this book. While I have not personally been affected by colorism, I have close friends who have, and the issues examined within this book have been near the forefront of my mind for a while. As someone who is constantly looking to be more aware, to be more intersection in my causes, Same Family, Different Colors offers a look at a fairly taboo topic which is nonetheless incredibly present in many people's lives. As evidenced by the excerpt above, colorism within families and in America at large can have a devastating impact. If the idea of a child scrubbing themselves with bleach in an attempt to fit in and be recognized and identified with the rest of their family is not heartbreaking to you, you might want to check yourself.

This book was perfectly toned for me, with just the right ratio of personal anecdotes, interviews with individuals and families about their experiences, and historical context for why colorism might affect the four main types of families included (African Americans, Asian families, Latino families, and multiracial families). As a history nerd and someone who received a degree in History, there were some pieces of historical context that I knew, of course, but were presented in such a new light, in consideration of how that past might have led to this present where colorism is a real experience for people. For example, the idea that white men were willing and eager to marry African or Native women because of the lack of white women in the colonies, but if the law sanctioned those marriages, it would be implying that African and Native people were human. And then, of course, it would be much harder to justify the enslavement and mass slaughter of those groups. I've never heard that fact of history stated in quite that way before, and it was quite a revelation for me.

I shared some more general thoughts about the book in my vlog.



I would definitely recommend this to anyone who is interested in race and color in the United States. This book is being released in early October, and is available for pre-order at Amazon here.

Thanks again to LibraryThing, and to Beacon Press, for the ARC of this book! And thank you to the author, Lori L. Tharps, for writing this difficult and essential book. Please note that excerpts in both the blog and the vlog are from an uncorrected proof, and may be changed in the final bound version.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Adventurers Wanted: Slathbog's Gold—M.L. Forman

"Your pledge is fulfilled, and your honor is enlarged." (359)

Time for another installment of "I did not like that book"! This one is Adventurers Wanted: Slathbog's Gold by M.L. Forman. A fifteen-year-old Alex Taylor sees an ad in a window for an adventurer. Weirdly, he seems to be the only one who sees it. Looking for a change, but not really expecting anything too grand, Alex is in for a surprise. Upon entering the store, Alex is signed on as the eighth and final member of a team of adventurers seeking the immense treasure of Slathbog the Red, a notoriously bloodthirsty and greedy dragon. He enters a land where adventuring is common, where mythical creatures are everywhere, and where he thrives.

I got this book a few years ago at a Scholastic Warehouse sale. (Side note: If you don't know what a Scholastic Warehouse sale is, here's the rundown. Every quarter or so, Scholastic—that place that had the bookfairs at your school when you were a kid—attempt to purge their leftover stock by having a huge warehouse sale. Most things are 50% off, though more popular things are usually closer to 25% off. AND if you volunteer during the warehouse sale, they give you $10 worth of book credit for every hour you work. It's pretty awesome, and they actually have some good books in addition to these ones that are less so. Click here to find out more about the Warehouse Sales, and find one near you.) To be honest, it's been sitting on my shelf for at least two years, and I probably didn't read the synopsis when I bought it but instead judged the book by its cover. To be fair, I love the cover art for the rest of the books in this series too. I can't speak to the content, because I don't imagine I'll ever continue in the series. Anyway, all that to say, I don't feel too bad about not having loved this book because I only paid $4 or nothing for it, depending on whether or not I volunteered that season.

If you're looking for a young adult adventure book, with absolutely no other qualifications, and you don't mind that it's not too inventive or new, then this is an adequate book for that.

However, if you're a tad more discerning, as I am, here are some of my beefs with this book:


IT'S SO CLEARLY TRYING TO BE THE HOBBIT/LORD OF THE RINGS

Don't get me wrong, I love The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I love Tolkien. I love the movies, even though not everybody thought The Hobbit movies were great, I don't even care. There is so much worldbuilding that goes into Tolkien's stories, there is so much thought and development, and we actually care about the characters.

This felt like a really cheap rip off, and honestly fell short in a lot of areas where Tolkien's books shine.

One thing that shows this deficiency is that there is never any actual danger. As I'll mention later, Alex always seems to know that everything is going to work out fine. The one point where they think potentially one of their group is going to die is not that suspenseful, because Alex "somehow" knows it's all going to work out. This is something that other fantasy/YA books do well—if it never feels like there's an actual threat, especially with such heightened stakes, I essentially have no reason to care about these characters. In The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the threat of danger is real, and in fact members of the group are lost. Because that's a reality of life. People die. People get left behind. This is also a strength of something like the Harry Potter series. Imagine how much less impactful the series would have been if EVERYONE had somehow survived. Not only less impactful, but just really boring.

Another is that we spend this whole journey waiting for them to confront Slathbog the dragon—partially because, you know, that's the title of the book—and then the whole battle is over within about two pages. SO. BORING.


A DISTINCT LACK OF CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT ON ALL FRONTS

This is true not least in reference to our protagonist, Alex Taylor. Alex, who joins a group of seven other adventurers, is so much of a Gary Stu, it's boring as fuck. He's a wizard AND a warrior, because of course he is, even though that's basically unheard of int he land where they're adventuring. Then when he starts getting into magic, he's basically amazing at it, obvs. He essentially saves the day anytime there is a day that needs saving, even though the other members of his party have decades if not centuries more experience adventuring and getting out of jams. He insists on them splitting the treasures from these jams he saves them from evenly, even though that's not how it works with adventuring, and instead of it seeming like actual humility or wanting to share with his fellows, it just seems super annoying and humblebraggy. They are sent on a side quest by the Oracle, who wants them to find this crystal amongst the dragon's hoard. They can't find it and can't find it, and then Alex just wants it REALLY BAD and it just appears in front of him. We also find out at the end that *SPOILER ALERT* Alex is not actually human at all but some kind of human/elf/dwarf hybrid thing? Because, once again, of course he is.

Alex also seems to be omniscient among other things, because he always "somehow" knows that everyone is going to be alright, or "somehow" knows that he'll return someday to see new friends. It's just a super lazy way of the author foreshadowing for the audience what will be happening in future books in the series. Get out.

Beyond that, we get almost no development of any of the other main seven characters. I don't know anything about their past, I don't know much about their present, I have no reason to care about them. There's something to be said for allowing some growth across a series, but you have to start somewhere. And if you don't give me enough information in the first book to want to read the other ones, then you've saved all of your future character development for later books in vain.


CLUNKY DIALOGUE

Although Alex was a modern 15-year-old kid, he had the vocabulary and cadence of a medieval knight. Like what? 

There were also just weird moments, exemplified with dialogue. Check out the vlog for a prime example of this between Alex and Arconn after Alex has discovered his destiny as the best/only wizard/warrior of all time.


MISCELLANEOUS COMPLAINTS

Another, rather small issue in comparison to those other overarching things was a particular, albeit small, plot point. One of their company, Tayo, is injured and they're not sure if he's going to survive (although they sort of are because Alex "somehow" knows that he's going to be fine. But in the meantime, another of their company Andy basically comes whining to Alex about how his family owes Tayo's family a debt of honor.

"My family owes Tayo a debt of honor," [Andy] said softly. "Long ago he saved my father's life, and we have not been able to repay him.""Tayo is the honor holder, and you fear he will die before you can repay him," said Alex, feeling Andy's sorrow."It is more than that," said Andy, his eyes remaining on Tayo. "If the debt is not repaid, my family will lose honor forever. A black mark will be placed against us in the records of our land." (323-324)
First of all, that's a great example of how modern 15-year-olds do NOT talk.

Second of all, THEY THINK THEIR FRIEND IS DYING AND ALL ANDY CAN THINK ABOUT IS THAT HE MIGHT HAVE A BLACK MARK ON HIS FAMILY'S HONOR? That's cold, man. And not exactly in the spirit of camaraderie and adventuring. That seemed really shitty.

Also, and I don't want to be the PC police, but can we just be done associating goodness or evil with certain colours? The Oracle is known as The Oracle in the White Tower, and of course she's super wise and virginal and pure. Couldn't she just be The Oracle? Or The Oracle in the Tower of Enlightenment? Ugh.

For more of my thoughts, check out this vlog.




Monday, August 29, 2016

Dark Witch—Nora Roberts

Boyle McGrath. She said his name in her head, and thought: You could be trouble for me, and I’m so interested when it comes to trouble. (88)

This was the alt pick for Vaginal Fantasy book club for August 2016. (Yay, Vaginal Fantasy!)

I don't think I've actually read anything by Nora Roberts before, which feels kind of surprising since I do a lot of reading, and a fair amount of reading of "fluffy" stuff, and she's a not insignificant writer in the genre. Anyway, for the most part, I quite enjoyed this first in the trilogy about the O'Dwyer cousins and their magic. There were some predictable moments, there were some annoying moments, there was one fairly offensive moment, but overall pretty solid.

In this book, our hero and heroine love match are Iona and Boyle. There were a lot of things that I appreciated about Iona, but Boyle was a bit stereotypical romance novel male for me. I'm much more interested in Connor, Iona's cousin. As I say in my vlog, I literally made a note when we first meet him saying, "I love him already." This is the exchange that cinched it for me:


[Iona] “Like a dream. I slept too much of the day away yesterday. Obviously, I’m making up for it. You don’t mind me moving in?”[Connor] “Why would I? We’ll be taking turns as bottle washers, so that’s one for me.” (74)

He just seemed so playful and goofy and optimistic, but also loving and responsible. Yes please. Here's another good one:


[Iona] "You were boys together? You and Fin and Boyle.”[Connor] “Still are.” (110)

Bahaha. Love it. A man who can admit to everyone that he's really a boy, and make a joke about it? Sign. Me. Up.

Anyway, I imagine that I'll read the other two in the trilogy eventually, but I'm not in a super hurry. I'm more interested in the relationships (and, I'll be honest, the sexy times within those relationships) than I am by the actual plot of the magical battle and whatnot.

Hear more of my thoughts in my vlog!


A Court of Thorns and Roses—Sarah J. Maas

"He spat in her face, and she laughed. She said he had seven times seven years before she claimed him, before he had to join her Under the Mountain. If he wanted to break her curse, he need only find a human girl willing to marry him. But not any girl—a human with ice in her heart, with hatred for our kind. A human girl willing to kill a faerie." The ground rocked beneath me, and I was grateful for the wall I leaned against. "Worse, the faerie she killed had to be one of his men, sent across the wall by him like lambs to slaughter. The girl could only be brought here to be courted if she killed one of his men in an unprovoked attack—killed him for hatred alone, just as Jurian had done to Clythia...So he could understand her sister's pain." (283)

This was the alt pick for the Vaginal Fantasy book club for July 2016. (Guys, don't be thrown by the name! It's a really awesome, mostly online book club started by nerd queen Felicia Day and co. And there are men and women in the club. It's for everyone!) I didn't have any idea going into this one that it's a fractured fairy tale version of Beauty and the Beast, but it becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly. I might go back and read the second one, but I'm in no hurry. (Though I do want to know what happens with Rhys...)

Here are some more of my in-depth thoughts about the book, which I really enjoyed.



I gave this one a 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, which is actually quite rare for me. (For reference, I've rated 96 of the 701 books that I've read/tracked on Goodreads as 5 stars, which is about 14%.) Check it out! I'm a total sucker for fractured fairy tales, so this one was right up my alley.

If you like this one, I would also recommend Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It's got that same fairy tale vibe, but is a bit less mainstream of a story.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest—Gregg Olsen

From that moment, he no longer saw the living human skeleton he had first seen at the Tacoma Hotel. Gone were the weeping recessed eyes, the lips that had been stretched over teeth like a taut rubber strip. Gone was the vague acrid odor.
He saw a lovely woman. (275)

I came across the story of Dr. Linda Hazzard, and found it incredibly interesting, as a history nerd and a native Washingtonian. Though we seem to have more than our share of serial killers, I'd never heard anything about this moment in history before.

When I went to find more information, I discovered that this was the only book about Linda Hazzard, and then felt incredibly conflicted as I made my way through it. I find the case so fascinating, but the book was so abysmal, I could barely finish it. Now I want to go back and rewrite it the right way.

Here are some of my thoughts. It's crazy, even removing a bunch of things that really bothered me, this video is still 13.5 minutes long...After the video are some of the things that I didn't have time/space for in the video.




So, here again are my three biggest issues with the book, and a bit more about each of them that I wasn't able to share.

HISTORICAL ASPECT

There are no references or "further readings" or annotations of any sort. As a history nerd (and more specifically someone who studied and majored in history at university), this was a red flag for me.

Olsen would often tell us how particular people are feeling. Here's an example:
The next day was enveloped in a fog. It was the kind of day in which time moves achingly in its slowness. Dora Williamson took her internal bath in the morning, dribbled a couple of teaspoons of asparagus broth down her throat, and lay on a table while Dr. Hazzard worked her over with an osteopathic treatment. Little was said. Little could be said. Claire was gone. In her weakness, the world was spinning out of control. Dora wondered how it could have happened. Why it happened. She wished she could flip back the pages of the calendar to that fateful day in Victoria at the Empress Hotel when she and her sister read Fasting for the Cure of Disease. If only she hadn't gushed enthusiasm. If only she hadn't pointed out the advertisement. (113-114)
How do you have any way of knowing what this woman wished?! She survived, sure, but unless this is a direct quote and you can tell me the primary source where you found it, do not speculate.


BAD WRITING

One of the things that I didn't address in the video was how confusing were the structure of the book and the timeline of events. It jumps back and forth in time depending on the "point of view" of the person who is being focused on at any given moment, rather than just proceeding chronologically, which would make the most sense to me personally. I don't claim to be an expert, or that I always get everything right when it comes to writing, but I know bad writing when I read it.

DESCRIPTIONS OF MEN VS. DESCRIPTIONS OF WOMEN
One of the things that I didn't really have time for in the video was to share some of the descriptions of men other than Sam Hazzard. While none of them are as complimentary as the descriptions of Sam (how could they be?), they do not even compare to the descriptions of the women.

Here's part of a description of Lucien Agassiz, who was the British vice-consul who helped get Linda charged with murder and convicted of manslaughter.
Agassiz's attire was a neat, dark grey suit. That day at the Tacoma Hotel, it bore no traces of the pet hair that usually offered observers the telltale clue that the British vice-consul was a man who adored his orange tabby cat. (140)
The fuck does that have to do with anything? The cat is not relevant to literally anything. We never hear about the damn cat again. We don't get anything near this level of unnecessary detail for the Williamson sisters, who are the victims, or even of Linda Hazzard, the "villain."

On the next page, we get what I think is the first example of negging in this book, in reference to Margaret, the Williamson's old nanny.
Though she was by far more intelligent than those in the class above her would likely give credit, she had not been one to voice an opinion or to ask a question of a professional man or woman. (141)
Beautiful. And another example of that, also about Margaret:
Margaret Conway's story had been well reported.There would be little new told before the jury in Kitsap County Superior Court, yet when the silver-haired family nursemaid with the plain vocabulary and the less-than-refined British accent began her story, the room fell quiet. (324)
Here's a description of John Arthur, one of Linda's former attorneys: 
Linda Hazzard's former lawyer John Arthur was sworn in. At sixty-one, he was an exceedingly pleasant-looking fellow, with a receding hairline that still revealed his hair had been wavy and black. He was a man who carried himself with integrity and certainty. (327)
Compare that, which is not necessarily a completely complimentary description, to this description of Dora Williamson:
Inside the British vice-consul's mind the image of Dora Williamson flickered again and again. Sometimes the image brought on a headache of unbearable intensity. Her eyes were deep and black, her skin protracted as tight as to crack like the dried-out parchment of a lampshade. (162)
I wish that I could share all of the references to Sam Hazzard and how charming and attractive and intelligent he was, but that could be a whole book unto itself. There were at least fifteen points in the book, pontificating on the glory that is Sam, that I wasn't able to share.




This story is so fascinating, but the book is SO poorly written and edited. Not sure how this man is a New York Times bestseller... Anyway, riveting moment in history. "Doctor" Hazzard did not do any exams of her patients, and pretty clearly had devised this whole scheme to steal her victim's money and valuables, but I wonder if she at some point or in some way actually believed in the medical benefits of her "fasting cure" or if she was just a straight-up serial killer with no motivations but greed and power. I wish that Olsen had done more investigating of the possible motives and history of the Hazzards that led them to this point (rather than glossing over a previous bigamy charge for Sam, which was really just used as a vehicle to tell us how charming and attractive Sam is), and also would've loved to see more about the other cases. When I looked at other resources (not full-length books), it seemed as though there's speculation that the Hazzards could have killed hundreds of people, and just thrown their bodies in the valley that was near them. The methods of keeping track of people in the early 1900s were not very efficient, so it's possible that there were hundreds of people who went missing, who may not have had family to notice they were gone, and nobody really knows. Instead, we get the offensive language and "dialogue." Ugh. I've never read a history book that made me so viscerally and uncontrollably angry as this one did.

So, as I said in the video, I wouldn't recommend Starvation Heights, but there are lots of books that I LOVE. Check out my Goodreads, or let me know what kind of book you might be looking for in the comments and I'll give you a suggestion!