Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane


The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See

Amazingly, because I love books based in Asia, this was the first book I'd read by Lisa See. I'm not sure why it has taken me so long!

I enjoyed this family saga about a Chinese girl, Li-Yan, who was born into a very poor Akha tea family in the Yunnan Province. I'd never heard of the Akha or their strict traditions before, so I was
fascinated to read this story.

The story soon takes a dark twist, as Li-Yan's mother is a midwife, and Li-Yan witnesses a birth of twin babies. Because the Akha follow 100-year-old traditions extremely faithfully, her mother kills the babies (twins are bad luck) and exiles their parents. 

Clever, independent Li-Yan chafes against the misogynist, old-fashioned rules of her tribe, and when her own path takes a difficult turn, she leaves the village.


I won't say any more because I don't want to spoil the story, but I do want to say that Lisa See does an exceptional job tackling the complications of Chinese adoptions...and giving the reader a great appreciation for tea, especially the aged Pu-er tea.

I read this book for my book group, and I hosted the evening we discussed it. I ordered Chinese takeout and remembered I had intended to buy some Chinese tea for the occasion. On the off chance, I raided our tea cabinet, and what did I find? A box of Pu-er tea, which my husband had purchased on a whim. I was delighted at this lovely piece of synchronicity!

Read it, and drink some Pu-er tea! #NaBloPoMo2019

Becoming

Becoming, by Michelle Obama
I read Becoming earlier this year, and I loved it. Although her family did not have much money or resources, she grew up in a family of deep, consistent love on the south side of Chicago, rich in memories.

A few of my most vivid memories of the book were when she learned how to play the piano from her strict Great Aunt Robbie, who had a strict protocol about lessons. The students could not move ahead in the book until they had accomplished a particular song. This struck Michelle as particularly boring and unfair, so she played ahead in the book and got in trouble. I could relate so much to Michelle's reaction, chafing at this rule! Some rules are meant to be broken!


At her first piano recital, Michelle learned her family's circumstances were not like everyone else's. Great Aunt Robbie's piano had a chip to mark the middle C. Sitting at a beautiful grand piano for the recital, Michelle panicked because she could not find middle C. Great Aunt Bobbie came to her rescue, pointing out the C. 
“Maybe she knew that the disparities of the world had just quietly shown themselves to me for the first time." 
She and her brother Cliff shared a small bedroom, jerry-rigged into two extremely small areas. Her parents were strict but she always felt loved, and although her dad became ill with multiple sclerosis, he continued to work tremendously hard for as long as he could. Michelle followed in her parents' hard-working footsteps, committed to academic excellence, and earned two Ivy League degrees.

I admired her self-awareness when she realized, working as a corporate lawyer, that this life was not for her. After meeting a much more laid-back and carefree Barack and losing her best friend from college to cancer, she reinvented herself and her career. I enjoyed learning about Michelle's professional life and aspirations--we heard so little about the real Michelle when she was first lady.
“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.” 
Reading about Michelle and Barack's courtship made me smile...they were so different in so many ways, but alike in the ways that mattered. She is still not a fan of politics, but knew that he was meant to be a public servant and would not stand in his way.
Getting ready to hear from Michelle in Portland!
Michelle writes extensively about parenting and balancing her work and family life, especially as Barack was away from home more frequently because of his political career. She was determined to protect her daughters from the privileged life as much as she possibly could.

She also writes about the value of female friendship, which is also sacred to me.
“Friendships between women, as any woman will tell you, are built of a thousand small kindnesses...swapped back and forth and over again.” 
And about how challenging it can be to be a woman:
“Women endure entire lifetimes of these indignities—in the form of catcalls, groping, assault, oppression. These things injure us. They sap our strength. Some of the cuts are so small they’re barely visible. Others are huge and gaping, leaving scars that never heal. Either way, they accumulate. We carry them everywhere, to and from school and work, at home while raising our children, at our places of worship, anytime we try to advance.”
And where "when they go low, we go high" came from:
“Since childhood, I’d believed it was important to speak out against bullies while also not stooping to their level. And to be clear, we were now up against a bully, a man who among other things demeaned minorities and expressed contempt for prisoners of war, challenging the dignity of our country with practically his every utterance. I wanted Americans to understand that words matter—that the hateful language they heard coming from their TVs did not reflect the true spirit of our country and that we could vote against it. It was dignity I wanted to make an appeal for—the idea that as a nation we might hold on to the core thing that had sustained my family, going back generations. Dignity had always gotten us through. It was a choice, and not always the easy one, but the people I respected most in life made it again and again, every single day. There was a motto Barack and I tried to live by, and I offered it that night from the stage: When they go low, we go high.”
I closed the book feeling inspired by the life she has lived, much of it so publicly, and sad for what we have lost as a country.
With my heart full!
My husband and I were extremely lucky to be able to see Michelle when she came to Portland, and it was a night I will never forget! I wiped away tears many times. She designed her book tour so it was a conversation with someone who knew her well. In Portland, it was with Sam Kass, the Obamas' personal chef starting in Chicago, and who designed the garden and healthy cooking at the White House with her. It was funny, poignant, endearing, and intimate, and it filled my heart!
“For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.”
 #NaBloPoMo2019

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Outlander

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
The first time I'd heard about Outlander was many years ago, when Mike won a Willamette Writers award, and Diana Gabaldon was the keynote speaker at the awards banquet. I remember her as quirky and intriguing...here was an academic scholar and professor with a Ph.D. in behavior ecology, becoming famous for writing a bodice-ripper historical, time travel, Scottish novel. My most vivid memory of her speech was she decided to write Outlander because she loves men in kilts! She had just signed the contract with Starz to produce the book as a television series. Anyone who has watched the TV show knows how much Gabaldon loves men in kilts! 

Outlander is set in 1945 after the war, and it's about an English nurse named Clare. She's married to Frank, a nerdy academic, and they travel to Scotland so he can research his ancestors and they can try to rekindle their romance after being separated during the war. Intrigued by the stone runes, she finds herself falling back into time to the 1700s where she encounters Jamie and her husband's evil ancestor, Black Jack Randall (played incredibly well in the show by Tobias Menzies, who also plays Frank). 

After hearing Gabaldon, I researched the book to see if I should read it, but honestly the romance genre kept me away. After the TV show began to get popular, I finally tried it out but I gave up because I was trying to read the e-book and the length in that medium made it more difficult to read. However, I got totally hooked on the show. I have always been drawn to time travel, and the combination with historical fiction is a perfect fit for me. I love learning the Scottish history.

When my book group voted to read Outlander this year, I was all in to give the first book another try. Claire is a fascinating heroine, and Jamie is sexy, sensitive, and strong...perhaps unrealistic characters for their times but fun nonetheless. I really enjoyed it and eventually will read more in the series. My friend Kristin has already moved on to the other books. Not everyone in the group loved Outlander, but it led to a great--and hilarious--discussion.

The night we discussed Outlander and hilarity ensued
My friend Nicola read many of the sex scenes out loud in a Scottish brogue, and there's much to laugh about in the book...especially the sex scenes! While I wasn't paying attention, Nicola and Katie got hold of my phone and put this nude of a wet Jamie on my phone wallpaper. 


The phone wallpaper, edited with my "Thumbs"
comment to cover his privates--
I can't remember why we were laughing
 about "thumbs" but it was a story
I do need to put a trigger warning in this review. The book has a few rape scenes, including one that includes torture (at the end of the book). It was extremely difficult to read and even harder to see dramatized in the show. With that said, Gabaldon handles the PTSD resulting from the sexual assault in a sensitive, insightful way.

Of course, some of this book (and series) is unrealistic. I am not a fan of the scene in which Jamie disciplines Clare because she disobeys him and puts the entire group at risk, and then she forgives him afterward. I know it was a different time, but it didn't seem to fit with Jamie's character. 

It's frothy with a healthy dose of sex, set in two different historical times and places...great fun.
#NaBloPoMo2019

Monday, November 4, 2019

What Happened

What Happened, by Hillary Clinton

Of course, I listened to this one on audio so I could hear Hillary narrate What Happened. Hillary reminds me of many women I've worked with, who came of age in their careers in the '70s in a male-dominated field...she is tough, has had to make tons of sacrifices (e.g., taking Bill's last name), and is not always authentic and relaxed because she is trying to fit in and be accepted in spite of her core strength (not fitting into the classic feminine stereotype). Even though she is awkward, nerdy, and wonky, I greatly admire and respect her as a woman, diplomat, civil servant, and mother. She has great love for her country and her family.

Sometimes I find it hard to understand why she stuck with Bill, but this memoir gives more insight into that situation. She has a great fondness and affection for him, and who am I to judge her for choosing to stay with him after he embarrassed her in front of the whole world?

This book, like Michelle Obama's Becoming, brought me to tears several times...because I think of what could have been and what should have been. Hearing her describe election night from her perspective, and that incredible speech she gave the next day, brought it all back for me. The great hopes of having our first woman president, someone who has rock-solid experience internationally and diplomatically, who could swallow her pride and go work for the person who defeated her, who can work with all sorts of personalities, who has advocated for women and children for her whole career...such a huge loss.

I will read everything Hillary Clinton writes. What happened is that she got nearly three million votes more than Trump. And the Republican party, which has always been terrified of the "Red Menace," is now consorting with Russia.

What happened is that our country got shafted. If Hillary had won, we'd actually have a skillful, diplomatic, effective, team-building president instead of the terrifying president-pretender we have now.  #NaBloPoMo2019

Friday, November 1, 2019

Theory of Bastards

Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman

I've committed to blog every day in November, so I hope to finally catch up with my book reviews!

I read Theory of Bastards back in January for my book group, and I loved it! Set at some point in the future, the main character, Francine, is a research biologist who ends up taking on a live-in assignment at a laboratory, studying the sex lives of bonobos. Not altogether that likable of a character, Francine has struggled with debilitating endometriosis that has paralyzed her personal life and emotional development. Many people I love have experienced endometriosis and the complications associated with it (foremost being that the medical establishment often doesn't take you seriously because it's a disease that only afflicts women), so I'm glad to see Schulman tackle this topic in her novel.

And then there are the lovely bonobos. I knew they were a matriarchal species, fairly recently discovered, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Bonobos are the most closely related species to humans, sharing 98.7 percent of our DNA. Different from chimpanzees, bonobos are loving, sensitive, and intelligent. And they love to have sex. They are nondiscriminatory, polyamorous, and pansexual. They are also fiercely protective of each other and Francine learns she has to earn their respect.

As much as I was fascinated by the animal study, then Schulman takes us into apocalyptical themes when the research facility is hit by a massive dust storm and all electricity goes out across the grid. How to keep the animals alive? How to keep the bonobos away from the much more aggressive chimpanzees? Will she and her assistant, Stotts, consummate their sexual tension and form an emotional bond? Will they all survive?

I was compelled to keep reading until the end, and this moving book stayed with me for weeks...always good signs of an outstanding read. And now I know I love bonobos! It made for an entertaining book group discussion, as we talked about how many of us confessed to looking up bonobo penises! (Guilty as charged.)


#NaBloPoMo2019

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Top books of 2018

At the beginning of 2018, I left my employer of 28 years and took a much more demanding position. It's all good, but I'm afraid I've fallen behind in my book reviews and blogging! I'm still reading, of course.

I've been capturing my top books of each year since 2001! You can see all the lists here.

The first book I read in 2018 was You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie, a Spokane-Coeur d'Alene writer, and I adored it! I felt certain it would be the best book I would read all year, so I was devastated to learn several weeks later that Alexie had sexually harassed several women and abused his power. Yet another fallen hero who believes he has the right to claim women’s bodies as his own. #timesup Here are my top reads of 2018:

Fiction 

1. Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
2. The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
3. Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff
4. I, Eliza Hamilton, Susan Holloway Scott
5. My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
6. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
7. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, Susan Elia MacNeal
8. The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
9. Silence, Shusaku Endo
10. Faithful, Alice Hoffman
11. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers*
12. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie

Nonfiction

1. Becoming, Michelle Obama (still savoring)
2. The Guilty Feminist, Deborah Frances-White (still reading)
3. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond*
4. How to Be Black, Baratunde Thurston
5. Hunger: A Memoir of My Body, Roxane Gay
6. Dare to Lead, Brene Brown
7. Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, Pamela Newkirk
8. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer*
9. Lion, Saroo Brierly
10. Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together, Van Jones
11. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, Erik Larson*
12. A Fine Romance, Candice Bergen
13. Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, A.J. Jacobs*

*I continue to read books mostly by women and people of color. The asterisked books are by white men

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Exit West

Exit WestExit West, by Mohsin Hamid

I read this book as part of the Multnomah County Library "Everybody Reads" program, which culminated with a lecture by Mohsin Hamid at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Hamid has written a beautiful, evocative tale of anxiety, immigration, asylum, the need for sanctuary, and love. Full of magical realism, the novel follows the path of two young people from an unnamed Muslim country. It's a heart-breaking journey, but also full of small miracles.

I recommend this book to anyone who would like to better understand the immigrant experience.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

You Don't Have to Say You Love MeYou Don't Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie

I've put this review off long enough.

I listened to Alexie's memoir at the beginning of the year, and I cried all the way through it, along with him. The book is a beautiful, painful tribute to his mom and his incredibly complicated relationship with her. I couldn't wait to put it the very top of my "Top Reads of 2018" list.

He shared deep, difficult revelations about rape and sexual abuse throughout his family history, including his own abuse. Since his mother died, Alexie had been seeing signs of his mother wherever he went...in fact, he cancelled his book tour because it was so traumatic for him.

And then, before I had gotten around to writing my book review, the news broke. At least 10 women writers accused Alexie of sexual harassment, many of them Native women. Worse, he took advantage of the privilege he had as the preeminent Native writer. He actually forced his affections on women in exchange for supporting their work through reviews and endorsements...all the while presenting himself as an advocate for Native writers. Tragically, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other American women, and they have experienced a legacy of abuse (which  Alexie wrote about). He is the worst kind of hypocrisy.

Sadly, I am on a two-year run of reading great nonfiction by men who would turn out to be abusers or harassers. Last year it was Al Franken (and no, I do not equate what these two men have been accused of doing...but they are both hypocrites). I hope I can break this unfortunate run in 2019! So disappointed in Sherman Alexie.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Drop Dead Healthy

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily PerfectionDrop Dead Healthy, by A.J. Jacobs

I have a bit of a thing for "one-year experiment" books! For example:

Julie & Julia 
Living Oprah
Not Buying It
Eat My Globe
The Unlikely Disciple
The Year of Living Biblically

A.J. Jacobs pioneered the idea of one-year experiments, beginning with deciding he would read the entire Encylopedia Brittanica in 18 months (okay, more than a year) (The Know-It-All). The other book of Jacobs' I've read is The Year of Living Biblically, when he tried to follow many of the Old Testament's laws for another interesting year. (His poor wife!)

For Drop Dead Healthy, Jacobs decided to get healthy and slim down by exploring and experimenting with every health or fitness fad he came across.

In his classic, funny, self-effacing way, Jacobs takes the reader on a journey toward health, finding a few snake oil salespeople along the way!

Here he is talking about the book:


The Pope’s Cat

The Pope's Cat, by Jon M. Sweeney and Roy DeLeon

This delightful children's book was illustrated by my dear friend and former coworker, Roy DeLeon. It's a heartwarming story showing the humanity of Pope Francis and how his heart was touched by a stray cat. I highly recommend it for children and adults alike, especially cat lovers!



Friday, March 2, 2018

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s AwakeningDaring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening, by Manal Al-Sharif

I loved this book. I listened to it on audio, narrated by Manal Al-Sharif herself.

Growing up in Mecca, Al-Sharif was pretty devout and religious for most of her life. But three things awakened her to the plight of women and spurred her to become a driving activist:

1. She is smart and wanted to make something of herself professionally, instead of being limited by her gender.

2. The Saudi ban on women driving completely paralyzes women and places them in unsafe situations.

3. She got divorced, making it even harder to make it in Saudi Arabia as an independent woman and single mom.

She became the face of the movement, risking her own life and livelihood to do the right thing. This included jail time.

Al-Sharif now lives in Dubai, but tragically she has been separated from her oldest son, Aboudi, who still lives there with her ex-husband and his family, who will not allow him to visit her in Dubai. Men get full custody of children in Saudi Arabia when couples divorce. Read this sad update in the New York Times: I Left My Son in a Kingdom of Men.

I loved this book. I learned so much about Saudi Arabia. I recommend you listen to it if you can.

Top books of 2017

I'm a little late! But here it is.

I started out this year resolving to read as many women and people of color as possible. It was the year of memoir, and the first year I’ve ever read more nonfiction than fiction!

You'll find reviews of each of these books on this blog...just search the title.

Fiction
  1. The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak
  2. The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey
  3. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
  4. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  5. Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf*
  6. Unbound, by John Shors*
  7. The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez
  8. Prayers for the Stolen, by Jennifer Clement
  9. I Found You, by Lisa Jewell
  10. Version Control, by Dexter Palmer
  11. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
  12. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie
  13. The Separation, by Diana Jeffries

Nonfiction

  1. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah
  2. Daring to Drive: a Saudi Woman’s Awakening, by Manal al-Sharif
  3. Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen*
  4. Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women, by Marianne Monson
  5. Surpassing Certainty: What My 20s Taught Me, by Janet Mock
  6. Things I Should Have Told My Daughter, by Pearl Cleage
  7. Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum, by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner
  8. Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age Story, by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh
  9. Forward: A Memoir, by Abby Wambach
  10. Refocusing My Family: Coming Out, Being Cast Out, and Discovering the True Love of God, by Amber Cantorna
  11. Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken (ugh!)*
  12. Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, by Nadia Bolz-Weber
  13. The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song, by Frank M. Young*
  14. Sex Object, by Jessica Valenti
  15. Carry On Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed, by Glennon Doyle Melton
  16. I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual, by Luvvie Ajayi
  17. This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, by Carol Burnett
  18. The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher
  19. Holden Village—A Memoir, by Werner Janssen

*White guys--only five!

Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs

Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love AffairsThings I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs, by Pearl Cleage

2017 was my year of discovering audio memoirs. I'm much more of a visual learner and processor, so until recently I did not often listen to audio books. But I've found I like to listen to memoirs that way, especially when they are read by the author. That's how I found Pearl Cleage's autobiography.

All I knew about her was she'd written What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, which I'd read years and years ago. Now Cleage is a bestselling author and playwright, but this book starts back in her early days, struggling and striving as a young mom and political activist.

She shares her personal stories of racism and sexism, often entertwined, and her struggles with being a working mom and writer. I found it to be educational and inspirational.

Unbound, by John Shors

UnboundUnbound, by John Shors
I've read nearly all of John Shors' novels, which are mostly based in Asia (one of my favorite locations).

My favorite, still, is his first one: Beneath a Marble Sky, about the building of the Taj Mahal. Part of why I loved it so was because Mike and I spent a couple of days in Agra visiting the Taj in 1989.

Unbound is about the building of the great wall, replete with a love story and depiction of how tough it was to be a woman in China during those times. The novel's name comes from the fact that the protagonist, Meng, did not have her feet bound (unusual during those times).

Meng's kind and storytelling husband Fan has been conscripted to help build the wall, but she stops hearing from him. Concerned about him, she decides to take an extremely risky trip to go see him. The story is about her adventure, combined with the horrible situation Fan was in, working for a psychopathic, sadistic leader.

Shors does an excellent job sensitively portraying women of color in history--not always easy for a white man! And I always love learning about history through novels like this.

Highly recommended!



Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at NightOur Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf

An unexpectedly beautiful, tender, sad love story between two older adults...I loved the spare, unfolding writing and the delicate unraveling of what these two people created with each other.

My book group loved this book, but we also found ourselves getting agitated at some of the characters.

It's a quick read, and Robert Redford and Jane Fonda are excellently cast in the Netflix movie version.

Refocusing My Family: Coming Out, Being Cast Out, and Discovering the True Love of God

Refocusing My Family: Coming Out, Being Cast Out, and Discovering the True Love of GodRefocusing My Family: Coming Out, Being Cast Out, and Discovering the True Love of God, by Amber Cantorna

Before I read this book, all I knew about Focus on the Family was that it is an extremely conservative, LGBTQ- and feminist-bashing, political organization that uses the Bible as a weapon. Either you're in, or you're out and rejected completely. But I knew very little about the culture in the organization.

Amber Cantorna was raised deeply embedded in this strict religious tradition; in fact her dad was an executive in the Focus on the Family organization. As she grew older, she found something missing in her life as she realized she was attracted to women. At first she felt great shame about this, but eventually she realized that coming out and being true to herself was the best way to honor God and who she was made to be.

She bravely outed herself to her family and they rejected her. I'm glad Amber has found love, but her story is another reminder of how many ways people are hurt by the church. It breaks my heart. Fortunately she has found another church that welcomes her with open arms.

Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women

Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women
Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women, by Marianne Monson

I loved this collection of badass frontier women! I listened to this book while on a business trip to the Bay Area, which made the story about San Francisco Chinatown all the more poignant. As a fan of Abigail Scott Duniway (Oregon's suffragette, who we paid tribute to on Election Day 2016), I was grateful to see her in this collection.

Monson curated and told stories of women of color and all sorts of walks of life. It's a truly intersectional collection of women who were tough, hearty, fearless, and ground-breaking.

These stories will make you want to know more about these daring pioneer women and might make you feel tired, looking at your own life!

I'm Judging You: the Do-Better Manual

I'm Judging You: The Do-Better ManualI'm Judging You: The Do-Better Manual, by Luvvie Ajayi

Luvvie Ajayi is another author I got to hear on the Together: Live! tour last year. I have followed her blog regularly. She is a sassy, spirited, insightful writer and I find her writing to be entertaining and biting.

I listened to I'm Judging You on audio, because I love Luvvie's voice. But in some ways I wish I had read it instead. I liked some of the chapters better than others. For example: she goes on and on about women who rarely wash their bras. I would have totally skipped ahead if I hadn't been listening while driving my car. Why do I care how often other women wash their bras? What a waste of time to judge other women for something as inconsequential as that.

She talks extensively about her friend with the clueless, no-good boyfriend Carlos. And her "do-better" essays on racism and sexism were fairly basic for someone who tries to stay up to date in these matters.

I hope that her next book goes deeper. She's a wonderful storyteller and I found the book entertaining. It just could have been so much better. After seeing her live, I expected more.

The Hate U Give

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Although this is billed as "young adult," everyone should read this book to understand why #BlackLivesMatter.

Starr Carter is a badass young hero. She is trying to fit in at a predominantly white high school when one of her old friends is shot and killed by a police officer in a racially biased search. Starr struggles whether she should come forward publicly as a witness because of her tenuous position in her high school in addition to her family's gang ties. Family, friendship, and loyalty--all important themes.

It's a complex story, beautifully told. Read it.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song

The Carter Family: Don't Forget This SongThe Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song, by Frank M. Young and David Lasky

Told in graphic novel style, The Carter Family tells the story of how this country's Americana grandmothers and grandfathers got their start in music. I enjoyed reading about the history of this talented musical family.

Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age Story

Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age StoryMuslim Girl: A Coming of Age Story, by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is a phenomenal young woman. She founded her website, MuslimGirl.com, when she was just 17 years old, and now it has millions of hits.

Of Jordanian and Palestinian descent, Al-Khatahtbeh and her family moved to Jordan after 9/11 because of the extreme Islamophobia here in the United States.

I listened to Muslim Girl on audio, which I would recommend so you can hear Al-Khatahtbeh read her own words. Everyone needs to read this book and understand what it's like to grow up in a religion that is so misunderstood and mischaracterized by many ignorant people. She is brave, honest, unflinching, and funny. A woman to watch in coming years!

Forward, a Memoir

Forward: A MemoirForward, a Memoir: by Abby Wambaugh and Karen Abbott

After reading Glennon Doyle's memoir, I dove into her wife's!

Abby shares her struggles in growing up Catholic and gay, and she how she went a bit wild as a professional soccer player. She actually lived in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, when she received her highly publicized DUI.

The biggest weakness of this book was at times I felt some of the other people in the book (like her first wife) came across as one-dimensional. We didn't really get to know them very well, perhaps because this was a memoir.

But I enjoyed this story of her life--how hard she worked to be the greatest soccer player in the world, what drove her passion, and how hard she fell when she finally did fall.

It was particularly great to read this memoir after seeing Wambach live on stage with Glennon Doyle. She has a magnetic personality, and I'm sure she'll continue to do great things with her life.

Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed

Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life UnarmedCarry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed, by Glennon Doyle

I decided to read Glennon Doyle's first book after seeing her on a Together Live! tour (which was great!!). Many things have changed in her life since she published this book, the most significant being that she divorced her philandering husband after falling in love with soccer player Abby Wambaugh. Wambaugh and Doyle told their riveting and beautiful love story on stage to each other.

I had read Doyle's blog Momastery occasionally but was not an active follower. This book is mostly a collection of her early blog posts, talking about her substance abuse, bulimia, unexpected motherhood, and marriage problems.

Doyle is raw, honest, flippant, and funny. She bares her soul on the page, and I wonder how her family members feel about her writing so candidly about them. Her husband does not come out very well!

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot #4)
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie


Last year my book group stayed in the Agatha Christie room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel, but somehow we never confessed to the fact that none of us had read much Agatha Christie.

In the Agatha Christie room, pretending to read!
I've seen a few of her plays, but, believe it or not, had never actually read one of her novels. My husband, on the other hand, has read a ton. So it was time!

Christie introduces Hercules Poirot in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This book is supposedly the classic mystery.

I tend to be a mystery lover only when there's a twist (usually when the detective is an interesting woman). I enjoyed this book, especially the surprise reveal of the murderer at the end, but I wouldn't say I LOVED it.

One thing I found particularly funny was how when Roger Ackroyd died, they were all very English and stiff-upper-lip about it. "Oh dear! He's died!" or something like that. Highly amusing.

Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me

Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught MeSurpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me, by Janet Mock

Mock's second memoir of her coming out process as a trans woman is just as great as, if not better than, her first book (Redefining Realness). If you have not read Redefining Realness, I strongly suggest you start there.

Janet Mock is an extraordinary woman with a highly colorful journey, full of obstacles and accomplishments. I enjoyed listening to her read the book in her rich, creamy voice.

I felt a little sorry for Troy. He simply could not keep up with her or be as honest and authentic as she is. But I'm glad she has found real love.

Mock pushes through the prejudice that tries to get in her way (racism and transphobia) and also owns her own privilege (being drop-dead beautiful allows her to "pass" more easily as a cisgendered woman than other trans women). I love the fact that she's chosen to live her life out loud, being a role model for other biracial trans women along the way.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Princess Diarist

The Princess DiaristThe Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher

We listened to this on a road trip, after starting out with Postcards from the Edge. We abandoned Postcards because it's written in epistolary form and not as conducive to listening. The Princess Diarist worked better.

It is pure Carrie Fisher--self-effacing, funny, biting, sarcastic, acerbic--and reveals both her uncertainty as a young woman and her feeling of being overwhelmed when she suddenly became famous.

Harrison Ford doesn't come across as particularly endearing, having an affair with the much-younger Fisher during the filming of the first Star Wars movie. He didn't treat her very well.

Fisher is candidly open about her mental illness and alcoholism. She is refreshingly honest in a Hollywood culture that is all about image. She appears not to give a f*ck what anyone thinks, although the truth is a bit deeper than that.

These quotes from the book exemplify it well:

"What’s the riddle? Me talking so much And saying so little"

"I wish that I could leave myself alone. I wish that I could finally feel that I punished myself enough. That I deserved time off for all my bad behavior. Let myself off the hook, drag myself off the rack where I am both torturer and torturee."

"I act like someone in a bomb shelter trying to raise everyone’s spirits."

"I am someone who wants very much to be popular. I don’t just want you to like me, I want to be one of the most joy-inducing human beings that you’ve ever encountered. I want to explode on your night sky like fireworks at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Hong Kong."

"My panic is rising again. My sense of isolation and worthlessness. And no other senses worth mentioning apparently. It's not nice being inside my head. It's a nice place to visit but I don't want to live here. It's too crowded; too many traps and pitfalls. I'm tired of it. That same old person, day in and day out. I'd like to try something else. I tried to neaten my mind, file everything away into tidy little thoughts, but it only got more and more cluttered. My mind has a mind of its own. I try to define my limits by seeing just how far I can go, and I find that I passed them weeks ago. And I've got to find my way back."

"If anyone reads this when I have passed to the big bad beyond I shall be posthumously embarrassed. I shall spend my entire afterlife blushing."

"It’s not nice being inside my head. It’s a nice place to visit but I don’t want to live in here. It’s too crowded; too many traps and pitfalls."

"Anyway, I suppose in part I'm telling this story now because I want all of you - and I do mean all - to know that I wasn't always a somewhat-overweight woman without an upper lip to her name who can occasionally be found sleeping behind her face and always thinking in her mouth."

Monday, January 8, 2018

Sex Object

Sex Object: A MemoirSex Object, by Jessica Valenti

This was a hard book to read. Valenti is a famous young feminist, and she founded the blog Feministing in 2004.

Much of this book, a series of essays, reads like a blog...it doesn't always fit together very well. But the essays are powerful, searing, deeply honest, and at times shocking.

First off, I had no idea of the amount of harassment girls and young women encounter on New York City subways and streets on a regular basis. No wonder she feels like she is under attack. And then there's the sheer vitriol and hatred Valenti has received for being a public online feminist. The last chapter contains a sampling of the hate mail she has received. This is typical for women who bare their souls and opinions in the public sphere, thanks to the anonymity of the Internet and misogyny in society.

Valenti's daughter was born prematurely, and she writes openly about her angst and terror associated with that and motherhood in general.

I wouldn't exactly say I enjoyed this book, but I'm glad I read it.

Giant of the Senate

Al Franken, Giant of the SenateGiant of the Senate, by Al Franken

In a year when I committed to read women or people of color, what a tragedy that this was one of the few books I read by white men. Only a tragedy now in retrospect, because I actually loved listening to this book.

Franken is funny, insightful, self-deprecating, and wise. One of my favorite anecdotes was the way he and his assistant would talk about hide-a-beds to throw off journalists in their wake.

He clearly loves his wife and family and is called to serve. He had an excellent working relationship with his colleague, Amy Klobuchar.

I enjoyed all the stories of how he ended up in the Senate and how he attempted to work with other senators with which he staunchly disagreed. This was an excellent book, and I believe it stands alone on its merit.

I was so disappointed to learn that Franken is just one more of the old boys who disrespected women and treated them as his plaything. Toxic masculinity can be a byproduct of men in power. This doesn't make Franken a bad person. He made some serious mistakes, and it breaks my heart because he was an excellent senator.

I would have given this five stars before the scandals hit. Now I'll downgrade it to a two, simply
based on my disappointment and his hypocrisy.

I Found You

I Found YouI Found You, by Lisa Jewell

What a great read! I loved the way the mysteries unraveled. Three different stories, woven together masterfully. Colorful characters with complicated histories. A setting in Yorkshire and elsewhere in England. Couldn't put down.

This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection

This Time Together: Laughter and ReflectionThis Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, by Carol Burnett

I recommend listening to this book, because it's read by Carol Burnett herself. I recommend this book for long-time fans of Burnett. I grew up watching her hilarious variety shows, so it was like curling up with a long-time friend.

I especially enjoyed the tales of her early days, breaking into show business. She had a patron--a wealthy woman who gave her money to go to New York City to get started. Her only rules were (1) that she would be anonymous, and (2) that Burnett would pay it forward to another young woman once she made it. And so she did.

Burnett was a feminist at an early age, fighting for equity and parity in the men's world of entertainment. One TV executive told her that comedy was a "man's game." She sure proved him wrong!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Widows of Malabar Hill

The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry, #1)The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

I'm excited about this new series by one of my favorite authors! It's due out next week on January 9. I was lucky to get a sneak peek!

I first became a fan of Sujata Massey through her Rei Shimura detective novels about a Japanese-American antiques dealer turned detective. Sujata Massey, half Indian and half German, lived and worked in Japan around the same time that I did. Rei Shimura was spunky, independent, and curious about the world, and she's my all-time favorite detective.

Cornelia Sorabji
Cornelia Sorabji
Now Sujata Massey has branched out into writing about India, and I love these books even more! In 2013 she published The Sleeping Dictionary, a historical novel about a poor Indian girl without a family, leaving her few options for survival. It was one of my favorite books in 2013.

Next up is The Widows of Malabar Hill, the first in her Perveen Mistry series. An Oxford-educated, multilingual Parsi woman in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1921, Perveen is one of the first female lawyers in India, partially inspired by the real life of Cornelia Sorabji.

Perveen has modern parents who encourage her education and career, but they do still want her to get married. The novel covers the travails of her personal life as well as her professional work.

She helps her dad with a case of a rich Muslim mill owner who has died and left three widows behind. The women are in full purdah (exclusion from men), so Perveen is best suited to speak to them. She soon becomes concerned because their husband's agent plans to give away their inheritance and leave them with nothing. When she begins to investigate the situation, a murder occurs and things escalate.

I am excited about reading more of this series. Massey does an exquisite job exposing the reader to many facets of Indian culture and religion--in this case Islam and Parsis, who are descended from Persian Zoroastrians. I've actually read quite a lot about Parsis; it seems that, although their population is fairly small and rapidly diminishing in India, their culture is a popular and fascinating subject in fiction!

Check out Massey's excellent website to read the first chapter, peruse recipes from the book, see photos from real places in the book, and read her Q&A.

Excellent historical fiction + setting in Asia + a spunky heroine + mystery and adventure = the perfect combination for me!

Bring on the next one!

Version Control

Version ControlVersion Control, by Dexter Palmer

This book is an excellent example of why I value my book group! I'm a time travel and dystopian fiction fan, so I was intrigued to dive into this one...especially with such an intriguing premise.

It moved a bit slowly for my taste, and at times I thought he had too many details about science, religion, and the Causality Violation Device (the time traveling machine that is "not a time traveling machine"). Palmer's commentary and reflections on race, alcoholism, and our blind reliance on technology were spot-on. Some of the book was speculative fiction rather than pure sci-fi, because I could actually imagine many of the things happening.

But the characters were wholly unlikable (which is often a problem for me). My book group friends helped me uncover brilliant strategies and nuances of Palmer's as we discussed it, and I grew to appreciate it much more.

I'm not much of a sci-fi fan, though, so that probably turned me off a bit. I'd describe this as literary sci-fi. The book grew on me during our discussion, so much so that I was tempted to re-read it. But life's too short!

Prayers for the Stolen

Prayers for the StolenPrayers for the Stolen, by Jennifer Clement

This was a beautiful, heartbreaking novel about Mexico, written by poet Jennifer Clement, who was the president of PEN Mexico.

"The best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly girl."

Ladydi Garcia Martinez dresses as a boy, because in her mountain community near Guerrero, girls are constantly kidnapped and sold into prostitution to support the drug trade. The mothers dig holes for their daughters to hide in when the black SUVs come to their homes to search for new girls to snatch.

Every day in Mexico, adolescent girls and young women are abducted from their homes and either never heard from again or found dumped dead and abused. Some become sex slaves to drug lords, and others are sexually trafficked to brothels in Mexico and abroad. Sexual abuse in Mexico has exploded as the drug trade has soared.

Although difficult to read, this novel is a wonderful story about women and daughters who have to survive on their own wits, resiliency during a time of great trauma, and fierce love that is hard to comprehend in our white, American existence.

Americanah

AmericanahAmericanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Author Roxane Gay describes this book as a "beautiful mess," and I agree. I started and stopped it several times. It wasn't because it made me uncomfortable (as a white woman, I think it's important for me to feel uncomfortable). It's because I wasn't captivated by the book as a novel.

But I am glad I read it, in my year of "read mostly women and people of color." Giving a voice to Nigerian-American main character Ifemelu is so important...both for other Nigerians as well as for other white Americans like me.

Adiche writes brilliantly about race and racism, colonization, immigration, journeys, hair, assimilation, self-invention, corruption, and family. I just wish it held together better as a novel.

Holden Village--A Memoir: New Life, Endless Stories

Holden Village - A Memoir: New Life - Endless StoriesHolden Village--A Memoir: New Life, Endless Stories, by Werner Janssen

I happened across this book a few weeks before I went to our beloved Holden Village this summer after 5 years away. It's written by one of the early villagers and one of its first operations managers, Werner Janssen. In all the rooms at Holden, a different, older memoir awaits: Surprising Gift, by Charles Lutz. Janssen's book holds more of an insider perspective.

Independently published and written by an engineer, it could have benefited from a really good edit. But I enjoyed reading the story of how the village got started and Janssen's personal insider perspective. He lived in the village longer than anyone else has, starting at age 24.

One thing I found troubling about this memoir is that according to Janssen, innovative visionary and long-time executive director Carroll Hinderlie (who my dad knew from PLU) was a sexual predator. He was well known for harassing women on staff and those who were visiting the village. Eventually, the board did something about it, suggesting that Hinderlie take a leave of absence and write a book (paid leave!). Apparently another executive director was guilty of what the board calls "sexual misconduct" as well.

The Holden Village board acknowledged this issue in 2013 with a statement of apology (sort of) and they also created a sexual harassment policy and rules for staff and villagers. But they never named the executive directors (like Janssen does in his book).

On the FAQ portion of the page, the board refuses to provide names, instead saying "Our interest is in promoting healing and not promoting more pain. We are not disclosing the names of those involved, but it was decades ago that this occurred."

I find this troubling. Why not name names? I can only imagine what it must feel like to be a victim of these assaults and know that these men's reputations are still being protected.

Greater healing would take place if their names were brought forward and if Carroll Hinderlie were not still held up as a great icon of Holden Village. Yes, he did amazing things for the village. But he preyed on women. That is unacceptable and needs to be acknowledged--by name.

I am glad that Janssen did this in his book.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong PeopleAccidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

I read this back in June, before going to Holden Village in July and getting to listen to Pr. Nadia several times that week. It was the second time I'd heard her speak, and I soaked up every opportunity to learn from her.

One of the fun memories of that week was listening to her read her completely raw draft of the book she's working on right now--about sex and the church. Simply put, she is a brilliant and colorful writer. She was all full of apologies that it had not yet gone through an editor, but it was a real privilege to hear her read from her first draft (which did NOT seem draft quality).

I enjoyed Accidental Saints as I always get a great deal out of Pr. Nadia's writing. She makes me see things in new ways.

But I am always a little stunned by how honest she is, and at times I think she's a bit too honest. For example, one story in Accidental Saints is about a man in her church who she just wasn't crazy about--he was hard to love. It was only after he died that she realized her mistake. In one of her talks at Holden Village, she spoke dismissively about someone who had applied to be the pastor at her church (she is unable to be a full-time pastor now that she's also an author and speaker). The Lutheran world is a small one, and I couldn't help but wonder how people related to these individuals would feel if they heard or read her words.

I am of the type who believes it's better to be kind than to always be brutally honest. Sometimes when I read memoirs or essays like this book (Anne Lamott is another author who comes to mind), I realize that I wouldn't want to be friends with the author. I don't think I could trust my authentic self with them. Pr. Nadia also has extremely strong opinions (for example, about church music), and I don't always agree with them. I imagine that some people in her church are more than a bit intimidated by her and might not feel comfortable speaking up.

With that said, Pr. Nadia is brilliant and fascinating. I love the way she pushes the envelope with her potty mouth and out-of-the-box thinking. This book is worth a read. 

And especially the last chapter--her modern Beatitudes--which brought me to tears. Here it is:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised. Blessed are they who are spiritually impoverished and therefore not so certain about everything that they no longer take in new information. Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are they for whom nothing seems to be working. Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction. Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears are as real as an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried. Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted any more. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are the motherless, the alone, the ones from whom so much has been taken. Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.” Blessed are they who laughed again when for so long they thought they never would. Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex-workers and the night shift street sweepers. Blessed are the losers and the babies and the parts of ourselves that are so small. The parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that only loves the winners. Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented. Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard – for they are those with whom Jesus chose to surround himself. Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists. Blessed are foster kids and trophy kids and special ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved and never does. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are they who know there has to be more than this. Because they are right.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people. Blessed are the burnt-out social workers and the over worked teachers and the pro-bono case takers. Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak. Blessed are they who delete hateful, homophobic comments off their friend’s Facebook page. Blessed are the ones who have received such real grace that they are no longer in the position of ever deciding who the “deserving poor” are. Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t deserve it. Blessed are the merciful for they totally get it.