nonfiction

Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity- Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi

At the end of last month, I started veering into reading slump territory. Nothing too bad, just…nothing sounded good. I browsed my own shelves, poked through my TBR, checked out a few book blogs…

Nothing. My brain just wasn’t having it.

So I decided to hit up the library in hopes of stumbling upon something that spoke to me, and on the New Books shelf, a hefty, bright yellow tome jumped out: Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi (Tarcherperigee, 2019). At first, I wondered if I were up to the task, but once I flipped through the book and noted its bright photographs and short interviews with people from all walks of life, I knew I had to read this.

High school friends Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi came to the realization while still in high school that they’d never been taught anything about race by their school. Understandably disturbed by this, they set out together to not only educate themselves, via mentors and a diverse reading list, but to educate others. They gave TED talks, they wrote a textbook, they founded the CHOOSE Org, and they set out during their gap year between high school and college to travel through all fifty states, interviewing people of all races and ages, about their experience with race- their own and others’- racial education, racism, and more.

Each section has a loose theme, beginning with a piece of writing from Guo and Vulchi, who are both inquisitive and wise beyond their years. They’re not afraid to admit when they don’t know or understand something; instead, they search boldly for answers in a way that gives me such hope for the future if these are the women who will one day take the reins of our country. In their travels, they interview people of all races and mixed races, straight people, gay people, transgender people, people from various religions and ethnic groups. Each interview is rife with information on racial literacy, defining terms the reader may not be familiar with in an effort to better educate their audience. If, like so many of us (myself included), you didn’t receive much or any education in racial matters when you were growing up, Tell Me Who You Are is an amazing place to start.

What a deeply fascinating book. I grew up in a very white town, settled mainly by Scandinavians and Germans, and far enough from the city and boring enough that it stayed that way until very recently, so I received very, very little education in the way of race when I was young. It’s because of books like this, and diverse fiction, and making friends with different racial and religious backgrounds, and following people of color online that I’ve been able to broaden my understanding when it comes to racial literacy. Guo and Vulchi’s interviews bring to light the many facets of race and racism; it’s a deeply educational book that still manages to entertain by presenting each interview in a conversational style, almost as though the reader is listening to a trusted friend divulge their deepest thoughts. What can so often be a heavy topic to read about is really brought to life here in a creative and thoughtful way. As I turned the pages, moving from an interview with a Native American man to a native Hawaiian to a Mexican woman to a white man to a black woman, I marveled over the beauty of our world and mourned that in 2019, we still struggle so hard to open our minds and understand each other. Tell Me Who You Are is a strong, bold step towards that better understanding.

At my library, Tell Me Who You Are is shelved in the Adult Nonfiction section, but I hope a copy makes its way to the teen nonfiction shelves as well. This is brilliant writing and a brilliant project undertaken by teenagers and should be readily available to teens in the space they most frequent. It introduced me to new concepts of racial literacy (I still feel like I don’t *quite* understand positionality), a deeper understanding of what counts as cultural appropriation, the struggles of the disabled to get around in New York City (you’d think that with a city that big and that diverse, they’d do a better job, and you would be wrong; 80% of subway stops are inaccessible to people with a disability), and the concept of secondary (or vicarious) trauma. I really appreciated their attention to Native people; I’m aware that my reading lacks indigenous voices and that’s something I’d like to focus on a little more in the future.

Tell Me Who You Are is a cornucopia of experiences by a gorgeous mosaic of people and voices, one that serves to expand the mind of the reader if you’re willing to shut up, silence your own voice for a moment, and let it. This would be an impressive and captivating book by any author, but the fact that it was put together by two young women just out of high school also puts it in the category of an incredible accomplishment and a work of art. The world definitely needs more young leaders like Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi, and I’d be thrilled if my daughter grew up with their intelligence, their curiosity, their drive, and their commitment to making the world a more racially literate and understanding place.

As a brief aside, there are a few negative reviews for this book on Goodreads that illustrate the deep need for this book’s existence. Don’t let those reviews color your opinion; instead, think of those opinions as what marginalized people are up against, and use Tell Me Who You Are to educate yourself in such a way that you’ll never sound like the people who wrote those reviews. (Criticism of the book is perfectly acceptable; whining, “WHAT ABOUT THE WHITE MEN???” in regards to a book on racial literacy is ludicrous. There are nine bazillion other books about white men published and readily available on store and library shelves every year; not everything is about white men, nor does it need to be.)

Visit Choose Org’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

When I Was White: A Memoir- Sarah Valentine

I love a good memoir. I love hearing a person’s own life stories, what they experienced and lived through from the life-changing to the mundane, from tales of growing up in unusual families to recountings of world travels and religious experiences, I’m here for it all. That’s why When I Was White: A Memoir by Sarah Valentine (St. Martin’s Press, 2019) leaped out at me from the New Books shelf last week. ‘What a provocative title,’ I thought, and after reading the inside flap, the book went into my stack.

Sarah Valentine (née Dunn; she explains her name change later on in the book, and it’s not due to marriage) was born the oldest of three children in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Growing up, her darker skin and frizzy hair were often the subject of questions or half-kidding jokes about the milkman, but Sarah accepted her family’s insistence that she was white, no matter what that nagging feeling in her gut told her. It’s only in her late twenties that she learns that she’s not, in fact, entirely white, that her family has been lying to her all these years, and that in doing so, they’ve denied her a huge portion of her identity. Sarah must then learn to carve out a place for herself as a black woman after having thought of herself as white from birth and restructure her relationship with the family who withheld- and is still withholding- the truth from her for so long.

(Content warnings exist in this book for racism, including racist remarks, and multiple stories of rape and sexual assault.)

Whoa. What an entire bombshell to have dropped on you- even if it’s something you had maybe-sort-of-somewhat suspected, having your racial identity and sense of self upended like that is huge. Finding out that half of you, genetically, has a history and a story that you’ve been denied is obviously life-changing in so many ways, and reading how Ms. Valentine navigated this rupture in her life was deeply intriguing. While this isn’t as immediately shocking as Tara Westover’s Educated, it’s still in the same category of memoirs whose central stories include abrupt realizations about one’s family of origin. Yet despite the book centering on racial issues, readers of every race need only to have undergone major life changes or a betrayal by a loved one in order to be able to relate to her family’s- in particular, her mother’s- duplicity. How deeply painful this must have been; my heart broke over and over for Sarah and what she missed out on as a child: the celebration of who she was in her entirety. Instead, her family, even her extended family, was complicit in suppressing a huge part of her, insisting that she was something else completely, and that what she- and others- were seeing was wrong. A famiy gaslighting, if you will.

Her mother’s outright racism, on display multiple times through the book, was stomach-turning to read, especially her casual dismissal of racism as “something that affects so few people,” so thus it’s not really a problem. (This is basically the theme song of casual racists everywhere, isn’t it? *sigh*) I’m not unaware of racism as a major, major problem- I’ve encountered it in my own family of origin and do my best to counter it when I do- but there’s something so very stark seeing it right there on the page and knowing that this came from the mouth of a parent who knew exactly what made up half of their child. I’m by no means a perfect parent (FAR, FAAAAAAAAAAR from it!), but we owe it to our children to move past our own crap attitudes and personal problems in order to bring them our best, instead of weighing them down with everything we refuse to deal with, and Ms. Dunn’s mother very obviously hadn’t done that, which may have been a product of her time (she may have had other issues; the phrase ‘personality disorder’ is tossed around multiple times, although there’s never a formal diagnosis). Her parents were mostly decent, however, and gave her and her brothers a good (for the most part) childhood, giving her a strong foundation on which to build her adult life.

Despite the trauma she’s been through, Ms. Dunn has emerged a compelling, interesting person with an incredible drive and dedication. She graduated with a PhD in Russian literature (yes, she speaks Russian, along with multiple other Slavic languages; she mentions she gets asked this all the time, although no one asks this from her white colleagues. I’d be the nerd asking anyone who mentioned studying Russian literature, because I’m so fascinated by foreign-to-me languages and so deeply impressed by those who speak them, especially those who didn’t grow up speaking them. I KNOW exactly how much work that is!), translates poetry, teaches language classes, she’s a writer, she’s lived multiple places and traveled widely. How lucky her students are, to learn from such an impressive woman!

If you’re looking for a memoir in which everything is tied up nicely with a pretty bow at the end, this isn’t the book for you. While Ms. Dunn does write of the journey of attempting to discover her biological father, When I Was White is more about her discovering her sense of self as a woman of mixed race, when the knowledge of being both black and white- instead of just white- had been denied to her her entire life. If you’re interested in books of self-discovery and growth, however, you’ll find satisfaction in these pages.

Visit Sarah Valentine’s page at MacMillan Publishers.

Monthly roundup

Monthly Roundup: October 2019

Welcome to November!

Another month in the books. (Heh. Book blogger pun.) October has been a doozy of a month, friends, and not the greatest month of reading for me. I tend to get a little reading slump-ish around this time of year, but this year, that was eclipsed by the nasty pain flare I had that started the second week and which was triggered by a massive temperature/weather change. It’s normal for my pain to flare during that time, but it’s never fun, and instead of spending my evenings reading, I went to sleep every night at around 8:30 in order to escape the pain. And that, friends, is the reason why this is the month that I’ve read the least in so far this year. It happens.

October wasn’t a completely terrible month, though. Good and fun things did happen, so let’s get this monthly roundup on the road!

What I Read in October 2019

  1. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Pérez

2. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (no review, read as part of my personal Read Harder challege, but highly recommended)

3. The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai

4. The Difficult Child by Stanley Turecki (no review, read to help tackle some of my daughter’s more intense behaviors)

5. All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor (no review, read out loud to my daughter)

6. In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Smart, Strong Women by Jerramy Fine

7. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

8. When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight For Religious Freedom by Asma T. Uddin (no review, solely because this book was so jam-packed full of information- much of it legal, obviously- that I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to properly sum it up. If this topic intrigues you, however, check it out. I did enjoy it!)

9. The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

10. When I Was White: A Memoir by Sarah Valentine (review to come)

11. More All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor (no review, read out loud to my daughter)

So yeah, this was absolutely my slowest month of the year, but I feel no shame for that. For me, a pain flare as bad as this last one is like trying to watch the television, but someone is blasting the radio at top volume directly into your ear at the same time. It’s next to impossible to focus on anything when the pain is blaring away like that, so it’s amazing that I got any reading done at all!

Reading Challenge Updates

I’m not currently participating in any reading challenges, but only two more months before the 2020 Challenges begin! I really enjoyed Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge, so I’ll do that, and probably the Modern Mrs. Darcy one again too. As much as I enjoy free-reading and tackling my TBR, I do enjoy a good challenge! Speaking of which…

State of the Goodreads TBR

I’m currently at 80 books (it was 79, but during the time it took me to write this post, a literary agency tweeted about a book it acquired based on a premise I’d always thought would make a fabulous book, so of course I had to stick it on my TBR immediately). Three of these books are currently on their way to me via interlibrary loan or the hold system, and I’m super excited about all of them. I did add seven- NOW EIGHT- books this month, however, and I only read one book off the TBR this month, so hopefully next month will be better!

Books I Acquired in October 2019

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld and Working by Studs Terkel came from a walk to a Little Free Library a few streets over, on one of the last really nice days, to drop off two books (so of course I had to come home with two more…). The Child Finder looked good, and I enjoyed the writing of Studs Terkel in an English class I took years ago, so I was pleased to find these books. The other books came from a half-off sale at the thrift store (where adult softcover books are only a quarter anyway!). Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen by Liliuokalani came home with me because I’m fascinated (and saddened, and angered) by Hawaii’s history, and who better to learn more from than Liliuokalani. I’ve never read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, but it keeps coming up in all the urban farming books that I read, so I figured it was time to bite the bullet. The Joy of Sects: A Spirited Guide to the World’s Religious Traditions by Peter Occhiograsso is actually a book that was on my TBR for ages and I ended up taking it off, but when I recognized it in the thrift store, I actually said aloud, “No way!” I was pretty excited to find it on the shelf.

I also won an e-copy of Can’t Escape Love (Reluctant Royals #2.6) by Alyssa Cole from @melon_reads on Twitter! I need to read #2 in the series first (A Duke By Default), but I loved A Princess in Theory, so I’m really looking forward to reading this. Thanks, Mel!!!

Bookish Things I Did in October 2019

At the beginning of the month, a local church had its autumn rummage sale. I mean serious business when I go to this sale, as it’s where the majority of my daughter’s clothing comes from (I can clothe this kid for an entire year for less than fifty bucks, which is pretty awesome). When I was there the first day, I noticed they had a solid wood bookshelf for sale, discarded from their preschool classrooms, and when it was still there the next day- AND half price, so only five bucks!- I threw my money at them and made my husband drive over to pick it up. 🙂 I’d been wanting to get a bookshelf for my daughter’s room anyway, and this was perfect. It’s on wheels, it folds shut, and the shelves are super deep. My daughter, being into all things traditionally girly, demanded that we paint it pink, and my husband was only too happy to oblige.

Not the clearest picture, but you get the idea. The shelf had been brought upstairs by my husband, but cleaning her room to this level of tidiness and then bringing the books upstairs from the living room shelves and then organizing them- all of this took two and a half hours. PHEW. (And that table? Only blue because it’s a hand-me-down from my son.)

I was also lucky enough to go hear author Julissa Arce speak at a local school. I haven’t had the chance to read her books yet, but I will. She’s a really engaging speaker and I loved hearing her tell the (abbreviated) story of her life. Her story, told in books, is being turned into a television series by America Ferrera, which is pretty exciting!

For real, I’m a terrible photographer, but she was a great speaker!

Current Podcast Love

Did you know that the show Dateline NBC is available as a podcast??? A friend in a parenting group clued me in to this and I’ve been listening to it all this past month as I fall asleep. To be fair, it’s kind of an odd thing to fall asleep to- the show is almost entirely centered on true crime, and I admit to being a little more paranoid now that my podcast time is full of murders and poisonings and missing people- absolutely not my normal jam! But there’s something about the calm narration of the hosts that puts me out, and most nights I have to start mid-episode somewhere so I can find if they caught the killers.

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

I finished A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. With index, my copy has 675 pages, and while it wasn’t an easy read, I’m glad I plowed through it. It went way more in depth than any other general history book I’ve read as an adult, and I found myself wanting more when I finished! It’s an intense book, full of pain and deception and all the hideous things that Americans have done to each other, but it’s an important read.

As of right now, I am 507 pages into Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, which is further than I got during my attempt to read it when I was 17. Hugo never met a backstory he didn’t like, and he has no problem droning on for 50+ pages about a topic about which is only relevant to the rest of the story for a paragraph or two. Most days, I read a 30-page section (30 pages or to the next chapter break); I do this in order to not burn out, especially in those long sections on, say, Waterloo, or French convents (I’m currently in the middle of this part!). I do find these long-winded asides extremely tedious to read, but the cats don’t seem to mind if I read aloud, so I’m expanding their literary world as well as mine. At 1463 pages, I’m hoping to finish this before the new year, but we’ll see.

I haven’t gotten much Norwegian study done this month, mostly due to the pain flare up and general busy-ness, but I’m still slowly plugging away when I can!

Real Life Stuff

Midwestern autumn be like:

Not even kidding, you guys. Two days before I took this, I killed a mosquito outside. Nature, you have seriously got to get yourself together, because trick-or-treating this year was cold, cold, cold, and involved all of us wearing multiple layers of clothing and snow boots. Eeeeesh.

This month was obviously dominated by my pain flare, but there was also the magical church yard sale, where I procured probably fifty or sixty items of clothing for my daughter for less than $15. I attended a local university performance of the musical Cabaret, which was stunning and left me feeling like I’d been punched in the gut- which is exactly what excellent theater does. That ending, man…

My son had his first school choir concert, which was lovely, and he performed with his Madrigals group at a different local university (and their performance of Look Out Above by Dessa and Jocelyn Hagen got the most applause out of any performance of the night! They were so, so good). My mother and daughter and I attended a semi-local Scandinavian event that we hit up every year and had a great time. We got our flu shots- not without some drama in trying to get them scheduled, but they’re done for the year, thank goodness (my son has asthma that only ever acts up when he’s sick, and I don’t mess around with taking chances with the flu when it comes to any potential complications). And Halloween was super fun, even though it was like 31 degrees when we were out trick-or-treating, and it snowed all day. (This morning, it’s so cold that the handle on my back screen door is frozen shut, a fact I only learned when I tried to come back in after taking the recycling out this morning. Fortunately, my daughter let me in!)

What’s next in November? My son’s school is putting on a performance of Eurydice (he’s not in it), so I’m looking forward to that. I have a dentist appointment (uuuuuuuuugggghhhh), and later on that week, I’ll go hear Erika L. Sánchez, author of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, speak. And then, that weekend, a local high school is putting on a special children’s performance of The Little Mermaid, so my mother and I are going to take my five year-old daughter to her first stage play! (My husband isn’t really into theater.) I’m already talking to her about what her behavior needs to look like, about being quiet and not talking when the actors are on stage. I think she can do it. Wish us luck!

And then we have Thanksgiving, and then it’ll be a whirlwind of holiday events. I’ll be busy, that’s for sure, but hopefully I’ll be able to squeeze in a little reading here and there. 😉

And that’s it! How was your October? (Hopefully less painful than mine!) Wishing you all the best for a beautiful November. 🙂

fiction

The Unhoneymooners- Christina Lauren

Woohoo! I’ve been waiting to read The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren (Gallery Books, 2019) since I learned of its existence, and there was a copy waiting for me last week on the New Books shelf at the library. I’ve been a Christina Lauren fan for ages, so it’s always a banner day when I’m able to grab a copy of their latest.

Olive Torres’s twin sister Ami is getting married. Ami’s always had good luck, while Olive is more the trip-UP-the-stairs kind of gal. While she’s happy for her sister, Olive doesn’t care for Ami’s smarmy, bro-ey husband-to-be, Dane, and even more than that, she can’t stand Dane’s brother, Ethan, who judged her from the first time they met. Insults fly fast between the two of them anytime they’re within five hundred feet of each other, but Olive’s doing her best to keep things cool for her sister’s big day.

However, an incident with food poisoning at the seafood-based dinner throws the whole reception into chaos, leaving shellfish-allergic Olive and buffet-avoidant Ethan the only ones not revisiting their dinners. Upon Ami’s insistence, Olive and Ethan pose as Ami and Dane to take advantage of the honeymoon trip to Maui that Ami had won. But posing as a married couple has unforeseen consequences as Olive runs into her new boss (for whom honesty and integrity are key) and Ethan runs into his ex-girlfriend, whom he never completely got over. In all their pretending, the two actually fall for each other, but the real test of the strength of their blossoming connection comes when they return home to their real lives.

While I ended up actually really enjoying The Unhoneymooners, it started off just a little slow for me, and I think that was due to the fact that other than being cynical and sarcastic, I didn’t have a good sense of who Olive really was. The more I think about it, since this is something that comes up later in the book in terms of Olive’s career, this may have been intentional, especially since she does develop of stronger sense of self and begins to clarify what she wants (and doesn’t want) as the story goes on.

Ethan isn’t wholly likable at first, either, although, seen through Olive’s eyes, he’s not meant to be. He definitely has his flaws, ones that Olive rightfully walks away from at a certain moment, but overall, he’s just as well-developed as Olive turns out to be. Together, their banter is sharp, witty, and as laugh-out-loud fun as any other Christina Lauren couple, though I definitely preferred their later-on banter over their early pre-getting together banter.

Dane is an entire piece of work, and the team here really knocked it out of the park writing one of the sleaziest, yet still completely believable characters in contemporary first-person romance. I only wish they’d included more backstory on what made Ami fall for him in the first place, because his personality and particular brand of bro-ey-ness was so off-putting to me, let alone all the complications that arise with him later on in the story. He never seemed flat or unrealistic, and I daresay far too many women have met guys who fall into the category of being a Dane. UGH. Well written, CL!!!

The second half was much more engaging than the first for me, so while this wasn’t my #1 favorite Christina Lauren novel, I enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to whatever they come up with next!

Visit Christina Lauren’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter:

Christina Lauren
Christina
Lauren

fiction · YA

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter- Erika L. Sánchez

I love where I live. Have I mentioned that? I do. Every year, the high school conglomerate parent education group has a long list of speakers that present to anyone who wants to attend, on topics involving youth mental health, preparing for college, how to better connect with and understand your teenager, screen time, drug use, and more. And every year, they invite multiple authors to come and speak. (I’ve already gone to hear David Grann this year, and while I wasn’t able to read any of her books in time, I got to hear Julissa Arce speak earlier this month.) Next month, Erika L. Sánchez will visit our area, and in preparation, I read her young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017). When I mentioned this to my 17 year-old son, his face lit up. “I read that last year!” he said, and told me he’d go with me to hear her speak. Which is pretty awesome, considering I hardly ever get to hang out with him these days. Makes a mom’s heart pretty happy. 🙂

Julia’s sister Olga is dead after a sudden and terrible traffic accident, and no one in the family is coping well. Her father has retreated further into himself, her mother is angrier than ever and demanding that Julia have the quinceañera they could never afford to throw Olga, and Julia? She throws herself into finding ways to escape her family, like going away to college (which perfect Mexican daughters like Olga never do; instead, they stay at home, attending community college for five years straight and working as secretaries in order to always stay near their families), sneaking out to parties with her friends (not like boring Olga, who never went out), meeting boys (Olga would have never!).

But as she deals- or doesn’t deal- with her grief, Julia learns that there was more, a lot more, going on with Olga that anyone ever expected. She’s bound and determined to figure out what, if her own darkness doesn’t consume her whole first. She’s not the daughter her parents may have expected, but she’s all they have left, and Julia and her parents will need to learn to reconcile that.

Obviously, this isn’t a light read. There are immediate content warnings for death (loss of a sibling) and the heavy grief (and mixed feelings; Julia and Olga were not close, so that complicates things) that comes with it; suicide attempts; rape; violence; poverty; mentions of sexual abuse, eating disorders, parental abuse and toxic behavior, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting off the top of my head. That said, this feels like a pretty important book that deserves to be read, because Julia’s struggle to live up to her parents’ expectations and bridge the gap between the culture she’s been raised in and the culture they come from is one that’s so common among first-generation teenagers.

Julia isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. She’s biting; she’s sarcastic; sometimes she’s downright rude. Part of this is a defense mechanism; some of it is just her personality in general. I quite enjoyed her snarky comments and her sharp tongue (I feel your irritation with the world, Julia…), but I understand why other readers may find this tiresome. Her desire to move beyond what her parents want for her- a safe life within arm’s reach of the family at all times, because that’s what they know, what they’re comfortable and familiar with- is so strong, and Ms. Sánchez’s depiction of it is so vivid that at times it’s necessary to take a deep breath and release yourself from the far-too-real feeling of suffocation. We’ve all wanted to break free of something at some point in our lives; Julia’s not-uncommon need to be something bigger than the dreams of her parents, even in the wake of familial grief, is presented in a manner so intense that you’ll feel you’re right there with her in her run-down apartment on the south side of Chicago.

Her attempts to discover who her sister truly was are bittersweet for reasons I don’t want to spoil, and there’s a journey back to Mexico to visit family and heal where Julia unearths long-buried secrets that aid her in beginning to understand her parents, especially her mother. So, so much heartbreak and pain; it’s amazing that those who suffer such deep wounds are ever able to even walk upright with all that they’re forced to carry through this life. If anything, this book will either deepen your empathy or have you understanding immigration and life as an immigrant (and the child of immigrants) in an entirely new way.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a heavy book written in an utterly engaging manner, featuring a heroine who is as prickly as a cactus but who contains multitudes. This is a book that will stick with me, and I’m so excited to hear Ms. Sánchez speak next month.

Visit Erika L. Sánchez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Smart, Strong Women- Jerramy Fine

Years ago, just after I moved to Tennessee (where I no longer live), one of the first things I did after getting at least somewhat settled into our apartment was to get my new state driver’s license (an absolute necessity, since the out-of-state license I had was due to expire in something like two weeks!). Brand-new license in hand, you know my next stop was…the public library, to get a brand-new library card (the librarian asked, “Do you have a driver’s license?” “I just came from the DMV!” I announced, and he laughed. I’m THAT seriously about my library love!), and one of the books I checked out on my maiden trip to that particular library was Jerramy Fine’s Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess, a memoir of growing up in love with all things royal. It was an enjoyable read for me, and that was how I recognized Ms. Fine’s name on the cover of In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Strong, Smart Women (Running Press Adult, 2016). My daughter is deeply enamored by all things princess (she’s something she’s referring to as the Rose Fairy Princess for Halloween this year, and she spent our entire vacation in Branson wearing a plastic tiara, soon replaced by a fancier one from Claire’s as a vacation souvenir). I’m more along the lines of sweatshirts and cozy pants, so I’m always on the lookout for things to help me better understand my daughter and thus be a better parent, so I grabbed this book a few months ago.

Ms. Fine bases this book on the premise that every woman grows up wanting to be a princess, at least for some part of their lives (and some for all of their lives!), and that this isn’t weak or excessively fanciful, but can instead be a jumping point for teaching girls leadership, empathy, kindness, justice, mercy, and all the other qualities that benevolent rulers must emphasize. On that, we’re in complete agreement, and I’ve definitely found myself using her suggestion of asking my daughter if a particular misbehavior is how Anna and Elsa (her current favorites) would act (which usually gets a grumpy face in response, but it’s the kind of grumpy face my daughter gives when she’s admitting I’m right. SO few things work in reaching my kiddo when she’s entrenched in a misbehavior that this is a pretty big win! Speaking of misbehavior, as I type this, my daughter is supposed to be asleep and is instead singing Let It Go in her bedroom next door…).

There’s also a really great section with write-ups on real life princesses, highlighting their education, accomplishments, and aspects of their personalities or backgrounds that made them stand out. I’ve never followed royalty, so this was full of new and interesting information for me.

I didn’t feel the book was well-organized, however, and I agree with the reviews that overall, it would’ve been stronger as an article. There were many times where I felt it wandered or went off track, and while she clarified herself later on in the book, Ms. Fine’s early arguments against what ‘the feminists’ say about princess culture caused me to raise an eyebrow. While Ms. Fine does eventually reveal that she is a feminist, feminism isn’t a monolith and there’s room for disagreement within the movement. In my readings of feminist literature, the issue I understand to be most common with princess culture is not that girls are wanting to be something so closely tied to traditionally feminine ideals (feminism is about the choice to be yourself, whether that’s someone who wears heels and frills, a construction helmet, or anything in between- or even a combination!), but more the relentless marketing towards girls, especially young girls, and the forcing of the message so early on that life won’t be complete without this product in that color. (And no, there’s nothing wrong with pink, but not everything needs to be pink or gender-based. Toy kitchens should just be toy kitchens and not a tool of gender stereotyping when they only come in pink…just like not every toy needs to talk or have eyes. Totally different issue here, but inanimate object toys with eyes freak me out. WHY DOES A TOASTER NEED EYES, YOU GUYS???)

There were times when her arguments weren’t as in-depth or as incisive as they could be, and I often wondered why she had included certain parts, as they seemed to have little to do with the rest of the section. The overall tone of the book trends more towards conversational-to-blog-post and not quite so much serious, scholarly research. And perhaps it’s not meant to be that, but I was expecting something a little harder-hitting than what lay in between the covers.

I did learn, however, that Ms. Fine once ran a Princess Prep summer camp in London, where she taught girls things like royal etiquette, philanthropy, fashion, and equestrian skills. While I can’t find a link to a website, Marie Claire had a short write-up about it, as did Jezebel. I’m sad that this doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore, because with her love for all things royal, I’m sure Ms. Fine made this a spectacular experience for those little girls who were lucky enough to attend.

So while I didn’t love the book entirely, I did find parts of it helpful. My daughter is a bit of a tough nut to crack, behavior-wise, so I appreciate anything that gives me a nudge in a direction that can help me better connect with her. It’s funny; just before I discovered the existence of this book, I had, entirely out of the blue, remembered Ms. Fine’s memoir and wondered what she was up to these days. Mystery solved, and I’m glad to see she’s still writing and living out her dream in London. 🙂

Visit Jerramy Fine’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

The Right Swipe- Alisha Rai

Ohhhhhh you guys. This has been a terrible month for reading. 😦

So, back in the second week of October, our weather went from about 75 degrees to a low of 33, and we had a massive cold front move in. And because of that, my body FREAKED OUT. I’ve got degenerative disc disease and sacroiliac joint dysfunction (and possibly more things, but who knows, specialists are expensive), and when there are either massive pressure changes or huge temperature swings, my pain becomes utterly unbearable. And that’s what happened a few weeks ago. My entire life got put on hold and I had to cancel a few things because I had pain zinging from my neck to my toes every second of the day.

Even sitting hurt. And driving? OMG. Nope. I still had to, though, and it was enough to make me sweat.

I’m doing a little better off now- driving doesn’t hurt so much, and I can do things around the house other than merely existing and going to bed at 8:30 every night to escape the pain- but during that period of about a week and a half, I pulled out an ARC of The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai (Avon, 2019), sent to me by a longtime friend in Michigan (thanks again, Sandy!) and did my best to lose myself in the story in the brief periods where I could focus.

Rhiannon Hunter is creator of one of the most popular dating apps out there, but romance hasn’t really been in the cards for her, and her latest hook-up, someone she could’ve actually seen herself with long(er)-term, ghosted her after one unforgettable night, so she’s really not feeling this whole dating thing these days. It’s business only as she plans to grow her company by purchasing a smaller company, but it’s there she finds the ghoster himself. Samson Lima, former professional football player, is working for his kind-of aunt’s dating website as he tries to figure out his place in this world now that he’s left professional sports behind. He’s still grieving the loss of his uncle to CTE (caused by too many concussions), and he’s unsure of what the future holds for him. Having Rhiannon back in his life, once he explains the very real and very serious circumstances that led to him accidentally ghosting her, would help him feel more at ease with everything.

But it’s going to be a learning process for both of them, and Rhiannon isn’t going to have an easy time growing her business into what she knows it could be, especially not with her jackass of an ex in direct competition with her. She’s bound and determined to do this one hundred percent on her own…but as she’ll learn, all the best things in life happen when we let ourselves be vulnerable.

Rhiannon is an utter pistol of a character, nearly so driven that I had a little bit of a hard time trying to relate to her. Don’t get me wrong- she’s definitely a fabulous character, a highly motivated black businesswoman who knows her worth and refuses to settle for anything less than she knows she deserves. She’s surrounded by amazing friends and family who are supportive yet flawed (and still lovable!), and she works for what she wants with an almost pitbull-like strength. She’s basically #goals all the way. I am pretty much the exact opposite in every way and had an easier time relating to her best friend Katrina, who suffers from such terrible anxiety that she rarely leaves the house. (*nods at my blog title* If I’m not getting groceries or driving a kid or husband somewhere, I’m either at the library or at home, for real, so I feel you, Katrina…) I long for the confidence of Rhiannon Hunter and wish I could take her Master Class or sit in on her TED talk. She’s got some major trust issues to work through, but that’s not unexpected for romance novels, especially contemporaries, so it doesn’t necessarily detract from her strong personality.

Samson is an amazing hero. Principles for DAYS and he’s willing to put his money (and his professional sports career) where his mouth is. A man who stands up for his beliefs AND he’s in touch with his emotions AND he’s romantic and not at all a serial dater??? You guys, this dude is the sparkly unicorn of romance heroes! Can Samson teach a Master Class, too, one that’s required for all men to take? This could really, really work, y’all. If we can get a hologram all set up, I’m sensing a mammoth Alisha Rai enterprise…

There’s a lot going on in this book, including discussions of the #MeToo movement (so there’s a content warning there if you’re not up for that at the moment); Rhiannon’s ex-boyfriend is a blackmailing sleazebag and needs to be thrown out entirely (calling Whole Man Disposal Services…). If you’ve never read much on CTE (or Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy, the neurodegenerative disease that makes the news often these days in regards to professional sports), this is a great primer; for further reading, Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas is excellent and will give you an in-depth look at how the condition was discovered and all the NFL has done to try to bury evidence of it and research on it. High five to Ms. Rai for throwing the floodlights on a subject that needs as much coverage as possible, especially to an audience that will be majority female and who either have kids now or may have kids in the future who might play contact sports (or be in gym class and wind up with not one, but TWO concussions, one of which he received as a mere SPECTATOR, ask me how I know *stares hard at my son*). We’re the perfect audience for this kind of education, and the stories of Samson’s father and uncle and their struggles with CTE add such depth to the story.

I love a good novel that not only entertains me but educates me as well, and despite the problems I had being able to focus due to my pain, The Right Swipe made for an enjoyable read with a gloriously diverse cast, chock-full of contemporary issues, and a truly adorable love story. Ms. Rai’s next novel in the series is set to come out in April of 2020 and focuses on Katrina, Rhiannon’s anxiety-ridden friend, and you know I’m here for that!

I have to give a shoutout to the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast here; this is where I was first introduced to Ms. Rai and thus began following her on Twitter. She’s smart, funny, incredibly charming, and has such a great personality that you’ll be immediately wondering if she’ll be your new BFF upon listening to any episode with her on it (or maybe that’s just me and I desperately need to get out more and develop an actual social life instead of living vicariously through fictional characters), and her Twitter feed is the same way. Even if you’re not into romance in general, she’s such a great person that I highly recommend giving her episodes a listen and her Twitter a follow!

Visit Alisha Rai’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men- Caroline Criado-Pérez

There have been so many great books on feminism and women’s issues that have come out in the past few years and I’ve wanted to read them all. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Pérez (Harry N. Abrams, 2019) caught my eye when a friend read a copy, although the subect scared me a little as well (and with good reason, as it turns out). Nevertheless, onto the TBR it went, and it took me a bit to finish, as I’m in the midst of a nasty pain flare thanks to (I’m hoping) the wild temperature swings we’ve been having lately.

Every woman understands women-centric problems in a deeply personal way- women’s pants pockets, AMIRITE???? But it turns out all those other annoyances we experience daily- some of them deadly- is because of the absence of our gender, or the absence of consideration for the ways women differ from men, as these products or methods are being researched and developed. Ever watched a man text one-handed and then you have to use both hands? Cell phones are designed for men’s hands. Ditto for standard piano keyboards, for those of you out there who have struggled to span certain octaves while playing. Seatbelt not fitting correctly across your breasts or pregnant belly? That’s because they’re designed for men’s flat chests; getting belts to accommodate women’s breasts would be “too difficult” (and thus, since car seats are designed based on men’s bodies- you guessed it, women are less safe and die at higher rates even in minor accidents). And don’t go expecting medication to work as the package states it will- even though we KNOW women metabolize medication differently, almost all medication (even medication for conditions primarily suffered by women!) is designed for and tested exclusively on men. These are problems that are quite literally killing women, yet the general consensus is, “Women are just too complicated, so we won’t bother.”

One of the most egregious examples Ms. Criado-Pérez highlighted was the lack of women on the teams helping to rebuild after a tsunami that devastated southeast Asia (forgive me, I can’t remember if it was Indonesia or Sri Lanka; I neglected to write it down. If you have a copy of the book or remember the specifics and have the time to correct me in the comments, I’m happy to amend this post!); this resulted in the teams of men building houses without kitchens. And lest you think this was a fluke, the same thing happened several years later after earthquakes devastated India- men rebuilt houses which lacked kitchens. And why not? They weren’t doing the cooking- food just magically appears for them- so houses having kitchens wasn’t in their frame of reference.

THIS is why the female perspective is vital, and Invisible Women presents the reader with example after infuriating example. No one is immune from the effects of women being left out- if it’s not you receiving ineffective medication or surgical procedures that do more harm than good, it might be your wife, your daughter, your mother- or it might be you sitting in a car when a woman flies through a windshield and then crashes through yours. Or maybe you’ll be waiting uncomfortably in an ER while the doctors work on that woman. Maybe it’ll be a woman whose finances you share who repeatedly drops her cell phone and needs a replacement because that phone is too big for her hands. In some way, this affects every person on the planet, and thus every last one of us should be putting up a major fuss.

Invisible Women is eye-opening and infuriating and should be read by every member of society. It’s opened my eyes to things I realized were problems but didn’t realize WHY (seatbelts, phone sizes, apps that require that we have our phones on our bodies but WHERE DO I PUT THIS THING WHEN I’M WEARING A DRESS OR IT DOESN’T FIT IN MY POCKET???). Ms. Criado-Pérez is more optimistic about these problems being solved than I am; there are far too many people out there willing to roll their eyes any time half the population even opens their mouths, so I don’t look for any of these problems to be solved, possibly ever. If your take is different, I’d love to hear it. I’m feeling pretty cynical about a LOT of stuff these days…

Visit Caroline Criado-Pérez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

The Silence Between Us- Alison Gervais

I’ve been interested in sign language, deafness, and Deaf culture since I was on a fourth grade field trip to some sort of ‘Just Say No!’ retreat when I noticed an interpreter signing to a student from another school across the room. I was so utterly entranced by her signing that I don’t think I heard a word of the anti-drug presentation (no worries, I’ve never done any kind of drugs, so we’re all good). Our teacher mentioned the interpreter later on and said that she was signing to a Deaf student so that he or she could understand what was being said, and I was fascinated. In the next Scholastic book flier was The Gallaudet Survival Guide to Signing by Leonard G. Lane, my mother bought it for me, and I learned the alphabet in one night. Years later, I still know a lot of the signs I picked up as a kid and in the one class I’ve been able to take as an adult (and actually used them this summer when my daughter played with a girl whose parents were Deaf). All that to say, when I learned about The Silence Between Us by Alison Gervais (Blink, 2019), I was all the way in!

Maya’s in the middle of some pretty serious transitions as the story begins. She’s just moved to Colorado with her single mother and her younger brother, who has cystic fibrosis. If that weren’t a big enough change, she’ll be attending a hearing school for the first time after years at a Deaf school (having fully lost her hearing after a bout with meningitis at age 13). She’s terrified and more than a little cranky about being yanked out of her comfortable world, but she’s determined to make the best of it for her mother’s sake. Nina, assigned to be Maya’s student liaison, becomes a fast friend, and she’s luckily able to strike up a rapport with Kathleen, her interpreter. Both of these help to make the switch a little easier.

But Maya’s not expecting Beau, the popular, good-looking, super-smart student who throws himself into learning ASL in order to be able to communicate with her. Not used to dealing with hearing guys, Maya doubts his intentions at first, until it becomes clear that Beau is all heart. But Maya’s got to learn to trust herself, and to live in the hearing world as a Deaf woman in order to pursue her dreams, and far too many people refuse to make it anywhere even close to easy for her.

While Maya can be short on patience and quick to bite people’s heads off, I enjoyed her. Her instant and complete acceptance of herself as a Deaf woman is so full and so total that it almost feels radical (which is sad to say! MORE HARDCORE SELF-ACCEPTANCE IN ALL GENRES, PLEASE!) and it’s a deep breath of fresh mountain air. I LIKE MYSELF DEAF, she signs when the subject of cochlear implants (a hot topic of debate in the Deaf community) comes up, and I swear, I nearly cheered out loud when I read that. If only we could all love ourselves that much…

Maya’s first suspicions of Beau are understandable; one of his ‘friends’ at school shows her exactly how nasty some hearing people can be towards Deaf people (although there’s a totally victorious call-out scene near the end of the novel that I loved!), and the book does an excellent job at showing all the many frustrations Deaf and hard-of-hearing people face due to lack of accommodations- simple ones!- that society could easily implement in order to make our world more accessible for everyone…but doesn’t. This is really a great book to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is Deaf and learning to live in a more independent way in the hearing world and how much they’re forced to struggle in order to achieve their goals.

Excellent representation in this book, and it’s kind of wild to me that ten months into the year, this is only the second book I’ve read this year with a Deaf character (the other being Victoria’s mother in Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler). Deafness is what’s known as a low-incidence disability, but hearing loss absolutely isn’t, especially among children, and I’m curious as to why I haven’t seen more characters with hearing loss throughout my reading life. I also really appreciated Maya’s bewilderment as to why the kids with cochlear implants hadn’t also learned ASL, as that’s something that has always troubled me as well. Obviously it’s each family’s choice, but technology can fail, equipment can break, batteries and processors are expensive, and if these things happen, the implanted child (or adult!) may be left without a language or way to communicate. Why not give them access to both worlds? I was happy to see that Ms. Gervais had raised those questions and showed how what other families choose to do affects the wider Deaf community.

I also loved the inclusion of Connor, Maya’s brother who has cystic fibrosis. Ms. Gervais shows his struggle, but she also portrays how difficult it is to have a chronically ill sibling (Maya works hard in order to not add to her mother’s troubles), along with showing how stressed out Maya’s single mother gets (but tries to hide it). I did question why on earth one would move a child with a lung condition to Colorado, famous for its high altitudes where it’s harder to breathe, but I don’t know much about the intricacies of cystic fibrosis and thus there may be plenty of reasons why this was a good idea. And sometimes, when your job says go, you go, and that may have been the case for sole breadwinner Mom. Either way, I’m sure she researched the heck out of it and spoke with doctors and other health coordinators, just like any other parent would!

The Silence Between Us is a book that will make you consider and reconsider the hearing world, the Deaf world, how the two work together, and how this cooperation could be even deeper if we’re willing to put in the work (and why not? ASL is gorgeous and fun). I hope this is the beginning of more Deaf characters in YA and beyond.

Visit Alison Gervais’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult- Susan Ashline

Cult books! Cult books everywhere!

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult by Susan Ashline (Pegasus Books, 2019) was a new one for me. I made a trip to another local branch of the library in order to pick up a DVD for my son’s Oceanography and Meteorology class (seriously, when did high schools get such interesting classes? It was huge deal that my high school got Psychology my senior year. My son is also taking Sports and Entertainment Marketing, and a class called Incubator, which is basically Shark Tank for teenagers, it’s wild), and of course I trucked in with my list of books from my TBR that were on their shelves. This was on the New Books shelf (because you know I had to stop and browse that!), and I grabbed it right away, because, well, cults.

Word of Life Christian Church in upstate New York seemed like a fairly normal church when it first started out, but after a while, neighbors noticed that it had become more secluded, more secretive: a gate went up, church members went in early mornings and didn’t come out until late in the night. What was going on behind those gates and the closed doors was a long, drawn-out indoctrination of its members, over whom control would be passed down from pastor father to pastor daughter, and which would directly lead to the members and leaders beating a teenager to death, along with prison time for many of the members and leaders.

While the recounting of the recordings and texts does occasionally become repetitious and wearying, Ms. Ashline has written a chilling work that shows exactly how people get involved with groups that eventually morph into something entirely different. There’s a LOT of weird stuff going on in this book, including moving a dead body across state lines and attempting to revive it, squalor (some of it involving animals and animal hoarding), demons (SO much talk of demons. I didn’t know I could get sick of hearing about demons, but hooooooboy, can I ever) and the constant verbal abuse of a flock by its pastors. If you’re at all interested in cults and secluded religious (or otherwise!) groups, this strange tale is one you won’t want to miss.

I was really struck by Bruce Leonard, the father of Lucas Leonard, and how weak-willed he was. He’s probably the stereotypical sheep-like cult member that everyone thinks of as being most likely to join a group like Word of Life, as opposed to the more firebrand people who are all in, lock, stock, and barrel from the get-go in a big and vocal way (although no one ever really joins a cult, so to speak; they join a church or a self-help group, something they think is going to meet their needs and improve their life. It’s the manipulation of the leader or leaders that turn it into a cult, and far too often, the members don’t realize the danger they’re in until it’s too late), being entirely unable to make decisions on his own or think for himself, and thus he turned to a stronger, more powerful leader to make those decisions for him, and his wife was only too happy to follow. He’s also an excellent example of people who stay in cults despite the terrible mistreatment they receive from the leaders. Bruce and his wife and children were insulted and ostracized from the small group on a regular basis, and still they stayed, and it’s deeply fascinating to see them constantly come back for more. There’s a bit at the end where another local religious leader talks with Bruce, who eventually figures it out, and the way that religious leader’s help affected Bruce intrigued me.

Content warning: there are quite a few mentions of child molestation. During the ‘counseling’ session that lead to Lucas Leonard’s death, he and his brother Chris admitted to molesting some of the children in the church. Investigations showed no evidence of this, and I believe Chris admitted that he only said it to get the beatings to stop, and because he thought that’s what the other church members wanted to hear. Ms. Ashline also mentions that, as in many cults, some words have definitions peculiar to that particular group, and in this group, it seemed that even changing the diaper of an opposite sex child counted as molestation. So while there’s never anything graphic mentioned that isn’t confessed under extreme duress, beware that this is a topic of frequent mention in the latter parts of this book.

I hadn’t heard of this story before (I seem to miss a LOT of stuff like this!!!), so I’m glad i stumbled across this book. All this constant reading and learning about different cults has made me start feeling like everything has the potential to become a cult (much like listening to Dateline via podcast makes me feel like murder is everywhere! Egads, I need to go read something about fluffy kittens and puppies frolicking in a sunshiny meadow…).

Are you or were you familiar with this story? If you learned about this on the news, I’d love to hear your take on it.

Visit Susan Ashline’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.