nonfiction

Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland- Jonathan M. Metzl

Anything about politics these days, I have to wait until I’m mentally strong enough to handle it. Self-care and all that; there’s only so much negativity I can take at one time. I had placed Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan M. Metzl (Basic Books, 2019) on my TBR on the recommendation of a friend, and on a recent trip to the library, I took out my updated list and grabbed this book.

The title sums the book up nicely. Across many red states, white Americans are voting for policies that directly harm them, from gun laws that up their own death rates, to healthcare policies (or the rescinding of policies) that lead to increased suffering and deaths, to education cutbacks and policies that mean their own children’s schools are worse off- sometimes much worse off. And they’re doing this out of a misplaced sense of cultural pride, that lifting those whom they have ‘othered’ up means they’ll have no one to look down on, and so in order to maintain this false sense of superiority, they continually put their own lives on the line by voting for policies that bring harm upon themselves. To them, this tradeoff is worth it.

Dying of Whiteness is necessarily heavy on the statistics in order to prove its hypothesis, but Mr. Metzl has managed to wrangle what could have been a dry recounting into a sobering narrative of his research findings as he traveled through multiple states that went red in the 2016 election. The first section on how looser gun laws in Missouri led to a 25% increase in firearm homicides and a 47% higher homicide rate than the national average between 2008-2014 shocked me, as did the massive increase (the percentage which I somehow neglected to write down) in suicide-by-gun among white males. Prevention is key, but thanks to the Dickey Amendment, researchers haven’t been able to research what would be effective prevention for suicide carried out by a gun (as government contributes the most funding to research, since government funds cannot be used for funding research into gun deaths, the only thing to takeaway here is that the ability to own a gun is more important than saving lives, according to our government). Imagine if the flu, or the polio epidemic were treated like this, and where we would be as a nation if no research were allowed to be conducted on death or suffering caused by those. Yet here we are… It’s not exactly an uplifting book, but it’s not meant to be.

The healthcare section is similarly packed with statistics and numbers, with men on Medicaid, tethered to oxygen tanks and barely able to wheeze out answers complaining about immigrants and people of color and saying they’d rather die than have certain groups of people also able to access healthcare. It’s really that bad.

Same goes for the educational system, but at least Mr. Metzl is able to find plenty of citizens who seem to understand how the affects of austerity measures in Kansas harmed their own children (though they still voted en masse for people who promised to enact these same policies nationwide…), but only after their children’s schools went massively down the tubes.

‘You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him,’ Booker T. Washington famously said, and Mr. Metzl does a fine job of exposing the Americans who are content to stay down with those they’re deadset on oppressing. It’s a gloomy look at the reality of America today. My sole complaint lies with what Mr. Metzl seemingly overlooks: while these people have no trouble living in reduced circumstances in order to maintain their place in this invisible hierarchy, even going so far as to give up their own lives for this misguided ideal (something at which he seems more than a little awed at, in a horrified way), what he doesn’t mention is that it’s not just themselves these people are sacrificing. It’s their children. It’s their neighbors. It’s people who desperately want change, who DON’T want to sacrifice themselves, who don’t want to watch their children or their parent die due to lack of decent medical care, or who need to know how to prevent gun suicides, or who want their kids to have technology classes and AP classes and college preparation in school. People who are literally dying for their allegiance to their own whiteness are also sentencing the rest of us to die alongside them, and I would have liked to have seen more written to that particularly terrifying reality.

Dying of Whiteness is daunting and more than a little disheartening, but it’s well-written, statistically sound, and an important read, if you can handle it. It’s also a call to action for white people. Free your mind. Get over whatever racial biases and prejudices you have. Do the work to ditch your racism, because your life, and the life of those you love, literally depends on it.

Visit Jonathan Metzl’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction

The Child Finder- Rene Denfeld

I’m not the biggest thriller fan- my brain makes enough anxiety of its own so I don’t need to go in search of it- and I’m not the hugest fan of missing and abducted children, either, but occasionally a book that ticks both of those boxes finds its way into my pile. A walk to a Little Free Library a few streets over had me grabbing a copy of The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (Harper, 2017). I mean, it’s about a woman who finds children, right? Not just kids going missing or being abducted. That sounded like something I could handle.

Naomi Cottle has turned her nebulous past- a found child who came of age in the home of a loving foster mother- into a career, using her sharply honed instincts to search out children who have gone missing. Running from her own past and from connecting too deeply with others, she relies on word of mouth and her phenomenal success rate to give parents the answers, both miraculous and devastating, they’ve been denied for far too long. The subject of her latest case, Madison Culver, went missing months ago in Oregon’s beautiful but desolate Skookum National Forest, and Naomi has promised her desperate parents a resolution one way or another. The only things that might distract her from the case are her past, Mrs. Cottle, her dying foster mother, and the attention and growing affection from Jerome, the foster brother with whom she was raised.

Deep in the snowy mountains of the forest, the Snow Girl has developed a way to stay strong, stay alive, first in the dark basement of a man named B, and then as his companion, trapping animals in the woods. The stories she tells herself about what her life has become have helped her to survive this far, but things are changing, and the Snow Girl may not have much time left.

Content warnings for child abduction and captivity, and mentions of child sexual assault and death.

The Child Finder is a page-turner. I blew through the book within less than twenty-four hours, I think. I tend to shy away from thrillers because I can’t stand every page being so tense, but this book was a slow, simmering build, leading to a single major tension-filled climax (expected in a story like this, so I wasn’t bothered by it). Naomi has a mysterious backstory, having been found running in the night by migrant farm workers when she was just a child and dropped off at a police station miles away. She has no memory of her past, only wisps that come to her now and then, and that she fights against, scared and resistant to letting too much come back to her.

Her budding relationship with the man who was her foster brother is carefully written, sweet, and doesn’t feel at all creepy (years ago, I read a book, whose name escapes me, where the main character ended up hooking up with her stepbrother and I seriously could. not. even with that; everything about it felt wrong and gross, but Ms. Denfeld steers clear of that territory). Naomi is a complex character, and it’s fascinating watching her make the connections between the cases she’s working and her complicated emotions towards her past.

The Snow Girl’s chapters are occasionally difficult and painful to read when you remember how young she is and the horrors that have been and are currently being visited upon her. Her voice and strength feel authentic, which isn’t surprising, considering that Rene Denfeld has worked as an investigator and helped victims of sex trafficking (along with being a foster parent, which also lends authenticity to Mrs. Cottle’s and Naomi’s voices).

In some books, the setting is as much a character as any of the living people, and the isolated, snow-covered landscapes of the Skookum National Forest really give this book a creepy feel. The description never veers toward the long-winded, but instead allows just enough to create a menacing ambiance and a sense of desperation for Naomi, Madison’s parents, and the reader. It’s not a place I’d ever want to go after reading this, that’s for sure!

I tend to shy away from series, but there’s a follow-up to this book, The Butterfly Girl, and I enjoyed The Child Finder enough that I might actually pick #2 up (which is pretty high praise for me!).

Do you enjoy that edge-of-your-seat feeling when you read, or are you more of a read-to-relax person?

Visit Rene Denfeld’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

middle grade · nonfiction

Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice- Veronica Chambers

I went to the library (I’m sure you’re shocked) a few weeks ago with a list of books for my daughter. As I was passing through the nonfiction shelves, I came upon a copy of Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice by Veronica Chambers (Harper Collins, 2018). Curiosity piqued, I grabbed it off the shelf and flipped through it. It looked right up my alley, so into the pile of 37482374983289 books for my daughter it went!

(I’m sure you’ll also be super surprised that the bag actually ripped as I was walking out to the car. 100% serious here! Whoops.)

Resist begins with an inspiring foreword by Senator Cory Booker, about how one person’s resistance to injustice made his entire life possible. Ms. Chambers then serves up short profiles of 35 historical and modern figures, each who fought or are fighting for the rights of those who have been oppressed. There are blasts from the distant past, including Joan of Arc and Martin Luther, the more recent past, like Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, and current rainmakers such as Malala Yousafzai and (much to my delight) Janet Mock. Civil rights, women’s rights, religious rights, migrant rights and more are covered in this stirring, yet easy-to-digest middle grade nonfiction book.

This is a cool little book that would make for a fabulous parent-child read, especially for when your kids overhear some of the terrible things on the news these days and they come to you, worried and scared about their futures. Ms. Chambers has chosen an excellent motley batch of people who have struggled and fought to bring justice to the masses, with little victories and big, with small losses, along with those who lost their lives fighting. Reading Resist, it’s possible to show your child that throughout history, there have always been brave people willing to step forward and do what’s right, even when it’s difficult, and there are still people working hard for the sake of justice today. These profiles of courageous people- adults and kids!- might help kids have a little hope for what seems like an increasingly uncertain future.

This is something I’ll head back to in a few years when my daughter is older. It’s something we can read together, either with me reading out loud to her, or with us sharing the reading-out-loud duties. There’s a lot of fodder for great parent-child discussions here too, so I’m looking forward to the day that she’s old enough to take part in discussing these stories about the lives of such brave people and what their actions meant to both the people in their lifetimes and to us today. Maybe she’ll even be inspired by them. I hope so.

Resist is a great biographical overview of what courage means and looks like, and for me, it was not only inspiring, it’s a good reminder that the middle grade section has a lot of hidden gems that I need to dig up more often. 😉

Visit Veronica Chamber’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

judaism · memoir · nonfiction · religion

Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg

Have you ever read a book solely because you follow its author on Twitter? (Okay, maybe that wasn’t the only reason; I follow authors I haven’t read yet simply because I like their personalities. I definitely need to be interested in the subject or story of a book to read it!)

That’s how I found Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg (Beacon Press, 2008). I caught a few of her tweets since they were liked or shared by others that I follow and ended up following her because I enjoyed her voice and her message so much. And then she mentioned the book she wrote in one thread, and I was like, “A BOOK, YOU SAY????” Not only did I immediately add it to my TBR, I requested it via interlibrary loan as well.

Danya Ruttenberg decided she was an atheist as a young teenager. The Judaism of her childhood didn’t make sense to her, and so she continued on with her life, not believing but still trying to connect with something bigger than herself, a sense of connectedness with something spiritual or divine. She tried by partying with her friends, convening with nature, and delving deep into yoga practice, but while she occasionally got close and found certain glimpses of holiness and states of ecstasy, nothing was quite enough for her. Being a religious studies major gave her insights into other belief systems and the demands of each; connecting with other friends seeking the same helped her not only to see the beauty of the religion she was born into, but to recognize that not everyone’s path is the same, nor should it be. Hers is a gradual journey to faith and practice, replete of any sudden “A-ha!” moments, but it’s that slow, steady exploration before the eventual arrival at rabbinical school that lends her story such significance.

I really loved this book. Before ending up in rabbinical school, Rabbi Ruttenberg majored in religious studies (can you feel my jealousy??? I find religion so fascinating that, were I able to go back to school, this would be a heavy contender for my choice of major) and quotes some of the great historical and modern religious thinkers of every religion throughout the book. She mentioned something about Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou/I-it’ theory that led me to a better understanding of it, which I’ve been pondering all week (I even shared that article on Facebook, where I rarely talk about religious matters, because I found it so infused with meaning for me). While she does get a little into the more mystical aspects of yoga practice, something that, while I’ve done plenty of yoga to help with my back, has never appealed to me, I still appreciated her description of what it meant to her in order to further my understanding of what it meant to her and means to many others.

I identified with so much of Rabbi Ruttenberg’s feelings throughout her journey, her search for meaning and a sense of connection with the Divine. Her slow, measured journey to a deeper spiritual awareness resonated deeply with me, along with making me a little jealous. I’m not sure mine will have such a well-defined end goal or landing place, but I’m thankful that she shared her story with the world. Her view of life, of the sacred, of justice and of what connects us all is beautiful and inspiring, and I’m deeply grateful to have read her thoughtful insight, which has given me a lot to ponder, and a lot of what she’s written has given me a sense of peace I’ve been needing lately.

I’m very much interested in reading her latest book, Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting. It sounds like a book I could definitely use in my life!

Visit Danya Ruttenberg’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

All the Walls of Belfast- Sarah J. Carlson

Reading means different things to different people, and it can be used for so many different things. We do it to relax, to escape our own lives and slip on the mantle of some other existence, to explore new worlds and new ideas, and to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. One of the most wonderful things I’ve discovered about reading is how much you can learn even from fiction, and it was with the intent to learn more that I added All the Walls of Belfast by Sarah J. Carlson (Turner, 2019) after reading a fellow blogger’s review.

All the Walls of Belfast is a dual-narrative novel, following the arcs of Fiona, an Irish-American teenager who is visiting her long-estranged father and half-brothers in Northern Ireland for the first time since she was a baby, and Danny, a Northern Irish teenager who comes from an abusive family and who is trying to build a better life for himself. Fiona’s trying to connect with the family she no longer remembers, a task made difficult when she learns of her father’s involvement during the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s ethno-nationalist conflict that took place during the mid-to-late 20th century. Officially, the Troubles are over, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still isolated incidents of violence and constant tension. How can she love a father who has done such terrible things, things that still echo years later?

Danny’s family was just as involved in the Troubles, but in different ways and on the opposing side, and the effects are still felt in his family as well, primarily in his father’s constant anger and abuse, and the absence of his mother. Danny’s desperate to build a life for himself that doesn’t involve hurting others, but his father, who uses him as a punching bag, is making this next to impossible. Meeting Fiona and falling for her inspires him even more to really be something, but learning exactly who Fiona is might ruin everything…for everyone.

I had such high hopes for this book. I knew so little about the Troubles (if pressed, I could have told you it was a conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants, and there was a lot of violence involved, and also some songs by U2, but that was the extent of my knowledge- which is strange, especially since a lot of this was taking place when I was in Catholic school. I do remember seeing some footage of the violence on the news and on 20/20- yeah, I was a weird tween who watched 20/20- but I don’t remember the school mentioning this more than offhandedly) and I was really hoping to learn more from this novel.

Unfortunately, All the Walls of Belfast assumes the reader has a fairly in-depth understanding of the Troubles from the outset and doesn’t take the time to explain any of the basics. Terms like IRA and UVF are used without any previous definition, and there’s no glossary in the back to define these terms for readers who aren’t in the know. I spent quite a bit of time googling acronyms and reading articles on the history of the conflict- and taking notes I could refer back to, which I did!- to make this book make sense. The story would have been much stronger if Fiona had been less well-informed and had arrived in country needing explanations; this particular literary device is why there’s so often a new kid in YA, or an adult is in a brand new situation, because that new person will need the rules explained to them, just as the reader does. I very much would have appreciated learning alongside Fiona, but instead I struggled to follow along with some of the more political storylines.

The ending wraps up a little too prettily, and in a way that I feel would be unrealistic, unfortunately, these days. The writing is fine; I found the novel to be easily readable and I enjoyed Ms. Carlson’s vivid descriptions of Belfast, as I did the dynamics between Fiona and her half-brothers. But without a more detailed breakdown of the history of the Troubles, the rest of the novel wound up falling flatter than I had hoped. I didn’t come away from this book feeling like I understood the Troubles much better than I had going in, so I’ll keep searching for a novel that better suits what I’m looking for.

fiction

Things You Save in a Fire- Katherine Center

Another book from the day I browsed the New Books shelf without anything in particular in mind. Years ago, I read and enjoyed Katherine Center’s Everyone Is Beautiful (and I suspect I would appreciate this book even more these days, as it’s about a mother with too much piled on her plate and kids who are an absolute handful; when I last read it, I had one very calm child, and now I have a busy teenager and a kindergarten tornado). She tweeted about the review I’d written back then and thus has always stayed on my radar. I’d been hearing good things about her latest, Things You Save in a Fire (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), so I grabbed it off the shelf and brought it home with me.

Cassie Hanwell is pretty much one of the guys down at the firehouse. She’s had to learn to be, in order to be the most effective firefighter and paramedic possible; being a woman in what was traditionally a man’s job has meant always working twice as hard and sometimes even harder than that. And it’s paid off; she’s the best her department has to offer (with the exception of her boss, also a woman). But after an awards ceremony goes awry, Cassie is faced with losing the job she loves so much. The only thing that’s saving her is a transfer to a station out east to be by her semi-estranged mother, who is facing health challenges and needs her help. Cassie isn’t thrilled by any of this: her mother left her and her father on Cassie’s sixteenth birthday- a day that lives on in her memories for other terrible reasons- and their relationship has been strained ever since. And starting over as the only woman in an all-male firehouse? Not exactly ideal.

Cassie’s new firehouse is both better and worse than she expected, but the one thing she didn’t expect is Owen, the other newbie. With barely a single glance, Cassie’s head-over-heels, and thanks, she hates it. No matter how much she focuses on being better than everyone else in the firehouse and ignoring the creep who seems to be stalking and threatening her, her feelings for Owen won’t leave her alone. When her mother’s struggles come to a head, a devastating fire call just might end everything Cassie’s worked for her entire life, and she’ll have to use everything she’s learned, along with her razor-sharp instincts, to survive this.

Content warnings for rape (descriptions are never graphic and much is implied and left to the reader to fill in the blanks), mentions of various fire and medical-related trauma and death, including the death of children and serious burns, multiple references to terminal illness of various kinds, addiction, and suicide.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book narrated by a female firefighter before, so this was an introduction into a new world for me. Cassie has a fierce determination that pushes her to succeed in her chosen profession (a profession she never planned on but fell in love with anyway), but that plays as stubbornness in her personal life. The end of the opening scene will have you standing up and cheering for her entire badassity (which is totally a word), but Cassie has far more depth than what the public sees in that one incident.

Her relationship with her mother is beyond complicated, and Ms. Center has really delivered a complex story of a mother torn between two very different worlds, struggling to make amends in a way that speaks to her daughter’s heart. Cassie’s response to her mother’s attempts at connection is very, very real, and their blossoming relationships and baby steps they make towards repairing what was broken between them are an absolute gift to read. And thanks to her mother’s lessons, Cassie learns something about forgiveness that I need to consider a little more deeply.

The newbie, Owen, another firefighter who never really saw himself in the profession but who wound up there anyway (but who lacks Cassie’s fire and dedication to it), is a close-to-perfect hero. Respectful, understanding, eager to learn and eager to give credit where it’s due, it was easy to see what drew Cassie to him. There was one aspect of their relationship later on that seemed this side of unrealistic, but otherwise, this was a super sweet relationship that I very much enjoyed reading.

There’s some fast-paced action leading up to the point in the story where everything falls apart (I always think of this as ‘The Big Awful,’ I have no idea why), and I don’t know if this really was more awful than most, or if it just seemed that way because in general, fires freak me out, as does the kind of injustice Cassie experiences afterwards. Ms. Center absolutely turns these episodes into carefully tended works of art, and I think my discomfort, especially at Cassie’s ill treatment, speaks to how well-written these parts really are.

And I have to give Ms. Center a major internet high-five; when Cassie realizes the obstacle course she’ll have to complete at the firehouse isn’t built for a 5’5″ woman but rather a much taller man, she goes on YouTube and begins to learn parkour techniques in order to help her manage the course in a more efficient way. My son was super into parkour when he was little and so I spent many days watching Jump City Seattle and early Sasuke/Ninja Warrior and American Ninja Warrior videos with him, so it always makes my heart happy to see mentions of parkour in literature. Brings me right back to those days of watching my son bounce through the trees behind our house and watching videos with him on the couch. (And this section wouldn’t be complete without a link to my favorite parkour video of all time.)

What a gem of a book (and what a gorgeous cover!). This is another I’m glad I discovered through the blogs and glad I ran into at the library.

Visit Katherine Center’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Red, White & Royal Blue- Casey McQuiston

On occasion, I hit up the library without a list for something to read- anything to read, save me from the dreaded reading slump!- and on really cool occasions, a book that I’ve seen all over the book blogs appears before my eyes on the shelves. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019) is one of those books. It was everywhere on the book blogs this summer and I see Casey McQuiston on Twitter almost every day, even though I hadn’t followed her until now (but y’all do, so well done there!). I hadn’t added this to my TBR, but it was kind of on my mental TBR, like, “I’m not going to specifically request it, but if I run into it, I’ll grab it.”

I ran into it.

I grabbed it.

I LOVED IT.

Alex Claremont-Diaz is the politically ambitious, college-age son of the first female American President. He’s driven, mischievous, and a little lonely- and he cannot STAND Henry, the British prince with whom he’s been crossing paths long before his mother took office. Henry is stiff, proper, everything you’d expect a royal to be, and his very presence drives Alex up the wall. After a disastrous moment between the two of them during the royal wedding reception, their respective PR teams force them into a very public faux-friendship in order to mend fences between the countries…and when Alex gets to see the Henry behind the royal façade, the real Henry, Alex discovers he actually likes the guy. Really likes him.

And that’s when, to Alex’s major surprise, their friendship deepens into romance.

Suddenly, Alex finds himself in a cross-country intrigue, pretending his growing love for the handsome young British royal is nothing more than an international bromance, but the two are in deep. If knowledge of this gets out, it could spell disaster for both the royal family and for Alex’s mother’s upcoming re-election. But how can they hide something that feels so perfect?

(This is possibly the worst summary I’ve ever written, so please don’t let that deter you from reading the book. It’s amazing and sweet and fun and adorable and really, one of the most joyful books I’ve read in ages.)

I don’t read a lot of stuff that gets super-hyped, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I dove into this book, but I absolutely wasn’t expecting to find one of the sweetest, most adorable love stories I’ve ever read. I loved every last thing about this- Alex’s status as first son, his surprise love interest being a British prince, Alex’s sister and friend group, the White House staff, his divorced parents’ relationship, the political intrigue, the heartfelt optimism of all of this, it all added up to a deeply enjoyable reading experience.

Alex and Henry together are an entire swoonfest, and Ms. McQuiston has penned an entire masterclass on witty banter between the two of them. They’re sharp, snarky, and clever together, making one of the most perfect, well-matched couples I’ve ever read in my entire reading life. Her dialogue flows so naturally that every conversation in this book felt like I was stashed away in the corner, eagerly listening in on something actually happening in front of me. This is one of those amazing books that absolutely transports the reader, and with its heartfelt optimism, it’s the perfect escapist read when real-life politics and international scandals become too much.

Alex’s sister and friends (and Henry’s friend as well) are fabulously well-written characters, but I have to say, my favorite character here was Zahra Bankston, the President’s deputy chief of staff, who (barely) kept Alex in line and swears like a sailor in the most creative manner. I so appreciated her snark and her barely-contained irritation with Alex. I’d hate to be in her crosshairs, but she’s absolutely someone I’d want on my side.

Goodreads says that Ms. McQuiston is currently working on another rom-com featuring two girls and possible time travel and I’m already dying a thousand deaths; I adored Red, White & Royal Blue so very much and I loved Ms. McQuiston’s style, so I’m ready to fast-forward to the point where this new book is in my hands and I have some quiet time to sit and devour it whole. Three cheers for finding a new author that I absolutely love!

Red, White & Royal Blue has been optioned; whether it’s fully developed and winds up on the big screen remains to be seen. I’d absolutely go see it, but I’m not sure any adaptation could do full justice to the wonderful novel Casey McQuiston has gifted to us all.

Visit Casey McQuiston’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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. 🙂