Friday, February 15, 2019

Ration Book Cookery- Gill Corbishley

I'd first learned of wartime rationing when I was young from books like Back Home by Michelle Magorian and Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn, so the concept wasn't new to me, but Ration Book Cookery by Gill Corbishley gave me a new perspective on it and opened up a door to some serious questions.

This is a small book (see the pen I included in the photo for comparison). It appears to be part of a set of books on food history. It came to me via interlibrary loan and I'm bummed that my home library doesn't have the complete set, as I would absolutely read the entire thing- the sociopolitical history of food is something that fascinates me. Even though I took two pages of notes, I blew through this tiny book in less than an hour and it left me wanting more- not due to any shortcomings, but simply because the book itself was so short and the subject matter is so interesting.

So, back during World War II, the troops had to be fed and fed well in order to keep up their strength to fight against the Axis powers. This meant sacrifice for the homefront, and those people played their own part in the war effort, changing their diets, growing victory gardens, and making do with what little their ration coupon books offered. Now, while Americans rationed as well, the rationing was much stricter in Britain. 'What exactly was rationed?' you're wondering. Here's a list:

  • bacon
  • ham
  • sugar
  • butter
  • meat
  • tea
  • margarine
  • cooking fats
  • cheese
  • jam
  • marmalade
  • treacle
  • syrup
  • eggs
  • milk
  • sweets
  • bread

Even fuel was rationed; people were asked to cook in homemade hayboxes (they could be made out of the box your gas mask came in!). Why cook stewed dried fruit for two or three minutes on the stovetop when you could have the same results cooking it in a haybox for...three and a half hours??? Never mind that. It's for the war effort, ladies! 

The book does contain recipes as examples of what women (because it was mostly women) cooked; I copied down the recipe for Mock Goose, made out of red lentils, onion, and breadcrumbs, as well as a recipe for Eggless Mayonnaise, made out of a baked potato, mustard, salt, vinegar, and salad oil. There are some other interesting recipes, such as a mock marzipan made from white beans and ground rice, and some more questionable-looking recipes, such as Eggless Pancakes made from flour, a pinch of sugar and salt, and an unspecified amount of milk and water; a cake made with mashed potatoes; and mashed parsnips with banana flavoring as a substitute for actual banana, which was in scarce supply. Hard pass for me on that last one.

I learned a lot from this small book. Rationing started in Britain in January of 1940; it didn't actually end until June of 1954. That's a long time to modify one's diet. It did help improve Britain's health overall, though; before the war, half of Britain suffered from some sort of malnutrition, but with the aid of all that victory garden produce, the cod liver oil (and later orange juice) distributed with the rations, and the cooking suggestions offered by the government in their 'Rations aid the war effort!' campaign, malnutrition became less pronounced in the population. The book also contains many examples of government-created posters designed to buoy enthusiasm and support for rationing; they're actually kind of cute and add a little flavor of history to the pages.

Ration Book Cookery got me thinking this morning. How would we respond to rationing today? I'm coming at this from an American perspective, and I don't think that it would go over very well here, to be honest. Having worked retail (and having seen far too many arguments go down on social media), consumers here are deeply entitled to what they think they're owed merely by stepping into a store. If the stores were suddenly empty of Oreos, Flamin' Hot Cheetos, and pork rinds (not to mention most other daily staples), and those same customers were instead told to plant a garden, were only allowed a certain amount of meat per month, and were told to make mayonnaise out of potatoes...These are the same people who will gladly trample their fellow human beings to death the day after Thanksgiving over some sort of gadget that the receiver will most likely lose interest in within several weeks, if not sooner. Asking them to give up their normal way of eating for an indeterminable amount of time for something that doesn't directly affect them? Heck, we can't even get people to protect their children from deadly diseases for the greater good, as a friend of mine pointed out. I think there'd be at least a few riots, possibly a lot, depending on which political party made the decision to ration. And it saddens me that this is the conclusion I've reached.

(Me? I'd be mostly okay. I'm vegetarian; a large amount of what I eat is vegan, so I'd be cool with the lack of animal products. I'm a pretty creative cook and am well-versed in making do with what I have on hand. I've made desserts out of multiple kinds of beans; I know many ways to substitute for eggs in baking; I'm happy to garden, although I'd need some help, because summer is typically a nasty time for my back to flare up. And I'm happy to sacrifice for a cause greater than myself. But the people who insist that it's not a meal without meat? There'd be a huge learning curve for them, and probably not a small amount of complaining. Bread and sugar would be a tougher one for me, but when duty calls...)

What are your thoughts? Could Americans (or people from your country, if you're from elsewhere) handle WWII-style rationing today? Could you? And do you think it would be implemented the same way? Obviously there would be medical exemptions for people with dietary health concerns (nothing high carb for diabetics, no rations of peanut-based products for those allergic, etc), but could we trust that the rations would be handed out fairly and not in a biased manner? I feel as though some factions would call for something like a zip code-based rationing system, with more resources going to those in wealthier areas (look at the inequality of the school system in the US), but I hope I'd be proven wrong about that. What do you think? 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Hamartia- Raquel Rich

I'm not into science fiction. Never really have been. With the exception of the Star Wars movies (the older ones, not the newer. I blame my dad watching them when I was young; I must've imprinted on them), it's never really been a genre that spoke to me. But when Raquel Rich offered me a copy of her sci-fi novel Hamartia for review, it piqued my interest, despite it being so far outside my normal reading boundaries, and it might inspire you to read outside yours as well.

Grace's worst nightmare is coming true: her son is dying. Nine year-old Jordan has been stricken with Metagenesis, a disease in which the sufferer loses their soul and eventually dies. It's slaughtering humans, but Grace never expected it to come knocking on her door, especially not now, when things are already complicated enough with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Marc. But all the doctors say the same thing...except one. In a secret meeting, Dr. Claudio Messie, the leading Metagenesis expert, proposes a solution to Grace: go back in time, locate one of Marc's former lives- because Marc is, of course, her soulmate- and inject him with the contents of a syringe that will mark him as Jordan's donor soul. Jordan's life will be spared, and humanity will celebrate Metagenesis's cure. Simple enough, right? Maybe not so much.

Thus begins Grace's journey to a time more than eighty years in the past, to the early 2000's, with her former best friend Kay as support. What should have been a quick trip turns into a major undertaking when David Williams, the donor soul, is nowhere to be found; Grace and Kay are being followed; their room is ransacked; and Grace isn't sure she can fully trust the woman who used to be her best friend. Grace's ambivalence only grows when a familiar-looking stranger clues her in to the intricacies of the donor soul cure: if she goes through with it, Marc- her future husband, whom she's not entirely sure she's truly over- will die.

What's a time-travelling gal to do?

This is a doozy of a story. Ms. Rich doesn't shy away from complexity, yet handles it with aplomb, taking the reader on a wild journey with peril and Sophie's choices around every corner. The ending doesn't wrap up neatly, instead setting the novel up for an ambitious and intriguing sequel. This is sci-fi for people who have shied away from the genre in the past. It's time travel and futuristic cars, not space weapons or alien creatures, and something about Ms. Rich's voice reminds me a little of Veronica Roth (she of the Divergent series). So even if you've renounced science fiction, Hamartia may be the book that will change your mind.

I'm glad I read this. I enjoyed Grace's heart-pounding race through the past for even a chance at saving her beloved son's life, and was especially entertained by Grace and Kay's confusion at the bizarre things they encountered while there (people ate that stuff? Single use products? Oil- the kind you can't even eat- was at the center of the economy? I'm with them). Having read this, I'm definitely going to be taking a closer look at the books marked Science Fiction at the library, instead of wrinkling my nose and passing right by. Hamartia might have opened a whole new door for me.

Huge thanks to Raquel Rich for providing me with a copy of Hamartia for review!

Check out Raquel Rich's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The reading must go on!

We lost power for a bit last week. Wind gusts of up to fifty miles per hour knocked the electricity off just as dinner finished cooking, which was great timing, but left us snarfing our $5 Aldi pizza in the dark. (I'm thankful I'd decided not to cook that night; trying to eat something like soup in the dark would've been more of an adventure than my stain-fighting abilities could handle.)

Nevertheless, I persisted, snuggling up with the battery-powered lantern to continue reading my book. Which got me thinking about all the other oddball places and situations in which I've spent my time turning pages.

  • in the hospital, pregnant with my son and suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum (I kept having to put the book down; reading one of the heavier hardback Harry Potters with what's essentially your 14th IV in less than two weeks is, uh, painful, to say the least.)
  • in the chair during three separate root canals (Hyperemesis gravidarum does no favors for your teeth, either.)
  • outside during parades and cross-country matches in all sorts of weather
  • before choir concerts, band concerts, and plays
  • burning with fever and feeling terrible during bouts with the flu (I finished Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov during one bout; another had me blowing through the last two books of the Twilight series.)
  • Parkside. Poolside. The side of the McDonald's playplace. All the places you take small children to play. 
  • multiple migraine-inducing places with loud music and flashing lights where sadists throw children's birthday parties
  • so many car trips
  • waiting in the car: for my son at school, my daughter at preschool, and my husband's train
  • a beach and hotel room in Mexico, an airplane heading to Paris, another one heading home from Belgium
  • on a hospital bed, waiting to receive sacroiliac joint injections
  • during tornado warnings, floods, blizzards, searing heatwaves

You know how it is. Reading. All the time, in every place. Sometimes with a tiny hint of, 'Are people going to think I'm weird for reading here?', immediately followed with, 'Eh, who cares!' Constant comments from other people: "You're reading here?" "How can you concentrate here?" "Did you seriously bring a book?" "You must be the best-read person I've ever met." And my favorite, "You are always reading!!!"

Yes. Yes, I am.

Tell me about the places you've read. By the side of the road as you waited for a tow truck? At the zoo in front of the lion enclosure? In the shower with your kindle in a waterproof, see-through bag? (Don't think I haven't contemplated that.) I'd love to hear all the interesting, surprising places you've exercised your love of reading.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Beartown- Fredrik Bachman

Beartown by Fredrik Backman is a book I've seen popping up over and over again on the blogs lately (mostly in photos with other books, as luck would have it); it wasn't until someone posted a full review that I realized the book centered around a town's hockey team. My son and I are big hockey fans (can you be anything else, living this close to Chicago? Let's just not talk about how the Blackhawks have been doing lately, though...), and I've developed a love for hockey books, so even though I had approximately nine million other books to read at the time, I still grabbed this from a display at the library last week. And my goodness, I'm so glad I did.

Beartown is the story of a washed-up, nothing town deep in the woods. Everyone says the town is finished; there's hardly anything there anymore except a winning junior hockey team that has no right to be as good as it is. If they can win big this year, maybe this town can come back; maybe that new hockey school will be built there and the commerce will follow it. The hopes and dreams of an entire town, not to mention its future economy, lie on the shoulders of these young hockey players.

A terrible incident at a party after the semi-finals will change everything, pitting neighbor against neighbor, teammate against teammate, forcing everyone to make decisions about truth, justice, and loyalty. It's not just Beartown's future that hangs in the balance; it's everyone who lives there.

This was riveting. Fredrik Backman delves deeply into human nature and presents the reader with characters who are relatable, recognizable as our friends, neighbors and family, even as they make terrible decisions that harm other people. His ability to weave a story that incorporates so many characters, so many points of view, is on par with Stephen King (whose narratives from The Stand and It are some of my absolute favorite pieces of writing; despite the length, I've read each of these multiple times throughout my life). There's violence in this story, but it's never gratuitous nor designed to shock, and having sworn off reading more Pat Conroy novels due to the graphic nature of some of his scenes, I appreciated that.

I very much enjoyed this, blowing through it in less than twenty-four hours, and I see there's a second in the series, Us Against You. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you've continued on and have read this. I'm definitely interested in reading more from Fredrik Backman; I'd never heard of him until I started seeing A Man Called Ove all over the place, so I'm surprised to see how many books he's written. All the more for me to read!

Beartown does contain a rape scene, and what follows is what I think most women know to expect from humanity in general after something so terrible is made public: the doubts, the anger and threats towards the victim, people siding with the accused rapist. Knowing this, be kind to yourself and choose another book if you need to.

Visit Fredrik Backman's website here.

Follow him on Twitter here. (He tweets in both English and Swedish; I have a moderate level of Norwegian and can understand a lot of what he writes, although to me, Swedish looks like Norwegian spelled wrong. ;) )

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story- Hyeonseo Lee with David John

In the comments of my review of Barbara Demick's Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Susan from Bloggin' 'Bout Books recommended The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story by Hyeonseo Lee with David John, and I was thrilled to see that my library had a copy (I seriously love my library, if you couldn't tell. Their book collection is phenomenal). And so as soon as my stack of books began dwindling, I grabbed a copy of this book.

Hyeonseo Lee was born in North Korea to a family of good songbun, meaning their status was decently high. Their lives weren't terrible compared to their fellow countrymen scrounging for food and dying in the streets, but as Hyeonseo grew, the cracks in the system became visible, and the country she'd always been told was the greatest country on the face of this earth began to seem...maybe not quite that great at all. But surely the things she viewed on illegal South Korean movies and Chinese television can't be real, right? So many cars, all those buildings with flashing neon signs, fancy clothing...all that is just propaganda, right? Life can't be that good anywhere.

Just before she turns 18, Hyeonseo, wanting to do something adventurous for once in her life, decides to slip across the border (which she can see from her house), to visit family in China. But once she arrives, her mother and brother pay the price for her recklessness, and Hyeonseo can no longer return home. Thus begins her saga of living illegally in China, reinventing herself over and over as only one without a country must. Life on her own is a struggle, always worrying about those she left behind, and far too many people want to create a new kind of prison for her. After years of hard work and constant fear of deportation, Hyeonseo finally makes it to freedom in South Korea, where life becomes both better and more difficult. And there's still the question of her family in North Korea. Don't they deserve the kind of freedom she has, too?

Ms. Lee's story expands on Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, showing the dangers North Koreans face when they leave the only home they've ever known. She points out that for people who escape because of starvation and fear of death, the transition to freedom comes little easier, since there's nowhere to go but up; for people like her mother and brother, who led a relatively comfortable existence, a free life in Seoul, where everything must be earned via a job (for which they are entirely unqualified, having been educated solely with North Korean propaganda), can be painful and confusing. Her story, and ultimately those of her mother and brother, are success stories, but how many are not?

This is a story of courage, strength, and indefatigable determination. Ms. Lee's description of homesickness is heartbreaking; even when a place is terrible and hurts so many people, it's still home, and knowing that you can never return home is a unique kind of pain. My heart aches for her and for the thousands upon thousands of North Koreans for whom home is only a memory and never again a destination.

Far from satisfying my curiosity about North Korea, Ms. Lee's story has only piqued it further. While Nothing to Envy told more about those who suffered deeply under the Kim family, The Girl With Seven Names explains what life was like for those who had it easier. I'd love to read a memoir by a defector who escaped due to dire circumstances, to understand exactly what their path to building a life in the outside world looks like. Goodreads has several lists of books on North Korea; the longest has 105 books, so it looks like I'll definitely have a few options.

Visit Hyeonseo Lee's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Heretics Anonymous- Katie Henry

I read about Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry recently on someone else's blog (and for the life of me, I can't remember who; if it was you, please leave me a comment and I'll credit you with a link to your review here! This made me realize I need to start writing down where I find all these great recommendations). The cover alone made me laugh, and the premise made it sound like it was my kind of book. Religion in YA? Bring it on!

Thanks to his father's job, Michael's moved a lot throughout his life, and this time he's landed at a private Catholic high school. Which wouldn't be the biggest deal, except he's an atheist, so it's a little uncomfortable. Feeling out-of-place and friendless on his first day, Michael latches on to Lucy after her no-holds-barred response against the quote about well-behaved women rarely making history in theology class. Surely Lucy's like him, not fitting in among all these sheeple.

Except Lucy does believe. Maybe not exactly the way the Church would want her to, but she still counts herself in. In spite of this, Lucy drags Michael with her to the group of friends who have dubbed themselves Heretics Anonymous, which includes a gay Jewish boy, a Reconstructionist Pagan girl, and a dresscode-flaunting Unitarian. Together, they decide to start shaking things up at the school. Rules, especially the pointless ones made by hypocrites, were made to be broken, right?

At first, exposing the school's hypocrisy merely triggers debate amongst the student body, but when Michael's family situation causes him to make a few decisions based on anger, the real-life repercussions begin to fall outside of the group. It's no longer fun and games when everyone's getting hurt, and Michael will have to use what he's been learning at St. Clare's Preparatory School in order to make things right.

This is a laugh-out-loud book (I figured the people sitting by me in the library were going to think I was nuts, with my constant chuckling as I turned the pages) with themes of justice, redemption, and self-reflection. Ms. Henry never gets in the reader's face with a message; rather, she lets the group of friends' actions and emotions speak for themselves. The friends are able to engage in spirited but productive debate over issues such as dress code and the school's firing of a married lesbian teacher, defending each other when appropriate, telling each other to back off when necessary. While they may not always agree perfectly with each other or with the Church and school, their ability to express their feelings on each matter at hand and make the others understand the importance of their position is invigorating. Far from being a heavy-handed morality message, I think Ms. Henry has written a great example of what a cohesive friend group should look like here.

I attended Catholic school from two years of preschool all the way up until eighth grade graduation, and while I no longer consider myself Catholic, a lot of this rang true for me, particularly the religious jokes (I think we all made the joke about cannibalism at one point in our many, many hours of religion class) and the seething debate over religious issues and doctrine (I don't remember one girl in my class who was okay with the idea of never using birth control, and you better believe we pushed back on that one). I do remember a few students who were more pious than others, but none quite as extreme (or as snotty about it) as Theresa...but then again, we were a pretty small school, so I'm sure students like her exist somewhere.

There was a moment that stopped me in this book, that surprised me. Close to the end of Chapter 14, Lucy brings up the Magnificat. *(If you're not familiar, it's from the Gospel of Luke, 1:46-55, where Mary sings after she's been told she's going to give birth to the son of God.) It's Lucy's favorite because it's revolutionary, and she tells Michael about how it was banned in Argentina in the 1970's after being used by mothers of people killed by the military, and how it was banned in Spain in the 1930's by Francisco Franco. This all struck a chord with me, not because I was familiar with it (I can't remember if we were taught the significance of the Magnificat or not), but because I'd recently read something about it and couldn't remember where. When I got home, to my surprise I actually found it again, a Washington Post article titled 'Mary's 'Magnificat' in the Bible is revolutionary. Some evangelicals silence her.' Up until the point I read this article back in December, I had no idea how revolutionary or subversive these verses have been considered, and it was fascinating to me to see this pop up again in my life.

This was really a fun, funny, thought provoking book. I see that Ms. Henry has another book coming out in August of this year, titled Let's Call It a Doomsday; you better believe I'll be breaking down the library door to check out a copy!

Visit Katie Henry's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating- Christina Lauren

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating is my third Christina Lauren book and is adorable, sweet, and oh-so-swoony. I love dual (or multiple) narrative books, and they do it so very well.

Hazel is eccentric, full of energy, close to the very definition of 'hot mess.' Josh is calm, relaxed, the coolest cucumber you'll ever meet. Hazel's chaos and disorder; Josh is buttoned to the neck and organized to the hilt. Josh is just coming out of a long-term relationship that ended badly; Hazel has  never had great success when it comes to dating. But opposites attract, and they do it in a big way in this fabulous slow-burn rom-com.

They first meet in college, with a few awkward incidents involving vomit, sex, and post-wisdom tooth removal painkillers (not all at the same time, thankfully). Yet when their paths cross again years later, they're able to immediately slip into a comfortable friendship, despite their differences. After an apartment flood that displaces Hazel for weeks, Josh's sister gets him to agree to let Hazel stay at his place. He's not going to be there anyway, as he's off visiting his long-distance girlfriend...who's cheating on him. And has been. For almost half the relationship. Ouch. Upon his immediate return, Hazel takes it upon herself to pull him out of his funk, and as their friendship grows, they set each other up on double blind dates...disastrous ones. Which leads them to have drunken sex, which totally changes nothing. They're still friends, still double-dating...right?

When Josh sets Hazel up with a friend who turns out to be the guy who broke her heart, the stakes are raised, and Josh begins to realize his feelings for Hazel run far deeper than just friends, while Hazel still continues to think she's not quite good enough for him. A spanner in the works makes time of the essence, though, and Hazel will have to get past her fear of ruining their friendship in order to define what she and Josh truly are to each other.

This was beyond adorable. I will admit, I had a hard time warming up to Hazel at first, though I did find her more relatable as the story went on. She's loud and quirky and no-holds-barred; I'm more of the 'text my husband from another room because yelling downstairs would be exhausting' levels of energy, and I'm not sure I'd be able to handle someone like Hazel in real life. But in the book, she works, and she provides a lovely balance to Josh's more relaxed nature. I found Josh to be a swoony delight; I was utterly charmed by everything about him. He's so sweet with Hazel, so loving with his sister and parents, and I absolutely loved his connection with his Korean heritage and the occasional reference to his being bilingual (my marriage is similar; my husband is Belgian by birth and speaks both English and French). His growing feelings for Hazel were written so well; nothing was rushed or felt like it moved too quickly, and the ending- THE ENDING! That finally chapter practically had me on the floor. SO FULL OF ADORABLENESS.

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating is the swoon-worthy slow burn rom-com you need in your life. Drop everything and read this book, because it's like a soft, fuzzy blanket you can wrap around yourself on the coldest day of the year.

Visit Christina Lauren's website here.

Follow Christina Lauren on Twitter (and then follow Christina and Lauren separately!).

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

My Favorite Half-Night Stand- Christina Lauren

I fell in love with the writing duo of Christina Lauren last year after reading Dating You/Hating You. The writing and plot were so sharp and fast-paced, and the chemistry between Carter and Evie was magnetic (and it's a book set in Hollywood, so you know I'm down for that!), so I was excited to find two of their books on the library's New Fiction shelf this week. My Favorite Half-Night Stand didn't disappoint one bit.

Millie's life isn't perfect- her mom died when she was young, leaving her family fractured and Millie unable to open up about her pain; her father has been newly diagnosed with Parkinson's and she can't deal- but it helps that she has the most amazing group of friends. Guy friends: Ed, Chris, Alex...and Reid. Reid's the guy she considers her best friend; things have always been just a little different with him, a little extra. When the five of them realize they need dates for their university's upcoming black tie gala, the perpetually single workaholic friends make a pact to join a dating app, but that night, Millie and Reid burn it down in bed together. No biggie, it's just a one-time thing...right?

When Reid begins to talk to women on the app and Millie gets nothing but dick pics and lascivious come-ons, she creates a second, secret profile...and matches with Reid. She's sure he'll recognize their private jokes in the message she writes, but when he doesn't, she finds herself opening up to him in a way she can't in real time. Their repeated steamy encounters only complicate the situation, especially when Reid's still chatting with Daisy, a gorgeous blond, and Cat, Millie's fake profile. When things come to a head, Millie needs to decide what she truly wants...and Reid will have to decide if he can ever trust his best friend again.

I loved this. Lying about identity always makes me uncomfortable in romance novels, but Millie's character was so genuine and the chemistry, not only between her and Reid but among the friend group, was enough to make up for my unease. Each character has such a distinct personality and way of interacting with the others that made the group scenes an absolute delight to read; they had me wishing I had my own bad pun-cracking, loud belching guy friend group to wipe the floor with in Friday night Monopoly games, and the group chat scenes add an extra bit of modern day fun. Nothing about Reid and Millie together seemed forced, and I really enjoyed how each morning after situation contained no awkwardness, just an easy back-to-normal continuation of the way things had always been between them. Their witty banter had me laughing out loud several times (to the point where my husband asked if I was okay from the other room).

Christina Lauren is (are? What verb form does what looks like a singular person who is actually a writing team take???) a master of contemporary romantic comedy, and My Favorite Half-Night Stand slammed it way out of the park for me. I've got Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating coming up next and I can't wait to dive in.

Check out Christina Lauren's website.

Follow Christina Lauren on Twitter. And for more Twitter fun, you can follow Christina and Lauren separately! 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary- D.L. Mayfield

Ahh, interlibrary loan and your cover-obscuring stickers...

Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary by D.L Mayfield came to my attention via Episode #59: of the What Should I Read Next podcast, titled Prescribing books for what ails you. Ms. Mayfield was the featured guest, and based on some of the things she said, I thought I might enjoy her book.

I was correct. Assimilate or Go Home tells the story of her life among the Somali Bantu refugee population in Portland, a group of people that are, she states, some of the least successfully acclimated refugees the US ever attempted to resettle. Many of them had never lived with electricity or indoor plumbing; some of them had never climbed up stairs before coming to the US. The vast majority were illiterate in their own language, which makes learning written English difficult, if not impossible, especially when the trauma they've suffered is factored in. The Bantus were an ethnic and cultural minority even in their home country; even so, had it been possible, they would have chosen to stay there, rather than come to such an unfamiliar and difficult place..

Having long dreamed of becoming a missionary and bringing God's kingdom (if she could only figure out exactly what that was...) to those who needed it most, Bible college graduate D. L. Mayfield began her volunteer work with the Somali Bantus positive that her mere presence would be all that it would take in order for them to accept Jesus and for their lives to improve. What actually happened was something very different.

Throughout this collection of essays, Ms. Mayfield details the challenges faced by the refugee families- language, poverty, culture, racism, bigotry, among many others- and describes how her presence often made the situation worse. Wanting to share her church's Harvest Day festival with three headscarf-wearing Somali girls, whom she dressed up as Bollywood princesses, only proved how 'other' her own church community saw them; showing off her newborn baby, who was born quickly after what sounded like a fast diagnosis of pre-eclampsia, only drove home her privilege with the fact that had this happened to these women in Somalia, they and their babies would have died- most of them had already lost at least one child. 'The longer I knew my refugee friends, the more ignorant I became,' she admits. Clawing one's way out of privilege and a smaller-than-you-realized worldview is no easy task; Ms. Mayfield does it, but realizes that it comes at the expense of those she's supposed to be serving.

This is a memoir of hard-won humility, of unlearning just about everything you grew up being taught and thinking you know about the world around you. To be honest, I found Ms. Mayfield's honesty and ability to examine her long-held beliefs and ideas extremely refreshing. While I'm not especially religious, I see far too many religious leaders with that white savior complex that Ms. Mayfield admits she originally had, with no contrary evidence altering their worldviews: this is the way things are, and if you do XYZ, then everything will be perfect and fall in line. It's not quite that simple, Ms. Mayfield writes, and she's correct.

This is one of those books where I would read a paragraph; pause; read it again; think about it; then write a line or two down in my reading binder (do you keep a log of notes as you're reading? I find it helpful. I use a binder because Walmart was out of notebooks the day I went in. Out. Entirely. Again. One time they were out of extension cords. The Walmarts here are bizarre). D.L. Mayfield shares a lot of poignant insights that, while they stem from her Christian faith, apply universally, and she does it in a way that begs the reader to follow in her footsteps. Examine your ideals, your biases, your preconceptions about how the world should work and how people should act, and replace them with reality- not how you want it to be, but how it is. That's where God, and growth, and peace,  and understanding, will be.

Even if you're not religious, this is a worthy read, both for the story and for the painful lessons that Ms. Mayfield learned (and that so many of us could stand to learn as well). This should also be required reading for anyone beginning work, volunteer or otherwise, with any marginalized community. It's not a soft, gentle read by any means; it asks hard questions and demands changes, but it's a challenge we should all be up for.

I was pleased to see that Ms. Mayfield is represented by Rachelle Gardner; I've followed her on Twitter for years and I've read and enjoyed other books she represents. Do you read the acknowledgements? I always enjoy scanning them and seeing if I recognize any names.

If you're interested in this topic, books with similar themes include The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe (for more on the refugee experience), and The Childcatchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce (for another example of the damage the pervasive attitude of white saviorism can wreak).

Visit D.L. Mayfield's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Humming Whispers- Angela Johnson

Humming Whispers by Angela Johnson is a book that's been hanging out on my TBR list for probably close to ten years now, if not more. I used to be one of those people that added books and then just never read them, until I realized how stupid that was, and that I wasn't learning anything from those books by not reading them. I'm now starting Year Three of reading my TBR list down, and this was next up.

Sophy is a dancer who attends a performing arts high school in Cleveland. She lives with her aunt, who makes tofu for a living, and her sister, who is older than her by ten or eleven years and who is schizophrenic. Nikki hears voices, acts erratically, and has a nasty habit of wandering off and disappearing for months. Sophy feels a deep responsibility for her sister and spends the majority of her free time watching over her, but now that she's a teenager, she's frightened that the disease that stole her sister at this age is coming for her too. To cope with the stress, Sophy shoplifts from nearby businesses.

That's really about it. There isn't much of a hard-hitting plot here, just a drawn-out description of the grittier side of Cleveland and Sophy's day-to-day life. There's no, "THIS happened, so we did THIS, and then because of that THIS happened and then everything went wrong but we fixed it by doing THIS." Everything just meanders from one day to the next. There's no long-term care plan for Nikki, no look to what the future really holds for her or Sophy; the book just kind floats to a close. At one point, Nikki goes missing for several months and there's no description of the panic the family must have felt, just a blasé, "Eh, she'll turn up soon, she always does," followed by a leap forward in time to when she is found. The book was published in 1995; in YA terms, that's pretty dated and it shows, both in the style and in the way it fails to truly connect the reader to Sophy's fear and Nikki's illness.

The one bright spot was Reuben, Nikki's devoted boyfriend. He's part of the support team, playing his saxophone to make her smile, searching for her when she's missing, by her side in the hospital after she's found. His devotion never wavers, and I enjoyed his scenes.

This wasn't quite a win for me. I don't know that the book has aged all that well in terms of being able to draw in teens today, and the style alone failed to captivate me. If you're looking for YA books on mental health, Goodreads has a decent-sized list of them (I've read...a lot of these). I'm definitely interested in checking out Ms. Johnson's picture books, though. She has quite a few of them on her website, and we're making a stop at the library on Monday for new picture books for my daughter!

Visit Angela Johnson's website here.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Monthly roundup: January 2019

January is almost always a good month for reading for me. It's cold, we're stuck in the house, and my Goodreads yearly reading challenge tally has been set back to zero (nooooooooooooooooooo!). This year is no different- I breezed through thirteen books this month (although two years ago, I managed to tackle twenty or twenty-one. Yay, stress-reading!), but something feels different. Reading feels really exciting these days.

And that excitement stems from the amazing What Should I Read Next podcast. I'm new to podcasts, only having really recently started listening to them. What Should I Read Next is my second podcast; first was Let's Talk About Sects, which is great if you like weirdo cults and extremist groups. I listen sometimes when I'm making dinner, but more often, I turn the podcast on when I get into bed. I used to listen to BBC radio as I was falling asleep; there's something very calming and soothing about the British accent and the hushed vocal tones that made it easy for me to pass right out (and coming from someone who has struggled with insomnia on and off her whole life, this is huge). But after the 2016 elections, the news just got so awful that I could no longer relax enough to fall asleep. I loved the idea of podcasts, but the podcast apps I tried would stop playing after one podcast, and so I just gave up, until I discovered Podbean. Podbean plays the podcasts from newer to older or older to newer, without stopping, which was just what I was looking for.

What Should I Read Next has revamped my reading life entirely. Reading is such a solitary activity that it sometimes feels we're the only ones doing it. But Anne Bogel's podcast has helped me to feel not so alone in my constant reading. Other people are just as obsessed with turning pages and cramming the world into their head via the latest bestseller as I am, and that alone has sparked some serious joy for me. If you've never listened to this podcast, I can't recommend it enough. I often fall asleep long before the end, but I do go back and listen to what I've missed!

So I've had a great reading month. I've spent the last two years trying to read down my skyscraper-high Want To Read list on Goodreads, which has meant that I've plowed through a metric book-ton of nonfiction (I started at 332 books; with a crapload of reading under my belt, cleaning up the list to remove a few things that no longer interested me, and putting a few other items not available to me via the library into my Bookmarks for later, it's down to 97 books!). I'm now totally jazzed about reading more fiction and even trying some books in new-to-me genres. This is going to be a great year for reading!

Here's a list of all the things I read this past month.

1. Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity- Emily Matchar

2. The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom- Helen Thorpe

3. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea- Barbara Demick

4. This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost- Carolyn S. Briggs

5. The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief- Chris Mikul

6. The Magdalen Girls- V.S. Alexander

7. Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper- Hilary Liftin

8. Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids- Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross

9. Switch and Bait- Ricki Schultz

10. A Crazy Kind of Love- Mary Ann Marlowe

11. The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage- Chris Kurtz

12. How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States- Eileen Truax

13. I'll Be There For You: The One about Friends- Kelsey Miller

So how did I do for the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2019 Reading Challenge this month?

A book I've been meaning to read: The Cult Files came from my Goodreads list, so I can cross that one off!

I'm always fascinated by why people leave religious groups, so Carolyn S. Briggs's This Dark World fits that category.

Mary Ann Marlowe was a new-to-me author; I'm glad I stumbled upon her at the library.

And you know, I've put some thought into it, and I'm going to count The Adventures of a South Pole Pig for the genre outside my comfort zone. I still really don't care much for animal stories, but this really was adorable and I'm glad I took the chance. I'm still planning on challenging myself in other genres this year. Probably no more animal stories, though. ;)

Four categories crossed off in a month isn't half bad. We'll see how long it takes me to get to the rest!

I don't think I could even pick a favorite out of these if I tried. Reading was such a joy for me this month, both thanks to Anne Bogel's podcast and the authors who wrote these amazing books. I can only hope the rest of the year goes as swimmingly (begone with you, evil lurking reading slumps!).

How did your reading month go? Do you find January to be a great month of reading, or do you get hit with a nasty case of the winter blahs? What have you read and loved this month?

Thursday, January 31, 2019

I'll Be There For You: The One about Friends- Kelsey Miller

Settle back on the comfy couch in your favorite local coffeehouse and grab yourself a latte in an oversized mug, because Kelsey Miller's I'll Be There For You: The One about Friends is an entertaining read that delves into nostalgia without hesitating to examine the more problematic areas of arguably the biggest cultural TV phenomenon of the 90's.

Friends debuted in September of 1994, during my freshman year of high school, and nearly everyone I knew watched it. While I never had a 'Rachel,' Jennifer Aniston's iconic haircut, we did own a copy of The Rembrandts' tape that featured the Friends theme song, and my mother had a Central Perk sweatshirt that I would occasionally borrow (and always feared spilling something on). For folks older than me, Friends was a reminder of those years just after you'd flown the nest and your friend group was everything; for people my age, it was a glimpse into the future, of all that could be possible and the friends who would support us as we made our way in the world.

Ms. Miller recalls the show's origins, from the meeting of David Crane and Marta Kauffman in college, their time working together in theater, their pilots that didn't quite get off the ground, and their initial success with Dream On, which eventually earned them an Emmy. I was charmed to know that the first iteration of the show was originally titled Insomnia Café, followed by Friends Like Us, then Six of One (changed to this to differentiate from the other NBC series in development at the time titled Friends Like Mine, which was later renamed Ellen) before it returned to simply Friends. This is followed by a brief history of each of the cast: where they grew up, how they got into the industry (Matt LeBlanc was originally training in carpentry and working in construction; Lisa Kudrow graduated from Vassar with a BS in biology and had plans for med school; Matthew Perry beat up Justin Trudeau when they were 10. Could that be any more hilarious???), and how they were selected, including other actors and actresses who auditioned and/or were offered the parts.

She follows the show through each season, reminiscing about the more memorable episodes and the many bits and pieces of the show that nestled comfortably into our cultural jargon (Smelly Cat, anyone?), never shying away from calling attention to the more problematic aspects of the series: its blinding whiteness, constant homophobia, slut shaming, fat jokes, transphobia. What makes this book different from so many of the scathing articles that have come out in the recent years detailing Friends' issues, though, is that Ms. Miller is quick to point out that for all those problems (many of which are viewed through that crystal-clear 20/20 lens of hindsight and cultural pivots), at the time, they were signs of growth. Ross's ex-wife Carol married Susan on the show in what was the first televised lesbian wedding, and while it was bland and toned-down and lacked a kiss, it was there. The storyline of Chandler's father, who was referred to only as gay, a drag queen, or the now-passé cross-dresser (and would nowadays most likely be referred to as transgender), might not have been handled perfectly, but she was there, at a time when transgender people were only ever seen as murder victims on Law & Order. These were steps forward- maybe even the steps that started us down the path to a world of more acceptance and understanding, and that's no small thing. As someone who always felt uneasy about these aspects of the show, I appreciate this perspective. It wasn't one I'd considered before.

The final chapter of the book contained a lot of new-to-me information, including the lawsuit brought by Amaani Lyle, a writer's assistant, against Warner Brothers, due to harassment in the Friends writers' room (a #MeToo case that took place before society was ready to listen). By the time Friends was in its final two seasons, I had a small child and had lost interest in a group of people whose lives were so very different from mine (although, in a horrible moment that I'll never forget, the episode where Rachel tries to cook and ends up making a trifle with layers of custard, ladyfingers, jam, roast beef, peas and onions played as a re-run the night of my first hospitalization for hyperemesis gravidarum- you know, the kind of morning sickness that can kill you. URP). Reality TV had begun its dominance of the network schedule, the storylines had played out, and the cast was ready to move on...but Ms. Miller's description of the taping of the final episode? Bittersweet, with a side of teary.

This is no celebrity exposé, nor is it a lurid tell-all with stories of infighting and on-set drama. While certain aspects of the casts' personal life are mentioned- relationships, pregnancies, Matthew Perry's drug addiction- they appear solely when relevant. Ms. Miller maintains clear focus on the show- its growth, how the cast grew with it, and how not only the US but the entire world changed because of it.

I'll Be There For You is both a comfort read and an opportunity to remember where we were at the time Friends appeared, the paths it blazed, and the many things we've learned since those days. It's a trek back to a simpler- though not necessarily better- time. There are no rose-colored glasses in this book, just an even-tempered, well-balanced examination of a beloved television show whose influence is still felt today. Now how about that latte?

Visit Kelsey Miller's website here.

Follow Kelsey Miller on Twitter here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States- Eileen Truax

There were a lot of great choices on the New Nonfiction shelf at the library during my last trip, but the first thing that ended up in my bag was How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States by Eileen Truax. It's a timely, important read that will expand your knowledge of why so many of our neighbors to the south come here to live and work, why they need to, and the difficulties they face everyday regardless of their immigration status.

Each chapter is dedicated to two or three people who live in the United States who were either born in Mexico or born in the US to parents who were born in Mexico. You'll get to know labor organizers, translators and interpreters, business owners, asylum seekers, US college graduates who can't legally work here, a high ranking police officer, and even a practicing lawyer who remains undocumented. There are stories of triumph, to be sure, but the overall sentiment is more of frustration, anger, and occasionally heartbreak, as in the case of Cirila Balthazar Cruz, who had her newborn daughter taken away from her and placed in foster care, solely because she spoke no English. 

Another example:

'In Texas, there have been documented cases of agents stopping ambulances to check the immigration statuses of patients. In 2015, the New York Times reported an account of a Brownsville pediatrician who stated that a child had died en route to Corpus Christi and the parents had not accompanied him because they were undocumented and were afraid to cross at the checkpoint.'

Heartbreaking. And so utterly unnecessary.

Just as Helen Thorpe does in Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, Ms. Truax expounds the complications of mixed-status families, where some members have legal status and others don't. Nine million people in the US share this uniquely frustrating situation, some with no hope of improving their circumstances, living in fear that they or their families will be deported at any point in time and the family member or members with legal status will be left to fend for themselves (as happened to Diane Guerrero, whom you might recognize from such shows as Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin. She details her life story in the book In the Country We Love: My Family Divided). These are agonizing situations, and far too often, there's no good solution for these families. Sometimes there's no solution at all.

This is a heavy book. And if it's heavy to just read, imagine what it's like to live it. Imagine what it's like to flee the country of your birth, of your culture, your language, and your history, because your husband has been kidnapped not just once but multiple times, traveling to the only safe place that offers you opportunity, only to have every door slammed in your face and to hear that you're nothing but a rapist and murderer from that place's president, of all people- even though it was the rapists and murderers you were fleeing. Imagine working 72 hours a week on your feet, only to be called lazy and greedy by people who refuse to even try to understand what you've been through. Imagine the fear you would feel if at any moment, you could be sent to live in a place you don't even remember being, a place where you don't even speak the language. Imagine being a child and having to grow up with the fear of one or both of your parents being sent away; imagine what that would do to your ability to learn, to focus in school. Imagine knowing that even if you've lived 17 of your 18 years in one country, you've gotten straight A's in school, you've earned a perfect SAT score and have unlimited potential for success, that country still doesn't want you. This book, along with the two others I've linked to in this post, will further your appreciation for what Mexican immigrants live with.

I don't think I can do justice to a book like this in such a short review; it's such a necessary read in these terrible times. I'll never fully understand the depth of the struggles faced by the people from Mexico who choose to seek a better life here. For all its issues, my life has been a privileged one; my parents never came close to having to contemplate leaving the country in which they were born. But I'll always keep trying and adding to my understanding; these days, compassion and understanding are imperative, and it's only through embracing not only our own humanity but that of our neighbors- ALL our neighbors- will we truly become that shining city on a hill.

Follow Eileen Truax on Twitter here.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage- Chris Kurtz

To be completely honest, I'm not a fan of animal stories. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White kind of gutted me as a child, and any book featuring an animal as a main character (or even a beloved sidekick) has me on high alert, waiting for the moment where tragedy strikes and the animal dies. Even in adult literature, I've been known to flip through to the end to make sure the dog/cat/house goat, etc. makes it through to the end. So you'd think I would've been a lot more wary when we came across this copy of The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage by Chris Kurtz in a Little Free Library a few blocks away, but the cover and premise were so charming (and the story so perfect for our cold, snowy weather!) that I couldn't resist. We took it home with us, and I planned on making it a bedtime read-aloud.

Flora looks like your average farm piglet, crammed into a pen with her mother and pile of brothers, but she was born with a sense of adventure. Surely, this small life can't be it, right? An introduction to the barnyard cat enlightens her to the possibility of more. A venture into the wider barnyard, where she makes the acquaintance of the sled dogs being trained on the property, whets her appetite for adrenaline, and Flora begins a similar self-imposed training regimen, disguised as games with her brothers. Her routine pays off when she's chosen, so she thinks, to be a sled pig on an Antarctic expedition...until she's unceremoniously dumped in the hold with the food-stealing rats. Maybe adventure isn't quite all it's cracked up to be.

But Flora's not one for giving up, instead teaming up with the haughty ship's cat to take down those thieving rats, earning her the respect of both the ship's boy and captain. But the unthinkable- a shipwreck- turns everything upside down, and that's when the true adventure, and danger, begin. Will Flora end up food, or can this plucky pig dig deep and save the day?

I was right not to worry. The Adventures of South Pole Pig is a true delight. Flora is a charming character, endlessly optimistic and bent on achieving her goal of being a sled pig, and the cast of supporting characters- Sophia the cat, Oscar the lead dog, Aleric the plucky ship's boy, even Amos the ham-loving cook- provide endless amusement, grit, and drama. The overarching fear of Flora ending up on a plate doesn't show up until about the last third of the book (although I think most readers will suspect early on. Flora doesn't recognize her status as potential dinner fodder until that point, and only when it's pointed out to her), and it's a plot point that's eclipsed by straight-up survival in such a dangerous environment.

If you're like me and have shied away from animal stories in the past, this is a good one to start with. We could all learn a thing or two about optimism and determination from Flora; her boundless energy and determination are what truly make this story the engaging work that it is. We read a chapter, sometimes two, to my 4.5 year old daughter every night at bedtime, and while at times there's more prose than dialogue, it worked decently well as a read-aloud for a wiggly preschooler who sometimes struggles with sitting still and listening, even at bedtime.

I definitely need to read more middle grade novels. The genre has changed so much from when I was younger, and even in the years since I stopped homeschooling my son when he was 9 (he's 16 now; why yes, there is a large age gap between my children!). It's a genre I always manage to overlook but shouldn't, because there are so many gems there. The Adventures of a South Pole Pig is one of them.

Check out Chris Kurtz's website here.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

A Crazy Kind of Love- Mary Ann Marlowe

I am a massive sucker for celebrity-falls-for-regular-gal books. MASSIVE. If extremist cults and escaping secretive religious groups is my favorite flavor of nonfiction, this is my favorite kind of fiction. Despite not really following any of Hollywood, this is a genre I've always loved (I'm going to go ahead and blame Just a Summer Romance by Ann M. Martin- yes, she of my beloved Babysitters Club- for this. That book was probably one of my first real YA titles as a tween and is fully responsible for my starry-eyed devotion to celebrity-dude-as-love-interest novels). So when I saw A Crazy Kind of Love by Mary Ann Marlowe on the New Fiction shelf, a quick scan of the back cover and I was hooked.

In order to pay the bills and keep her health insurance, fine arts major Jo Wilder has taken a job stalking celebrities as a member of a paparazzi crew. It's not her style at all; she'd much rather snap pics of normal people, doing normal things, but that's not exactly a major source of cash. Problem is, she's not great at what she's been hired to do. Too much heart. Too much seeing celebrities as people and not as product.

A missed photographic encounter with Maggie Gyllenhall leads her straight into the life of Micah Sinclair, the uber-gorgeous frontman of the rock band known as Theater of the Absurd. Micah's a known flirt and major manwhore...but Jo's definitely feeling the attraction too. Sparks burst into flames, and suddenly Jo's in front of all those paparazzi cameras, not just behind them. With her jerk of a boss demanding seriously unethical stuff, Jo's got to figure out what's real, who she can trust...and who trusts her.

God, this was a fun read. Jo and Micah's blossoming romance was both sweet and steamy, and despite his bad boy rep, Micah was an utter charmer. Building off of my last review, though, my favorite part of the novel was the fact that Jo has Type I diabetes. She tests her blood sugar often, experiences a few scary lows, and is often hunting down appropriate food or digging into her stash of snacks, but with the exception of informing Micah of the ins and outs of her condition, it's just part of the story, something Jo lives with, takes care of, and goes about her life. It's her normal, and although she occasionally shows her displeasure with it, it's not treated as A Major Deal, and that's something I really appreciated reading. My father has Type I diabetes, and everything Ms. Marlowe wrote about here, I grew up seeing and hearing about. Jo is never represented as anything other than just a normal person; her best friend and roommate, Zion (whom I absolutely adored) does a good job of caring for and about her without crossing the line into being hovery. There's also the inclusion of a transgender character, which made my heart smile. Representation absolutely matters, and Ms. Marlowe has done a fantastic job. This was truly a fantastic escapist read on a weekend where my pain levels were ridiculous (seriously, how have we gone to the moon and figured out how to transplant hearts and do brain surgery, but the human back and SI joint are still a nebulous mystery???) and I needed that mental getaway.

Peeking around on Goodreads, I see that my library has her other book, Some Kind of Magic, so that's exciting news. And her next novel, Dating By the Book, sounds amazing and comes out in June. I'm going to need to borrow Hermione Granger's time turner here...

Visit Mary Ann Marlowe's website here.

Follow Mary Ann Marlowe on Twitter here.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Switch and Bait- Ricki Schultz

In my quest to fill my life with more fiction, I decided to wander through the New Fiction section at Library #2 (my card works at four; I'm extremely lucky to live in an area where so many libraries offer reciprocal borrowing privileges) and nearly punched a hole in the shelf reaching out to grab this copy of Switch and Bait by Ricki Schultz. I couldn't get enough of her sharp wit and snappy prose in Mr. Right-Swipe and knew a few chapters in that I'd follow her anywhere, literarily-speaking. Switch and Bait didn't disappoint.

By day, Blanche Carter (a girl of the south, natch) manages Literature and Legislature, a DC bookstore; by night, she's side-hustling her way to freedom from student loans by helping desperate women clean up their online dating profiles and posing as them in order to attract the right sort of guy (buzz off, douchebros). Her own dating life is a bit...emptier. There was the one-night-stand with her terminally ill best friend's delicious (but Republican!) brother-in-law Henry a few years back, but other than that, nah. Blanche is better off alone. She's seen what love can do to a gal and she's sworn it off entirely.

When she signs a new client who has all the grace of a vertigo-afflicted elephant on oiled ice, Blanche figures she's got her work cut out for her, but she's thrown for a loop when said elephant, aka ridiculously gorgeous Ansley, matches with- who else?- Henry. Hot, best-friend's-brother-in-law, entirely-way-too-shaggable Henry. Breaking her #1 rule of never getting involved in a relationship of someone she knows, Blanche forges ahead, meeting someone new in the process...but all roads, it seems, lead back to the same place, the very guy she swears she's over.

Ricki Schultz has an instantly recognizable style. Her characters teem with sarcasm, acerbic wit, and up-to-date slang, all things I absolutely adore about her books. Switch and Bait had me laughing out loud several times, just as Mr. Right-Swipe did. I enjoyed reading a story set in DC that wasn't specifically about politics (politics are, of course, mentioned, but only in a more generic sense). Blanche and Isla, the best friend who has Huntington's disease, disagree on politics but still remain friends, and I admired how Ms. Schultz handled that. Isla's failing health and Blanche's grief over it also made an intriguing side plot. As someone who suffers from chronic pain, it's gratifying to see disabilities and major health conditions represented in literature, and I hope this is something that continues, not just in Ms. Schultz's work, but in fiction in general.

Switch and Bait is a fun read that sneaks in a message of honesty, loyalty, and being true to yourself and those around you. If you haven't read Ricki Schultz yet, question every decision you've made about your life up to this point, then head to your nearest library/bookstore/electronic device with online bookstore access and grab yourself a copy of either (or both!) of her books, because she's utterly fabulous. I can't wait to read whatever she writes next.

Check out Ricki Schultz's website here.

Follow Ricki Schultz on Twitter here.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids- Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross

Every once in a while, I read a book that makes me reconsider my position on certain things; the very best books are ones that make so strong a case that I implement changes because of them. Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross is one of those books.

I learned of this book a few weeks ago from a post on the Frugalwoods blog, about the challenges of parenting small children through the hectic holiday season. I could relate to *so* much of that blog post; my own daughter is 4.5 and has always been on the more intense side of 'spirited,' and adding long days with multiple car trips, far too many sugary treats, overstimulating presents that beep and sing and flash, and no nap does not make for an easy-to-parent child. I did a quick search, and as luck would have it, my local library had a copy of the book. I picked it up that night.

When I opened the book as we were sitting in the library, I was wary. This might end up being one of those parenting manuals that bore me ten pages in; I had another book with me in case I decided this book wasn't for me. But within several pages, I was hooked. The author's premise is that too much of anything- too many toys, too much stimulation, etc- can cause kids to quickly become overwhelmed, and it shows in their behavior in different ways. 'Okay,' I thought, 'I'm listening.' And as I read on, I recognized my daughter in Mr. Payne's many examples, one of which was quite jarring. He tells of a set of siblings whose house overflowed with toys. The boy responded to this overstimulation by getting violent with the toys, throwing and breaking them. The girl reacted by organizing the toys, lining them up, gathering them in piles that made no sense. Neither one seemed to play in appropriate ways with the massive amounts of toys that surrounded them.

And with that, I sat back and went, 'Ohhhhhhh.' Because right there? My daughter is that girl. I was constantly finding Hello Kitty and fuzzy Halloween bags full of odd collections of toys: pieces of play food, a sock full of items from her rock collection, Barbie doll clothes, a headband, three crayons, a plastic cow. After reading this particular paragraph, I realized that maybe my daughter wasn't having all that much fun playing like this. Her favorite thing EVER is toy kitchens. Whenever we go somewhere that has one (several libraries, friends' houses, set-ups at stores), she makes a beeline for it and doesn't want to leave, and I realized I hadn't seen her play with her own in ages.

And with that, I began making plans to pare down the toys in her room, just as Mr. Payne suggested.


It's a lot of toys, and you're not even seeing them all. (This was after a major clean-out and weeding out a bunch of toys, as well!!!)

And after:

I hadn't even finished tidying up after the overhaul when my daughter exclaimed excitedly, "I LIKE my room like this!" Since we made the change three days ago, she's used that table for coloring, for Play-Doh, and for a tea party (none of which she had ever done in her room, as the table had been previously covered in Little People toys she never played with). She's done somersaults in her room, and we pulled out her bowling set and bowled multiple games- my 16 year old son even joined in on this. There hadn't been enough space for us to do that in there before. She's been cooking up a storm in her play kitchen and has used a stool to set up a lemonade stand. Her imagination is flourishing with more space and less demand on her attention. I'm in love with everything about this, including the fact that cleaning it takes about two minutes once or twice a day, instead of half an hour four or five times a week.

Mr. Payne also discusses the importance of simplifying a child's diet, which wasn't my direct concern, as I cook the vast majority of everything we eat; simplifying screen usage (I've cut down on the amount of television my daughter watches- not that I really had to say anything, since she's been so enthralled with her new room that she asks me to turn the TV off so she can go play. But I would've done it anyway!); and simplifying adult talk and stressors around children (I've begun playing the local classical music station in the car in order to minimize my daughter's exposure to the news; she in turn has invented what she calls her 'invisible piano,' which she uses to play along with the radio. "Hey, turn that back up, I'm playing!" she complained when I turned it down once).

Simplify everything, he states, and the results will be clear. For us, they couldn't possibly be clearer. For the past three days (and so far, this morning as well), the only misbehavior we've had has come at bedtime, and my husband and I have already discussed pushing bedtime back 15 minutes because her behavior then was obviously due to exhaustion. We've had no tantrums from my little Queen of Scream. She listens better, she's in an overall better mood, I've found no bags of random, mismatched toys, and I'm much less cranky because I'm not dealing with poor behavior and giant messes. The only time we've had such docile behavior from her, it was because she had a nasty upper respiratory infection and a double ear infection- not exactly something you want to replicate. Mr. Payne's methods, however, are sustainable, and I'm loving the results we're getting.

For now, her extra toys live in the basement, and she knows she can visit them and switch them out at any time, trading a toy in her room for a toy down there. Eventually, we'll donate or sell the ones she's fully lost interest in (and just as I was typing this, she asked if we could pare down her toy food as well). Less really is more when it comes to children, and if you feel you and your child could benefit from a calmer, more relaxed environment (and really, who couldn't?!?),  pick up a copy of Simplicity Parenting. This book has made all the difference in the world for us.

Visit the Simplicity Parenting website here.
Follow Kim John Payne on Twitter here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper by Hilary Liftin

If you're looking for a fun Hollywood read without the guilt of actually prying into the lives of real people, Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper, written by Hilary Liftin, is pure entertainment.

Lizzie Pepper wants you to know the truth about her marriage. What you've seen in the tabloids about her whirlwind marriage to Rob Mars, king of Hollywood and member of the secretive One Cell meditation group, wasn't the whole truth. Now she's written a tell-all exposé of the *real* story: their first meeting, which ended up being more of a set-up than anything; their lightning-fast courtship and that scene where Rob serenaded her, surrounded by paparazzi; her introduction to the tight-lippped One Cell group that has been responsible for so much of Rob's success; Rob's proposal and Lizzie's surprise pregnancy; and, of course, where it all fell apart and how Lizzie escaped.

This is obviously a fictionalized imagining of the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes saga, close enough to the original story that I was constantly wondering, when reading details that were unfamiliar to me, if the author was taking creative license or if she knew something about Holmes and Cruise that I didn't. I'm not much of a celebrity watcher in general, but I did follow that mess. Katie Holmes is about my age and I grew up watching her on Dawson's Creek, so seeing her get caught up with someone so much older, someone with eyeball-deep involvement in Scientology, was kind of horrifying. Add in creepy details like Tom's couch jumping stunts on Oprah and reports of Katie having a Scientology minder following her at all times, and it was a situation that freaked me out on Katie's behalf. While everything seems to have worked out for Katie in the end (that we know of; she has custody of Suri and no further involvement with Scientology, from what I can see), I'm sure it didn't tie up as neatly as it did for the fictional Lizzie Pepper.

Anyway, this is a really fun read, whether you're on the beach or huddled up under a pile of blankets, listening to the snowplow scrape the road in front of your house (*raises hand*). It was close enough to the real story that I found myself Googling Cruise and Holmes to see the parallels while I was reading. In checking out the author's Goodreads page, I was surprised to find that I've read two of her other books: Dear Exile: The True Story of Two Friends Who Were Separated (for a Year) by an Ocean and Candy and Me: A Girl's Tale of Life, Love, and Sugar. I read both quite some time ago, hence the surprise, but out of all of them, Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper is the most enjoyable.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Magdalen Girls- V.S. Alexander

My first fiction of the year, and it was everything I look for in a novel.

The best kind of fiction, in my opinion, makes me feel something. It entertains, of course, and it educates, but above all, it stirs up deep emotion. The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander does all of that.

Narrated by several characters, The Magdalen Girls is set in Ireland in the early 1960's. Teagan Tiernan is 16, navigating life with an alcoholic father and a doormat mother, only to find herself the object of the new parish priest's lustful attention. Nora Craven, a more headstrong teenager, throws herself at the boy who just dumped her, meeting the wrath of her sharp-tongued parents when they walk in on her. Through no real fault of their own, both girls end up tossed away like so much garbage at the Magdalen Laundry of the Sisters of the Holy Redemption, forced to slave away in silence in terrible conditions, with no pay, inadequate food, where every last bit of their identity is stripped away and they are reminded of their status as sinners at every step. Teagan and Nora befriend each other, bringing another girl, Lea, a favorite of the nuns, into their confidence as well.

Escape plans are hatched, implemented and foiled; the entire community and all of society views them the same way as the Sisters do, as irredeemable trash whose only hope is to work themselves to the bone in order for God to forgive them. They're starved, beaten, burned, sprayed with freezing water, all in the name of God and redemption. Tragedy follows the girls at every corner, and while redemption does finally come for one, it's at a terrible, terrible cost.

The Magdalen Girls brought tears to my eyes and made my hands shake with rage. I'd known about the laundries before I read this book, but not quite the full extent of their horror. Full disclosure: I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school growing up, but- shocker- we were never taught about these. I first learned of them when they were discussed on a parenting messageboard I participated in in my early 20's (at that point, I hadn't considered myself Catholic for some time), and was horrified. And my horror has only grown the more I've learned about them.

Apparently, sexual sin in Ireland at this time was akin to murder, and even sexual thoughts were enough to condemn a young girl. While some of the women forced into the laundries were prostitutes, others were rape or incest victims; still others were so pretty that they were considered at risk for sexual sin and were locked away on that charge alone. Pregnant women were forced to give their babies up for adoption- there was no other option- and some women were imprisoned in the laundries for life. Those who were allowed out found themselves ill-prepared for life on the outside, with no education, no job skills, and no social skills, since the nuns forbade talking. Many, if not all, left more damaged (physically, sexually, and emotionally) than when they first entered.

When I was twelve, Sinead O'Connor performed on Saturday Night Live and ripped a picture of the Pope at the end of her song, and it was all anyone could talk about at school the next day. She was universally condemned by the elders who surrounded me, but even back then I had questions about her motives. And once I learned that she had spent time in a Magdalene laundry, suddenly, it all made sense.

This book is everything I look for in fiction. It sent me down a path, Googling everything I could find about the laundries. I watched one documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate, and bookmarked another for when I get time, The Forgotten Maggies. I read article after article after article after article, tearing up, shaking with unabashed fury at the injustice of it all, at a Church so quick to condemn women simply for the sake of being female, and at the utterly complicit society who bought into it all. For a work of fiction to do that, to give voice to so many who were silenced for far too long, that's a powerful thing, and this is absolutely a book that needed to be written.

V.S. Alexander is a pen name of author Michael Meeske; you can visit his webpage here and follow him on Twitter here.