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?