Lightning Round: Inside Out and Back Again and Too Much and Never Enough

IInside Out and Back Againnside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Genre: MG biographical fiction

Setting: Vietnam and Alabama

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 262 pp

Published by: Scholastic (22 Feb 2011)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

This novel is the story of Ha, who flees Vietnam with her mother and brothers to escape the war. They end up in Alabama where they are hosted by a family that Ha thinks is a family of cowboys. The story tells of her challenges in adapting to life in 1970s America.

The story is written in verse and makes for a very lyrical novel. The way Lai uses imagery in her poems makes the emotions Ha and her family are feeling visceral. They are afraid to leave their home, they worry that they don’t have news about Ha’s father or where he might be, and they feel like they are abandoning him and their culture to leave and set up a new life for themselves in America. When they get there, Ha’s fears are justified because she cannot speak English, people think she is dumb because of it, and the people in general are close-minded and unwilling to accept them as part of their community. It was a bittersweet story and a very good one to use to discuss the experiences of refugees with your children.

(I refuse to put a pic of this book cover here. I don’t want to see its ugly face)

Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L. Trump 

Genre: nonfiction/biography

Setting: mostly New York

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 225 pp

Published by: S&S (14 July 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Mary Trump is Donald Trump’s niece, if anyone at all has been under a rock and didn’t learn that by now. She has a PhD in psychology and uses it to explain the excrescence that is her uncle, by diabolical fate the President of the United States. 

While this book really didn’t give any new information to those of us who have been paying attention, it is still nice to have our suspicions about the mango Mussolini confirmed by a member of the family who is an expert in the field. However, she seems to place all the blame squarely on the shoulders of his parents, in particular his dad. Yes, I am sure their horrible parenting impacted how he grew up. But doing so also takes the blame off of him – AGAIN – and makes it so he is not responsible for his actions. There are plenty of kids who had awful childhoods, far worse than Donny’s gilded negligence, and those people didn’t turn into malignant narcissists. So fuck that. He had a shitty childhood but he is the one who chooses cruelty over compassion and is a loathsome creature. 

Also, if I had a family like that, I would drop them so fucking fast you’d think I discovered warp drive. The fact that she hasn’t done so kind of seems to me like she’s sticking around in hopes of getting some money after all. That, or a scorching case of Stockholm Syndrome. Or both. #armchairpsychiatry. Whatever the case is, it rings hollow in a lot of ways.

Kindred

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Genre: let’s call it magical realism

Setting: 1976 and the antebellum South

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 287 pp

Published by: Beacon Press (1 June 1979)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dana is a modern young Black woman, married to a white man called Kevin, and they are both authors. They have recently purchased their first real home together and are in the middle of unpacking when Dana feels dizzy and falls to the ground. When the dizziness passes, she finds herself outside and hears a child yelling for help. Since Dana isn’t a dick, she rushes to help and ends up saving a young boy named Rufus from drowning. The boy’s father comes across them and, thinking Dana is trying to harm his son, aims a rifle at her. Dana is then transported back to her home, soaking wet and covered in mud from her rescue efforts. 

Over the next few weeks, Dana finds herself inexplicably called back to what she learns is the antebellum South, to a plantation with slaves. Somehow, anytime Rufus is in mortal danger, he pulls her back in time to him, completely unintentionally. Dana learns that Rufus is one of her ancestors and she has to keep saving him until he is able to father the child who is her direct ancestor. Each time Dana goes back, she stays longer and the trip is more dangerous for her. She eventually figures out that when she herself fears for her life, she is able to return to her own time, which is moving more slowly than the past. Dana spends hours, days, and months in the past and yet her own time period only moves forward by a few minutes or days even for her longest period spent in the past. Dana has to learn how to survive in a harsh past, retain Rufus’s trust enough that he doesn’t harm her himself just because he can, and keep her husband Kevin safe during her travels as well. 

This story was a difficult and yet un-put-downable read. Difficult because of the subject matter but a very fast and engaging read. Even though it was written in 1979, there was not actually much reference to technology so it didn’t feel dated. In fact, it could have been written this year and would have been hailed as a timely discussion on race relations and equality, given the ongoing protests surrounding police brutality towards Black people. It was a horrifying read as well because it explores topics such as slavery, which is to be expected from the book’s premise. What was worst, though, was Dana’s thoughts on how easy it can be to become accustomed to injustice. The discussion of racism was deep and explored some of the ways in which it has become institutionalized in America even today. Some scenes reminded me of part of Angie Thomas’s novel The Hate U Give where Starr and her brothers received “the talk” from their parents. Not the sex talk, but the talk about what to do and how to act if and when they are stopped by a police officer. The fact that such talks are considered a necessary part of parenting for so many people is heartbreaking, and Butler’s novel shows readers partly why that has come to be. 

Dana adapted fairly quickly to her new environment, not because she was somehow weak or didn’t resist hard enough, but because she had to adapt or die. Part of the discussion on how quickly Dana had to adapt to slavery conditions was also the sense of mutual obligation between many of the characters. They all tried to look out for each other and take everyone’s well being into consideration, even if it was sometimes to their own detriment. But parents, for example, would do whatever was necessary to spare their children and to keep them with them rather than being sold to different places far away. I can understand that; there is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep my daughter safe with me in those conditions. Despite Dana’s ability to adapt quickly to her new circumstances, she was not spared from being on the receiving end of some awful abuse, and she lived in constant fear of being sold to a plantation further south that was notorious for its truly brutal conditions. A modern person worrying about being sold – if that doesn’t absolutely horrify you, then you must be part of the problem.

Part of the discussion on adapting is, I think, the ways Dana and the other Black characters view Tom Weylin and Rufus. Tom initially appears to be brutal, every bit the worst of the stereotypical slave owner. As the novel progresses, how he is viewed doesn’t change so much to liking him as to seeing how he is more or less a fair man operating within the social constructs of his time period. He is a hard man and sometimes does cruel things, but he is doing what is allowed for him to do and doesn’t really step out of those bounds, as disgusting as they are to our modern sensibilities. Similarly, with Rufus, he seems to grow up to take after his father in most ways, except that he is in love with Alice, and his father never would have loved a slave. Use her body, yes, but love her, no. Dana is able to forgive Rufus for so many wrongs, and he actually seems to do worse things than his father ever did. He makes overt threats to Dana, lies about sending her letters to Kevin when he got trapped in the past, and is a volatile drunk. His father at least never seemed to let himself get out of control like Rufus does. In many ways, Rufus is a pitiable character, largely lacking in understanding, empathy, or willpower. To be fair, though, I’d probably be blind fucking drunk all the time if I had to live in the South at that time of history. In any case, the way Dana and the other Black characters view the Weylins very much makes me think of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe they were just as awful as one thinks they were but the effect was lessened over the course of the novel by the psychological impact of being held against their will, malnourished, beaten and whipped, and worked until they dropped.

Normally, I don’t care much for first-person perspective in novels. But I think first-person is the only way this novel could be as powerful as it was. If Dana hadn’t been the narrator, if we had a third-person POV instead, it would have created a distance between the characters, events they went through, and the reader; the situations she went through would not have been as visceral an experience for readers and thus the discussions on various issues would not have been as effective.

The title itself is a stark reminder that being related to a person doesn’t always mean they are your family. There’s a big difference between relatives and family. Rufus and Dana are related to one another. They have a sense of mutual obligation to each other, though an admittedly lop-sided one. But they are in no way family as I would define it. So that makes an interesting contrast throughout the book, especially when you consider Dana and her husband’s relationship, and her relationship with the slaves. She seems much closer to them than to Rufus, her actual relative. Similarly, her marriage to Kevin is illegal in the past and, I would imagine, is seen as at least odd in 1976. I don’t think interracial marriages were very well tolerated at the time. 

In any case, this was a terrific read, if difficult at times because of the things that happened to people. I definitely recommend it to any fans of timeslip, sci-fi, magical realism, or antebellum history. 

Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1

27396420._sy475_Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1 by Erica Laine (Website, Twitter, Facebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 13th century England

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 124 pp

Published by: Brook Cottage Books (28 Oct 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Not many things, fictional or otherwise, are written about Isabelle of Angoulême, so when I came across this trilogy while researching the wives of King John, I was pleased. This first installment covers Isabelle’s life from just prior to her marriage to John, while she was still betrothed to Hugh le Brun de Lusignan, to John’s death in 1216. 

Almost nothing is known about Isabelle’s early life, but Raine filled in some blanks admirably with educated guesses at how a girl of her status would have been raised. There were tons of historically accurate details about daily life in medieval Europe, which made for an immersive reading experience. For instance, Laine often used quotes from various medieval manuscripts, chronicles, or people. They were not always given to the people who actually said the words, but it didn’t make a negative impact on any given scene, and I doubt anyone who hasn’t been up to their eyeballs in medieval research would even know it. But I got a kick out of reading things like “To some it was ugly news, to others, lovely,” which is from the History of William Marshal, and knowing where they were from, who said it, and the context. Raine clearly did her research even while taking some creative liberties.

Similarly, there are several different schools of thought regarding Isabelle and John’s relationship, why he married Isabelle, the reasons for his loss of the continental Angevin lands, and the personalities of each. Raine took some of these various theories and used them to spin a plausible story about this royal couple. It will be interesting to see how the rest of Isabelle’s life plays out in the remaining two books, and how she herself will grow and change. In this book, Isabelle was portrayed as very much a spoiled, somewhat vapid brat, a girl who was raised to be ambitious but who could be distracted with shiny baubles and jewels. 

Overall, a quick and interesting read about a woman many readers would never know about. Recommended.

The Silken Rose

The Silken RoseThe Silken Rose by Carol McGrath (Website, TwitterFacebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 1300s England

I read it as a: digital copy

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 355 pp

Published by: Accent Press Ltd. (23 July 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3-4 out of 5 stars*

This novel, the first of a planned trilogy, focuses on Eleanor of Provence, the wife of Henry III, beginning with her journey to England to marry a man who was more than 15 years her senior. In this book, she is called Ailenor. The narrative brings readers along as Ailenor learns first how to be a wife and queen and then a mother. It gives us a varying perspectives, from Ailenor to Eleanor (sister of Henry III, wife of Simon de Montfort) and a fictional embroideress, Rosalind, and covering a variety of the events that plagued Henry III’s reign. The trilogy plans to take a look at the women who have been termed “She-Wolves” for various reasons. This first installment takes care of Eleanor of Provence and her reign as Queen Consort.

First, the good. There were many, many enjoyable things about this book. I loved how much detail there was. In every scene, McGrath evoked imagery, scents, sounds of daily life in medieval London. I especially loved the details with herb and flower gardens. I can practically smell the lavender and rosemary. Similarly, the descriptions of the street scenes in London were pretty evocative as well. 

I also really appreciated other small details, such as the use of relics, in particular the Virgin’s girdle, as charms for a safe childbirth experience. The churching ceremony after giving birth was not given a lot of detail, but it was mentioned a few times throughout the novel and it added extra depth. Also, a queen’s role as intercessor was mentioned several times. I’m fascinated by the queens’ intercessory role throughout time and how it changed, helped, or hindered politics. Little things like this make readers like me happy. I know not everyone cares about historical accuracy when they read a book for pleasure (*horror!*), but I am always deeply appreciative of authors who are accurate anyway. The readers like me will be happy and the readers who don’t care will still read the book and enjoy it regardless. 

A few quibbles. The writing here was clear and easy, flowing smoothly from one perspective to another. The main POV character was, of course, Ailenor, but Rosalind and Nell also got a good deal of time. I was glad, though, that the chapter headings indicated when a change of perspective happened because I didn’t find there was always a lot of variance in the voices between the three women. Ailenor, Nell, and Rosalind often sounded similar and could be hard to tell apart if it were not for chapter headings.

By the same token, I felt that Rosalind was the only one who really had any character development. Ailenor, by contrast, sounded like a fully mature woman even on her journey to meet her husband-to-be when she was only 12 years old. Rosalind, on the other hand, started as a young and shy embroideress but grew into a confident and respected woman, wife, and mother. I did wish a little more of her story had been given to us. She was probably my favorite character in the book. It felt a little incomplete because there were some fairly substantial jumps in the events of her life. However, since she was NOT the primary focus of the novel, it is understandable why the author decided not to make her a larger figure. 

The novel ended with the promised betrothal of Edward to Eleanor of Castile in roughly 1254. This was about ten years before the start of the Second Barons’ War. I was a little disappointed that the novel didn’t cover that time period since I think a lot of interesting content could have been written about Ailenor during that time period. She was considered one of the She-Wolves, and the Barons’ War and Simon de Montfort’s role was a major element within Henry’s reign. It would have been particularly interesting to see Rosalind’s role in that. Even though she is fictional, sometimes those are the best characters through which to explore an historical event or person. Again, I understand why it wasn’t included. It would have been a tome otherwise! 

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It was a fast, easy read and gives an interesting glimpse into a fascinating period of England’s history. 

*N.B.: I am unclear if the copy I received to review was supposed to be a finished copy or if it was an edited digital galley. The book was already published (in the UK, at least) when I got the file to review, but it was a PDF which is usually how I get galleys. I mention this because if it was a finished copy, then there were numerous places throughout where the text was positively jumbled up and sentences were a mash-up of words. For example: “I think it safer and the apartments there of the City. Without destruction remained have been redecorated.” And “He could not change his mind, had he so wished. as they fell resounding from the ancient A squire always followed his knight.” These are just two of several such examples that were scattered throughout the text. If I got an unedited galley, then never mind, these errors would be corrected upon editing. If it is supposed to be a finished copy, then that is not good and would certainly cause me to greatly reduce my rating of the book. 

The Witches Are Coming

48589607._sx318_The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West (Website, Insta)

Genre: nonfiction/ essays

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Lindy West

Source: my own TBR

Length: 06:27:00 

Published by: Hachette Audio (5 Nov 2019)

Her Grace’s rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

The Witches Are Coming is a collection of essays dealing with various aspects of feminism, mostly, with other topics such as white nationalism and climate change added as well. West is a terrific writer, making her arguments succinctly, pointedly, and with a lot of humor. I had not read any of her work before, nor have I watched Shrill on Hulu. So I don’t know how much of this collection is repetitive from anything she’s written previously, but it was all new to me. 

Well, the topics themselves were not new, and I’m not really sure West added any new points to them that haven’t already been said. But her own take on them was new for me, and I enjoyed her writing voice a great deal. 

She wrote about some things I’ve said for years, among which is we need to stop praising people, especially mediocre white men, for doing things normal adults are supposed to do anyway. You went to work! You do not get a ‘yay for you!’ for that. Adults are supposed to go to work. No, you cannot babysit your own children. Taking care of your own children is called parenting. Babysitting is what you pay the teenager across the street to do. Praising mediocre white men for doing things normal people are supposed to do is partly why we are stuck with Trump in the White House and his troglodyte followers in positions of power they are in no way qualified to hold. 

Also, stop talking about how charming and handsome Ted Bundy was. He murdered women and everyone is still hung up on how nice he was. No he fucking wasn’t! He liked to kill people. Murderers by definition are not nice. If it takes a while to catch them, it’s not because they are so nice or blend in so well with society, it’s because they snowed everyone around them and used their gullibility to get away, literally, with murder. That’s not charming, that is creepy.

Also, abortions are health care and modern day fucked up rape culture needs to stop. 

So yeah, I guess a lot of it is preaching to the choir and all, but I still think most of the essays included are excellent and this is yet another book that should be required reading.

 

 

The Power

29751398._sy475_The Power by Naomi Alderman (Website, Twitter)

Genre: speculative fiction

Setting: everywhere, possibly in the near future

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 341 pp

Published by: Viking (27 Oct 2017)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

TL;DR version: girls are now born with the ability to conduct electricity (specifically, they can electrocute people) because of a weird skein under their collar bones, and the menz are scared shitless.

In an unspecified time which feels like the near future, girls are suddenly born with a ‘skein’ under their collar bones which allows them to electrocute people. They can turn on this ability in older women as well. The Power follows four young people through their initial discovery of these skeins and the ways in which they adapt to them. One is Roxy, a tough girl from London whose family is feared for running an organized crime operation. Allie/Mother Eve is an abused foster child from the east coast who takes the power from her skein to escape and set up a new life for herself. Jocelyn is the daughter of an up and coming political superstar in the midwest, and her skein seems to be broken. Tunde is an aimless young man from Nigeria who finds his path as a reporter. The ways each of their lives intermingle relay the genesis of the skeins and their impact upon all of human society.

First, things I liked.

If I had a skein that let me zap people, I can’t honestly say I would use it for good. I can think of a fair few men who could use a good electrocution. But you know? If (mainly white) men overall, and throughout history, weren’t such rapey, abusive dicks bent on systematic oppression of women and minorities (see plot line with Roxy’s brother and dad), I wouldn’t even think about what I could do with the ability to electrocute people. Do better, menz. 

I liked that the book touched on beneficial ways women could use their skeins. It was clear that some women were more skilled than others in how they could use their power – some could only use it to hurt, but others could use it to try to help or heal people. Some girls were skilled and powerful enough to awaken the power in older women who had not been born with a skein. Others healed the sick or injured. 

I thought it was interesting, though not at all surprising, to consider that religious exploitation was a thing regardless of whether it was women in charge or men. It seems that religion will always find a way to take advantage of people who are afraid or feel lost or whatever it is that makes them flock in their thousands to weird evangelical circus-like performances and throw their money at it. Faith healers are such a crock, whether in reality or in spec fic, and they prey upon people who are desperate in some way or other. And really, religion is a crock as well. Logic is better than magical thinking, and taking active steps to fix a problem in society is more effective than trying to pray it away. 

Also, I did like that this dystopian novel gave something to women rather than taking something away and exploring the fallout from that. In The Handmaid’s Tale and Red Clocks, women no longer have any reproductive rights. In The Unit, older people are sent to a nursing home type of setting to await the days when their organs will be needed for people who are considered young and relevant still. In Vox, women’s voices are taken away in that they are only permitted to speak 100 words a day. So many other examples portray a world in which something vital is taken away from women. So it is interesting to read a book where something is given to them for once. 

Now, things I didn’t care for.

The novel at times felt more like a research project than a book. It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that power and authority in the world tends to come from the ability to hurt other people. Ask any woman and I can almost guarantee that she has at least once in her life been afraid of a man and what he would do to her. So kind of the whole premise, while an interesting thought experiment, it also doesn’t really ask any new or profound questions. It seems to be trying to answer questions that have been posed and explored forever in other speculative fiction novels, movies, TV shows… 

The book eventually got around to Men’s Rights movements. I found myself snorting at these scenes every time they came up. Of course, my reading is influenced by actual history and I couldn’t quite separate that from the book, which is no fault of Alderman’s. But a Men’s Rights movement was as ridiculous to me as a Straight Pride parade – do men think women’s rights are as preposterous as I felt the men’s rights were in this? Again, if the menfolk would quit trying to control and suppress everyone, there would be no need for men’s OR women’s rights movements. We could all just be equal. Which seems to scare men like Moscow Mitch absolutely shitless. 

The biggest drawback for me was that the plot and character development were really…not great. Most of the characters were flat, had little actual development, and I didn’t give a crap about any single one of them. Well, I kind of cared what happened to Jocelyn a little bit, and Tunde was an interesting perspective. But in general, even they were mostly static, and I don’t think the novel needed ALL of the POV characters to be POV characters. Most of them weren’t really all that interesting, or at least I didn’t think so. I think it would have been more interesting if the novel had been told from the POV of just one person. All the international politics and women going insane seemed like it was contrived and hard for Alderman to pull off convincingly. 

I actually quite liked this book and don’t mean to sound as if I didn’t, but I think it had a lot of problems.

Outgrowing God

Outgrowing GodOutgrowing God by Richard Dawkins (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Genre: nonfiction/atheism/YA?

Setting: n/a

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 294 pp

Published by: Random House (8 Oct 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a terrific, brief book that addresses religion from a scientific perspective, as do all of Dawkins’s books. In it, he lays out many arguments people use for believing in a god (it teaches you morality, you can’t be good without God, etc) and then he goes on to point out the fallacies involved in thinking that. Such is the first part of the book. The second deals more directly with actual science and evidence for how we know what we know. 

I love this logical approach. Even as a child, religion never made sense to me. When I asked questions in Sunday School, I was rarely satisfied with the answers I was given – you just have to have faith (why, though? That’s not good enough), we can’t see God but we can’t see the wind either and so that’s the same thing (honestly, what the actual fuck?). Now, of course, I know a lot more about logic and reasoning than I did as a child, and the kinds of arguments and fallacies that are involved. But not everyone does. Nor would I try to change, say, my granny’s mind about her beliefs. It doesn’t hurt me and it is a comfort to her, so I’m not here for that. But I do think a ton of people need to read this book, and all of Dawkins’s other books, and then move on to writers like Sam Harris, AC Grayling, Daniel Dennett, Dan Barker, and the late, greatly missed Christopher Hitchens. It will be an eye opener for many, in the best way, I promise.

I felt like this book was written for a slightly younger audience. I don’t know if Dawkins did that intentionally but this would be easy for most teens to grasp, as well as adults who are not as scientifically literate as some of his other readers. I appreciate Dawkins’s ability to write science in a way that is easy for a layperson to understand but that doesn’t dumb it down so much it is essentially inaccurate. Some people say he is condescending, but I don’t really think it’s that so much as he is breaking down complex issues and tells his readers if an upcoming section is particularly challenging. He’s just being a typical professor – ok, class, time to take careful notes. I think too that maybe some of the ‘he’s really condescending’ crowd might just feel a little defensive about their beliefs that he is disassembling. Just a thought. 

I highly recommend this book to everyone, especially those who might still cling to certain beliefs, religious or otherwise, without good evidence to support it.

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Arguing over whether angels are demigods is rather like arguing whether fairies are the same as pixies. 
  • …if I’d been born to Viking parents I’d firmly believe in Odin and Thor. If I’d been born in ancient Greece I’d worship Zeus and Aphrodite. In modern times, if I’d been born in Pakistan or Egypt I’d believe that Jesus was only a prophet, not the Son of God as the Christian priests teach.
  • We can’t prove there are not fairies but that doesn’t mean we think there’s a 50:50 chance fairies exist. 
  • ‘Jesus’ is the Roman form of the Hebrew name Joshua or Yeshua. It was a common name and wandering preachers were common. So it’s not unlikely there was a preacher called Yeshua. There could have been many.
  • We tend to think the United States is an advanced, well-educated country. And so it is in part. Yet it is an astonishing fact that nearly half the people in that great country believe literally in the story of Adam and Eve. 
  • You get the impression from him that God i far more interested in the sins of one species, living on one little planet, than he is in the vast expanding universe he had created. 
  • The whole bit in chapter 11 about patterns and how human brains are evolutionarily hard wired to seek them, and how false positives and false negatives may have started superstitions and religions. 
  • Science regularly upsets common sense. It serves up surprises which can be perplexing or even shocking; and we need a kind of courage to follow reason where it leads, even if where it leads is very surprising indeed. The truth can be more than surprising, it can even be frightening. 
  • Courage isn’t enough. You have to go on and prove your idea right.
  • Isn’t science wonderful? If you think you’ve found a gap in our understanding, which you hope might be filled by God, my advice is: ‘Look back through history and never bet against science.’
  • I think we should take our courage in both hands, grow up and give up on all gods. Don’t you? 

 

Jonny Appleseed

Jonny AppleseedJonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead (Twitter, Insta)

Genre: contemporary/literary fiction

Setting: Manitoba/Peguis First Nation

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 224 pp

Published by: Arsenal Press (15 May 2018)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Jonny Appleseed is about a First Nations boy who is gay and trying to figure out how to be his best self. His mother wants him to come back to the Reservation for his stepfather’s funeral. Getting there requires more cash than he has on hand and so he works extra at his job, which is as an online sex worker. During the few days it takes him to save enough cash to get home, Jonny reflects on the experiences from his past that have helped to make him who he is right now, with a fever-dream kind of feel to the memories.

I am honestly not sure how to write a review of this book that really encompasses my thoughts without making me sound like either an idiot or an asshole. I loved this book, though, and loved learning more about the Cree Nation, where Jonny as well as author Joshua Whitehead are from. Truly, it isn’t possible for me to have known less about the Cree before beginning this book, so it was an interesting reading and learning experience. 

I enjoyed learning some Cree words, though I absolutely have no idea how to say them. At first, I wanted a glossary because not all of the words used in the book were explained by context (or maybe I just didn’t get it), but then I decided that I liked that there was no glossary. It felt more real for the words just to be there, slipped into the narrative as they probably would be in normal conversation, and it is my job as a reader to figure them out. I always like learning about a culture that isn’t familiar to me and I appreciated the richness that was imparted through this story.

Many parts of this were heartbreaking. Not just because of how people treated Jonny as a Two-Spirit indigiqueer person, as he calls himself. But also because of how poor he and most of his acquaintances are, how hard they have to work to scrape together enough to buy something like a six-pack, or that they work hard just SO they can buy a six-pack or spirits. 

I think this is a book everyone should read. It will make you laugh, cry, and most importantly, think and empathise. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Home isn’t a space, it’s a feeling. … And it isn’t always comfortable – at least, not an NDN home. In fact, quite often, it’s uncomfortable. But it’s home because the bannock is still browning in the oven and your kokum is still making tea and eating Arrowroot biscuits. … And, given time, it becomes mobile – you can take those rituals with you, uproot your home as if it were a flower.
  • But I just laughed and I think he got mad – I wish he knew that when an NDN laughs, it’s because they’re applying a fresh layer of medicine on an open wound.
  • Don’t be thinking I don’t know who this is for – you like that Walker boy. I’m fine with that, son, Creator, he made you for a reason – you girl and you boy and that’s fine with me, but what’s not fine is you selling yourself short. You gotta leave if you wanna survive, and when you do you’re gonna need the steadiness of those hands, m’boy. You’re gonna need a rock and a whole lotta medicine. 
  • I am my own best medicine.
  • But the way he told stories was so sincere that I couldn’t help but become enamoured. That was when I learned just how much power there is in stories …
  • “Howa, he’s just snapped,” someone said, which made Jordan laugh. “Oh heck, that guy’s feeling no pain,” she said. That saying is weird, “feeling no pain.” I used to laugh at it too, but nowadays I think that they’re drunk because they’re feeling all kinds of pain.
  • My kokum had always told me that sleep was not a waste of time, that it was a time for healing, so I slept long and hard, waiting for my blood to leech out its memories and for my body to rejuvenate.
  • “But you – you my everything, m’boy, all this time you been my rock.”  “No, Momma,” I replied, “you’re my rock. I’m just the one who broke you.”  “Maybe,” she said, biting her lip. “But then you also the one who ground me. Ground me up into a medicine.”
  • …a good story is always a healing ceremony, we recuperate, re-member, and rejuvenate those we storytell into the world…

 

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary

 

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin (Website)

Genre: literary/historical fiction

Setting: 1st century Ephesus

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Meryl Streep

Source: my own collection

Length: 03:07:00

Published by: Simon and Schuster Audio (10 Sept 2013)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A first person narrative of some of the events of the alleged life of Jesus, told from his mother Mary’s point of view. The premise is that she is now an old woman waiting to die, and so is writing down her recollections in a factual manner. She is not amused by her son’s choice of friends, who she says are mostly men who can’t even look a woman in the eye. Nor is she impressed with the people who believe her son is the son of God. She definitely has no time for that. She has no interest in collaborating with the authors of the Gospels, who are her keepers as well. She doesn’t think they are ‘holy disciples’ or that her son’s death was ‘worth it.’

I dig this Mary. This Mary has absolutely zero fucks left to give, and she’s not shy about telling you so. She points out the many times she was dismissed or treated badly by her son or others. She is not the gentle, meek, retiring woman portrayed over the centuries in so much art and literature. This Mary has Things to Say™ and she is not happy about the way events played out, nor with the players involved. Here, she is a grieving, bitter old woman, and I don’t blame her. If someone killed my child in any way, let alone in a horrifically brutal way, I’d be bitter and pissed off about it, too. And would likely have a whole lot more to say about it than she did here. Or else I’d be dead because I would attack the people and get it over so they’d kill me. 

I am as atheist as they come and find this a refreshing and realistic portrayal of Mary, totally divorced from centuries of veneration that has been heaped on her. Not that I believe she existed any more than Jesus did. But if she did, I can see her ending up like this. This Mary obviously loves her son but she doesn’t spare him any criticism, either. She doesn’t think he is divine or that he is the son of God. She thinks he didn’t treat her all that well once he was grown. She didn’t like his friends and thought they were a bunch of misfits. She felt that her son’s preaching was dangerous, bizarre, and delusional. She will not tell her keepers stories about her son that weren’t true just so they could fit them in with the narrative they created about him. She simply refuses to play. I loved her, and I felt horrible for her.

Meryl Streep, of course, did an exceptional job narrating this story. She imbues her voice with age, fatigue, bitterness, grief, everything you might expect to find in a woman who has lived far longer than she really wants to, burdened as she is with sorrow and anger. 

I loved this book (novella, really) and recommend it highly. However, if a reader is really religious and isn’t inclined to view Mary or her son in any way other than how they are represented in the Wholly Babble, then it might be better to skip this one. It is NOT an irreverent or heretical book, but it pulls no punches and undermines the whole point of Christianity. Which is why I loved it, naturally. 

Guest Post: The Book of Gutsy Women

The Book of Gutsy Women

The Book of Gutsy Women by Hilary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton

Reviewed by Cathy Smith

Although I wanted to speak to my friend from 50 years ago, I was not looking forward to the phone call. I mostly did not want to speak with him because I knew the conversation would be pushed into opposing political views or religious views, regardless of how many times I would ask that we “not go there”. After much thought, I set my concerns aside, told my inside mind to be kind and stay nice, and returned my friend’s calls.

It started out well but less than three minutes into the call, he said (without taking a breath), “You live in Oregon. Right? My oldest son lived in Portland for a year. He hated it. He mostly didn’t like living there because he said people in Oregon let women speak their minds and what’s worse is that they listen to them…”

My inside mind lost all its filters, triggering my voice, and what followed was a five-hour conversation about women, their rights, and all the major political and religious issues facing the nation today. At the end of the phone call, which required both of us having to charge our phones in midstream, we were still friends (I think). He tried to convince me to go to the next class reunion, and I ended with a maybe. We hung up, and I returned to listening to The Book of Gutsy Women by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton.

The Book of Gutsy Women is more than just the biographies of some of the most courageous women in the world. It is about the issues faced by humanity in the past and in the present. The book discusses issues from all aspects of life and talks about how individual woman have had the courage to step out of their comfort zones to take a stand.

After finishing the book, the one fact that really stayed with me is the issue of women and their reproductive rights. When reading the chapter about Venus and Serena Williams, I learned that the maternal mortality rate is rising in the United States. According to Delbanco, Lehan, Montalvo, and Levin-Scherz (2019) “Over 700 women a year die of complications related to pregnancy each year in the United States, and two-thirds of those deaths are preventable” (para. 2).

The estimated maternal mortality rate (per 100,000 live births) for 48 states and Washington, DC (excluding California and Texas, analyzed separately) increased by 26.6%, from 18.8 in 2000 to 23.8 in 2014. California showed a declining trend, whereas Texas had a sudden increase in 2011-2012. (MacDorman, et al., 2016, p. 447)

This information is mind-boggling, especially as it relates to Serena Williams and why she needed to wear a specially designed catsuit during the French Open in 2018. Williams knew that she had several blood clots in both her lungs, and after giving birth to her daughter in 2017, she had a pulmonary embolism (Friedman, 2018). The catsuit was a compression suit that would prevent blood clots (Clinton, H. R, & Clinton, C., 2019). Unfortunately, Williams was told by the French Tennis Federation that she could not wear a black catsuit during a match. It is interesting how women have been and are regulated regarding the clothes they are expected to wear or not wear personally and professionally.

Unlike Williams, another athlete featured in The Book of Gutsy Women is Ibtihaj Muhammad who chose fencing as a sport because “fencers wear full-body suits and masks, the uniforms wouldn’t need to be altered” (Clinton & Clinton, 2019, Chapter Athletes, Section Ibtihaj Muhammad, para. 1). Although what Muhammad wore was not an issue for the sport she excelled in, many tried to use her religious and personal beliefs to dissuade her from following through with her dreams and her goals. Throughout her career, Muhammad was told she could not succeed because she was a Muslim woman and even received life threats. None of this has stopped this gutsy woman.

Living in harm’s way, being threatened and abused, and being the victims of bullying is not uncommon for gutsy women. The Book of Gutsy Women shares the short bios of women that have advocated for education, the environment, and politics. The Clintons share stories about activists, writers, and women groundbreakers. Each bio provides readers and listeners with insightful information about the lives and work of some of the most remarkable women who have changed and are changing the world.

Recently, I had the opportunity to read The Tubman Command by Elizabeth Cobbs. Although fiction, the book inspired me to learn more about Harriet Tubman, so when Tubman was the first gutsy woman that the Clintons wrote about, I was hooked. As I read about and listened to each story, I discovered tidbits of information that I, as a woman, could relate to. For example, when reading about Margaret Bourke-White, I found a new hero in my life. She is known as a fearless photojournalist for Life magazine and the first female war correspondent (Clinton & Clinton, 2019). Throughout my younger years, my dream job was to be a writer and a war correspondent, much to my parents’ dismay. Of course, this did not happen since my Dad’s dying wish was that I finish college and become a teacher.

As it turned out, teaching was a perfect career for me, especially since I was able to work with multicultural and bilingual education, reading, and writing. My first teaching positions were with Migrant education. The stories and the journeys of migrant children and families were both heart-wrenching and inspirational. Before working in migrant education, I previously worked as a migrant farm worker and was aware of the work done by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers so when I read and listened to the Clintons’ bio of Dolores Huerta, I continued to embrace their book. In the 1940s, Huerta completed college and became a teacher, and soon after starting her teaching career, she discovered her purpose in life (Clinton & Clinton, 2019). Huerta (as cited in Clinton & Clinton, 2016) stated, “I couldn’t tolerate seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes” and continued to say, “I thought I could do more by organizing farmworkers than by trying to teach their hungry children” (Chapter Advocates and Activists Section Dolores Huerta para. 4). Huerta worked side by side with Cesar Chavez to cofound the United Farm Workers.

The stories of the amazing women in The Book of Gutsy Women are all unique and inspiring. Many of the women featured were my personal heroes growing up, and others are new heroes who now give me the courage to step outside of my comfort zone to do more work for the different communities that I have come to call my own. The Book of Gutsy Women by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton is a book that I recommend everyone read. In fact, I sent a print copy to my daughter and granddaughter so they will realize that it is important for all women to find their voice and share their passions with the world.

References

Clinton, H. R. & Clinton, C. (2019). The Book of Gutsy Women [Kindle Fire 10 version] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Delbanco, S., Lehan, M. Montalvo, T., and Levin-Scherz, J. (2019) The rising U.S. material mortality rate demands action from employers. Harvard Law Review. Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from https://hbr.org/2019/06/the-rising-u-s-maternal-mortality-rate-demands-action-from-employers

Friedman, M. (2018) French Open bans Serena Williams from wearing her life-saving catsuit -Even though it helped her with a major health issue. Elle. Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from https://www.elle.com/culture/celebrities/a22826732/serena-williams-catsuit-french-open-dress-code/

MacDorman, M.F., Declercq, E. Cabral, H. & Morton, C. (2016). Recent increases in the U.S. maternal mortality rate: Disentangling trends from measurement issues. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 128(3), 447–455. https://doi.org/10.1097/AOG.0000000000001556