Monday, April 16, 2018

The Rose Garden

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley (2011), narrated by Nicola Barber

It's funny. I never rate Kearsley's books very high (on Goodreads I usually give them 3 stars, occasionally 4) yet they've become my comfort reads. I had purchased The Rose Garden on sale through Audible and forgotten about it until I was scrolling through my library one day. I immediately thought about English country gardens, history, romance, and that ethereal time-slipping that is in all of her novels and realized it was exactly what I wanted at that moment.

The protagonist is a woman named Eva who just lost her sister to illness, and she returns to Cornwall to scatter her ashes in the place where they spent their childhood together. She is staying with old family friends, but begins traveling back in time to the early 18th century where she meets previous inhabitants of the house. She can't control when she moves back and forth in time, and it's a bit jarring to suddenly appear in a place wearing clothing from the wrong time period. As she spends more time in the early 1700s, she begins falling for the smuggler Daniel Butler, and questioning where her true home really is.

This is the first book of Kearsley's I've read in which the main character actually travels in time. In the others, it's more like she will have a very close connection with someone from the past and maybe experience their story, but as that person, not as herself. Here, Eva showed up and interacted with people from another time, having to explain that she is from the future and being careful not to give them too much information or do anything to potentially change the future. Kearsley didn't dwell on the mechanics of the time travel, though it was connected to the house. It's not clear why not everyone there traveled through time, but that's not important. It's really about the life she lived in both places and the people she knew there.

I found it a little strange that the people she met in the 1700s didn't ask her about the future, and that no time was spent speculating on why it was happening, and why to her. It was also convenient that she never happened to disappear or reappear in front of the people in the current day, though a few people saw her come and go in the 1700s. But I can't really say that there are complaints as I think a lot of conversations about what was happening would have detracted from the real story.

Late in the book we learn some things that delightfully tied various bits of the story together. Of course I don't want to spoiler anything, but I loved how it all wrapped up. (Well, mostly.) I enjoyed this book the whole way through, and found Nicola Barber's narration perfect for the story.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

So You Want To Talk About Race

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (2018)

As it turns out, this book really is a guide for talking about race. I wasn't sure, I just knew that if Oluo wrote it, I wanted to read it. I follow her on Twitter and have read some pieces she has written, and she's brilliant, thoughtful, clear-headed, and concise. In addition to all her sensible advice, she shares her own experiences about, for example, being followed around in stores, and having to explain to her son why he can't play with a toy gun outside although his white step-brother can. She also helpfully includes information and statistics on things like income and police brutality as it relates to race.

The structure of the book is based on questions she has been asked. Chapters include "What if I talk about race wrong?", "What are microaggressions?", "What is cultural appropriation?", "Why can't I touch your hair?", "I just got called racist, what do I do now?", and "Talking is great, but what else can I do?" Each chapter is short, succinct, and filled with advice. I don't want to try and pick out bits of it to share because I think it's really important to read it in context.

But I will share the other actions - from the "what else can I do?" chapter - which is always what I want to know. They include things like voting in local elections, speaking up in unions, supporting POC-owned businesses, giving money to organizations working to fight racial oppression and support communities of color, boycotting businesses that exploit workers of color, supporting music, film, television, art, and books created by people of color, and supporting increases in the minimum wage. These should all be easy, and it's really the least we can do.

I also appreciated how inclusive the book is. She talks about LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and some of the specific problems faced by Asian-Americans. Did you know that 41-61% of Asian-American women experience physical and sexual abuse, which is TWICE the national average for all women? I didn't, and this is a horrifying omission from our conversations about feminism, and is exactly the sort of thing we mean when emphasizing the importance of intersectionality.

There is so much for most of us to learn from Oluo's writing. I consider this required reading for anyone wanting to take part in the current conversation about race (and we all should be doing so.) It's also the kind of book I want to keep referring back to, so although I returned my copy to the library I'm likely to purchase one to keep for myself.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Wrong To Need You

Wrong To Need You by Alisha Rai (2017)

In the first book of the Forbidden Hearts series, we were introduced to the Kane and Chandler families and their intertwined history, and the tragedies that tore them apart. That story continues in this second book, but at the forefront, of course, is romance. After the tragic events that occurred ten years ago, Jackson Kane took off, a pariah in his community because of a crime he didn't even commit. Now he has returned and is working for his widowed sister-in-law Sadia Ahmed, but their feelings for each other are not of the sibling variety.

Sadia's husband (and Jackson's brother) died alone in the woods in a hiking accident. He shouldn't have been alone, but he and Sadia had recently separated, a secret she has kept to herself all this time. She inherited his cafe and is determined to keep the business afloat to support herself and her son, Kareem. She's not a businesswoman at heart, preferring instead her shifts at a local bar, but she is determined to keep going with her incredibly busy over-scheduled life. And then Jackson returns to town.

All these years, Sadia had emailed him regularly. They were good friends before she married his brother and missed him a ton while he was away. He missed a lot, including Kareem's birth and Paul's death, without explanation for his absence. Sadia is angry at him now, but also curious about what he's been doing and where he has been. It turns out that he is now a trained chef who has an international pop-up restaurant, and he's willing to fill in at the cafe now that Sadia's chef is gone. But his presence in the town dredges up old animosities and grudges, and as he and Sadia become closer, he considers maybe sticking around, but there's a lot that needs to be straightened out between his family and the Chandler family if he is to stay.

The tension between Sadia and Jackson is obvious - she feels like her relationship with him should be a family one, not romantic, since he's her brother-in-law. And she's still working through her feelings of guilt over her husband's death and their failed marriage. Plus Jackson has cut himself off from everyone for a long time, keeps to himself so much it's hard to get to know him, and it seems like he could bolt at any moment. He, of course, is still dealing with the fallout of being accused of arson so many years ago and though he knows he's innocent, there are some pretty dark secrets about the event that he has kept to himself all these years.

There is a darkness in these books, because of the family secrets and tragedies that everyone is dealing with, which is one of the reasons I liked the first book so much and that has carried through. Rai has done a great job of creating this family situation and, within it, contemporary romances that are challenging for reasons other than the hero and heroine's inner neuroses. The third book, Hurts To Love You, has just been released and I'll definitely be reading it at some point. I need to get to the bottom of all the secrets in the Kane and Chandler families!

Saturday, March 31, 2018

March Wrap-Up and Plans for April



Reading


TBR Pile Challenge: Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
Nonfiction: In addition to my TBR book, I read Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life (which isn't what I had in mind with my nonfiction goal but it still counts!)

Listening


The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley, which I'm about halfway through.

Watching


I really like this cat who hangs out
with me at my bus stop.
I've finished the reboot of One Day At a Time. Funny story: I came to the end and was a little sad that I was out of episodes but then realized I HAD BEEN WATCHING SEASON TWO. For some reason Netflix had defaulted to the second season and I didn't realize it.

Now I'm watching season 2 of Jessica Jones, and looking forward to the return of Call the Midwife and Handmaid's Tale.

Knitting


Er, I'm still working on my sleeve. I'm on the cap shaping though, so the end is in sight. Then I just have to make another one. I should be done by....October?

Cooking


I bought two cookbooks: Dinner by Melissa Clark (which I mentioned last month) and Bread Illustrated from America's Test Kitchen. I've been experimenting a bit with bread from that cookbook and from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, because I've had good luck with those recipes in the past. Mostly my bread is coming out fine, but a little underdone. I think my oven temperature might be to blame - I'm going to try turning it down more next time because it runs hot, and maybe the inside will be more done by the time the outside is dark.

Blood Orange Chicken
I've cooked a lot of things, but the new recipes I tried that came out the best were the Blood Orange Chicken with Scotch Whiskey and Olives from Dinner, Black Bean Skillet Dinner with Quick-pickled Onions and Lime Crema from Dinner, Mediterranean Chopped Salad from America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook, Turnip Greens Frittata from Food52 (which I made with chard because the store didn't have turnip greens), and Baked Ziti from America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook. I think I'll be making all of these again!

Doing


I got together with my friend I've been working with and we made the above-mentioned frittata. It was much easier than the other recipes we've made, but when we get together we spend the first part of our time drinking wine and talking so by the time we eat it's all kind of a blur. But I'm pretty sure the frittata was good; in fact, I had some leftover the next day and quite liked it. The important thing is that we have fun hanging out without spending a lot of money. And the dog wasn't quite as awful this time, so that was a bonus.

Another friend and I went to see Roxane Gay at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We bought tickets way back in September and I rearranged my work schedule for it.  It was on a Wednesday night when I usually work until 7pm so I took the day off, but there was this storm threat and I worried that the event would be cancelled, but it turned out that the storm pretty much passed us by despite all of the dire warning. (We had some super crazy winter storms this month and really didn't need another!) Roxane Gay is amazing. She's brilliant and funny and thoughtful and the audience asked really great questions. I'm so glad I went!

Petri the day we went running.
Work has gotten a lot better this month. It's not that all our problems have gone away, but now that I've hired someone for the position that has been vacant since the end of December, I can actually do things besides put out fires. I've had a meeting with a committee that I'm on that deals with intellectual freedom, and another meeting about being on a local cable show, and I've actually been able to do some planning for upcoming programs and just have thoughtful conversations with coworkers that don't feel rushed.

I went running a few times, which is great improvement over the last couple of months. I took the dog with me twice and it didn't go too badly, so I'm hoping to take her more regularly in hopes of tiring her out.

Plans for April


My niece is coming down from Maine the first weekend of April and we'll be going to visit our aunt in CT and will go into NY for the day. Then we're coming back to Boston and seeing P!nk in concert. Later in the month I'll be seeing George Ezra for the third time.

How was your March?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby (2017)

Samantha Irby is known for her blog bitches gotta eat, but I hadn't heard of her until she published this book of essays. I heard that she's hilarious and I think what really sold it for me is that she works for a veterinary clinic and has a psychotic cat named Helen Keller. I'm always up for animal stories, especially ones about difficult pets. She writes about other topics too, like her friendships, parents, anxiety attacks, diet and exercise, and romantic relationships.

The very first essay is called "My Bachelorette Application" which sets the stage nicely by introducing herself with statements like "I'm sucking in my stomach, I've taken thirty-seven Imodium in case my irritable bowels have an adverse reaction to the bag of tacos I hid in my purse and ate in the bathroom while no one was looking, and I have been listening to Katy Perry really, really loudly in the limo on the way over here. I'm about to crush a beer can on my forehead. LET'S DO THIS BRO." I think you can get a decent sense of what she's like from that opening. Other essays include "Do You Guys Pay Your Fucking Bills or What?", "You Don't Have To Be Grateful For Sex," "A Case For Remaining Indoors," "Fuck It Bitch. Stay Fat," "Yo, I Need a Job," and "Feelings Are a Mistake."

She talks a lot about junk food, sex, and pooping. To be honest, I got about halfway through and almost put the book down. It was funny, but there was an awful lot of oversharing and it was a bit much to take. Like, a story about having to stop on the side of the highway for an emergency poop followed by one about sex that makes it sound so very unsexy, and I thought "Is this just going to be one unpleasantly embarrassing situation after another?" The answer is yes, but that turned out not to be such a bad thing. I thought I might just read an essay here, then a chapter of another book, then another essay. You know, so the experience wasn't so intense. But I guess I got over the hump because I was soon zooming through the rest of the book.

The pictures she paints of herself is an awkward introvert who has unhealthy habits and just wants to be left alone with them. In college she became close friends with a couple of guys because she didn't know any other girls who just wanted to sit on the couch for hours watching bad tv and eating pizza rolls. She doesn't want to put a lot of work into relationships and, as a matter of fact, said that ideally she and her partner would live in separate - but nearby - apartments. That is basically my fantasy. Another thing we have in common is that our parents had us late in life and our siblings are much older than we are. INTERESTING. (Oh, she uses a lot of caps and exclamation points. It's a pretty conversationally written book.)

It's also the sort of book where you think she must be exaggerating for comedic effect. I mean, can you possibly be that awkward? And how can someone so funny be as unpleasant as you claim to be? But ultimately it works, so I suppose it doesn't matter how factually accurate it is. If you like self-deprecating humor and need some laughs (and don't mind the TMI and swearing) this book might be for you.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Assata: An Autobiography

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur (1987)

In 1973 Assata Shakur was injured in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike and charged with the death of a state trooper. Alternating chapters tell the story, in her own words, of her youth and involvement with the Black Panther party, and her time in prison and multiple trials for bank robbery, kidnapping, and murder of the state trooper. A revolutionary dedicated to the liberation of Black people in America, her book focuses less on the details of her life that can be gleaned from newspapers and more on her political efforts and the unjust treatment she received in court.

Shakur is still on the FBI's list of Most Wanted Terrorists, but that image is not the picture she paints of herself in this book. A smart young woman dedicated to racial justice, she floundered a bit in her youth, dropping out of school and learning about different social justice movements. When she found the Black Panthers, she joined them in providing free breakfast to children, a program they were famous for. She describes some of the struggles working for the group, as her ideas didn't always mesh with that of BPP leadership. But they were agreed that the U.S. had a huge problem with institutionalized racism and that it needed to be changed.

It's often hard to reconcile the official view of those labeled as criminals and terrorists with the people themselves, and this case is no exception. Shakur so obviously cares about the people around her - not just her family and the daughter she gave birth to while in prison, but her larger community. It really showed when she wrote about teaching children and making breakfast for them (and she was so dedicated that it became easy for the night-owl to get up at 4:30am.) She's also very thoughtful, never just going along with what others thought, even if they were working towards the same goal. She always wanted to have conversations about the issues and look at it from different ways. She was very skeptical of the education system, and wrote a lot about the Civil War and our misunderstanding of it. She even apologizes to the people who wrote to her in prison and never received responses. The portrait she paints of herself in this book is that of a curious, conscientious, self-educated person dedicated to making the world a better place for everyone.

At times I wished she had talked a bit more about why she made some of the decisions she did. For instance, she quit school but then began going to night school. Why didn't she just stay in school if she wanted to finish? It wasn't really explained, nor was it when she dropped out of college and then went back. And she definitely skipped over parts of the story, such as her sentencing for the state trooper's murder and her subsequent escape from prison. She did include a chapter about Cuba, which is where she went and presumably still lives, and I thought this chapter, which she talked about freedom and how non-racist Cuba is, was a great addendum.

Although this story took place mostly in the 60s and 70s, much of it sounded unfortunately rather familiar. When Shakur wrote about how police could shoot as many Black people as they wanted without consequences, about how 1% of people in the country control 70% of the wealth, about prison conditions ad the way courts fail to deliver justice, it sounded so familiar it could have been written today. Will things never change? It's not hard to see why people would think revolution is needed because we're sure not moving towards a more equitable and just society by being patient. Which brings me to one of the big questions. What if she did do the things she is accused of? I'm not a proponent of violence, but I also don't think people should sit back and allow their rights to be trampled. Something Shakur said in her narrative really speaks to this idea:

"Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them."

She makes a great point. Many great points, actually. As much as this book isn't a fun enjoyable book to read, it's a valuable perspective from someone who has endured a lot and hasn't let anything stand in her way. I'd highly recommend it to anyone interested in U.S. history or social justice.

This book is on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge and is the fifth one I've completed this year.

Friday, March 16, 2018

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez (2017)

Julia's older sister Olga has been killed, hit by a truck while crossing the street. Now Julia is left alone with her parents and can't help feeling that their disappointment in her has grown even stronger. Olga lived at home even though she was in her 20s, with no plans to move out. She helped out around the house, cooked, and massaged her father's feet when he came home from the factory at night. This is not Julia, or the life she wants. She wants to move out and go to college and take care of herself and live her own life. Mostly she wants to get away from her mother's constant criticisms of everything she does and is and of all the ways she fails them and isn't as good as her sister was. But when Julia sneaks into Olga's room she finds some things that make her question whether Olga really was the perfect daughter everyone thought she was.

Julia feels so alone, like nobody around her cares about the things she cares about or likes what she likes. She's really interested in literature and art and going to college, but her family and friends aren't. And she doesn't hesitate to speak out about how she feels and what she thinks, which gets her in a lot of trouble. She has a pretty abrasive personality sometimes, but to be honest I liked that about her. Unfortunately a lot of this is just an expression of how unhappy she is, and that really comes to a head in a way that results in her getting some much-needed help.

As tends to be the case, her relationship with her parents was at least partly due to how little they understood each other. Julia had no idea what her parents went through getting from Mexico to the United States. And they didn't understand her, they only knew what they wanted for her. Interestingly, the daughter they thought was so perfect actually did not live up to their standards either, but her secrets were just very well hidden. I like the way Julia and her mother tried to get to know each other later in the book and be better to each other.

My only criticism is that I found the dialogue rather stilted in parts. It kind of made me wish I had listened to the audio because perhaps it would have sounded more real. I read this for my book group at work and we had a really great conversation about Julia and her family. There's a lot to think about and discuss in this book and I'm curious to see what Erika L. Sánchez writes next.