Sunday, April 21, 2019

My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

The story begins when Korede receives a phone call from her sister, who has just murdered her boyfriend. She needs Korede's help to clean things up. This is the third time. Korede knows that it is wrong but Ayoola is her sister and it's her job to protect her. Plus, at this point she's already an accessory because the first time it happened she believed Ayoola that it was self-defense, and now she's just in too deep. So she helps Ayoola dispose of the body and clean up the guy's apartment once again.

However, Ayoola is now setting her sights on Tade, a doctor with whom Korede works. Korede is in love with Tade, but her beauty is no match for Ayoola's and now Korede is afraid Tade will end up dead as well. The only person Korede can talk to is a coma patient whose family doesn't visit often. He's been there for months and his family no longer visits often, but Korede sits and talks to him because he can't talk back and will likely never wake up.

This is a super short book and I read it in two evenings. It's only a little over 200 pages and they are small pages. It goes quickly but there is a lot here. It's really an understatement to say that Korede's and Ayoola's relationship is complicated and a little unhealthy. Ayoola is the beautiful one who can get away with anything (literally!) because everyone around her is blinded by her beauty. Korede is the dependable one, often overlooked, but she is a nurse and is always the one who takes care of everyone. They also have the shared experience of growing up with their father, which is a story in itself that we get piece by piece throughout the story. He was not a nice man and he is dead now, but it is his knife that Ayoola uses on her victims.

The status of women in Nigeria is undoubtedly more complicated than I know, but it's definitely not ideal. Korede and Ayoola's father would beat them, and he once brought a mistress home and paraded her in front of his wife. I don't think these things are necessarily super unusual, and they definitely provide an interesting context for a story about a woman murdering men.

There's a lot to talk about and think about here, so if you're looking for an especially unusual book group pick, I think this would be a stellar choice. I haven't read anything quite like this surprising debut novel, and I will be eagerly awaiting Braithwaite's next book.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

One in a Million

One in a Million by Lindsey Kelk (2018)

Annie co-owns a social media company with her friend Miranda, and they are having a tough time making ends meet. When a guy from another office in their building challenges them to a bet, Annie can't pass it up. She agrees that she can take whoever next walks through the door and get them 20k Instagram followers in thirty days. If she does, she gets a month of free rent on her office, which they desperately need. Enter Dr. Samuel Page. A scruffy historian who has just been kicked out of his girlfriend's house and is now sleeping in his office, Sam is not at all interested in social media. But he is interested in selling the dry historical tome he has just published so he agrees to participate in the bet.

It's no mystery that Annie and Sam will have a romance - because this is a romance novel - but how they will get there is all the fun. She loves social media; he hates it. He just wants to be left alone; she wants to make him famous. Oh, and how she really got him to agree to the social media campaign? Promise to put him through a boyfriend bootcamp so he can win his ex-girlfriend back. What could possibly go wrong?

Because of the focus on social media culture, this is sure to be dated in no time, but right now it's an awful lot of fun. It's a little dramatic, maybe not entirely believable, but it's funny and entertaining and exactly the perfect book to have around while I was reading Mayflower for those times I needed to read something a little lighter.

Annie was a hard worker and good at her job I loved the focus on a small business run by two women who were kicking ass. Ok, so the social media campaign she started for Sam, calling him the Hip Historian, didn't make a ton of sense to me. Late in the book when she finally had a brilliant idea about what to do to finally get him a ton of followers, I couldn't figure out why that wasn't the first idea she had because to me it seemed obvious. But that was my only criticism. A lot of romances also tell the story from the hero's point of view and here it was all Annie, but I think that worked.

It was also very funny. For instance, Annie snagged a copy of Sam's book to use to research him and his interests and when Miranda starts reading it out loud and it immediately becomes obvious that it's dry and impenetrable, Annie suggests, "Maybe it's a horcrux." It was just filled with pop culture references and clever quips.

As you're thinking about nice weather and beach reading, you might want to consider bringing this book along with you. If you're looking for something light and fun and entertaining, this could easily fit the bill.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Mayflower

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick (2006)

I've mentioned before how spotty my U.S. history is and how I don't remember anything I "learned" from the dry textbooks I was given in school growing up. It was just a recitation of facts and I don't think any of them actually stuck with me - I just remember trying to memorize key names, dates, and phrases to pass tests. Well, I was finally inspired to get a fuller picture of the beginnings of our nation with this book by Nathanial Philbrick. He's popular so I thought it might be readable enough for me. It begins with the first pilgrims leaving England, going to the Netherlands (we weren't taught about that part in school,) and then traveling aboard the Mayflower to the new world. They found a spot where nobody was living, made friends with the native people nearby and tried to integrate in a peaceful way, and then 50 years later the Puritans really screwed things up and then came King Phillip's War, which changed the whole dynamic until it became English vs. Indians, and you know who lost that war.

I really liked the nuance here, which is lost from pretty much all discussions about this time period I've ever been a part of. As a kid it was all happy pilgrims coming to a new land and everything was fine! Then as an adult everyone was like "Everything you learned was wrong! All the Europeans just came and murdered everyone in cold blood!" Of course the truth is somewhere in between. Those first to arrive acknowledged that there were others here first and that they had rights. They reached out to the indigenous people and befriended them and learned from them. They had to depend on them to survive and they appreciated that, but their descendants and the Puritans who came later hadn't had those same experiences and they just wanted the Indians out of there so they could have all the land. I think this book was the first time I knew the difference between Pilgrims and Puritans, and it was definitely the first time I got such a complete story about the first white settlers in New England.

However it was still a nonfiction book about history, so I got bogged down in certain parts. When the war really started up and there was a lot of descriptions about military maneuvers and transactions and other things that are more difficult to picture I struggled a bit. Plus there were a lot of names and tribes, and it was hard to keep straight who was who. Another thing I never learned as a kid was that the different tribes had different alliances, so initially the war wasn't just between the English and the Indians, but some of the English made it into a racial thing rather than about the original issues, which was pretty interesting. But I know my difficulty understanding some of that is just the way I read and understand what I'm reading. In fiction they say you need to show rather than tell, and in nonfiction there is just naturally more telling. Sometimes they don't have enough detail to flesh it out the way fiction does, and sometimes an event just needs to be summed up so as not to take up an extra 100 pages. It just makes it hard for me to visualize what's happening or integrate it into the story I'm reading. This isn't a criticism of the book at all, just an acknowledgement of my own shortcomings in being able to take in nonfiction, particularly about history.

All in all, I'm very glad I read this book. I learned a lot from it and I'm sure I'll forget most of it very soon as I am wont to do, but that's probably just more reason to make a habit of reading nonfiction. This is sort of timely as next year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, but of course any time is a good time to learn more about history.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Upside of Unrequited

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli (2017), narrated by Arielle DeLisle

Molly Peskin-Suso has had twenty-six crushes but so far has never even been kissed once. She's self-conscious about her weight and afraid of rejection. Now, her twin sister Cassie has a girlfriend and Molly feels even more alone. This new girlfriend, Mina, has a good friend Molly starts thinking of as "hipster Will" and he is super cute and kind of flirtatious. Cassie and Mina are clearly trying to get Molly and Will together, but Molly is unsure, especially after she starts working with Reid, a Tolkien fan and Ren Faire enthusiast who seems not at all her type, and yet.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has declared same-sex marriage legal, which means that Molly and Cassie's parents can finally get married. Molly immediately gets to work creating centerpieces and other decorations, as this girl was basically born for Pinterest. As the wedding date draws near, tensions run high in the family and Molly fears Cassie's new relationship will mean the two sisters won't ever be as close as they once were.

If the second part of Molly and Cassie's last name sounds familiar, that's because you met their cousin, Abby Suso, in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Abby appears here too, as Molly often turns to her for advice. (Molly even meets Simon himself at one point via Skype.) One thing I really liked about this book was that the family relationships were at least as important as the romantic ones. I loved that Molly's cousin is her best friend, that her relationship with his sister is so incredibly important to her, and that her moms are involved in their daughters' lives in such a caring way. They know everything that's going on with Molly and Cassie and talk to them about it. This means their relationships, but also sneaking around and drinking alcohol. They're very clear about their expectations, but never portrayed as villains. They just care a lot about Molly and Cassie and want them to make good choices.

The romances were great too! As Cassie and Mina fell immediately into an intense relationship, we see it from Molly's point of view. She feels left out when Cassie doesn't tell her everything about her budding romance with Mina, but she also feels left out because it feels like everyone around her has had a relationship except for her. Now she has two boys who seems to be interested in her, Hipster Will and Middle Earth Reid. She coaches herself to get out there and take risks, and her awkward fumbling in dealing with these boys was pretty realistic. I know that poor communication can be an annoying trope, but here it rang true and watch some of her conversations go the way they did was a bit painful but absolutely genuine.

The narration by Arielle DeLisle was decent, though I though she made some of the voices a bit annoying, like Abby's high-pitched squeak. Although I maybe didn't like this one as much as the other two Albertalli books I've read, it was still pretty solid and I'll probably continue to read (or listen to) anything this author writes.

Friday, April 5, 2019

I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening)

I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening) by Sarah Stewart Holland & Beth Silvers (2019)


As everyone who has talked to me in the last couple of months knows, I've been listening to a podcast called Pantsuit Politics, hosted by two women from different sides of the aisle. Sarah is a Democrat and Beth is a Republican, and their tagline is "No shouting. No insults. Plenty of nuance." In their new book, they try to teach the rest of us how to put partisanship aside and have difficult political conversations with people with whom we disagree.

They are both women of faith and as such they talk a lot about grace. This is not a religious book, so please don't be deterred if you're the sort of person who is deterred by that. There's an occasional Bible quote, but these women are what I tend to think of as "the good kind" of Christian, which is sort of horrible of me. But what I mean is that they espouse the values I was always taught in church as a child (charity, forgiveness, etc.) rather than the hatred and judgment we all too often see from so-called Christians these days.

Although Beth and Sarah are willing to, and even embrace, differing viewpoints, they have some baselines. For instance, they don't consider racism or homophobia to be acceptable because they feel strongly that all humans are deserving of respect and love so they will not entertain those views or give them airtime. They do not embrace the "all sides" rhetoric or condone news shows that insist on giving equal airtime to all viewpoints when clearly some viewpoints are more valid than others. These are very smart women who value education, ethics, and honesty and strive to rise above partisanship and I think they do it very well.

The first few chapters of the book are collectively called "Start with you" and they introduce us to some foundational principles to make sure we're bringing our best selves to our political conversations. They acknowledge that many of us are discouraged from talking politics, especially with people we disagree with, but they think this is dangerous because it reinforces isolation and echo chambers. They encourage us to "take off your jersey," a reference to how we talk about politics like sports, in which the only important thing is that our team wins. In "Find Your Why" they ask us to look at our values, which is a more productive focus than the nitty-gritty of particular pieces of legislation and allow us to have relatable conversations with other people who want the same basic things even if we disagree about how to get there. "Put Politics in Its Place" is a reminder to keep things in perspective and think about other ways outside of politics that we can have a positive impact.

Part two is "Turn Your Eyes Outward," which is where they give more specific advice about interacting with other humans in political conversations once we've worked on ourselves. They talk about grace, which is basically giving people the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming that everyone is nefarious. They encourage us to be curious, about each other and about issues: ask questions rather than assuming that a person who believes one thing also holds a whole set of beliefs that you think go together, and learn as much as you can about issues from nonpartisan sources. They talk about embracing paradoxes and the value of being uncomfortable, how to exit the echo chamber, and of course, offer advice on keeping it nuanced. They acknowledge the complexity of issues and relationships and warn against oversimplification and taking sides.

I could honestly talk about this book for ages. It makes wish my book group was still together so we could talk about this because I think there's a lot here that we would all do better to think about and consider. I know my friends and I are just as guilty of a lot of these things as anyone, and we could all do better to make fewer assumptions about each other and stop acting like we're all going to die if such-and-such person gets elected or some horrid piece of legislation enacted. Yes, there are bad things and there always have been, but there are more productive ways to deal with them than to become more and more partisan and divisive. That is what's been happening and it's not benefiting anyone right now.

I found so many passages I wanted to save and quote, but if I try to do that here I'll basically be re-writing the book. But I put a bunch of them into a Google doc that you can access here if you'd like to read some samples. I do encourage you to read this whole book though. I promise you it's short and easy to read. I struggle with nonfiction - especially nonfiction that's not telling a story - and I had no problem with this one. It was enjoyable and gave me a lot to think about. I'm adding it to my very short list of books that I think everyone should read.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

A couple of short books

Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak (2018)

Girl Town is a collection of five stories in graphic format. The cover illustration is of Betsy from the first story, "Girl Town." It's about three young woman who live next door to three other woman who they find kind of terrifying but also compelling. In "Radishes," a girl convinces her friend to skip school and go to a very strange market where they sample some produce that has surprising effects. "Diana's Electric Tongue" is about a woman who buys herself a robot boyfriend. "The Big Burning House" is about a cult movie that has been lost and nobody can quite remember all the details, and two women who have a podcast about it have suddenly obtained a copy of it that will answer all their questions. In "Please Sleep Over" a young woman invites her friend to stay at a house that apparently belongs to her parents and honestly I am not quite sure what is going on. The two women arrive wearing some sort of medals around their necks that aren't ever explained, a stranger comes into the house talking like she knows them, and the ending doesn't make sense to me.

Anyhow, my favorite was "Diana's Electric Tongue" although I really liked "Radishes" quite a lot too. I could see myself going back to read those again.


Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath (2019)

Speaking of stories where I don't really know what was going on, this never-before-published short story by Sylvia Plath was pretty weird. She submitted it to a magazine when she was in college and it was rejected, and it was just published for the first time in a standalone volume. This seems to be a thing now - publishing a short story all by itself - and I'm not sure what I think of it. At any rate, I wasn't about to pass up something by Sylvia Plath.

In this story, Mary reluctantly leaves her parents on a train where she is going to a place called The Ninth Kingdom. What is the Ninth Kingdom and why is she going there? Who the hell knows. Well, one lady knows, I think, and she's sitting next to Mary on the train. She's friendly and knows more than she's really letting on, but she won't actually tell Mary (or us) anything. I don't know if Mary's parents sent her away or if she's ever expected to come back or what explanation she has for her journey. Her parents make a reference to "time to leave home" so it doesn't sound ominous. But the woman on the train makes the trip often and seems to have some sort of business interest in it. When Mary talks about how luxurious the trip is, the woman says you pay for it in the end. "The train company has more than a pure friendly interest in the passengers." And then they came to a stop and a woman whose ticket was for that stop had to be forced off, which implies that the passengers don't like where they're going.

I think the whole thing might be an allegory about becoming an adult and choosing your path in life. The woman on the train says the passengers bought their tickets and chose their destinations and they can't now decide to get off elsewhere. Mary is destined for the final stop, and the older woman describes the Ninth Kingdom as "the kingdom of negation, of the frozen will." But there is one way that Mary can escape her fate, which makes it all a little bit less ominous. I read the story twice, and although it still doesn't 100% make sense to me, I feel pretty confident about my interpretation.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

March Wrap-Up and Plans For April


Oh spring, it feels like you might finally be arriving!

Reading and Listening


This month I finished two books for my TBR Pile Challenge, Prairie Fires and Pachinko.

Handsome gent I got to meet
I also finished three sequels, which I didn't realize until browsing through my Goodreads just now. They were Leah on the Offbeat, The Everlasting Rose, and Puddin'. All teen books, and all excellent! I read The Everlasting Rose in print, but listened to the audio of the other two. I'm trying not to blow through my year's worth of Audible credits too quickly, so I took a look at what was available through my library via Libby, and now I'm listening to The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli.

I'm still really into the Pantsuit Politics podcast, though I'm hardly listening to any others at this point. I don't know if it's because I'm listening to so many audiobooks or if I'm listening to all these audiobooks because I'm not listening to so many podcasts. I've also started reading the book by the hosts of Pantsuit Politics, which is called I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening) and it's all about having difficult political conversations with people who identify with a different party or ideology. It's really excellent, and that's saying a lot from someone who usually can't read nonfiction that isn't telling a story. By the way, most libraries have classified this book in the religion section, but it's not a book about religion so don't be deterred by that if you even happen to notice. Both of these women are of the Christian faith and so it comes up on occasion but not in an annoying way.

Watching


I finished watching One Day At a Time which was so good, but unfortunately isn't going to be renewed for another season. It's a shame because it's so smart and funny and I love all the characters. It tackles a lot of social issues, but not in a preachy or over-educational way.

I also watched Shrill, which was great! It was based on Lindy West's book of the same title, which was excellent and which I highly recommend. I hope this show will continue.

Cooking

Coffee and cardamom cake

I did so much baking this month! We're cooking from Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi for April's Cookbook Club and I've tried out three recipes so far. First was the Coffee and Cardamom Pound Cake, which I'll be making again for the meeting. It was amazing and I can't stop thinking about how delicious it was. I was surprised because I'm not usually into coffee-flavored things that aren't actually coffee. I also made Tessa's Spice Cake and White Chocolate Cheesecake with Cranberry Compote, which were also quite good. Those ones both just seemed a bit more work than was worth it, though I'd make the cheesecake again with a different base. The crust was a combination of graham cracker and almonds (which, inexplicably, you buy raw and then roast. WHY.) but I'd really prefer just a regular graham cracker crust. The compote was also a pain, but I bet there's an easy alternative to that.

And I promised to bring dessert to a friend's house one evening and took that opportunity to bake two kinds of cookies from Smitten Kitchen Every Day, some strawberry meringues and coconut meltaways. They were pretty delicious. I also made some food that wasn't dessert, I guess. Oat bread and a couple of different pasta dishes. Honestly, the desserts were really the exciting parts of this month. For a couple of weeks there I didn't cook very much, but we had leftover stuff in the freezer that needed to be used up so that worked out ok.

One of my goals this year was to come up with a good list of things to make for dinner on weeknights so I really want to get going on that. It's got to encompass things for all seasons though, so it's more of a challenge. It seems like most of the quick things I know of are either tacos or pasta and I don't want to be eating those same things all the time or I'll get tired of them. Apparently Jamie Oliver has a new cookbook of 5-ingredient recipes and many of those are pretty quick so I'll be checking that out sometime soon.

Doing


We got our tax stuff submitted on time this year, which honestly feels like a huge win right now. Seriously, this winter has been so bleak - despite not having very much snow - that getting anything at all accomplished felt insurmountable.

This month I also started running again by which I mean that I went running twice, and late in the month, but that's something.

Unfortunately I am still in physical therapy and will be into April. But only about two weeks of April because after that my insurance cuts me off. Also unfortunate is that my physical therapist has introduced planks to my sessions. (Are you trying to kill me, Francesca?)

I finished the shawl I was knitting! And impulsively ordered yarn for a very ambitious sweater which I've already swatched for and started. It's an Alice Starmore sweater and I ordered the exact yarn (from her line) that was used in the photo in the book. In the same colorway. What can I say? I like how that sweater looks.

Oh and I went to a catwarming, which is exactly what it sounds like and you should be jealous. Why aren't catwarmings a thing? I hope this is the beginning of a trend. Also, I miss having a cat.

Plans for April


Someone at work just left to start a new job in April so I'm hiring again, but this is an intern position for a library school student so that's just the nature of it. Still, it means being short-staffed for a bit and then training a new person, which is always a decent amount of work.

We're doing another knit-along, though it's for this headband thingy which will be a much quicker project than the last one, and easily made with yarn from my stash.

I'm hoping to start running more regularly again and maybe also going to Zumba class more. I want to plan a camping trip for the end of May/beginning of June too. It's nice to finally be able to start planning warm-weather activities!

How was your March?