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.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Juliet Takes a Breath

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera (2016), narrated by Lillian Claire

Juliet Palante is a Puerto Rican lesbian in the Bronx who has recently been awakened to feminism through a book called Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. She is now leaving home to travel to Portland, Oregon for an internship with the book's author, Harlow Brisbane. It's her first time away from her family and away from her girlfriend, and she waits until just before leaving to come out to her family. It's a rather dramatic scene and Juliet ends up leaving on a less-than-positive note. When she arrives in Portland, nothing is quite what she expected and the uncertainties in her life are increased exponentially.

There's a lot she's already trying to figure out, like how to handle her relationship with her family, how to talk to them about being a lesbian, and the meaning of many of the big new ideas she has found in Raging Flower. In Portland, she is now surrounded by all these hippie vegetarian white people and every situation feels like she's landed on a new planet. But I love how she approaches all the new ideas! Even when someone asks her questions that "sound like bait," rather than rising to it she carefully considers what he means by "preferred gender pronouns." She wants to know what everyone is talking about so she can figure out what she thinks of all of it. Juliet is going into everything with an open mind and a genuine curiosity and I love that about her.

As I mentioned, there are a lot of white people in Portland, and the situation is ripe for some discussions about intersectional feminist issues. Although Juliet (and many others) adore Harlow Brisbane and are inspired by her feminism, it becomes clear that she doesn't understand issues particular to women of color, and makes some pretty big mistakes. I like that Rivera doesn't paint Harlow as an insensitive racist lady but just as someone who grew up in a racist society and is a product of that and wants to do better.

In the meantime, Juliet's distance from her girlfriend has taken a toll on their relationship. While doing research for Harlow, she meets a very cute library worker who she begins spending lots of time with. We also see more of her family relationships when she briefly leaves to visit her aunt and cousin in Miami where she learns more about her family and gets an opportunity to talk about her sexuality with family members who understand her more and can help give her advice to repair her relationship with her mother.

This isn't an especially plot-driven novel. Rather, it's a coming-of-age story about a young woman trying to find her place in a feminist landscape carved out for white women. Juliet does find a community of queer women of color during the book, a space in which she feels like she really belongs and people get her. This was so important to her being able to grow as a character.

It's important to note that while this novel contains a lot of discussions about issues and identity, it's also a lot of fun. I swear! Juliet has a great time, meets hot women, impulsively gets her head shaved, and just generally enjoys a lot of what is going on around her. Even dealing with some of Harlow's quirks, she manages to make light of it. When she gets her period unexpectedly and Harlow starts talking about her sacred period ritual, Juliet asks "Are you going to make me gargle with my period blood?" Juliet is comfortable enough with Harlow to joke around with her about her weirdness, and I really liked that.

It's hard to do this book justice really, because there's so much going on and so many issues, and I haven't seen a lot of this kind of intersectionality in teen books before. I listened to the audio version and the narrator was great! So I definitely recommend listening if you're into that. Whatever the format, I think this is a great choice for anyone who likes teen/new adult fiction (Juliet is college age), feminism, queer and Latinx characters, or just good refreshingly different stories.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat (2017)

I impulsively grabbed this book from a shelving cart when I couldn't find our library's copy of Ratio by Michael Ruhlman, which a friend had recommended. Both books contain foundational cooking advice: Ruhlman's is all about proportion of ingredients, and Nosrat's is about specific elements and how they are used.

The first half of the book is divided into 4 sections: salt, fat, acid, and heat. In each section she describes the science of the element and how it changes the flavor of food and gives a lot of advice on how to use it. This is all interwoven with stories about how she learned to cook, and the mistakes she made along the way. The second half of the book contains recipes.

Nosrat uses a lot of science to explain why cooking works the way it does, which in many cases was very helpful. In other cases, I got a bit lost in the details, but I've never been great at science. She tells us that the Maillard reaction is the scientific name for what happens when you brown meat and subsequently refers to the Maillard reaction every single time she mentions browning meat. Every time. 

I feel like I got a good bit of advice, much of it in the form tidbits, like:
- onions cook slower if something acidic, such as tomatoes, are present
- food should be salted as early as possible so the salt has time to do its work
- cocoa powder, brown sugar, and honey are all considered acids
- freezer burn and dehydration are the result of water escaping from inside the food and forming ice on the surface, so only freeze foods that can stand a little dehydration
- there's a difference between sizzling and sputtering (which would have been great to be aware of before cooking that salmon on way-too-high heat last weekend)
- meat should always come to room temperature before cooking so it will cook evenly (this seems impractical for cooking on a work night, but she says any time sitting out is better than none, so get into the habit of taking it out of the fridge when you first get home)

I also feel like I have a better understanding of when to use different types of salt, how to pay attention to the balance between salt/acid in foods and adjust as necessary, and just a better awareness of what's going on in my foods so I can be a bit smarter when cooking. The idea is to be less reliant on recipes, and I already feel like now I can take certain instructions with a grain of salt (see what I did there?) or fill in the blanks on recipes that don't tell me everything I need to know to execute them successfully.

I'm beginning to think of chefs and recipe writers the way I think of poets: prone to exaggeration and embellishment, and a little flaky when it comes to solid numbers. For instance, when salting pasta Nosrat directs us to add salt by the handful until the pasta water tastes like the sea. But she goes on to say she actually means it should taste like our "memory of the sea" because the sea's salinity is so high our pasta water shouldn't actually be that salty. The implication here is that we all have the same memory of the sea's saltiness, which of course isn't true, so we're supposed to salt our pasta water to her memory of the sea's saltiness level. This is not helpful instruction.

She also has some strong opinions about American Thanksgiving dinner with which I disagree. She claims the reason we pile so much food on our plates is because none of it is very good and we keep eating in hopes we'll eventually be satisfied. Those are strong words, and also don't make much sense. I don't know about you, but I do not eat less of things I like and more of things I don't like. And I happen to love mashed potatoes with a deep, heartfelt passion. I also found it VERY strange that at one point when she was talking about how to cook s'mores (another thing about which she is grossly mistaken) she mentions putting your marshmallow on a coat hanger. A coat hanger! Who the hell uses a coat hanger to toast marshmallows? It just goes to show how little she actually knows about some things.

There are no photos in the book, though there are lovely fun illustrations. This was intentional, as Nosrat explains, because she doesn't want people to feel like what they've made isn't as good as the beautifully photographed dishes in the book. While that's a very understandable idea that I can kind of get behind, I've come to dislike cookbooks without photos because it means I have to spend time reading all the recipes to try and envision the end result. I didn't have the patience for that and just sort of skimmed the recipes with only mild interest. Which is fine - I got this book for the more general advice, not for the recipes.

Despite some criticisms of particular aspects of the book, I gained some understanding I didn't have before about how cooking works, and enjoyed her stories about her own journey to being a better cook. I did copy one of the recipes (Glazed 5-Spice Chicken because I have a ton of Chinese 5-spice powder) and others looked like they'd probably be good if that's what you're looking for, but the real value of this book is all the general knowledge in the first half.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Red Clocks

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (2018)

The American Constitution has a new amendment in this brand new novel from Leni Zumas. The Personhood Amendment says that from the moment of conception fertilized eggs have all the rights of any people, which changes everything for women. Not only is abortion illegal again, but so is IVF, as the procedure would move embryos without their consent. The novel moves between several women, identified by their roles rather than their names. Mattie, the Daughter, is a teenager desperate to end her pregnancy. Her teacher Ro, the Biographer, is just as desperate to become a mother, but she is single which greatly limits her options, especially with forthcoming legislation that won't let single people adopt. Susan, the Wife, is a mother of two whose marriage is falling apart. Gin, the Mender, is a healer who lives out in the woods and is often visited by women who can't get what they need from licensed medical professionals.

The women all have a relationship, or at least an awareness, of each other, but of course what unites them are the restrictions placed on them by this society and the roles it envisions for them. Mattie's situation reflects the reality of a country in which abortion is illegal: women try to cross the border or seek out someone who will perform the procedure illegally, often with disastrous consequences. The truly desperate will try to perform it on themselves. Ro is possibly destined to never be a mother. She has tried artificial insemination many times and is on an adoption waiting list, but unless someone chooses her very soon her opportunities to adopt will be over. Gin is somewhat of an outcast, which doesn't help when she is accused of a crime. Her herbal remedies are often sought out by women with a variety of complaints - including unwanted pregnancy - so as much as she is isolated by the community, she is also of great value to them. Out of all of them, Susan is the one who is living the role intended - she's a wife and mother - but she is very unhappy. She loves her kids, but she no longer loves her husband and dreams of once again having a career.

It's actually supposed to be about five women, the fifth being Eivor, a 19th-century polar explorer, about whom Ro is writing a book. But because her snippets are just a few sentences here and there, she isn't brought to life at all. Her story didn't add anything for me and could have just been left out, though I would have preferred it be expanded and made more relevant to the rest of the book because it could have been an interesting story.

Short chapters, some of which are just a few sentences, make for quick reading. The prose itself was a bit stilted at times, and I never quite got into the groove of the author's style. This passage is fairly typical: "House has light so ship won't crash. Light has beam so sea won't swallow. Ship has watchers, wary squinters, men in raincoats scared of dying." It's not all like this - I think maybe it was just Gin's parts, though I'll admit I can't recall for sure if that's the case.

I keep hearing this book described as a dystopia comparable to The Handmaid's Tale. The comparison is understandable but in fact, the setting is just present-day America with one additional amendment to the Constitution, and this similarity to reality makes it all the more unsettling.

I can't say that I loved it, but I do keep catching myself wanting to pick it back up to see how things are going with the characters before realizing that it is over. So maybe my biggest complaint is that there wasn't enough of it. I know a couple of my friends have read it too, so I'm really looking forward to talking with them about it.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

February Wrap-Up and Plans for March



I know that February is only a couple of days shorter than the other months, but it feels about a week shorter!

Reading


TBR Pile Challenge: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones and Longbourn by Jo Baker. It's tempting to get cocky about the fact that I've already read 4 from my list and it's only February, but I'll resist that because I've got several nonfiction titles on there and I don't think they'll be easy.

Nonfiction: I read two nonfiction books this month: Nomadland by Jessica Bruder and Fetch by Nicole Georges

I read a total of 6 books this month, which is a little less than usual. I attribute that partly to the amount of tv I watched, but I also recognize that I usually listen to more audiobooks than I have recently. I still love audiobooks, but I've been listening to more podcasts than I used to.

Listening

Went to a restaurant this month that
had popcorn-flavored butter.
I repeat: popcorn-flavored butter.

My only audiobook this month was Tempest by Beverly Jenkins, the final book in the Old West series.

I'm listening to the same podcasts as always: Smart Podcast Trashy Books, The Readers, Code Switch, and By the Book. I still love them all! I do most of my listening on the bus and walking to the bus. I usually drive to work one day a week (when I work until 9pm) but this month I drove more frequently because of early interviews and evening programs and meetings. I think things will be back to normal in March, and I'm already thinking about what my next audiobook will be. I'm taking suggestions!

Watching


I watched Harlots this month, which I highly recommend if you have Hulu. 

Season 3 of The Great British Baking Show was better than Season 2 and I've already begun Season 4. I really dislike the new opening montage because it shows you things that are going to happen! Like, someone's baked good falling apart catastrophically when they tried to remove it from the pan. Why would you show us this ahead of time? Gah.

At the recommendation of a couple of coworkers I've started watching the new One Day At a Time, which I'm really liking so far. There's still a Schneider, but the family is Cuban-American and the mom is an Army Veteran and it's very interesting and modern and funny. Oh, and the mom is played by Justina Machado, who looked SUPER familiar to me, and it turns out she was Vanessa Diaz on Six Feet Under. She is super adorable and I love her.

Knitting


All this tv means that I've actually been doing some knitting! The body and hood of my East Neuk Hoodie are done, including the trim around the hood, which involved picking up about a million stitches (slight exaggeration.) I've now got several inches of sleeve too, which is very exciting progress-wise but not knitting-wise. Sleeves are boring and kind of irritating, but necessary for overall warmth, so I'll be soldiering on.

Cooking

Paul Hollywood would not
approve of my bread,
but fuck him.

I have spent a great deal of 2018 so far baking things and then eating them, which has got to stop. I need to re-focus on cooking rather than baking, with the exception of savory baking like bread. 

Last month I mentioned making an index of recipes I use so I don't need to look through every cookbook I own when trying to come up with ideas of what to make every week. I've put together an Excel spreadsheet with tabs labeled "rotation," "have made," "to try," and "sweets" (which I think merits it's own page) and I already feel more organized and like I have a better handle on what my options are when it's time to put together a grocery list.

I mentioned cooking with a friend last month, and we got together again - at his place this time because he doesn't have an irritating dog - and we made Spiced Sake Soba from the Wagamama cookbook, and I brought marinated mango for dessert from the same cookbook. I forgot how delicious and simple fruit desserts can be, and I really need to investigate these more. The dish itself is soba noodles and vegetables topped with salmon and a sauce. I picked this recipe because it looked like it was fairly easy and maybe I'd make it again. It was quite tasty and I'll try to make it again soon I think.

Other things I made this month: cheese enchiladas from Joy of Cooking, a chicken and rice salad for cookbook club at work (which I am possible running now?) from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, French-style fish in a packet from Moosewood Cooks at Home, Tamarind Chicken, Coconut Rice, and Sweet and Sour Tofu, all from Dinner by Melissa Clark, which I really need to buy rather than repeatedly checking out from the library. My baking included the bread from Joy of Cooking again, buttermilk biscuits and cornbread from America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook, and Cardamom Cookies from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Oh, and these weird peanut butter cookies from Smitten Kitchen/Ovenly that came out flat and overdone on the outside but raw in the middle and I ate them anyway. I don't know why I feel compelled to list all the things I cooked this month, but it sure makes me feel like I accomplished something.

Doing

Sarah MacLean and Kristan Higgins!
Being awesome!

I saw some authors I really like at the Boston Public Library. There are only a few romance authors from whom I've read more than one book, and two of them were going to be appearing together. I was supposed to work, but swapped my Saturdays so I could go. It was Sarah MacLean and Kristan Higgins and they were SO GREAT. It was actually Sarah MacLean who reminded me I was interested in watching Harlots and spurred me to actually do so.

I also went to see a couple of shows, one of which was Waitress. It was cute and fun and I'm glad I went even though at the time it was pouring out and I was tired and wanted to stay home.


What else? Work was incredibly hectic as I was interviewing people for a full-time position in my department, but thank goodness we ended the month by hiring someone who I think will be fantastic.


In summary, most of my pictures this month were of bread. Sorry. I'll try to do better next month. Speaking of which....



Plans for March


I think my only exciting plan so far is that I'm going to see Roxane Gay at the Museum of Fine Arts in the middle of the month. It's on the night I work, so I rescheduled my book group and took the day off because I have priorities.

To be honest, I'm disappointed that I haven't been able to take time off during January of February, but I think other than Roxane Gay day, I won't have any vacation days until April. (Side note: can we start a new holiday and call it Roxane Gay Day?) 

How was your February?

Monday, February 26, 2018

Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker (2013)

We've heard one story about lives of people who lived at Longbourn, that which was told in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Here, Jo Baker imagines another story, that which took place in the servants' quarters and stars the housekeeper Mrs. Hill and the maid Sarah. While all the Bennet girls are wrapped up in their social lives and getting of husbands, so is Sarah wrapped up in her own dramas and romances in between waiting on the Bennet family. This story begins with the arrival of a new footman, James Smith, who brings a bit of excitement and mystery to the household.

When James arrives the reader knows there is something up with him based on the reactions of other members of the household. But it quickly subsides and they get into a routine. You do eventually find out the mystery and it's a good one, but in the meantime it's not constantly dangled in front of you. It's just in the background, waiting, as other situations are unfolding more prominently. In the foreground Sarah is intrigued by James, but then her attention is drawn to Ptolemy, footman for Mr. Bingley whose presence comes and goes with his master's wooing of Jane Bennet.

Sarah is young and hasn't seen much of the world, but longs to experience more. Her impulsiveness leads her to some potentially reckless decisions, and I worried about her a bit. Though at the same time I was sort of rooting for her to break away from her job and just run away and follow her passions and find some excitement. Don't think any of this means that she's not responsible though. She's a hard worker and cares a lot about the other members of her household, especially the younger maid, Polly.

I loved the details of day-to-day living, as I always do in good historical fiction. I had to look some things up: black butter, chilblains, shoe roses. It's kind of fun to do that, and read a little about, say, the fashions of the time. And I always enjoy just getting a sense of what it was like to live in a certain period. I always know that what I'm getting is the experience of a particular social class, and this gave me the opportunity to make a direct comparison to another class (that of the Bennet's) in the same time and place, which was super interesting.

All the events are cleverly tied to events in Pride and Prejudice, which was neat if you're familiar with that story. But you don't have to have read it (or watched any of the adaptations) to enjoy this story because I think it holds up on its own. I can't help but compare and I will say I was surprised by the completely different perspective on certain characters, especially Mr. Collins. In the original he's rather a joke, but here, from Sarah's perspective, he's just trying to fit in with the upper classes to which he doesn't really belong. I loved that Baker views him from such a different angle than Austen did.

As much as I've been wanting to read this for quite a while, I was also a bit skeptical about reading a take-off on a classic, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading Longbourn. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and, of course, to fans of Pride and Prejudice. This is my fourth book from my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, but I'm trying not to get too cocky about my progress since I haven't picked up any of my nonfiction books yet, and I think those will be the real challenge here.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Fetch

Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole Georges (2017)

I don't really read "dog books." I'm sure I'm being unfair, but I always assume they are sentimental homages to the author's dearly departed pet. Plus, other people's dogs are apparently wonderful, loyal friends and mine is predominantly a whirlwind of biting and growling. So maybe it's just jealousy. But I saw this one on a list somewhere, and thought it was a book that could possibly make me feel better about having a bad dog, since it's about someone else with a bad dog. But to be honest I went into it with some skepticism.

I needn't have worried. This memoir is, indeed, about a bad dog and, rather satisfyingly, the dog doesn't magically become a wonderful, affectionate creature - rather, Nicole learns how to be Beija's companion in a way that minimizes the bad behavior and allows them to remain together. The relationship is fraught with difficulty. Unstable housing situations meant that Nicole had to make some major life changes from the beginning to accommodate her pet, such as moving in with her boyfriend when she was only 17. The difficulties were so severe a couple of times that Nicole even tried to rehome Beija. But over time, her situation became more stable, and so did her relationship with her dog.

Fetch isn't just a book about a dog, though, it's about Nicole's coming-of-age, her family, her relationships and sexuality, and her life in the 90s punk scene. All of this brought more depth and context to the story; Beija was the constant who stayed with Nicole through all the major changes in her early adulthood.

I like the style of illustrations, which of course is important in a graphic novel. Often, I can still get into it when the style isn't my kind of thing, but this her illustrations were definitely the sort that I like. Her character drawings are fairly cute, but still convey a range of emotions. I liked looking at the art just as much as reading the story. In one two-page spread she's at the park observing a guy throwing up leaves in the air, his dog leaping in joy and playfulness. So Nicole tries the same thing with Beija, who just runs away in fear. I feel you, Nicole, I really do. My dog once barked in terror at a baked potato.

For some reason I haven't been picking up graphic novels as much recently; I'm even behind on Saga, which I love. Sometimes I think I just don't want to read that in format, though to be honest when I start reading one I always kind of forget that I'm reading a different format than I usually do, if that makes sense. At any rate, I'm glad I happened across this list of new-ish dog books and I'm glad I impulsively requested this through my library's network. I read it all in one day, which is really the best way to enjoy a graphic novel if you ask me. If you like stories about young people struggling through their 20s and trying to find their way in life, or appreciate stories about difficult pets, I do recommend this one.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Silver Sparrow

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (2011)

James Witherspoon is a bigamist. It's 1980s Atlanta and he balances his time between two families - the "legitimate" one and the secret one. In each family he has a teenaged daughter, each of whom in turn tells this story. The first half of the book is told by Dana, who has grown up knowing that her father has another family who he lives with most of the time, just stealing away regularly to visit Dana and her mother. Because his other daughter Chaurisse is around the same age, great pains were taken to make sure the girls didn't come into contact with each other and the sacrifice always had to be Dana's. In the second half of the book, the narration is from Chaurisse. Rather than getting the same story from another perspective, it picks up after the events of the first half, though we do get some back story as well.

I've been wanting to read this book since I first heard of it, soon after it was published. I'm not gonna lie, I was drawn to it because my father also had another family and I had never read anything about that kind of family situation before. This was a very different situation on the outside - these are black families in Atlanta as opposed to white families in rural Maine - but thematically it is the same and even took place in the 80s when I was also a teenager, though I think Dana and Chaurisse were a couple of years older than me.

The story is written in an easy conversational style that I really liked reading, and I think it would have teen appeal. I also really loved how 1980s it was - there was even a reference to George Burns in the Oh, God! movies, which I had completely forgotten about, so I had a nice moment of nostalgia there. Of course the meat of the novel is about the two related families and the man who ties them together. I like that Jones didn't paint James Witherspoon as a horrible person, just a flawed one, and didn't make either of his families more or less sympathetic. Everyone in this story is imperfect, but they feel real and their problems are no more or less dramatic than real life.

I found the ending a bit rushed, to be honest. There is a climactic event, shall we say, and it all wraps up pretty quickly after that. The second half of the book is told from Chaurisse's perspective, but the epilogue goes back to Dana and I wish it had been much longer. I want to know her motivations for doing things we learned she did from Chaurisse's story, and I wanted more about the emotional fallout from the events from both views. So my only criticism is that I wanted more, which means that I'll definitely be interested in reading more from this author.

Tayari Jones has a new book out, in fact, called American Marriage. It's very popular as it was picked as an Oprah book so I've already put myself on the wait list. I really like how Jones writes about unusual family situations so I think I'm really going to like the new book as well. As I mentioned, I first heard of Silver Sparrow several years ago, but I kept being reminded of it through recommendations such as this great list of 100 Books by Black Women Everyone Must Read. I put it on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge and it's now the 3rd book from my challenge list that I've read so far this year.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Tempest

Tempest (Old West #3) by Beverly Jenkins (2018), narrated by Kim Staunton

In this third and final book in the Old West series, Regan Carmichael leaves Arizona Territory for Wyoming to be a mail-order bride. During her first encounter with her husband-to-be she shoots him, so they're off to a pretty rocky start. (It was a misunderstanding, but still.) Dr. Colton Lee has been clear from the start that he's not looking for a love match, but only a mother for his daughter Anna. When he meets Regan he starts to have second thoughts, but remembers how difficult it was to find a woman willing to move to this wild land for him. So they carry on with their plan to get married and, of course, their marriage of convenience becomes something more.

Like in the last book, Breathless, there was very little angst between our hero and heroine, just a slow realization that they meant more to each other than they expected. When they first met, Colton was taken aback by Regan's outspokenness, her ability to use a gun, and the fact that she sometimes put on jeans and got dirty. His first wife, Adele, was traditional and ladylike, and it took him a while to get used to Regan. Oh, and Regan wasn't a virgin either, and she was honest about that. She and Colton had a great conversation in which it became clear that he thought sex is basically something that men desire but that women just provide. Regan schooled him on this topic pretty quickly.

But most of the tension in the story came from others in their town who made it difficult for Regan to settle in and feel at home. First and foremost was Colton's aunt Minnie who, up until now, had been a very big part of Anna's life. She was a strict, unkind woman who ruled by fear and discouraged Anna from having any sort of fun. Consequently, Anna was rather meek and afraid. Now that Regan was there, encouraging Anna to come out of her shell and be more confident (and get dirty!) Colton didn't want her around Minnie as much, especially when they learned that Minnie told Anna it was her fault that her mother died. Meanwhile, someone was threatening Regan's life, although it was unclear who or why. This family had some major hurdles to get over before they could really settle down.

As I know I've mentioned before, one of my favorite setups is a woman moving to a new place and setting up a life there. This had all of the elements that make that kind of story work for me. Regan is getting to know people in the town and trying to figure out who will be her friends. One of the first people she met and liked was Spring, Colton's sister, who was somewhat of an outcast in the town. But she was friendly and down-to-earth and the two became fast friends. Regan was also invited to a gathering of ladies in the town where the reception was a bit cooler. Some of the women were nice, and some were more stand-offish. It was a mixed-race group and it was clear that some of the white ladies weren't especially pleased with that. And of course there was a woman in town who had hoped that she would be the new Mrs. Lee.

I loved watching Regan settle into this town, develop a relationship with her new husband, and with his daughter. Colton was a country doctor who would treat anyone who needed it whether they could pay or not, so he was a bit financially strapped. Regan, however, came with her own financial independence which caused some heads to turn in the town when she began upgrading their kitchen so she could do some decent cooking and baking. The owner of the general store doubted her ability to pay for the items, and I loved watching her stand up for herself and buying the things she needed - and wanted - despite the judgement cast upon her from the townspeople. I also loved her relationship with Anna, who needed a mother like Regan and thrived in her company.

As with the other books in this series, I listened to the audiobook version which I pre-ordered so I could begin listening as soon as it was released. This one had the same narrator, Kim Staunton, who always has a pleasant easy voice that is enjoyable to listen to. I wish she hadn't tried to do the Chinese accents (and I think I had the same complaint about the last book) but those were just a few short parts and didn't really detract from the overall experience.

I've really enjoyed this series and I'm a little sad that it's over, but I know that Beverly Jenkins is a prolific author so there's lots more out there from her to read. One of her older books, Indigo, seems to be recommended everywhere, and I'm also interested in her Destiny series, one of which I think is about a lady pirate which, yes please. She also has a popular multi-book contemporary Christian series called Blessings, which isn't my jam but might be yours. I do encourage any romance reader who hasn't yet tried Beverly Jenkins to check her out.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Knitting

I have not done one of these posts in forever because I haven't been knitting very much and my progress is so slow there's not often anything to show. But today! Today I have an exciting update on the sweater I've been knitting since the spring of 2016.

I have finished the hood!




And that's not all. I also had to go around and pick up stitches and knit the trim.


It gets a little fiddly at the end, because you have to sew down the edges at the bottom, crossing a bit like so:


I seriously don't know why I bothered with the button holes as I don't have buttons. I'd only want ones that match the yarn color and I have no idea how I'd find buttons that match exactly, especially considering I'd have to order them online. But also maybe it should have buttons to make the neckline look right? I didn't think to try it on after I made the edging so I don't know.

This is supposed to be the end of the project, except I went out of order and now I have to make sleeves. Two of them. So expect photos of this finished project sometime in 2019. (I wish I was kidding.)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes (2015)

Since she was five years old, Minnow lived with her parents in a cult in the middle of the woods. They called it the Community and their leader was known only as the Prophet. No matter what he asked of them, they unquestionably obeyed. If anyone rebelled, they were punished severely. Minnow rebelled, and they cut off her hands. Now the Community has been destroyed, the Prophet has been killed, and Minnow is in juvenile detention for assaulting, and almost killing, the first person she encountered on the outside.

Although it's a punishment, being in juvie is liberating compared to her previous life. Minnow is still adjusting to living without her hands, but she also must adjust to this whole new world full of things like television and candy and scientific facts. In the Community, women and girls weren't even allowed to read, so now she's learning to read for the first time. Her roommate is a tough girl named Angel who is in for murder, and many other kids there are afraid of her, but she and Minnow become friends. Angel is always reading, hungry for knowledge, and obsessed with Carl Sagan. I kind of loved her.

But the past isn't entirely behind her. She doesn't seem to care much about what happened to her family, but in the melee that ended the Community, a boy she cared a lot about was killed. Jude wasn't from the Community - he lived out in the woods with his father. They were also cut off from the outside world, but basically just lived in their own private world. She would sneak away to spend time with them, at first as friends when they were kids, but as they got older their relationship became deeper. It was bad enough that she had contact with an outsider, but he and his father were black - the Community called them "Rymanites" and forbid any interaction. In addition to dealing with her loss of the only person she felt really close to, Minnow was regularly visited by Dr. Wilson, who wanted the full story about who killed the Prophet and was convinced that Minnow had the answers. Minnow didn't want to talk about Community or how it ended; she wanted to just live her life. But she wasn't going to be able to move forward without dealing with these parts of her past.

I don't know why I so enjoy reading about people living in oppressive societies, but I was pretty sold on this book as soon as I heard what it was about. But this was so much more optimistic since it begins with Minnow's freedom from her oppression. Despite everything she lost and all that she had to deal with, I found it to be mostly positive. She finally had hope for the future, and a new best friend who taught her so much about the world. (And ok, her friend was a murderer, but she had a very good reason for doing it.)

Oakes's writing was a pleasure to read. Her turns of phrase were inventive and perfect and often evoked a strong visual image. One passage I liked came after Dr. Wilson gave Minnow a copy of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which is a bit beyond her reading capabilities.

"There's plenty in the book I don't understand, and those parts stay behind, bolted to the pages, but there are things I can skim from the surface like fat from a milk pail, and I sort through all the information with something like fingers, fingers inside my mind."

Here's another part I liked:

"All around, the rigid trees groaned with human-like voice, their insides frozen in the position they'd held themselves before winter hit. I imagined how it might've gone, one night in November, they were sleeping and suddenly their entire bodies became stuck like steel. And, now, suddenly, I could pick my head up and face the winter sky and glimpse the tops of trees and move my body in any motion I chose."

I think my favorite description is one I can't share because it's at the end during a fairly significant reveal.

There's so much interesting stuff going on in this book - I haven't even mentioned the secrets in Jude's family - and I'm hoping it will lead to a good discussion at my book group at work next week. (I also hope I don't forget all the details before then!) I think it was someone from the group who suggested it, and I'm glad they did because I hadn't even heard of it. All in all, a great story well told.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Nomadland

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (2017)

When we think about retirement, most of us envision hours of leisure, maybe travel, and perhaps a scaled-down living situation like a condo or an "active adult community." Most of us don't expect that we'll be doing backbreaking work in an Amazon warehouse while living in a van. But that's what many retirement-age people in the US are doing, and Jessica Bruder reports on this little-known subculture in her new book.

The author meets lots of people but mostly follows one - Linda May is in her sixties and moved into a small camper she called the Squeeze Inn once she could no longer afford to stay in the mobile home where she had been living. Her dream was to buy a piece of land and build an Earthship, an off-the-grid house made of natural and recycled materials. In the meantime, she needed to earn some money while living very cheaply. So she traveled from place to place following seasonal work at Amazon and at campgrounds while living in her tiny mobile space.

Although Linda and the other "workampers" are mostly forced into the lifestyle by their financial situations, many of them embrace this new way of living. It's an escape from what they see as a consumerist rat race. Although Linda May ultimately does buy her land so she can build a permanent dwelling, it's because she knows the lifestyle will be harder as she ages. In the meantime, she has made very close friends of others like her. Although they travel, they see each other at jobs and at annual get-togethers. In the winter, many gather in Quartzsite Arizona, and attend an organized get-together called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Their subculture even has favorite books, such as Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, Walden by Thoreau, and Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

Most of us wouldn't happen to come across these van dwellers in our daily lives, or recognize them if we did. After spending time in this community and even living in a van herself, the author recognizes some lived-in vehicles back home in Brooklyn, now that she knows what to look for. Of course this makes me wonder if I've ever come across any "workampers" myself. I love learning about hidden cultures or communities I didn't know anything about, especially ones that exist right here in the U.S. It's just neat to know how very many different kinds of people there are who have such different experiences from each other.

Of course, some elements were pretty depressing. I mean, none of this would even exist if there wasn't such a huge and unjust income disparity in this country. And the fact that people who have worked hard for decades are being forced into such hardship is appalling. Amazon complete exploits these workers, which is confirmed again and again in this book and I can't believe they're getting away with it (except of course I can because that's totally America.) And it's noticeable that the members of this community are almost entirely white, which the author attributes to the dangers of traveling while black. Throughout my reading, I was so aware of the fact that many of these people had stable professional careers until one thing went wrong, and I kept wondering "Could I live in an RV if I had to?" because it seems like it could happen to any of us.

Bruder seemed to focus on the positive, but perhaps the people she encountered really did remain positive about their situations. I really admired the resilience of everyone I met in this book, and I can see a sort of freedom in their lives on the road with few possessions and a new appreciation for non-material things like friendship and community. My only criticism was that it didn't really address what happens when they simply become too old for the lifestyle, or became too ill, and I wondered about that a lot. Otherwise, I really enjoyed this glimpse into a world I didn't even know existed.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris (2017)

The author of 10% Happier is back with his second book, which is part-memoir and part advice. After his first book, he set out on a bus trip around the country with his friend and fellow meditation guru Jeff Warren, meeting people and spreading the word about meditation. The advice part of the book is organized by various reasons for not meditating. In each chapter that reason is examined and advice is given on how to get around it. They range from not having time to "people might thing I'm weird." It's filled with stories of people Harris and Warren met, their concerns about meditation, and the practical suggestions about how to make it work.

I liked the stories about everyone he met along his tour and how they were using meditation in their lives. From prisoners to police, it seems like many people are turning to meditation to quiet their minds, strengthen their focus, and help them be a little bit better at whatever they do.

The book also contains lots of wisdom that I'm going to try to remember. For instance: "Getting lost and starting over is not failing at meditation, it is succeeding." I also really like the concept of the "second arrow": when someone hurts us, that is the first arrow, but we often compound the wound by our self-pitying secondary stories of how we didn't deserve it, how this stuff always happens to us, how this injury will ruin everything, etc. We'd be less hurt if we didn't add insult to our own injury. And of course there are helpful tips about making meditation part of your life. I especially like the encouragement to do it regardless of how little time you can spare: if you only have a minute, then meditate for a minute.

Harris is a bit judgy about traditional meditation. It's nice to point out that you don't have to sit on a special cushion listening to pan flute - and I think it's super important to let people know this - but there's also nothing wrong with it. (I'll admit I like the pan flute.) I like how practical their advice is, and how Jeff uses regular language in his meditations, with no mystical flourishes. I think this guide is very accessible to the general population in a way that most meditation books aren't.

Another way in which it stands out is that Dan Harris is pretty damn funny. There's a bit where he talks about making meditation relatable by pointing out those who are definitely not New Age-y who meditate, like the Chicago Cubs and Target employees. He says, "It's not entirely dissimilar to the way I've long defended myself against people who accuse me of being soft for liking cats. I point to icons of machismo such as Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, and Dr. Evil." And in the epilogue when he is giving examples of the thoughts that run through his head while he's trying to meditate, he lists "From a pamphlet spotted in the Colby College health center in 1993: 'Chlamydia Is Not a Flower.'" Let me tell you, I was also at Colby College in 1993 and I REMEMBER THAT PAMPHLET. (Well played, pamphlet writer. Well played.)

Personally I wished the ratio was a little more story and less advice. As much as I want and appreciate meditation advice, I find it a little boring to read about. I could also have easily skipped reading the meditations, but I'm too curious. This isn't a criticism of the book so much as a commentary on what I personally like to read. Ok, I'll criticize one thing (in addition to his being judgy) and that's how he brings up his wife so much as a critic of his behavior and habits. I mean, I think he's actually very grateful to her support and appreciates her feedback but it came off a little stereotypically male in that my-wife-is-always-nagging-me kind of way (though to be clear he definitely never said that.) But that was very minor.

So how does it differ from Dan Harris's first book? That one was definitely heavier on the memoir aspect as it really delved into his personal journey with meditation. Though he explained how to meditate and did a little myth-busting, this book is where he really gets into the thick of it. As I mentioned, there are several guided meditations included, and the the bulk of the book was focused on addressing many common reasons why people resist meditating even if they know it will be beneficial. So he spends a good amount of time talking about how to fit it into a busy schedule and make it a habit, which is pretty valuable. All in all, I think the two books complement each other quite well.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

January Wrap-Up and Plans for February



Ah, January. That special time that begins so hopefully and festive with optimistic plans for the future and inevitably turns into a bleak, dark struggle for survival. Let's review my descent, shall we? (Just kidding, I'm fine!)

Reading


This is how you start a new year.
I'm only doing one reading challenge this year, but I'm still going to track my non-fiction. I won't track romance this year, because it's no longer important that I read one every month, though I do want to be sure and keep up with the authors I really like. But I won't separate it from other reading that I do.

TBR Pile Challenge: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Non-fiction: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which I actually began in December, but finished at the beginning of January; and Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris

I finished a total of 7 books this month which is surprisingly on par considering how long it took me to read A Little Life, and the fact that I didn't listen to any audiobooks after finishing The Jewel at the beginning of the month.

Listening


My only audiobook was The Jewel by Amy Ewing, which I really liked. Otherwise, I'm still loving the By the Book podcast (which recently did The Miracle Morning!), as well as my other favorites, The Readers, Smart Podcast Trashy Books, and Code Switch.

Music-wise, I'm listening a lot to Pink's newest album, Beautiful Trauma. It's pretty great, and I'll be seeing her perform it in April!

Watching


Season 2 of The Great British Baking Show, which wasn't nearly as good as the season 1. Also still watching The Good Place, which makes me very happy. I watched an episode on my lunch break at work one day, and now I can't figure out why I haven't spent ALL my lunch breaks watching tv. It can be hard to switch gears and focus enough to read, but I can certainly watch, and still have my hands free to eat.

Knitting


I finished the hood of my sweater early in the month, then realized I have to pick up stitches for an edging for the hood and neckline, so I didn't touch for another couple of weeks. When I picked it up to do the edging I made a minor screw up that resulted in me throwing it back in the knitting basket and ignoring it again. It's feeling less likely that I will finish it in time to wear this winter but I can't bring myself to care enough to do anything about it. I do kind of want to start a pair of socks though.

One of the reasons my knitting has suffered is that it's difficult/impossible to knit around the dog. She's very grabby. I can't decide if I should just do it more so she gets used to it, or just spend more time locked away in my meditation/craft room upstairs.

Speaking of that room, I received a fantastic gift from a friend who knows me very well, and which is now hanging on the wall in that room. It's a picture of Prince by David Mack, who illustrates the Jessica Jones comic.

Cooking


I didn't really talk about goals or plans for 2018, but I do have them, and one of them is to be a better cook. I roasted a whole chicken early this month for the first time ever (don't judge - I was a vegetarian for probably 15 years) and recently had a friend over to cook together and we made a lasagna that involves bechamel sauce and bolognese. It came out well, but took FOREVER. Also, bolognese sauce isn't what I thought it was. I thought it was basically marinara with meat in it? But it's really all meat, and probably a bit too meaty for me.

My beautiful loaf of bread!
I've also done some baking. I made Swedish Visiting Cake Bars a couple of times, and I made bread. I tried a bread recipe from The Joy of Cooking that's apparently their standard recipe that's been in every edition since 1931 and failed two times, so I went back to a recipe (also in Joy) that I've made before and it came out quite nicely.

In preparation for attending the library's Cookbook Club Potluck in February I've tried to make the Salt and Pepper Biscuits from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan twice now and they have come out as hard little disks. The first time I realized my baking powder had expired, but the second time I used fresh new baking powder and they came out the same, so I don't know what's up with that. I followed the recipe closely, so there's no reason it should turn out so badly. I'm just going to shrug it off and find something else to make.

I also bought a new cookbook, The America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook, which has recipe tutorials and lots of basic information about techniques and whatnot. It does seem like they make everything in ways more complicated than necessary, but at least they explain why. I haven't made anything from it yet, but plan to soon!

What I really need to do though, is less about learning to cook well and more about organizing myself. I can follow a recipe well enough, but I'm terrible at keeping track of what I've made and going back and making those things again so I learn to make them more efficiently. Consequently, I can never figure out what to cook and then whatever I cook takes at least 2 hours. So I need to make an index that I can look at to remind me of things I've made and which cookbook (or other source) they're from.

Doing


My other major goal this year is to be better at staying in touch with people and making plans together. I have two friends who I tend to always make plans with, so I'm trying to get better at maintaining those other friendships and also a little better at keeping in touch with family. This month I've gotten together with two former co-workers, as well as my two "regular" friends I always see, which has made it a bit more social than my Januarys usually are. I've also made plans with my niece to go visit my aunt in CT in April and go into New York because my niece has never been there and has been wanting to go. When we come back, she'll be staying here in Boston and going to the Pink concert with me. It's going to be amazing!

The month is ending on a pretty positive note, but the earlier part of the month was actually very stressful and unpleasant. We were interviewing for a position at work, but ended up deciding to repost. I've come to really dislike the interview process because it is not super helpful in actually getting to know the candidates - I really want to just invite them all to a social meet-and-great with snacks and conversation. But now I have to go through it all again. In the meantime, I'm doing a lot of the workload for that position since we don't have anybody. It's been kind of crappy, and I think it was made worse because I happened to be reading A Little Life during that period, oh, and also we were having ridiculously Arctic temperatures here in New England.

I made a display of self-help books in the library, which is
something I think we can all use in the bleak midwinter.


What else? I haven't been running because it's too cold/snowy/icy out, and somehow can't bring myself to go to the gym. I was doing some yoga at home, but stopped because...I don't even know why? But I'm still meditating and I'm doing a lot of cooking, so those are good things to do for myself and I'm trying not to feel bad that I'm not doing all the things.

Plans for February


Two romance authors who I love - Kristan Higgins and Sarah MacLean - will be at the Boston Public Library on Saturday February 3 in the afternoon and I AM GOING.  I actually had to rearrange my work schedule to make this happen. That evening I'm going to a show at the A.R.T. which is something about Nigerian women? I'm not sure, but I'm looking forward to it.

Later in the month, I'll be seeing the musical Waitress, which I'm pretty excited about.

I'll be interviewing (again) for the position in my department, and hopefully hiring someone this time.

Oh, and I will be putting together a spreadsheet of some sort of all the recipes I want to have in my rotation so I can be more organized with my cooking.


How was your January?