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.