Monday, October 8, 2018

What I Read: July Through September

I have not been keeping up with my What I Read posts, in part because I had a real emotional (and reading) rut in early August. Honestly, I've been getting worn down by the state of the world lately, and even running away into a good book seemed beyond my ability to focus.

Despite the national horrors of the last couple of weeks, I am finally feeling more like myself. My favorite cousin got married this past weekend, and celebrating with the whole family in an unbelievably beautiful part of Colorado has helped restore my equilibrium, even as I am simultaneously worried about everything.

I can do what I can do to put positivity into the world. I can stop to celebrate joy and embrace love. I can read and rejoice in the pleasures of the written word. So I'm picking up where I left off:

35. The Secret, Book & Scone Society by Ellery Adams

I kind of hated this one. It's been long enough since I read it that I don't remember all of the reasons why I hated it, but one of them was the way the author dealt with characters of color. For instance, the fact that June is a Black woman is highlighted over and over again in a way that shows the author sees whiteness as default. It feels like there is no excuse for this in 2018 (or 2017, when the book was originally published). There is a reason why there are sensitivity readers and it would behoove authors and publishers to make use of them.  Pop culture must lead the charge in ending whiteness as the default.

Finished: July 6, 2018

36. Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale

This is another that has become hazy in the time since I read it. But there was a hilarious portion of the story involving a bull named Hubert being hidden in a kitchen in a small English country estate. I loved that section, although I couldn't help but worry about if Hubert had to relieve himself.

Overall, this was a sweet and charming little historical romance novel, and I really was cheering for What's-Her-Name and Monsieur Whoosis to get together at the end, which of course they did.
Finished: July 11, 2018

37. The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale

I so enjoyed Lessons in French that I immediately started listening to/reading another Kinsale novel. In this one, the heroine seeks out a famous highwayman to help her get revenge against a cult that killed her family. There were aspects of this book that I didn't love--specifically, there were some weird issues with consent between the hero and heroine, although it was never overtly rapey.

But the way Kinsale wrote about how the Prince of Midnight worked with animals and how that helped the heroine (whose name I can't remember) to heal from her trauma was incredible. I really loved the scene when he teaches her how to "tame" a horse that was considered unrideable through gentle communication with the animal. That scene was so good that I went back to it to re-read it several times.

I also really appreciated the details about the cult that caused her family's death. The entire cult is laughably ridiculous. For instance, all the members have to change their names to things like "Dove of Peace" and other silly-sounding religious names. The men have to spoon-feed the women at meals. There are a number of similarly weird/funny details.

The section about the cult helped me to recognize that we often don't recognize the danger of someone or something that is intentionally ridiculous. The absurdity means that reasonable people are laughing--and they assume, to their peril, that everyone else is laughing, too. But those absurdities are part of the danger since they offer protective coloration to the cult leader. When those who could do something to stop a dangerous cult leader are laughing at the cult leader, that gives him more power.

It makes me wish I had read this before 2016, quite honestly.

Finished: July 13, 2018

38. Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey

I am of several minds about this book. It was suggested as a selection for my feminist fans of romantic fiction book club, and I was the only member who finished the book, other than the woman who suggested it (who had already read it several years ago).

Carey's world building was incredible, and it definitely sucked me in. I generally have little patience for fantasy world building if it takes a long while to set up, which this book definitely did. (It was a doorstop of a novel at 900+ pages, and the action didn't really start until around halfway through). Terre D'Ange, where the characters live, is like 13th century France in an alternate universe where angels intermarried with humans. Sexuality is prized in this world, and becoming a "servant of Naamah" or courtesan is considered to be a high calling. The culture of Terre D'Ange can be summed up by their angelic founder, Elua's, commandment: love as thou wilt.

This is all very interesting stuff and I love books that force you to rethink your assumptions about things as fraught as sex work. But, and this is a big but, I did not feel like this society was nearly as progressive and sex-positive as Phedre (the main character) and possibly the author believed. (It may be that Carey didn't believe that and made Phedre naive in the first book but revealed more in the second and third in the trilogy).

For instance, one becomes a servant of Naamah at age 16, and can have one's virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder. It is entirely up to future courtesans to commit to serving Naamah and their patrons take the idea of consenting to this work very seriously. But you are "owned" by your patron until you make enough money to buy your freedom, and the choice is made at age fricking 15, which is far too young to decide something like that. That does not sound like true consent, though Phedre has no issue with it whatsoever and truly wanted to be a courtesan.

I did love seeing just how intelligent and resourceful Phedre ended up being when she gets caught up in royal intrigue and potential war. She is often underestimated because of her profession, and she uses that and her considerable brains to her advantage.

Though I kind of didn't like this book, I downed the 900 page monster in a couple of days and have been thinking about it ever since.

Finished: July 17, 2018

39. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Nikki is the young adult daughter of Indian immigrants in London, and has distanced herself from her Sikh culture. She takes a job teaching what she believes will be a creative writing course at the Sikh temple/community center, only to find that the widows who have signed up for the course do not write English at all. The widows find a book of erotic stories that Nikki purchased as a gag gift for her straight-laced sister, and want to start writing their own erotic stories. Shenanigans ensue.

I went into this believing it would simply be a light, fun read about cultures and generations clashing, but it was far more than that. There was an excellent murder mystery, a meditation on grief, and a great deal of commentary about female friendships and family bonds. I really loved this book.

Finished: August 25, 2018

40. A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole

My book club read (and loved) An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole last year, and I did not realize that she also wrote contemporary romance novels until I ran into this one due to some Twitter nastiness. Some racist asshole tweeted about this cover being propaganda for interracial relationships. (To which I say--whut? And HUH? And WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?)

I have made it a policy to buy books that receive racist pushback so that the authors who have to go through that nastiness can at least enjoy some royalties.

I am generally not a contemporary romance reader, but this one was excellent. I loved the Scottish setting and the fact that Cole really examined and took apart the tropes that you'll often find in romance novels: surly hero, Scottish fetishism, royalty + commoner, hot mess heroine. I wanted to spend more time with Portia and Tavish. They were delightful.

Finished: September 9, 2018

41. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

This is, quite frankly, the best book I've read so far this year. Agnieszka is exactly the heroine I needed. Her guiding principal is her love for her dearest friend Kasia. Their friendship is realistic, in that they harbor secret guilt, resentment, sadness, and jealousy for each other--but they also truly love one another, and that kind of female friendship is so rare in fiction that I have trouble coming up with another example.

The magic and the fantasy world building in this novel are both so well done as to seem almost inevitable. It's as if I could find the evil wood and stumble into it somewhere in our world, and as if there are witches out there like Agnieszka who I simply have not met yet.

The villains are also all realistic and understandable. Even the most heinous of the villains--an attempted rapist--is clearly motivated by his trauma, but neither the author nor Agnieszka let him off the hook despite completely understanding why he does what he does.

The love story was so compelling that I ended up falling for it even though I was trying very hard to keep on hating the love interest.

Just, go read this book. Stop whatever you're doing right now, and go read this book. It's that good.

Finished: September 11, 2018

What have you been reading?

Saturday, September 15, 2018

13 Minutes to Midnight on September 13


Friday, August 31, 2018

Monday, July 9, 2018

What I Read in June

LO has inherited both my love for reading and the inability to hear anyone coming while reading, resulting in many startled glances, such as this one.

June was...tough. There was just so much bad news in the world and so many heartbreaks and horrors, and I wish I could have spent more time lost in a good book. 

June also coincided with one of my regular book ruts. I get these fairly regularly, when I simply cannot force myself to read something new, and so I look back to old favorites to reread. My problem with book ruts is that I often get stuck rereading the same books over and over until old favorites have become dry as sawdust and I can squeeze no more pleasure from them.

I used to be very ashamed of my book rut rereading habit, but I've come to realize that it's part of what made me a writer. By rereading books until I have them nearly memorized, I have given myself a class in how stories are constructed. But I still get annoyed at myself for being bored with old favorites and unwilling to try something new.

All that said, I did read a decent number of books in June (in between my ruts)--just nothing like my January and February records. And if you discount rereading old books (which I do), I have continued my streak of only reading books by women authors throughout 2018. I'm pleased with that, although I would like to be reading more authors of color. White women writers are very much within my comfort zone, so I can't pat myself on the back too much for a reading list that is 90% white women authors overall (and 100% white women authors in June).

So here's what I read in June:

31. Life Skills for Adult Children by Janet Woititz and Alan Garner

I am a fan of advice columnists, and have been for pretty much my entire life. I used to read Dear Abby and Ann Landers every day, and I love the excruciatingly polite snark that Miss Manners has managed to perfect. But my favorite advice columnist, by far, is Carolyn Hax.

And Hax is the reason why I read this book. She has recommended it many many times over her advice-giving career, along with The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. I read The Gift of Fear several years ago and found it incredibly insightful and helpful in navigating the world, so I thought I'd get a similar level of insight from Lifeskills.

As it turns out, I really didn't need to read this book. I knew everything the authors discussed, and I was a little overwhelmed to realize there were adults out there who did not know these things. For that reason alone, I'm glad I read it. This will help me to be more sympathetic and forgiving of people who do not know how to navigate social situations and other interpersonal relationships. They truly may not know how.

Started: May 31, 2018
Finished: June 2, 2018

32. The Last Necromancer by C.J. Archer

I straight up HATED this book. As in, wanted to throw something; wanted to call up C.J. Archer and ask her what was wrong with her; wanted to scrub the vestiges of this book from the earth; HATED it.

You may recall that I absolutely loved The Watchmaker's Daughter series by this same author earlier this year. I was casting about for a new audio book to listen to, and I saw that the first three books of this ten (TEN!!) book series were packaged together on Audible and could be purchased for a single credit. So I bought the three-book package and got started.

I really liked the beginning of the book. Charlie/Charlotte Holloway is 18 years old and has lived on the streets of 1880s London for five years, surviving by disguising herself as a boy. She was thrown out of her father's house for accidentally bringing her mother back from the dead, because Charlie is a necromancer. So far, so good. Gritty London setting, dark magic, and a heroine who is a born survivor--these are all like my catnip.

Then Charlie is kidnapped by the "hero" Lincoln Fitzroy, who is the head of the Ministry of Curiosities. Their mission is to protect England from magical threats, and they need Charlie to help them locate a dangerous man who wants to use her necromancy to create a zombie army.

Again, this would not have been a problem, except that Fitzroy is an abusive, gaslighting, power-hungry asshole from beginning to end. Charlie repeatedly states that she has no interest in helping the Ministry and would just like her freedom, please and thank you. It doesn't take long for Fitzroy to discover she is a woman. When he does, he's so furious he walks in on her naked (that's NOT how he figured it out) and completely humiliates her.

He then dresses her as a woman and takes her to Whitechapel (where the Ripper murders were) and drops her off with no money and none of her protections that she counted on while on the streets. He hires someone to scare her to convince her to come back to his "protection" and the vagrant he hires actually tries to rape her, although he "rescues" her by killing the would-be rapist in the nick of time.


By the end of the book, he offers her the chance to continue to live in his house, working AS A MAID! There is absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of work, but it just further entrenches the power differential between these characters, and I cannot imagine how anyone could feel happy flutters over a man who has done all of these things. Yes, he stops another Ministry board member from beating Charlie, but absence of specific kind of cruelty is not the same thing as kindness or decency.

This book was so bad that I returned the three-book package to Audible to get my credit back, and I started rethinking whether or not The Watchmaker's Daughter was as good as I thought. (India and Matt are equals in those books, thank heaven, and Matt is not a sociopath.)

I'd advise you not to read this book, except that I'd love to have someone who will rage-complain about it with me.

Started: June 12, 2018
Finished: June 15, 2018

33. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

This was my book club's June reading pick. It was, in a word, delightful. The Waverly family is magical, and everyone has a different gift. 

Claire can make people feel things with her cooking. She can help you to remember a happy time or see things from a different point of view. 

Her sister Sydney can tell what kind of person you are based on your haircut. She's also gifted at creating the hairstyle that will most suit you. 

Cousin Evanelle has the best gift of all. She gives people things right before they need them. She comes to Claire's house with an extra set of sheets and a box of strawberry Pop-Tarts just before Sydney arrives home for the first time in 10 years, with her 5-year-old daughter Bay in tow. Evanelle gives another character a quarter the day before she finds herself needing to make an emergency phone call from a pay phone. I loved reading about Evanelle's gifts. She never knew why her recipients would need her gifts--she just felt compelled to give them, and they always turned out to be exactly what was needed.

Finally, 5-year-old Bay has the gift of knowing where things belong, which means I could use her in my storage closet.

My book club is a romance book club (The Book Club for Feminist Fans of Romantic Fiction is our official title), and this book is technically a romance. Both Claire and Sydney end up with guys at the end. But the male characters were so much less fleshed-out than the women (and girl) that I didn't really pay much attention to them. For me, it was all about the family love among the Waverly women, and their unique magical gifts.

Started: June 16, 2018
Finished: June 18, 2018

34. The Fifth Doll by Charlie N. Holmberg (Despite her masculine name, this author is also a woman)

I was on my way home from a conference and needed a new audiobook to listen to when I found this one while scrolling through Audible in the airport. This book was really wonderful, although the ending had aspects that were a little tough to wrap my head around. (The explanation of the magic wasn't totally clear, but it didn't really matter).

Matrona is a 26-year-old woman in a small village in rural Russia. She has just gotten engaged to the butcher's son and isn't quite sure how she feels about it, because she has an intense crush on Jaska who is only 19 years old and whom she used to babysit. 

One day, she discovers a cache of nesting dolls in the house of Slava, the local tradesman, who is the only villager who has ever left the town. Each of the dolls looks like one of the villagers, and when Matrona handles her father's doll, she comes home to find him acting strangely. Slava ends up letting her know that the dolls are connected to each villager, and asks her to open her doll. When she does, everyone in the village suddenly knows her secrets, including her longing for Jaska. Things get weirder from there.

I really appreciated the way the love story between Matrona and Jaska played out. It is unusual to see an older woman in love with a younger man (although Jaska fails the half-your-age-plus-seven  rule for dating someone younger than you). I also liked that Jaska had not thought of Matrona that way until her secrets are revealed by opening the doll. It felt realistic for him to come to recognize how much he liked her once he knew she liked him. (As much as a book about magical nesting dolls can be realistic). 

As I said, the magic logic falls down a little bit at the end, but I was enjoying myself so thoroughly that I didn't really care. I'll definitely be reading more by Charlie N. Holmberg. (And hopefully she won't pull a C.J. Archer on me.)

Started: June 29, 2018
Finished: June 29, 2018

What did you read in June?

Thursday, May 31, 2018

What I Read in May

I'm happy to report that my eye is basically de-wonkified at this point, although my vision still gets somewhat blurred after a long day at the computer or if I'm super tired. According to my neuro-ophthalmologist (I've got my own personal neuro-ophthalmologist!), I may end up enjoying blurry vision when I get stressed, overheated, or tired for quite some time.

This meant that though I was able to get back into reading this month (and a couple of super weighty tomes, as you'll see below), I'm still not quite back to my usual reading pace. I only read two actual books, and the other two were audio books.

Still, I'm delighted to be reading even a little bit like normal again, so no complaints.

So, without further ado, let's get into what I read in May:

27. How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ

Neil Gaiman tweeted something about this book back in March or April, saying that it was a real eye-opener for him to read way back in the 80s when it was first published, and I decided I needed to check it out.

In this book, Russ explains the ways that women's writing (and writing by others from marginalized groups) is demeaned, separated from its tradition, assumed to be written by another, considered a one-off fluke, or otherwise othered in order to keep it from getting the recognition it deserves. This book was originally written in 1983, and while there was not much that was a surprise to me (with one exception), everything that Russ describes is still happening.

What was the one thing that surprised me? The fact that one of the ways to suppress writing and art by marginalized voices is to make the artwork seem as though it is unrelated to anything that came before--separating it from its tradition, in other words. I had felt this separation before, but had never understood just how damaging it could be for writers who come afterwards. If you believe that the only writer who is like you sprung up out of nowhere, with no influences, teachers, mentors, or other help, then it becomes all the more difficult for you to emulate her example.

According to several reviews I read, the original version was not very intersectional in its feminism. This update seems to have addressed that problem (as far as this white feminist can see, and recognizing that my blind spots may have concealed issues from me). I was pleased to see that Russ included far more than just white women as having their voices suppressed.

While this book was hardly an uplifting read--the damn thing is 35 years old, and it's still apropos--it did help me let go of several of the remaining fcks I still have regarding my fiction writing. Onward?

Started: April 26, 2018
Finished: May 7, 2018

28. The Rogue Not Taken by Sarah MacLean

After reading How to Suppress Women's Writing, I suppose I needed a pick-me-up palate cleanser, so I decided to listen to The Rogue Not Taken on Audible. (It was part of a two-for-one deal on the site, and I purchased it, along with The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, below).

This book reminded me of how my mother used to worry that I'd be willing to date a serial killer, as long as he made me laugh. The hero of this book was such a complete and utter asshole, and I didn't even notice because the book was incredibly funny. The banter between the hero and heroine was delightful and hilarious and I had a roaring good time, until I got to the end of the book and realized that the hero was an abusive ass.

Apparently, just like teenaged me, the author also missed the memo that a sense of humor does not make up for treating someone like shit, because humor =/= kindness. (Would that I had received that memo at age 15, prior to my need for it!)

I truly enjoyed the story while I was listening to it and laughed out loud many times. Ultimately, it left me feeling kind of bad and gross. So it really was kind of like some old boyfriends.

Started: May 20, 2018
Finished: May 22, 2018

29. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne

In my quest to read the least related books possible, I was also reading Down Girl during the middle of the month, which meant it overlapped with my listening to The Rogue Not Taken. Reader whiplash, I has it.

Manne breaks down the internal logic of misogynist thought and behavior, and it was incredibly satisfying to see her cogently explain the things that I have been thinking for years in a more inchoate manner. For instance, she talks quite a bit about the Isla Vista killings (I refuse to name the killer here), which was the first time I heard the term "incel."

At the time, it was abundantly clear that the killer was motivated by deep misogyny--and yet, many people refused to believe that. Since the killer loved his mother, he couldn't be a misogynist, according to the "naive conception of misogyny" (as Manne describes it) because that means a blanket hatred of all women. Something that still bothers me four years later is the fact that a progressive and pro-woman friend of mine actually parroted these beliefs about misogyny by saying misogyny could not have been a motivation for the killer, since he killed four men and only two women.

Manne broke down where this kind of blindness to misogyny comes from (the naive conception, in part) and I felt like I had a better grasp of how to push back against this kind of thinking when I encounter it in the wild.

I also really appreciated how she described sexism as being the belief system of the patriarchy, while misogyny is the policing mechanism. Misogyny is what happens when women break the "rules" of sexism, which explains why women who do anything outside of the narrow confines of what is expected are subject to so much abuse.

The book was definitely written in an academic style that had me sometimes scratching my head. There were several sections that I had to read a couple of times to understand. Still, I'm recommending this book to everyone. It's illuminating and infuriating and can help to pare down those last few fcks. (After reading this one in the same month I read How to Suppress Women's Writing, I'm down to my last one or two fcks left to give. I'll burn them in a grand bonfire when I turn 40 and dance naked around the flames.)

Started: May 8, 2018
Finished: May 26, 2018

30. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

This was the second book I got for the two-for-one sale on Audible, and I think I loved it.

I'm not entirely sure because there were aspects of the book that I really wasn't happy with. It was a story that let its seams show, so the construction was on view.

Like when A.J. has a blackout due to his seizure disorder early in the book--and then the seizure disorder doesn't show up again until the book's final chapter, that bothered me. When a hateful character gets exactly what's coming to him in a way that is a little too on-the-nose, it bothered me. When A.J. manages to convince a social worker to let him adopt the child who was abandoned in his bookstore, even though he has no experience with children and has only known the baby for two days, it seemed really far-fetched. When there were only glancing references to the upheaval his life would experience at becoming a sudden father, I was wondering what planet this perfect child who always slept was supposed to be from.

But...even with all of those seams that were so very obvious, A.J. was a wonderful character. At the beginning, he's a bitter young widower who owns a bookstore, and he has some very decided views about books, which already made me like him. He believes short stories are the most elegant form of writing, and each chapter begins with his notes on various famous short stories. His absolute love for the written word, which he passes along to his daughter, was so endearing and relatable.

As for what really made me feel connected to this book, it was how it ended. Spoilers below:

I have been thinking about A.J. ever since I finished the book, and the visible seams have not really seemed so terrible. Any story that can make me feel what this book made me feel gets a pass for some obvious construction choices.

Started: May 26, 2018
Finished: May 28, 2018

What have you read this month?

Monday, April 30, 2018

What I Read in March and April

You know how they say that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb?

Yeah, my March was not so much like that.

It came in like everything was peachy keen and went out like chaos was descending. Specifically, the end of March saw me having my right eye go randomly wonky.
Per BB, "Why are you 'tending to be a pirate, Mommy?"
I started having blurry vision on March 31. By April 3, when it was still blurry enough that reading was impossible, I started visiting doctors. After a whole bunch of people poked me the eyeball (among other delightful medical care), it was determined that I have optic neuritis. It goes away on its own, but sloooooooooooooooooooooowly, so I opted for the steroid treatment.

I kind of hoped the steroids would make me hulk out and rage smash the patriarchy all by my lonesome, but it just made me really wakeful.

In any case, my wonky eye made it impossible for me to read for most of April, which made me Ms. Crankypants McGee. I have often said I'd rather give up ice cream than reading, and this little foray into non-reading made it clear that I'm not kidding.

I also did not get a chance to update my reading for March, so I'm doing both March and April together today. There were only two books in April (one of which was an audio book). Sad trombone.

Thankfully, my sight is enough back to normal that I have been able to resume my normal reading schedule, which I have been doing while eating ice cream, because I now realize you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone! So without further ado, here are the books I read in March and April:

19. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I have been trying to read more books by women of color, and science fiction in particular is an area where I'd like to expand my horizons. I read a lot of white guy space opera sci-fi in my teens, in part because those were the books my dad had on his shelves, and in part because I saw them as the canon of the genre. But there was a lot of misogyny (which I noticed at the time) and erasure of anyone who was not white (which I didn't).

When I read that Binti by Nnedi Okorafor won both the Nebula and Hugo award, I decided I needed to read it. Binti is the first person of her very insular Himba community to leave, not only the community, but the planet. She's been accepted into the prestigious Oomza University, and is the first of her people to ever be offered a place there. On the way, the ship Binti is taking along with dozens of other new students is attacked by the war-like Meduse.

I absolutely loved the character of Binti and the descriptions of her people's relationship with the earth (literally) was incredible. The Himba "bathe" in specially mixed dirt from their home to moisturize and protect their skin and hair. I also loved how Binti thought in mathematics.

The novella was a little too short for me. The story definitely got me thinking, but the ending felt abrupt. This is the first in a trilogy, so I hope that reading the next two will help flesh out the things that felt too rushed in this one.

Started: March 1, 2018
Finished: March 4, 2018

20. The Convent's Secret by C.J. Archer

You may remember that I did the literary equivalent of unhinging my jaw and swallowed the previous book in this series whole. Well, this book arrived on my Kindle on March 6, as promised, and I lost a day to reading it.

Here's the thing: I was under the distinct impression that this fifth book was the final book in the series. And while a major plot point was tied up at the end of this book, as the Kindle got closer and closer to 100% complete, I found myself wondering how in blazes Ms. Archer would finish the other loose ends in the 2% left in the book.

Here's how: THERE'S AT LEAST ONE MORE BOOK IN THE G-DDAMNED SERIES, DAMMIT! Don't get me wrong. I'm enjoying these books very much. If the next book were already published, I'd be saying "Goody gumdrops!" and clearing my schedule for another day of reading. But I have to wait who knows how long before book 6 drops, and I have no idea if that will signal the end of this series or if I will have to wait for book 7!

I can't handle this kind of waiting!

Started: March 6, 2018
Finished: March 6, 2018

21. The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

This sweet little romance was my book club's selection for March. It was a fun read, although it had the problem that I often encounter in straight romance novels: there were side characters and sub-plots that I wished the author would spend more time on. I wanted to see more about the difficult-but-close relationship Alexa had with her sister. I wanted to know what happened to Drew's patient Jack.

I did love how the book dealt with issues of race. They were realistic and straightforward. Drew (who was white) was hardly perfect in recognizing how difficult racial issues might be for Alexa (who was black), but he did listen to her, believe her, and respond empathetically to her.

Started: March 7, 2018
Finished: March 10, 2018

22. There's Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins

I really wanted to like this book. There was a lot to like.

It's kind of a literary version of the movie Scream, which was one of my favorites in high school.

Makani Young, the main character, is half black and half native Hawaiian, and it felt like Stephanie Perkins (who is white) did a good job of sensitively and accurately portraying race. (There is also a transgender character in the story, which also felt like it was handled well, although apparently there was some controversy over the ARC version of the book because it dead named the character.)

The love story at the center of the book (Perkins got her start as a YA romance novelist) is delightful.

But I was really frustrated by something Perkins did in this book. It's a slasher story, so there are a lot of people being murdered throughout the book. I don't have a problem with that--it's what I signed up for. My problem was with the fact that Perkins spent several pages before each murder giving deep back story to the person who was about to die.


It's a short cut that authors take to try to make the stakes higher for the reader. But readers don't know these characters who are about to die, and giving us back story about their 6 year old twin siblings sleeping upstairs and their college essays and their solo in the school musical does nothing to truly raise the stakes.

It also feels monumentally unfair to these characters. Now I know they're not real, but still--why create a fully formed character just to kill him or her off?

Started: March 13, 2018
Finished: March 16, 2018

23. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

I am so annoyed at myself for not having read this book 25 years ago. I would have eaten this up with a spoon when I was 14 or 15, and it so clearly influenced so many of the haunted house books that I have loved over the years.

The only thing that makes me glad I didn't read this until now is the fact that I would have completely and utterly missed out on the homosexual undertones between Eleanor and Theodora, which still *mostly* passed me by as I read them now. (I recognize that what was strongly suggestive in 1959 is blink-and-you'll-miss-it tame in 2018, but I am also really dense when it comes to that kind of suggestion because I take things at face value. When Theodora describes the woman she lives with as her roommate, I believe her that it's her roommate.) Had I read this in my teens, I would have been completely oblivious to that aspect of the story, and my understanding of the novel would have been the poorer for it.

Started: March 19, 2018
Finished: March 21, 2018

24. Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

There is a little library on the corner down the street from our house. LO and I pass it on the days we walk home from school, and I can never resist taking a look at what books are on offer there. On a Thursday in March, LO and I walked home from school and stopped to look at the books. LO noticed this one and asked if we could take it home.

I was surprised. He's very sensitive about death and he doesn't like scary stories. But when we got home, we sat down together and read this entire graphic novel in one sitting. It is so lovely. It offers a gentle introduction to Cystic Fibrosis and gives a lot of context to the Day of the Dead and offers a hopeful and sweet vision of what death means. LO and I both loved it.

Started: March 22, 2018
Finished: March 22, 2018

25. Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu

I don't remember where I read about this book, but I was delighted to learn that there was an illustrated book of incredible women. Each woman gets a brief autobiographical sketch in the form of a comic, and I learned about a number of women I did not know. Some of my favorites were

Katia Kraftt, a volcanologist who was fearless in her pursuit of knowledge about volcanoes and died (along with her husband and fellow volcano observer Maurice) in a pyroclastic flow in 1991.

Leymah Gbowee, a Nobel Peace prize winner who led a women's peace movement to bring an end to Liberia's second civil war. She did this after leaving an abusive husband with four children in tow.

Christine Jorgensen, a trans woman who was the first person in the United States who was widely known for sex reassignment surgery. She became famous, and handled her notoriety with wit, grace, and candor.

Started: March 18, 2018
Finished: April 1, 2018

26. Street of the Five Moons by Elizabeth Peters

It's hard for me to believe that I never read this book. It's the second in the Vicky Bliss series, and Trojan Gold (the fourth book in the series) is one of my favorite books of all time. I've re-read it more times than I can count. Street of the Five Moons is the book in which Vicky first meets her lover, Sir John Smythe, and I am so surprised that I was never curious enough to read about their first meeting.

Sadly, reading this now made it clear that you can never go home again.

I love Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. Her books (of which there are about 80) are probably the single greatest influence on my reading and writing. I have read nearly every single one of her books, and I have re-read and re-re-read (and so on) my favorites to the point where I have committed several of them pretty much to memory.

But Elizabeth Peters has a woman problem. Despite the author being a professed feminist, there is an undercurrent of misogyny in her books that I missed when I first consumed all of them as a teenager, but I cannot ignore when reading them as an adult.

The way it looks is that Vicky Bliss (or Amelia Peabody or D.J. Abbott or any of the other heroines) stands out in her field. She is brilliant and funny and under appreciated and underestimated. But Vicky (and Amelia and D.J.) seems to think she is in competition with every other woman. She never has a kind word to say about any other woman in the novel and is consistently cutting about other women's looks, intelligence, promiscuity, greed, age, educational attainment, etc.

In Street of the Five Moons, there are only two other women characters: an incredibly stupid and greedy young woman who is the mistress of a much older man, and a conniving "older" woman (she's described negatively as being over 40) who turns out to be a villain.

I know exactly where Peters's attitude comes from. Women of her day very often had to compete for a single spot made available for women. Peters herself was not able to get a job in academia in the 1950s after getting her PhD. because of sexism. Rather than rage against the unfair system that couldn't be changed, it's natural that one would start fighting with anyone else who might take your spot.

Between this and the fat shaming that so often appears in her books, I wish I knew how to compartmentalize all that I love about Peters's writing with these problematic attitudes.

Still, Sir John will always be my book boyfriend.

Started: April 20, 2018
Finished: April 26, 2018

Friday, April 27, 2018

Like a Chair of Bowlies

Books are traditional for the first anniversary. Sarah’s gift to Jonathan is blank, although she has written a hidden message in lemon juice on every fifth page. Jonathan spends 20 minutes excavating the paperbacks and library books from beneath the couch and in between the Morris chair and the wall. He piles the discarded books in a tower before Sarah.

“Have you finished any of these?” he asks.

She laughs and puts them back in the furniture, and that night they make love on literature.

Avocados for the second anniversary—which is not to be confused with advocates for the 40th. Sarah and Jonathan make guacamole with a masher their mothers bought together for the occasion, although neither of them think there is enough cilantro in the finished product. Per tradition, no one calls or stops by on their avocado anniversary, so that they may enjoy themselves alone. They eat together, filling their bellies with green ripeness.

The third anniversary, stars, finds Sarah and Jonathan fighting. She cuts tiny gold star shapes out of pressed metal and hides them throughout their apartment. She meets him at the door with a brand new broom and a dustpan—another joint gift from their mothers—and invites him to sweep up the shower of stars from their home. Jonathan names a star for her. His understanding of tradition is not nearly as deep as hers.

By the fourth anniversary, ribbons, they have made up. Each proudly wears the other’s colored ribbon around their left ring finger that entire day, and strangers beam to see a couple so clearly in love.

There is some leeway in the tradition for the fifth anniversary, air. So Jonathan rents a moon bounce and sets it up on the sidewalk in front of their apartment. Sarah bounces and twirls and flips beside him in the air-filled castle, feeling both self-conscious and defiant as commuters watch them tumble. Her gift to him is more conventional: a jar of her expelled breaths, one for every day of their marriage. She presents it to him shyly, and is pleased when he places it on his night table.

Sarah is pregnant and ill on their sixth anniversary, and tells Jonathan he doesn’t have to give her the traditional tacos.

“What should I give you?” he asks her. He knows there is a trap in here somewhere. He has not forgotten how upset she got over his misinterpretation of the stars.

“I don’t know, nothing?” she hazards. Between the fetus and her stomach, her belly is always churning.

“I can’t do that,” Jonathan says. “How about a bowl that holds tacos?”

She thinks, but does not say, that bowls are for the fourteenth anniversary. She accepts the bowl he finds, and nestles it next to the jar of breaths in their bedroom.

They are sleep deprived new parents for their seventh anniversary, and just barely manage to exchange their gifts—profound revelations—before midnight.

Sarah tells Jonathan that perfection is an illusion.

Jonathan tells Sarah that the past and future do not exist.

More years pass. Eight, nine, ten. Oil, tea, education.

Twenty, a fear.

Thirty, a new identity.

Forty, advocates.

Fifty, forgiveness.

This piece was inspired by Like a Bowl in a China Shop by Hilary Leichter