Friday Bookbag, 12.8.17

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

Side note: I’ve been reading so many review-worthy books lately that I’m considering adding a second scheduled slot for reviews like I’m already doing with Monday Reads–I’m thinking on Thursdays or even Saturdays–or maybe I’ll drop extra reviews in randomly…I’m not sure yet!

Musings aside, here are two books I picked up this week that I’m dying to read.


9781250124579

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Loving thy neighbor is easier said than done.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors. One is black, the other white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed and are living with questions, disappointments, and secrets that have brought them shame. And each has something that the woman next door deeply desires.

Sworn enemies, the two share a hedge and a deliberate hostility, which they maintain with a zeal that belies their age. But, one day, an unexpected event forces Hortensia and Marion together. As the physical barriers between them collapse, their bickering softens into conversation. But are these sparks of connection enough to ignite a friendship, or is it too late to expect these women to change?

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: This has been my year of making a conscious effort to read more books by women, and especially books about women who are different from myself. I’m 23, not in my 80s as these two characters are, and I’ll be interested to see if I find this book relatable anyway…even if I don’t, it promises to be funny and sweet, something I need this week.

9781250109163

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Freshly disengaged from her fiancé and feeling that life has not turned out quite the way she planned, thirty-year-old Ruth quits her job, leaves town, and arrives at her parents’ home to find family life more complicated than she’d realized. Her father, a prominent history professor, is losing his memory. Her mother, like Ruth, is smarting from a betrayal. But over the course of a year, the comedy in Ruth’s situation takes hold, gently transforming her grief.

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I love books about family, which this is, and I also love NPR’s 2017 book concierge, where this book was featured. Like The Woman Next Door, it sounds like there’s a humorous component. Also, the cover design is pretty, and the spine was eye-catching on the library shelf. (What can I say? Sometimes I do judge by a cover.)


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and  blog posts!

3 book-themed gift ideas, 2017 edition

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image source: picjumbo.com

I always struggle with gift-giving. I hate the pressure to buy extravagant gifts that no one will really use, and buying gift cards can feel like a total cop-out. So, this year, I’m trying something new in my Christmas shopping–and no, it’s not buying giant teddy bears for everyone on my list, per the photo above.

Instead, this year, I’m trying to shop exclusively for books, clothes, and consumables like chocolate and tea for friends and family. In my experience, these items are easily usable, even if that use is regifting, which I’m actually okay with–especially for books, since the more readers, the merrier! Since I know I’m not alone in trying to cultivate better gift-giving habits, I thought I’d share some of my favorite book-themed gift ideas here.

If you don’t celebrate Christmas,  but do celebrate another holiday with gift-giving traditions–or you’re just really into giving gifts!–nothing here is Christmas-specific. Bookmark and gift-give away in this or any season!


Cookbooks

A lot of people love to cook (myself included), but even folks who don’t can appreciate tasty food–which is why cookbooks are such a great gift. Cookbooks tend to fall into two categories: the “yes, you can actually make these recipes!” cookbooks, and the “no, these recipes aren’t practical, but the writing/photography/etc. is SUPER pretty” cookbooks. Either one can make a great gift if you’re thoughtful about it!

Does your intended recipient love to travel? Find them a cookbook full of authentic recipes from their dream destination (complete with pictures), and even if they don’t cook any of it themselves, they’ll know what to sample when they visit.

Does your intended recipient follow dietary restrictions? Instead of mocking them for it (which is a really crappy thing to do!), find a cookbook that caters to those restrictions. It’s a thoughtful gift that might help them find new delicious things that are safe/allowable for them to eat.

RedBubble nerd merch!

RedBubble.com is a site where artists create beautiful fandom designs for all kinds of items, from T-shirts to laptop stickers to coffee mugs. In my experience (and unlike many other “nerd”-oriented sites), their apparel is actually good-quality, too! Searching for authors like Oscar Wilde, Audre Lorde, and Stephen King turns up great stuff.

If your intended recipient is a teen (or adult!) who loves The Hunger Games, Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, or Divergent, those fandoms seem to have a particularly active literary RedBubble presence. And, of course, there’s always Harry Potter.

Don’t assume that a particular quote, author, or fandom is too obscure to appear on RedBubble, either. If you know someone who’s really into a thing, there might be an artist on the site who’s just as obsessed!

A well-thought-out list

Maybe it’s a list of your favorite reality TV shows hand-written inside a card, or a collaborative Spotify playlist shared with your friend group, or an email full of suggestions on what book to check out next from the library. Whatever the format, there’s a reason that curated lists are always such a lovely gift: the effort involved in making them (and sometimes vulnerability, if you’re putting your near-and-dear media choices on the line) is a real sign of love. And if the recipient doesn’t appreciate that, well…it might be time to pare down your inner circle.

If you share a favorite book with the intended recipient, try creating a music playlist for your favorite characters! I remember this being really popular for Twilight and Hunger Games ships, but it could work for less fandom-oriented books, too. Speaking from personal experience, some of the music might look cringey in 5 years, but there are always real gems on those lists, too.

If your intended recipient has very different tastes from you, try compiling a list of “things I’d never read/watch/listen to that I still think you’d love.” If you do it with a sense of humor (or maybe even a gentle roast of your friend/relative’s weird, trashy, or pretentious tastes!), it’s a nice way of showing that person that you pay attention to their interests, even if you don’t share them.


What are your favorite gifts to give and receive? Let me know in the comments!

Short Story Roundup, 12.6.17

Short Story Roundup

“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” – Neil Gaiman

Introducing Short Story Roundup: a new feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you on Wednesdays. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.


Say, She Toy” by Chesya Burke

  • genre: science fiction
  • publication: Apex Magazine
  • date: April 4, 2017
  • why I loved it: “Say, She Toy” is the story of an android in the form of a black woman designed to bear the pain and abuse intended for real black women. It’s exactly as brutal and clarion as you’d think, and if you read only one piece of fiction this week, make it this one.

Clutchings” by Alina Stefanescu

  • genre: literary
  • publication: Necessary Fiction
  • date: October 25, 2017
  • why I loved it: “Clutchings” is a paranoid snapshot of a tattoo and a dissolving marriage. It’s a story perfectly suited to its micro length: a glimpse that is significant but not overwhelming.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed this week? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Review: PRETEND WE ARE LOVELY by Noley Reid

Monday Reviews

Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Tin House Books

publication date: July 18, 2017

9781941040669As you may recall from Tuesday’s post on triggering books and when to keep reading, I struggled a lot with this book. I did finish it, but not only did I find it painful, I also find it lacking in any positive respite or catharsis. Pretend We Are Lovely drags, and the slipperiness of its narrative structure gives an effect more like incoherence than profundity. While there are treasures to be found here, they are few and far between in a narrative full of things I didn’t care about and nearly devoid of things I did.

Pretend We Are Lovely tells the story of a summer and fall in the lives of a Virginia family in the 1980s. The Sobel family, made up of parents Francie and Tate and daughters Enid and Vivvy, all suffer from a tortured and toxic relationship with food. Overweight philosophy professor Tate has moved out and embarked on an affair with one of his students (a kind and curvaceous donut shop employee, just in case you missed the symbolism), and Francie sinks ever-further into binge-purge cycles and shockingly nasty treatment of her daughters. Enid, 10, is chubby, mercilessly bullied, and always thinking of her next meal. Vivvy, 12, is struggling with confusing feelings towards girls and an even more confusing apathy towards boys, along with a punishing desire to be as thin as her mother.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the suspicious death of Enid and Vivvy’s voraciously hungry older brother, Sheldon, whom Francie hit and killed with her car years ago. This incident, supposedly the driving force behind all the other problems, was incomprehensible to me. I was hoping answers–how and why Sheldon died–would be revealed at the end, but they weren’t, leaving me even more frustrated and confused by the last page than I’d been at the end of the first chapter.

Reid’s decision to tell the story from the rotating perspectives of all four characters, switching perspectives within chapters (and sometimes even paragraph-to-paragraph), worsens the confusion. Each Sobel does have a distinct and interesting voice, but they spend so much of the book separated from each other and lost in thoughts of the past that I didn’t understand what was supposed to be currently happening for at least half of the book. All I got was jolt of unpleasant emotion after jolt of unpleasant emotion, utterly unconnected to plot events.

The other problem with Pretend We Are Lovely’s shifting perspectives is that they remove all tension from the narrative. I can’t get mad about how Vivvy treats Enid because in the next paragraph I am told exactly why Vivvy is lashing out. I can’t get mad on Francie’s behalf at Tate for having an affair because I know Tate’s exact reasons for having the affair. I think the effect is supposed to trigger something like sadness about the miscommunications inherent in family, but instead, I found it boring.

There were two things I really, really loved about this book, and both involved Vivvy: Vivvy and Enid’s sister relationship, and the Reid’s delicate touch when writing about Vivvy’s feelings for other girls. Admittedly, I’m a sister partial to sister stories, and a lesbian partial to lesbian stories, so I don’t know if these were the best parts of the book or just the ones that pushed my buttons. But with every Francie and Tate scene, and some of the Enid scenes, I found myself wanting to be back with Vivvy.

For me at least, Pretend We Are Lovely was a Vivvy story trapped inside a family story, and the promise of the book I wanted trapped inside this book that I didn’t want made my reading experience even more tortuous. I wonder what this book might have looked like had its narrative been reorganized around Vivvy, perhaps even as a literary YA novel. I know her story would have meant a lot to me as a teen struggling to come out.

Other aspects that showed promise were the book’s commentary on kids’ nastiness toward other kids–boys, especially, hold an air of sexual menace, including a couple of truly disturbing assaults on Enid and Vivvy by classmates and neighbors–and Reid’s prose style, which I found refreshingly simple and affecting. But these things are utterly buried under the weight of convoluted narrative, spoiling their power.

Pretend We Are Lovely really is lovely in places, but its hazy plot and countless unresolved and underdeveloped sub-plots ruin the effect. 2/5 stars.

My copy of Pretend We Are Lovely came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 12.1.17 (textbook edition!)

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. Unfortunately, I don’t have any new books to write about this week–mostly because I’m knee-deep in finishing my final semester of undergrad–so I hope you’ll join me for a brief, nerdy interlude.

When I started college in fall 2014, I was planning to be an English major with a journalism focus, but I was also having serious doubts about the whole thing, since health crises in my teens that had left me convinced I would never be able to write for a career. Fortunately for me, I stumbled into another program at my university that turned out to be a much better fit: public health sciences.

Studying public health was a welcome distraction from my writer’s block, and also gave me excellent opportunities to strengthen my research and technical writing skills (and academese-reading skills, too). I ended up unofficially specializing in the social determinants of health, especially issues of gender, sexual orientation, and disability, issues that are relevant to my life and to the lives of those around me and that certainly enrich my writing today.

Thankfully, my writing ability didn’t leave me after all, and I’ll be freelancing full-time starting in January. But I’ve learned a whole lot over the course of my public health major, and thought I’d highlight a few books that I’ve read for class and loved over the past 3.5 years.

Welcome to Friday Bookbag: Textbook Edition!


Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison Green

823882Written by a leading activist in the transgender movement, Becoming a Visible Man is an artful and compelling inquiry into the politics of gender. Jamison Green combines candid autobiography with informed analysis to offer unique insight into the multiple challenges of the female-to-male transsexual experience, ranging from encounters with prejudice and strained relationships with family to the development of an FTM community and the realities of surgical sex reassignment.

Goodreads | Amazon

Class I read it for: Sociology of Gender

Why I loved it: Green is a professional writer as well as an activist, and this gripping, highly readable book definitely bears that out. Because of today’s shifting gender landscape, some of the language Green uses is already outdated, particularly his use of the terms “transsexual” and “FTM” (female-to-male), both of which are falling out of use–but it doesn’t reduce the power of his narrative. My favorite part of the book is its first chapter, wherein Green recounts asking a roomful of students how, exactly, they know what gender they are. It’s a clever and important question we could all stand to ask ourselves. Green is an icon in the transgender community for a reason, and if you’re looking for insight or just a good book, I highly recommend Becoming a Visible Man.

Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School by C. J. Pascoe

1051091High school and the difficult terrain of sexuality and gender identity are brilliantly explored in this smart, incisive ethnography. Based on eighteen months of fieldwork in a racially diverse working-class high school, Dude, You’re a Fag sheds new light on masculinity both as a field of meaning and as a set of social practices. C. J. Pascoe’s unorthodox approach analyzes masculinity as not only a gendered process but also a sexual one. She demonstrates how the “specter of the fag” becomes a disciplinary mechanism for regulating heterosexual as well as homosexual boys and how the “fag discourse” is as much tied to gender as it is to sexuality.

Goodreads | Amazon

Class I read it for: Sociology of Gender

Why I loved it: Pascoe’s ethnography of a high school is raw and even painful (as its title might suggest). Especially in our current climate of sexual assault and harassment scandals, this book also feels necessary–it really gets to the roots of why sexism is so endemic and insidious by exploring how it is constantly enforced in school systems. Additionally, If you read or write YA at all, you’ll appreciate this nonfiction account of how awful high school can be (and the glimmers of hope at its margins).

Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America by Leslie J. Reagan

8084014Dangerous Pregnancies tells the largely forgotten story of the German measles epidemic of the early 1960s and how it created national anxiety about dying, disabled, and “dangerous” babies. This epidemic would ultimately transform abortion politics, produce new science, and help build two of the most enduring social movements of the late twentieth century–the reproductive rights and the disability rights movements. At most a minor rash and fever for women, German measles (also known as rubella), if contracted during pregnancy, could result in miscarriages, infant deaths, and serious birth defects in the newborn. Award-winning writer Leslie J. Reagan chronicles for the first time the discoveries and dilemmas of this disease in a book full of intimate stories–including riveting courtroom testimony, secret investigations of women and doctors for abortion, and startling media portraits of children with disabilities. In exploring a disease that changed America, Dangerous Pregnancies powerfully illuminates social movements that still shape individual lives, pregnancy, medicine, law, and politics.

Goodreads | Amazon

Class I read it for: My independent study researching the relationships between rubella, Zika virus, motherhood, and disability.

Why I loved it: I find the history of medicine–particularly the histories we’ve forgotten–fascinating. When I first read this book in the midst of the Zika crisis, it was impossible to miss the connections between rubella outbreaks fifty years ago and the current struggles that public health officials and everyday people in Zika-affected areas are facing now. The collision of those two ideas resulted in my undergraduate research focus and, honestly, my entire career focus on the intimate connections between motherhood and disability. I can’t recommend this book more highly if you’re interested in the history of disability, abortion, and the gendered structures of the modern medical system.

Trans/Love: Radical Sex, Love & Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary edited by Morty Diamond

11520321Exploring the crossroads of gender and sexuality, Trans/Love: Radical Sex, Love & Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary offers unusually engaging narratives that create a raw and honest depiction of dating, sex, love, and relationships among members of the gender variant community. FTM, MTF, thirdgender, genderqueer, and other non-traditional identities beyond the gender binary of traditional male and female are included in this often heartwarming, occasionally heartbreaking, always heartfelt groundbreaking anthology. From monogamous love and marriage to anonymous sex and one-night hook-ups (and everything in between), these stories offer readers insight into the precarious emotional and practical mechanics of intimacy among gender-variant experiences.

Goodreads | Amazon

Class I read it for: Sex and Sexuality: An American Perspective

Why I loved it: As transgender people, particularly trans women, face higher-than-ever rates of murder and assault, this book, full of essays by trans people writing about their messy, difficult, joyful, and diverse experiences is a breath of fresh air. The writings in this book range from academic to informal (and are all extremely personal), and I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the transgender community, and–cliché as it may be for me to say–learning more about themselves. The stories here are honest and lovely, and it’s a just-plain-great book of essays in addition to being an informative academic text.


Have you read any of the books here (for class or otherwise)? Did you have your own college textbooks that were surprisingly awesome? Let me know in the comments and feel free to link to your own book reviews and  blog posts!

I read all of these books for class (either textbook or library copies) and was not compensated in any way for these mini-reviews.

Triggering books: When do you set them aside? When do you keep reading?

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image source: picjumbo.com

This question occurred to me because right now I’m reading Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid, a book that delves intensely into eating disorders and the deeply unhealthy thought patterns that are associated with them, and I’ve been struggling to decide whether or not to set the book aside. When I wrote about this book for Friday Bookbag, I mentioned that I was excited to see how the author handled the issue…and unfortunately, I’m not enjoying Reid’s take.

The cover copy led me to believe that Pretend We Are Lovely would have more of a dark humor component, when instead it’s just dark: we dip in and out of the thoughts of the four members of the Sobel family, all of whom have lots and lots of baggage around food. I also don’t think this book is very good, complicating things further, because I’m dealing with all of this unpleasantness without the payoff of beautiful language, plotting, characterization, and all the other things I expect from good fiction.

I’ve never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I do have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can create unhealthy eating patterns for me when it flares up. Pretend We Are Lovely has left me feeling jittery, anxious, and unhappy with all its reminders of the difficulty I’ve had managing my mental health at times, especially since so far, none of the Sobels are getting the help they need.

I do think I’ll finish it, but this has happened to me before, and I’m curious how other readers cope with this. This isn’t so much a matter of trigger warnings as what happens when a reader finds a book triggering for any reason, whether PTSD-related or due to another trauma or sensitivity. I knew this book would contain discussion of eating disorders, so I was warned, but I’m still finding it a much more difficult read than I had anticipated.

So, I thought I’d throw this problem out to the internet.

Have you ever read a book that triggers unpleasant or harmful thoughts and memories? Did you finish reading? Did you set it aside? Do you try and screen books for these triggers beforehand? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Review: LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Monday Reviews

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Penguin Press (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: September 12, 2017

9780735224292Some books, like this one, are magic. They succeed on every level, they hit every emotional sweet spot, they do things with words that remind me why writing is such a unique and incredible art form…and I just can’t explain why. This book struck me dumb with awe and gratitude. I finished it over a week ago, now, and I’m still struggling to articulate how much I loved it, because the truth is that I loved it too much for words.

Bear with me, folks.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story about a lot of things, but it’s especially the story of a place and two families that live there: Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a planned community struggling to cope with the rapidly encroaching mess unpredictability of the outside world; the Richardsons are a big, messy, mostly-happy upper-middle-class white family with deep roots; and mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren are newcomers no one can quite figure out. When Mia instigates an ugly custody battle between a young Chinese American woman, Bebe Chow, and the wealthy white neighbors who attempt to adopt her baby, May Ling, the community is blown open and family secrets laid bare.

The story isn’t told in order, and opens as the Richardsons’ house burns to the ground around them. From that first page, I was hooked. The closest book I can think to compare it to–though they’re not really similar at all–is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But where I found Eugenides’ book to be an arch, unpleasant, and chilly allegory for the folly of suburbia, Ng is deeply, warmly concerned with a real suburban community and characters so lifelike they might as well be real people.

I think “realistic” is a quality that can be overrated in fiction, because it’s fiction–why not take the opportunity to create something intricately, beautifully unreal? As long as an author does it well, I’m onboard. But Little Fires Everywhere did remind me of the magic and power of authors who write about the real world and understand real people: what we think like, what we act like, and what we care about. Ng not only understands people, but values them. She treats her characters–most of whom are painfully clueless, some borderline malicious–as if they are all worthy of love and respect. It’s revelatory, especially because Little Fires Everywhere is literary fiction, which is a genre that I think values coldness overmuch and compassion too little.

Every scene, no matter how slight, benefits from this loving characterization. Characters with only few paragraphs devoted to them are still given actions and dialogue that hints at the rich motivation within; central characters we thought we understood are given shake-ups that reveal new and satisfying depths. I particularly loved the (very) minor character of Mr. Yang, a tenant of the Richardsons and downstairs neighbor of the Warrens, and the more central characters of Trip and Moody, teenage Richardson sons who are tender and emotional and defy every dull and tired stereotype of teenage boys.

But of all these characters to fall in love with, my favorite was Mia Warren, whom we discover is a gifted photographer as well as mother and enigmatic drifter. A powerful theme of the book is the process of creation, punishing and healing by turns, whether it’s art-making or motherhood. I cried several times at this book, and each time it was because of that push and pull: the things mothers give up and the things their children give back; the things the children lose that their mothers want to stop them from losing but can’t; the bravery and vulnerability it takes to put art into the world.

I think most of us have at least some idea of what makes a good mother, but novels about visual artists can be especially hit or miss because we can’t see for ourselves whether a canvas or photograph is good or bad or mediocre–the author has to tell us. Thankfully, Ng has a light touch when describing Mia’s talents, trusting the mind’s eye of the reader to fill in the rest.

In fact, it’s been a long time since my mind’s eye felt so engaged in a novel. I was born in ’95 and thus have no memories of the late ’90s, I know nothing about Ohio, and I certainly knew nothing about Shaker Heights, but every scene is so carefully detailed, as lovingly costume-designed and set-dressed as a Wes Anderson movie (though less twee by half), that I felt there.

This absorbing, transporting quality is especially wonderful because Little Fires Everywhere is told in the omniscient 3rd-person, often hopping from mind-to-mind mid-scene, a technique I associate most with epic, impersonal fantasy novels and not with intimate family dramas. It turns out that–at least in Ng’s skilled hands–that mind-hopping can actually make a book more personal and more intimate. We don’t see one side of an argument, we see all of them: a good quality in a book filled with complicated and unwinnable arguments.

I could write a book-length love letter to this book. (Can you tell?) I could especially go on for hours about its razor-sharp critique of the kind of feel-good, orderly white liberalism that crumbles in the face of honest and difficult questions.

But I won’t go on any longer. I’ll just trust that you’ll read Little Fires Everywhere, and tell all your friends, and tell them to tell all of their friends, too. This book is miraculous. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.

My copy of Little Fires Everywhere came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.