There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker

Synopsis:

30304222There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé uses political and pop-cultural references as a framework to explore 21st century black American womanhood and its complexities: performance, depression, isolation, exoticism, racism, femininity, and politics. The poems weave between personal narrative and pop-cultural criticism, examining and confronting modern media, consumption, feminism, and Blackness. This collection explores femininity and race in the contemporary American political climate, folding in references from jazz standards, visual art, personal family history, and Hip Hop. The voice of this book is a multifarious one: writing and rewriting bodies, stories, and histories of the past, as well as uttering and bearing witness to the truth of the present, and actively probing toward a new self, an actualized self. This is a book at the intersections of mythology and sorrow, of vulnerability and posturing, of desire and disgust, of tragedy and excellence.

Review:

While I imagined myself a poet in high school (didn’t we all?) I haven’t spent much time with the form since.  Reading Why God Is a Woman reminded me that yes, poetry is awesome!  I picked up There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé to help understand an experience outside my own, that of an African-American woman today.

There are some political poems (“The President Has Never Said the Word Black“) but the thrust of the work is rooted in pop culture, especially music.  The Beyoncé poems are especially wonderful – here’s the beginning of “Beyoncé On The Line for Gaga”:

Girl you know you ain’t that busy.
Without me            you’re just two earsstuffed with glitter.

Parker manages to be funny and skewering at the same time.  In “Afro” she lists what she’s hiding in her hair, including “buttermilk pancake cardboard… 40 yards of cheap wax prints… blueprints for building ergonomically perfect dancers & athletes”.  And when Parker goes for the jugular she doesn’t miss, like in the first lines of “The Gospel According to Her”:

What to a slave is the fourth of july.
What to a woman is a vote.

Being newly returned to the world of poetry there are some pieces I had a hard time wrapping my mind around.  Maybe it’s a lack or perspective or the wrong mindset, maybe I’m just out of practice.  So if you’re looking for instant clarity you may be disappointed but I’m sure these poems will gain meaning the more time I spend with them.  Good stuff.

Thanks to Tin House Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

For Real by Alexis Hall

25376011Laurence Dalziel is worn down and washed up, and for him, the BDSM scene is all played out. Six years on from his last relationship, he’s pushing forty and tired of going through the motions of submission.

Then he meets Toby Finch. Nineteen years old. Fearless, fierce, and vulnerable. Everything Laurie can’t remember being.

Toby doesn’t know who he wants to be or what he wants to do. But he knows, with all the certainty of youth, that he wants Laurie. He wants him on his knees. He wants to make him hurt, he wants to make him beg, he wants to make him fall in love.

The problem is, while Laurie will surrender his body, he won’t surrender his heart. Because Toby is too young, too intense, too easy to hurt. And what they have—no matter how right it feels—can’t last. It can’t mean anything.

It can’t be real.

Gaaaaah this book is wonderful and I’m thrilled to see it won a RITA for its awesomeness.

The good:

  • I love flipped tropes and this one is particularly delicious.  While most BDSM romances have a hunky alpha dom here Laurie, the sub, is the one with age and muscles on his side.  Toby is young, scrawny, and inexperienced so no one takes him seriously as a dominant but he convinces Laurie to give him a shot.
  • Similarly, it’s refreshing to have being penetrated separated from being the sub.  Universe – more of this, please!
  • The characters are masterfully drawn and realized.  They are flawed but it’s subtle, no unnecessary “oooo I wonder what his awful secret is!” angst.  We learn more about the heroes as the story goes on and each detail reinforces what we already know.
  • The large age difference is addressed and dealt with well.  It ends up being the largest sticking point of the relationship which rings true for me.
  • Chapters are told from each hero’s perspective and they could not be more different.  Laurie sound like the older, educated gentleman that he is, and Toby’s point of view is more casual and slang-filled.  The difference carries over into their speech so the whole book feels more unified than I was expecting with different POVs.
  • Laurie is a doctor and my (partially trained) eye didn’t find any medical weirdness or errors.  This is more rare than you would think.
  • The story is plain ol’ good.  I loved watching the couple fall in love and swallowed chapters in greedy gulps.

The only not-so-good things I can think of are nitpicks and not even worth mentioning.  If you like BDSM romance, or gay romance, or just plain ol’ romance For Real is a wonderful read.

Rogue Magic by Kit Brisby

32714776While trapped in a stalled subway train on his morning commute, PR rep Byron Cole flirts with Levi, a young waiter with adorable curls. But Byron’s hopes for romance crash and burn when Levi saves him from a brutal explosion—with outlawed magic.

When Levi is imprisoned, Byron begins to question everything he’s ever believed. How can magic be evil when Levi used it to save dozens of lives? So Byron hatches a plan to save Levi that will cost him his job and probably his life. If he doesn’t pull it off, Levi will be put to death.

Byron must convince Levi to trust him, to trust his own magic, and to fight against the hatred that’s forced him to hide his true nature his entire life. The more Levi opens up, the harder Byron falls. And the more they have to lose.

Ooo boy, is this book timely.  In a world very much like our own magic is a real thing.  Not everyone can use it, and those who can are forced to register with the government and are vilified by the public.  (See that? Yup.)

Bryon works for the company that confines mages and believes the party line until he meets Levi, who saves his life with a well placed magical shield.  Bryon wrapping his brain around this new information is one of my favorite parts of the book.  We watch him struggle with long held beliefs, do his best to open his mind, and become friends with people he formerly would have brushed aside.  The process takes time and feels right.

Brisby’s New York is delightfully rooted in the reality of our own, and I appreciate that the medical details are (to my knowledge) accurate.  The friendships are especially satisfying, maybe even more than the insta-romance that pops up.

The world building is good early on but, like the plot, it loses steam. I would have liked more info about the history of mage suppression or theories on where the magic comes from and why only some people can use it. A lot gets swept under the rug with ‘it’s outlawed, so we don’t know’ which works in the beginning but gets frustrating as the story goes on. In a similar vein the ending left me with some unanswered questions as well as doubts that everything could have changed so quickly.  And if you like your allegory subtle this is anything but.

Still, I enjoyed Rogue Magic.  A diverse, escapist urban fantasy that manages to both address and take my mind off of current events?  I’m here for that.

Thanks to Riptide Publishing and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald

31021280When Betty MacDonald married a marine and moved to a small chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, she was largely unprepared for the rigors of life in the wild. With no running water, no electricity, a house in need of constant repair, and days that ran from four in the morning to nine at night, the MacDonalds had barely a moment to put their feet up and relax. And then came the children. Yet through every trial and pitfall—through chaos and catastrophe—this indomitable family somehow, mercifully, never lost its sense of humor.

A beloved literary treasure for more than half a century, Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I is a heartwarming and uproarious account of adventure and survival on an American frontier.

Review:

I was excited to find that the author of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books wrote a memoir about chicken farming in the Pacific Midwest, complete with “The Enduring Classic” blazed on the cover.  But this doesn’t feel like a classic at all, with MacDonald’s sharp wit aimed at people who least deserve the jabs.

She moved to the wilds of Washington with her husband, determined to be the best wife she can by doing whatever makes her husband happy, no questions asked.  Let’s count that as Anger Runneth Over #1 – woman with zero agency.  She hates the chicken farming her husband loves and seems to find no joy in life on the mountain. Sometimes the barbs are funny and telling of how awful she found things.

In my little Death and Food Record book, I, in my prankish way, wrote opposite the date and number of deaths; “Chickenpox-Eggzema and Suicide.” When he checked the records, Bob noted this fun-in-our-work, and unsmiling erased it and neatly wrote, “Not determined.” Men are quite humorless about their own business.

But these moments are few and far between. More often MacDonald lights into her neighbors and people in town, judging them by her city standards of culture and erudition.  Whole passages are written phonetically to exaggerate their manner of speaking and, apparently, the humor.

Charlie wath butchering and I athk him for the thpare ribth becauthe they kilt two pigth and I knowed that the two of them couldn’t eat all them thpare ribth, but that thtingy thkunk thaid, “The reathon I’M BUTCHERING, MR. KETTLE, is becauthe I need the meat,” and I wath tho mad I forgot the egg math I had borried.

Instead of poking fun at a situation she’s grinding people into the dirt, holding them at fault for being different or not being given the same opportunities she has enjoyed.  This closed mindedness and snobbery is Anger Runneth Over #2.

It’s not that MacDonald is incapable of nuance – if she gave other people the consideration she reserved for her grandmother the book would be much more readable.

Gammy was patient, impatient, kind, caustic, witty, sad, wise, foolish, superstitious, religious, prejudiced, and dear.  She was, in short, a grandmother who is, after all, a woman whose inconsistencies have sharpened with use.

Instead we run into Anger Runneth #3, her view and treatment of the Native Americans of the area.  I went into the book knowing that racism of this sort would be an issue and prepared to see the book as of its time, but it’s hateful and awful even for the 1940s.

Little red brothers or not, I didn’t like Indians, and the more I saw of them the more I thought what an excellent thing it was to take that beautiful country away from them.

It hurts me so much to even type that.

There are a couple of chapters that are funny if separated from all the rage-inducing passages but I doubt it’s worth the effort.  Consider The Egg and I a classic you can safely skip.

The Phantom Lover by Elizabeth Mansfield

24444922Fiery young “Nell” Belden went to Thorndene Castle to escape a lover, not to find one. She was bound by the strict conventions of England’s Regency to a man she could never love, then bound by the ties of passion to a man she could never marry! For at Thorndene, she discovered a new and startling love, a love that was as intense as it was doomed…

“You must leave Thorndene!” said the ghost. Then he added, more gently, “I come to warn you, not to harm you. I may never touch you, any more than a shadow may..”

“What does that signify?” Nell asked. “Since you are dead, you can have no need or inclination to touch me anyway.”

“You can’t know much about men-or ghosts-or how delightful you look in that nightdress, if you believe that,” he said with disturbing sincerity.

Nell blushed and pulled the bedclothes over her. For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the ghostly figure was gone…

Review:

After seeing the 1979 publication date I was afraid this book would be full of literal bodice ripping and alpha-holes and old skool awfulness.  But in fact it’s a lovely Regency romance with a feminist heroine and a good share of laughs.

The good:

  • Nell is a strong character that has her head on straight.  She calls people out on their bullshit and is determined to only marry for love.
  • The hero appearing as a “ghost” is fun device that is executed well.  There’s nothing domineering about Henry, a genuinely nice guy.
  • While there’s a ballroom scene most of the action takes place away from society, allowing for a comfortingly small cast of characters.  Everyone is fleshed out, from the housekeeper’s family to the suitor from hell.
  • The whole book is just silly in a good way.  Great aunt (or is it grandma?) Amelia is always good for a laugh and the action never gets too heavy or dour.  Escapist romance for the win!

The not-so-good:

  • The relationship between the hero and heroine’s families is a little convoluted and I’m still not sure I can explain it.
  • The ending is rushed and only half-earned.

All in all a welcome diversion that reads quickly and leaves you smiling.

Urban Shaman by C.E. Murphy (Walker Papers #1)

6545916Joanne Walker has three days to learn to use her shamanic powers and save the world from the unleashed Wild Hunt.

No worries. No pressure. Never mind the lack of sleep, the perplexing new talent for healing herself from fatal wounds, or the cryptic, talking coyote who appears in her dreams.

And if all that’s not bad enough, in the three years Joanne’s been a cop, she’s never seen a dead body—but she’s just come across her second in three days.

It’s been a bitch of a week.

And it isn’t over yet.

Review:

I love urban fantasy but have gotten away from it, so I thought this book would be a great reintroduction. Sadly, not so much.

The good:

  • I like Joanne as a heroine. She’s a bit out of the ordinary – tall and imposing, a combination of Irish and Native American blood. She’s strong and has a point of view and doesn’t apologize for doing what she thinks is right.
  • The fantasy framework is a mix of Celtic and indigenous influences that I haven’t seen put together before.
  • Representation is good all around, with the first cross-dressing cop I’ve run across in fiction. Neat.

The not-so-good:

  • The secondary characters are underdeveloped and sometimes defy common sense. A random cabbie that gives her a ride from the airport quickly becomes her sidekick. Other people rotate in and out of the story so quickly you’re not sure if they’re important or plot enablers.
  • While our protagonist is a woman I had to sit here for several minutes before I could think of another woman who wasn’t a victim or dead. Eep.
  • The action goes off into dream land or spiritual space a lot. Nothing wrong with that in general, but it’s a space without apparent rules, rhyme, or reason. It’s hard to convince me of stakes or danger when a deus ex machina could literally pop out of the sky to save our heroine.
  • The writing isn’t the best and I found myself skimming more and more as the book went on.

So while my love for urban fantasy has been rekindled I don’t think I’ll be exploring it with this series.

Modern Mindfulness by Rohan Gunatillake

29939328In Modern Mindfulness, Rohan Gunatillake argues that to lead more mindful, calm and happy lives, switching off is the last thing we need to do. Instead he gives readers ideas, principles, and techniques to bring awareness, composure, and kindness whatever they are doing. Filled with over sixty practical exercises, the author’s mobile mindfulness approach gives the benefits of meditation to even the busiest of lives.

Review:

My job can be stressful so my friend recommended a meditation app, something I could do during stolen moments that would help me gain a little peace.  I sat down in the hospital coffee shop and… I tried.  I really did.  But I had to crank up the sound to drown out a crying baby, people were looking at me funny, and I kept opening one eye to make sure my purse was still there.  Still lots of stress, not so much peace.

Gunatillake outlines a method that doesn’t require quiet or closed eyes or even stillness.  There are exercises you can do while walking, commuting, and sitting at your computer.  Modern life feels hectic but there are many moments we can leverage to get back in touch with our body and mind.

There are six core techniques that start with simpler, easier to grasp topics (relaxation, focus, being present) and move through more complex ideas (coping, connection, going deeper).  Each has a guided meditation which, to be honest, I was skeptical of, but ended up liking them more than any audio meditations I’ve tried. Here’s part of one I read while commuting by train:

…there is no need to judge our posture as to whether it is slovenly or sublime, just pay attention to it as it is.

Pay attention in as simple and direct a way as possible right now.

Take as long as you need.

I was standing and that was okay.  I was slouching, and that was okay.  I could look out the window while taking stock of my body for as long as I needed without anyone mumbling in my ear about the next thing.  All okay, all relaxing and peaceful.

After each core meditation there are ten related mobile exercises and they are my favorite part of the book.  Many are linked with some kind of trigger that act as reminders throughout your day to check in and be mindful.  For example, now and then eat breakfast with no distractions, concentrating on the experience of eating.  When you pick up your phone note why you reached for it – boredom? loneliness? – and try sitting with that emotion instead of checking twitter. When you see someone on the street who’s happy let that feeling resonate with you and celebrate with them.

I now have ways to be mindful when I step out the door, when I have a minute between patients, and when my mind is racing on the bus ride home.  It’s exactly what I wanted and needed.

Some more of the good – Gunatillake keeps mindfulness and religion in separate boxes, which this agnostic appreciates. And he points out that some techniques won’t work, and that’s okay:

Sometimes we can look the difficult directly in the face and other times we need to play the relaxation card, moving our attention somewhere more tolerable.  This is not a failure; it is wisdom.

In the introduction he says that formal practice (sitting and concentrating on the breath) is secondary to the mobile exercises.  This made me very happy… until chapter eight or so, when the story changes to ‘but really, formal practice is important and the base of mindfulness, so make sure you do it’.  I may have been more receptive to this switch if I were working through the books and techniques slowly, but it was a frustrating change when reading the book in one go.

My other critique is that Gunatillake’s scope is narrow, with meditations centered on experiences of white collar workers commuting via public transportation.  He assumes that everyone works at an office and is surrounded by concrete which is distancing if, like me, you don’t.  “I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet but meetings at work are really boring,” he says, so clearly he’s never met with a bunch of interpreters!  (Seriously, it’s our job to a) talk, b) care, and c) do what needs doing. It makes for great meetings.)

Anywho… people who live in the country will laugh at the idea of “spend[ing] a short time experiencing a park or a green space”, and there’s a lack of techniques tailored to service jobs or manual labor or even driving.  It doesn’t take away from the exercises but it feels like a missed opportunity.

That being said I really like Modern Mindfulness.  I’m looking forward to going back through it slowly and spending a week or two on each core technique while building up my mindfulness muscle.  If you’ve been meditating for a while you may not squeeze as much out of the pages but it was just what this neophyte needed.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Griffin and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Wicked Beat by Olivia Cunning (Sinners on Tour #4)

Synopsis:

12710096From the moment he lays eyes on Sinners’ new front of house soundboard operator, drummer Eric Sticks knows he has to make Rebekah his. Unfortunately, she’s too busy trying to seduce guitarist Trey Mills to pay him much attention.

Rebekah never planned to fall for the tall, goofy drummer with the weird sense of humor and a heart the size of the galaxy. But Eric makes her laugh and his constant attention makes her feel sexy and irresistible–exactly what she needs after the things her last lover said to her.

A woman who gives as much as she takes, Rebekah makes Eric feel like a total stud–exactly what he needs after surviving a decade of watching the incredibly talented members of Sinners from the wings.

Review:

Opening this book I knew what I was getting into – lots of sex with some plot to hold things together. So that instalove in the beginning? Mostly forgiven. The predictable monkey business? Overlooked.

Like in the other book in this series I’ve read a woman finds a way to get close to the band via a tour-related gig, she drools, he’s cool, and they get it on.  Okay.  Eric has an… issue… that they need to get over as a couple that adds some interest and conflict.

But in the middle there’s heaps of angst, piled on in layers. Someone’s in the closet, someone else is dealing with mental illness, somebody else has family issues, yet someone else is recovering from nearly dying… hmmm, I feel like I’m forgetting something. Oh, the arranged marriage neither party wants! It was way too much for me, and almost convenient in its utter wrongness.  That situation that looks like it’s going to go badly?  It’s even worse than you feared. Grah.

Recurring characters have several books’ worth of characterization behind them but the secondary characters were unsatisfying and poorly developed, almost caricatures of archetypes – the kind dad, the coworker looking for revenge, the overbearing mother.  There’s a description of a medical condition that I’m not happy with but don’t know enough about to rail at properly. Grah.

There is also a hint of a menage that never really happens. It looks like it got put in book five instead so I’ll give that one a go, but Wicked Beat was too ARGH to be enjoyable.

Lotus by Lijia Zhang

31204038Surviving by her wits alone, Lotus charges headlong into the neon lights of Shenzhen, determined to pull herself out of the gutter and decide her own path. She’s different than the other streetwalkers—reserved, even defiant, Lotus holds her secrets behind her red smile.

The new millennium should’ve brought her better luck, but for now she leads a double life, wiring the money home to her family and claiming she earns her wages waiting tables. Her striking eyes catch the attention of many, but Lotus weighs her options between becoming the concubine of a savvy migrant worker or a professional girlfriend to a rich and powerful playboy. Or she may choose the kind and decent Hu Binbing, a photojournalist reporting on China’s underground sex trade—who has a hidden past of his own. She knows that fortunes can shift with the toss of a coin and, in the end, she may make a choice that leads her on a different journey entirely.

Review:

I enjoyed Lotus but it wasn’t love at first sight.  I had a hard time getting into the prose – Zhang’s writing style isn’t experimental or dramatic, but it took a while to align the way my mind moves with her words.  Once I did I found myself drawn into the story of Lotus, a prostitute inspired by the secret life of the author’s grandmother, and photojournalist Bing.

The style is simple and belies the well-laid out plot and deep characterization at work.  We meet characters as whole people and learn more about their back story and motivations as the chapters go by.  Later information never invalidates a previous action but adds depth and nuance. Over time the characters, including minors ones, become even more real. They change and grow due to later events, pulling us through without the need for a gripping A through B to C plot.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a plot.  We watch as Lotus makes her way in the world, trying to find the best path among many lousy options.  How can she find herself, then be true that person?  Who is her ally, and who is better left behind?  Bing has choices of his own tied up with money and love, as well as a past that won’t let him go.

I was worried that the ending would be overly sad or maudlin but Zhang crafts a satisfying conclusion that took me by surprise while being true to all the characterization that leads up to it.  Lotus is interesting for its craft and story and is great for those looking for something grounded yet out of the ordinary.

Thanks to Henry Holt & Company and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Foundations of Clinical Psychiatry edited by Sidney Bloch et al.

preview_bloch-final-cover_fcFoundations of Clinical Psychiatry is the trusted introductory text for students of medicine and other health professions, including psychiatric nursing, psychology, social work and occupational therapy. It has also been the essential reference for family doctors for over quarter of a century.

The four-part structure—an introduction to clinical psychiatry; conditions encountered; specific patient groups and clinical settings; and principles and details of typical clinical services, and of biological and psychological treatments—provides a clear overview of clinical practice. It also explores the causes of mental illness and the ethical aspects of its treatment, and covers the full range of psychiatric disorders encountered by health practitioners.

Review:

Yes, this is a medical textbook.  But don’t run away just yet!  If you work in any kind of health profession or have contact with people with mental illness you will find it invaluable.

For background I’m a medical interpreter. If you speak English and walk into a Japanese hospital while I’m on shift I’ll help you communicate with doctors and staff across languages to make sure you receive the best care.  I love my job – I never know what kind of patients I’ll meet on a particular day.  I’ve seen everything from heart attacks to common colds but being called to psychiatry always gives me pause.  Does someone need their medication adjusted?  Will I be interpreting a psychotic delusion?  Or is the patient thinking of killing themselves and in need of immediate help?

After reading this book I feel much more prepared for whatever may come my way.  The book is split into four parts – An Approach to Clinical Practice covers the history, classification, and ethics of psychiatry. The Range of Psychiatric Disorders covers each disorder in detail while the next section, Special Clinical Areas, highlights areas like forensic psychiatry and women’s mental health.  Last is a detailed section on the different treatment options available.  It’s a thorough approach that’s aimed squarely at people with medical know-how who aren’t necessarily doctors themselves.

I highlighted so. many. passages!  I plowed straight through but the chapters stand alone so you can read what interests or affects you.  If you work in a nursing home you’ll gravitate towards psychiatry of old age and neuropsychiatric disorders (like dementia and Alzheimer’s), and if you’re an interpreter like me the chapter on psychiatric interviews will be pure gold.

Foundations is from an Australian publisher but they use both American (DSM-5) and international (ICD-10) classifications.  I now have a deeper, better understanding of all the little corners of psychiatry and have some insight into what the doctor is thinking or aiming for during a particular consultation.

Will everyone be excited to read about mental illness?  I’m going to guess not.  ;)  But if you work in a medical environment or with people affected by psychiatric disorders you’ll learn a ton and be more prepared for whomever may walk through the door. So consider this a hearty, if narrow, recommend.

Thanks to Melbourne University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.