Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life by Alice Childress

28186071First published in Paul Robeson’s newspaper, Freedom, and composed of a series of conversations between Mildred, a black domestic, and her friend Marge, Like One of the Family is a wry, incisive portrait of working women in Harlem in the 1950’s. Rippling with satire and humor, Mildred’s outspoken accounts vividly capture her white employers’ complacency and condescension—and their startled reactions to a maid who speaks her mind and refuses to exchange dignity for pay.

Upon publication the book sparked a critique of working conditions, laying the groundwork for the contemporary domestic worker movement. Although she was critically praised, Childress’s uncompromising politics and unflinching depictions of racism, classism, and sexism relegated her to the fringe of American literature. Like One of the Family has been long overlooked, but this new edition, featuring a foreword by best-selling author Roxane Gay, will introduce Childress to a new generation.

Review:

This collection of vignettes is a joy.

Marge, I sure am glad that you are my friend… No, I do  not want to borrow anything or ask any favors and I wish you’d stop bein’ suspicious everytime somebody pays you a compliment.  It’s a sure sign of a distrustful nature.

Even more than the joy, though, I love the look at what it’s like to be a black domestic worker in 1950’s New York.  While the way of life is different there are other parts that are eerily familiar.  When Mildred riffs one Christmas about what peace would look like she dispenses with “no war” quickly – peace would be not being turned away from an apartment because of her race.  Peace would be not seeing signs on the subway asking for “tolerance” “regardless” of what other people are.  And,

…if nobody wanted to kill nobody else and I could pick up a newspaper and not read ’bout my folks gettin’ the short end of every stick… that would mean more peace.

How little has changed.

As Roxanne Gay says in the foreword, it’s “political without trying to manipulate the readers’ sensibilites, without ever forgetting that a novel, political or not, must first and foremost entertain.”  The short chapters go down easy and are perfect for reading on the train or at the doctor’s office.  I’m thankful that Childress wrote down the experience of this overlooked slice of society.  I’m so glad I read it.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25489134At the edge of the Russian wilderness Vasilisa spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Review:

I haven’t read much straight up adult fantasy lately and this books reminds me – why the hell not?! Reading like a grown-up fairy tale, The Bear and the Nightingale wove its spell around me just when I wanted to get away from the world.

So much is satisfying – the prose is weighty in the right places and beautiful throughout. The story could feel segmented but holds together well, having a cohesive instead of episodic feel. And perhaps above all, Arden trusts the reader. There is no semantic break down of character nicknames; we figure them out for ourselves. Plot threads are put aside until they are needed instead of being needled to death. If there is a romance it’s a super slow burn… I love slow burns! And while there’s a solid ending it leaves the door open for more books. Once I finished I learned it’s going to be a trilogy – callooh! Callay!

A strong recommendation for anyone who loves fantasy, especially for those who are looking for more than YA can offer. I’m excitedly looking forward to the next installment.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

25189315Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession.

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

Review:

This isn’t the book for everyone, but at the same time, the more you resist the more you should probably read it. (Passes given for the truly squeemish and triggered, of course.)

In this memoir-of-sorts Doughty explores her life-long fascination with death and what it means to have a “good” one. She relates what it’s actually like to work at a crematory, how bodies of all descriptions get to their final resting place, Western culture’s relationship with death and how it’s changed over the centuries, and more.

Doughty speaks honestly about things we’d never admit to being curious about (why don’t we see dead bodies at the hospital?) and things many of us never think about (what happens when a homeless person dies?). Working in medicine I’ve already given thought to my own “good death” but she pushed me a step farther – what would I like to happen <i>after</i> I die? What would donating my body to science entail? What kind of rituals or ceremonies would help my family cope?

I won’t lie, parts of the book made my eyes leak, a ‘wow that’s so beautiful/touching/wrenching’ that hits you (lovingly) in the solar plexus. This is stuff we should all be thinking about it and as the author argues, turning a blind eye to death makes for an unhealthy relationship with it.

A hearty recommend for anyone interested by the title, and even those who aren’t.

The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time by Brooke Gladstone

34525527Reality. It used to seem so simple—reality just was, like the weather. Why question it, let alone disagree about it? And then came the assault, an unending stream of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and lies disguised as truths that is overwhelming our notions of reality. Now we can’t even agree on what a fact is, let alone what is real. How on earth did we get here?

Reality, as Gladstone shows us, was never what we thought it was—there is always a bubble, people are always subjective and prey to stereotypes. And that makes reality more vulnerable than we ever thought. Enter Donald J. Trump and his team of advisors. For them, as she writes, lying is the point. The more blatant the lie, the easier it is to hijack reality and assert power over the truth. Drawing on writers as diverse as Hannah Arendt, Walter Lippmann, and Jonathan Swift, she dissects this strategy straight out of the authoritarian playbook and shows how the Trump team mastered it.

And she offers hope—the inevitable reckoning history tells us we can count on—and a way to recover both our belief in reality and our sanity.

Review:

‘What is reality, anyway?’ seems like an impossible question but Gladstone has us covered.   The answer starts from a single core idea – that each of us has our own personal reality – and builds out bit by bit to explain how we got to where we are today.

I highlighted so many passages it’s slightly ridiculous.  Complex ideas are articulated clearly and memorably, and many have been rattling around my head as the news cycle spins on – how beliefs and conspiracies affect our realities.  How Huxley and Orwell’s dystopian fears translate to our times.  How demagogues get and lose their power.  How to avoid pitfalls in messaging and what we can do to affect change.  “Meaningful action is a time-tested treatment for moral panic,” she says, and we’re pointed in the right direction.

This is one of those reviews that’s hard to write not because of a lack of things to say but because I have trouble putting all the awesome into a few paragraphs. Let’s try this: if you’re looking for an insight into current times, if you want a timely read that will make you think and wonder and gasp in recognition, or if you’d like to plot where things go from here, The Trouble with Reality is a must read.  Much love.

Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

31447601It’s the start of Jordan Sun’s junior year at the Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, she’s an Alto 2, which—in the musical theatre world—is sort of like being a vulture in the wild: She has a spot in the ecosystem, but nobody’s falling over themselves to express their appreciation. So it’s no surprise when she gets shut out of the fall musical for the third year straight.

Then the school gets a mass email: A spot has opened up in the Sharpshooters, Kensington’s elite a cappella octet. Worshiped … revered … all male. Desperate to prove herself, Jordan auditions in her most convincing drag, and it turns out that Jordan Sun, Tenor 1, is exactly what the Sharps are looking for.

Review:

Holy cow, I love this book.

The good:

  • First and foremost, everything rings true, from the overarching issues (race, gender, class, identity) to small details (what it’s like to be part of a music group, theatre department politics).  Some of it is from the author’s own experience, some of it is from careful research and consideration, and all of it is appreciated.
  • The intersectionality is real.  In the first chapter Jordan doesn’t get cast in the school musical and asks the director why.  All the options run through her head – is it because I’m not white?  Or because I’m taller than the prospective leading men?  This feeling, this ‘what’s the strike against me this time’, is real for many and I’m so happy to see it addressed on the page.
  • Likewise all the gender issues are thoughtfully and thoroughly considered.  I won’t go into detail for fear of spoiling things, so here’s a quote after Jordan starts dressing as a guy:

    I’d set down the burdens of being a girl, unstrapped them one by one and left them on the roadside, but my shoulders didn’t feel any lighter.  They were carrying different, unfamiliar weights now.  As I stood there in that derelict husk of a theater, I felt like I’d gotten lost in between my lives, and the road ahead looked long and strange and poorly lit.

  • There are subtle pokes at the reader to check in with themselves and see how they’re doing regarding these issues.

    With so many queer kids at Kensington, people sometimes got weirdly comfortable, like they had a free pass to say anything they wanted about sexuality.  I guess it was tempting to stick a rainbow-colored “Ally” pin on your backpack and call it a day, as if that were the endpoint, not the starting line.

    Word.

  • Redgate name drops songs – this is a book about a cappella, after all – but none of them are real.  It’s genius.  The story will never date itself by the cultural references within, ensuring that people reading it even twenty years from now will feel a minimal amount of generational whiplash.
  • The plot never stops moving, the banter is fun, you can feel the found family that forms within the Sharps, and you watch Jordan discover who they are.  It’s a delightful journey that I look forward to revisiting.

The only not-so-good thing I can think of is that I was shipping a different couple.  That’s it.  So minor.

In sum, Noteworthy is a diverse, inclusive YA novel that’s compulsively readable and a whole lot of fun.  And it’s full of a cappella!  What more could you want?

Thanks to Amulet Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

The Angel by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #2)

Synopsis:

13548075Infamous erotica author and accomplished dominatrix Nora Sutherlin is doing something utterly out of character: hiding. While her longtime lover, Søren—whose fetishes, if exposed, would be his ruin—is under scrutiny pending a major promotion, Nora’s lying low and away from temptation in the lap of luxury.

Her host, the wealthy and uninhibited Griffin Fiske, is thrilled to have Nora stay at his country estate, especially once he meets her traveling companion. Young, inexperienced and angelically beautiful, Michael has become Nora’s protégé, and this summer with Griffin is going to be his training, where the hazing never ends.

But while her flesh is willing, Nora’s mind is wandering. To thoughts of Søren, her master, under investigation by a journalist with an ax to grind. And to another man from Nora’s past, whose hold on her is less bruising, but whose secrets are no less painful. It’s a summer that will prove the old adage: love hurts.

Review:

Very good, but not as amazing as the first.

Continue reading “The Angel by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #2)”

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

29633797In a timely follow-up to her national bestseller Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit offers indispensable commentary on women who refuse to be silenced, misogynistic violence, the fragile masculinity of the literary canon, the gender binary, the recent history of rape jokes, and much more.

In characteristic style, Solnit mixes humor, keen analysis, and powerful insight in these essays.

Review:

I read Men Explain Things to Me a month ago and I’m happy I was able to follow up so quickly with The Mother of All Questions.  It’s a continuation of Solnit’s previous essay collection with a thankfully more inclusive lens.

The standout essay is A Short History of Silence, about how women are forbidden or prevented from speaking and not heard when they do.  It’s a truth we hold in our hearts but avoid looking at too closely because man, it hurts.

Being unable to tell your story is a living death and sometimes a literal one.  If no one listens when you say your ex-husband is trying to kill you, if no one believes you when you say you are in pain, if no one hears you when when you say ‘help’, if you don’t dare say ‘help’, if you have been trained not to bother people by saying ‘help’.

My heart aches because I know this.  I’ve seen it, not only with myself and women but other marginalized groups.  Others say the stories are ‘unbelievable’, which as Solnit points out, “means those with power did not want to know, to hear, to believe, did not want them to have voices.”  I’m happy to see that she recognizes the different and varied challenges faced by people of color, those who are LGBTQ*, and others who were often overlooked in Men Explain Things to Me.  Solnit also explores what this hyper-masculine culture means for guys, punishing them for showing “soft” feelings and effectively blunting their emotional range as humans.

Jaw dropping and rage inducing facts abound – rape is the most common form of trauma, but PTSD research is directed at male veterans.  “Fight or flight” was largely studied in male rats and humans and women often employ a third, until now unrecognized, option.  One reason the gun homicide rate hasn’t risen is not because fewer people are getting shot, but because medicine is getting better at saving those who are.  In fact more people are getting shot.  And on and on.

Luckily Solnit also points out things we can all do.  Tell your story if you can, and listen and believe those who are telling you theirs.  If someone lobs a sexist inquiry your way reply, “Would you ask a man that question?”  Do the intellectual work to not see groups (Muslims, women, poor people, etc.) as monolith entities, for that is the road to believing you can attack any member for the entire group’s perceived sins.

Overall The Mother of All Questions is more nuanced and inclusive than its predecessor while still packing an eye opening gut punch.  Necessary for the times we live in and a hearty recommend.

Thanks to Haymarket Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan

Synopsis:

temporarypeoplebydeepakunnikrushnan-9781632061423In the United Arab Emirates, foreign nationals constitute over 80% of the population. Brought in to construct the towering monuments to wealth that bristle the skylines of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, this labor force works without the rights of citizenship, endures miserable living conditions, and is eventually required to leave the country. Until now, the humanitarian crisis of the so-called “guest workers” of the Gulf has barely been addressed in fiction. With his stunning, mind-altering book Temporary People, debut author Deepak Unnikrishnan delves into their histories, myths, struggles, and triumphs, and illuminates the ways in which temporary status affects psyches, families, memories, stories, and languages.

Deepak Unnikrishnan presents twenty-eight linked stories that careen from construction workers who shapeshift into luggage and escape a labor camp, to a woman who stitches back together the bodies of those who’ve fallen from buildings in progress, to a man who grows ideal workers designed to live twelve years and then perish—until they don’t, and found a rebel community in the desert. In this polyphony of voices, Unnikrishnan brilliantly maps a new, unruly global English, and in giving substance and identity to the anonymous workers of the Gulf, he highlights the disturbing ways in which “progress” on a global scale is bound up with dehumanization.

Review:

Until recently I thought I wasn’t a short story person.  I guess I was just reading the wrong ones, as I loved The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers last year and I love Temporary People. So what are the ingredients to a perfect-for-me collection?

  • A window onto an experience I’m not familiar with

The city flirted with these people, making all give and give up. The air was spiked; everyone wanted a taste.

Temporary People is about foreign laborers in Gulf states, working in places like Dubai.  Often they come for economic reasons, sending the money they make back home, but others start families and stay… until they’re forced to leave.

Unnikrishnan uses fantastic elements to get at the reality underpinning the guest worker experience.  The story Birds follows Anna Varghese, who tapes construction workers together after they fall from the buildings they’re working on.  When they hit the ground an arm skitters off in one direction, their spleen and eye in another, but they don’t die.  They simply wait for someone to come by at night and patch them together with glue, a needle, and some horsehair.

Anna had a superb track record for finding fallen men.  The woman must have been part-bloodhound.  She found everything, including teeth, bits of skin… the men were grateful to be fussed over like this.

…The fallen shared that when Anna reattached body parts, she spoke to them in her tongue, sometimes stroking their hair or chin… If she didn’t speak his language, she sang, poorly, but from the heart.  But even Anna lost people.

Metaphors of men being seen as things comes up again and again.  In one story they’re literally grown in soil to fill the need for more labor.  It would be clumsy and blunt in the wrong hands but Unnikreishnan breathes life into each story, which brings me to my next ingredient.

  • A solid plot held together with inventive writing

Temporary People is written in English, but it’s not the sort you may have grown up with.  It’s a Global English – largely the same but bending in places to fit the needs of its speakers.

In the back [of the shop]… was what some customers sought him out for, a fone.  The device resembled a rotary phone, but it wasn’t a phone; it was a fone… the fone’s main purpose was teleportation.  A man could use the fone to talk to his wife, and as his wife cried softly into the neighbor’s phone, her husband would hover over her, like a giant bee, seeing his wife cry like that, feeling satisfied that his wife could cry like that, content that he could see her cry like that, even though she wouldn’t be able to see him, or even know that he was there, so close he could see the dirt on the back of her neck.

Unnikrishnan molds words to do his bidding and they sucked me in.  Once there the plot keeps things moving – I made sure I had time to finish each story as I knew I wouldn’t be able to put it down halfway.

  • A touch of something… different

Here, as you can tell from the above examples, it’s a touch of magical realism.  It bends reality like Global English molds the language, allowing us to get past the facts and come closer to truth.  Cockroaches wear clothes and walk on two legs.  A tongue jumps out of a mouth one day, crossing the road and leaving stray nouns in its wake.  An elevator is implicated in a crime.  It sounds fantastic when boiled down to one sentence like that, but it’s spun out in such a way that’s not jarring, just… well, magical.  Some stories share common links, making it easy to imagine the different settings as part of a cohesive whole.

The result is wonderful, and Unnikrishnan has earned a fan.  I can’t wait to see what he comes out with next.

…and if you know short story collections that have two or more of these ingredients tell me in the comments!  I’m always on the hunt for more :)

Thanks to Restless Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

18528190In her comic, scathing essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters.

She ends on a serious note— because the ultimate problem is the silencing of women who have something to say, including those saying things like, “He’s trying to kill me!”

This book features that now-classic essay with six perfect complements, including an examination of the great feminist writer Virginia Woolf ’s embrace of mystery, of not knowing, of doubt and ambiguity, a highly original inquiry into marriage equality, and a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women.

Review:

This is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while and I’m glad I did. I didn’t care for Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost but these essays are a stylistic world apart.

It’s Feminism 201 for those newer to the movement but everyone will get something from it. Personally it reminded me that it’s important to flip the narrative and look at issues from the opposite angle. If there is a rape at a college the women are told to protect themselves – don’t go out alone, don’t walk at night.

Some pranksters put up a poster announcing another remedy, that all men be excluded from campus after dark. It was an equally logical solution, but men were shocked at being asked to disappear, to lose their freedom to move and participate, all because of the violence of one man.

Similarly,

…of sixty-two mass shootings in the United States in three decades, only one was by a woman, because when you say lone gunman, everyone talks about loners and guns but not about men—and by the way, nearly two-thirds of all women killed by guns are killed by their partner or ex-partner.

Feminism past is connected to feminism present, and we are reminded that we will need the movement far into the future. The message can be troubling and infuriating but there’s also a healthy dose of optimism.

I made a ton of highlights and had my mind pleasantly stretched, but I would have liked to see intersectionality discussed more. Women of color, trans women, and others face more awfulness than white, cis women and it deserves to be acknowledged and examined.

But that’s my only complaint. Men Explain Things to Me is a quick read that will stick with me for a long time.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (Wayward Children #1)

25526296Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

Review:

This book is the perfect way to get out of your brain and set aside the world for a time. It will only be a short while but oh, how wonderful it is.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is for children who have slipped away into different worlds. Some went to fairy lands that are akin to Alice’s Wonderland. Others visited darker places, or weirder places, or places that weren’t happy to see them. For various reasons they have returned to the real world, and many would do anything to find that door out once again.

The story is short with a simple whodunit at its core. But, much like Palimpsest, I wasn’t here for the plot. The various words described are intriguing and I want to know more about them. The characters are simply drawn but still deep and flawed and human. I especially love how the main characters cover a full range of gender and sexual identities.

And the writing! Overall it’s not difficult, pitched at the lower end of YA with a few expletives thrown in, but McGuire pops in observations that make you gasp and say “Yes, this”.

Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.

Some are like life lessons:

We don’t teach you how to dwell. We also don’t teach you how to forget. We teach you how to move on.

So good. As much as I loved this book, though, there are some things I would change. First, I wish it were longer because 1) I’m greedy and 2) a subplot would have helped round out the narrative. The plot felt thin for a world this rich and well thought out. Second, the characters annoyed me with their obsession for categorizing the worlds they visited. The basic classification is interesting and helpful, but the characters’ preoccupation with it drove me nuts. Granted, this has parallels with the real world (pigeonholing, stereotyping) but still. Grah.

I’m excited to see that this is the first in a planned series – I can’t wait to return to McGuire’s world.