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.

Prisoner of Love by Beverly Jenkins

18898429Kansas, 1884
Abandoned by her husband, Elizabeth Franklin is struggling to keep up with the chores on her 60-acre farm. Desperate to stay in the only home she ever loved, the resourceful Elizabeth agrees to marry a prisoner, Jordan Yancey – an arrangement that will set him free while affording her the farm help that she so urgently needs. But what Elizabeth never expects is that this former prisoner will arouse the kind of passion and desire she’s only heard about and capture her instead…

Jordan Yancey would do anything to get out of prison, and the arrangement with the pretty, but prim Elizabeth seems like a good bet – his freedom for a little farm work, and a wife on paper. He never imagines that his pretend bride will become the most magnificent woman he’s ever met…and that his sensuous little ‘jailer’ will be the one to free his heart…

Review:

I needed a quick hit of romance and stumbled upon this Jenkins novella at the library. A marriage of convenience historical set in the American West? Yes, please!

Jenkins usually writes novels in the 385-page range and it shows – there’s a lot of story considering the two digit page count. The conflicts are resolved quickly and easily with a single conversation. Elizabeth warms up to Jordan quickly, which is a bit hard to swallow because he was a convict when she married him.

In fact, the plot is so minimal that the story ventures into porn-without-plot territory. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind – the love scenes are great! – it’s just not what I expected.

Her writing and historical chops are on fine display, so fans of Jenkins’ other historicals will enjoy this quick hit of romance. If you’re looking for an un-rushed story, though, you may want to try one of her longer titles like Breathless or Night Hawk.

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero

Translated by Frances Riddle

30347690Every year, at the height of summer, the remote Argentine village of Laborde holds the national malambo contest. Centuries-old, this shatteringly demanding traditional gaucho dance is governed by the most rigid rules. And this festival has one stipulation that makes it unique: the malambo is danced for up to five minutes. That may seem like nothing, but consider the world record for the hundred-meter dash is 9.58 seconds. The dance contest is an obsession for countless young men, who sacrifice their bodies and money as they strive to become the champion, knowing that if they win—in order to safeguard the title’s prestige—they can never compete again.

When Leila Guerriero traveled to Laborde, one dancer’s performance took her breath away, and she spent a year following him as he prepared for the next festival. The result is this superlative piece of journalism, told with tremendous economy and power.

Review:

The malambo is my favorite dance that I never knew about. It’s athletic, takes massive skill and commitment, and is just fun to watch.  I mean, look:

As Guerriero writes:

At three minutes, the malambo is a wall of sound, a jumble of boots, drum, and guitar that picks up speed at an asphyxiating rate.  At four minutes, his feet pound the stage with savage fury, the guitar, drum, and boots are a solid mass of blows, and at four minutes fifty seconds, the man lowers his head, raises one leg, and with colossal force, bashes it into the wood, his heart monstrously swollen, with the lucid yet frenzied expression of someone who’s just experienced a revelation.  After a few seconds of unnatural stillness, in which the public claps and shouts, the man, like someone emptying a gun into a dead body, dances off the stage with a short, furious storm of tapping, and every cell in his body seems to scream: This is what I’m made of.  I am capable of absolutely anything.

If that doesn’t make you want to watch through to the end I don’t know what will.

The yearly festival at Laborde is only known to other dancers and the title comes with a price – you can never dance the malambo in competition again.  Why do these dancers work so hard to end their career?

Guerriero examines Laborde from all sides – the dancers and their families, the practice and sacrifice required to be a contender, the place of the malambo in Argentinian society, and so much more.  The prose is powerful and comes through full force thanks to Riddle’s translation.  I purposefully limited myself to small doses so I could spread my enjoyment out as long as possible.

This book is a perfect case for non-fiction in translation: it opens our eyes to something we never knew existed that, like all things, relates back to us.  Check it out for the story, for the prose, for the dance, and for the experience.  My second five star read of the year – I heap my love upon it.

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 Laws of Medicine by Siddhartha Mukherjee

25409816Over a decade ago, when Siddhartha Mukherjee was a young, exhausted, and isolated medical resident, he discovered a book that would forever change the way he understood the medical profession. The book, The Youngest Science, forced Dr. Mukherjee to ask himself an urgent, fundamental question: Is medicine a “science”? Sciences must have laws—statements of truth based on repeated experiments that describe some universal attribute of nature. But does medicine have laws like other sciences?

Dr. Mukherjee has spent his career pondering this question—a question that would ultimately produce some of most serious thinking he would do around the tenets of his discipline—culminating in The Laws of Medicine. In this important treatise, he investigates the most perplexing and illuminating cases of his career that ultimately led him to identify the three key principles that govern medicine.

Review:

I’ve been meaning to read Mukherjee for a while now, especially considering how highly regarded Emperor of all Maladies is. That tome is 571 pages, though, so I thought The Laws of Medicine would be a better introduction.

And straight off I can tell you that I like his writing and his style.  He neither dumbs down examples nor overexplains details.  I want to read more… especially because this book is so short.

Clocking in at under 100 pages, it introduces the three laws of medicine Mukherjee devised.  One is more aimed at research than clinical practice, and one is dead obvious to anyone who has studied medicine (even this lowly interpreter) but they’re still good points and worthy of the attention.

What hurts the most for me is that book could have been longer.  The idea of laws could be better explored, corollaries proposed and debated, and exceptions that prove the rule gone over.  As it stands the information is sufficient but not satisfying.

I listened to the audiobook and like the reader and the way it is produced.  Having the author read the introduction is always a nice touch.

While I liked The Laws of Medicine it didn’t affect me as much as What Doctors Feel and other medical non-fiction does.  But that’s okay – I’m viewing it as a tantalizing preview of Mukherjee’s longer, more in-depth work.  Onward!

Coffee Boy by Austin Chant

32146161After graduation, Kieran expected to go straight into a career of flipping burgers—only to be offered the internship of his dreams at a political campaign. But the pressure of being an out trans man in the workplace quickly sucks the joy out of things, as does Seth, the humorless campaign strategist who watches his every move.

Soon, the only upside to the job is that Seth has a painful crush on their painfully straight boss, and Kieran has a front row seat to the drama. But when Seth proves to be as respectful and supportive as he is prickly, Kieran develops an awkward crush of his own—one which Seth is far too prim and proper to ever reciprocate.

Review:

With this book I realized I have a new wheelhouse, a genre I can’t get enough of.  I’m still testing the edges to see how broad this love goes but for now I’m calling it own voices BTQIA* romance, as in LGBTQIA* without the L and G.  Don’t get me wrong, I like lesbian and gay romance! It just doesn’t thrill me as much as the rest of the acronym and who knows, I may be adding or dropping parts as I read more widely.  Let’s break it down as it stands:

own voices – fiction “about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group” (definition by the person who started the hashtag, Corinne Duyvis)
B – bisexual
T – trans
Q – (gender)queer
I – intersex
A – asexual
* – other gender and sexual identities not covered above

Coffee Boy is own voices, trans romance.  Kieran is an out trans man that runs into difficulties because he doesn’t quite pass.  His hair is long and curly, and his looks scramble the brains of his new coworkers.

“Kieran, you are the administrative intern, aren’t you?”

“That’s me.”

“Oh, that’s so funny.” Marie beams.  “Marcus thought you were a boy.”…

“He wasn’t wrong.”

We watch Kieran as he manages this new space and crushes on his boss, Seth.  Seth’s heart belongs to another, though, and the romance is watching the pair realize that love is right there in front of them.  The plot and page count match wonderfully, and while I was sad to see the story end it’s a sweet finish that left me smiling.

Along the way we see what it’s like to move through the world as someone that’s transgender.  Kiernan faces different issues depending on where he is and what the world expects of him.  We see how hurtful clueless people can be, as well as how allies can misplace their efforts.  We also see what good communication regarding gender looks like, often from Seth.  He asks the right questions, respectful questions, and accepts the answers calmly and completely.  Because when someone tells you who he is, you listen, you know?

While reading I thought the narrative would have been better served in the first person, with Kiernan being the I.  But then I realized – doing that would strip the text of the all important pronouns.  The reader needs to hear Kiernan being called he and him so the misplaced ‘she’ has all the impact it should.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed Coffee Boy and in the process found a writer and publisher (NineStar Press) to follow in my new-found wheelhouse.  Huzzah!

Love and Gravity by Samantha Sotto

31564042Andrea Louviere is seven years old the first time he appears. While she’s alone in her bedroom, practicing her beloved cello, the light shivers and a crack forms in the wall. Through the crack, she sees a candle, a window, a desk—and a boy. Though no sound travels through the wall, the boy clearly sees Andrea, too. And then, just as quickly as it opened, the crack closes, and he vanishes.

Over the years, summoning the bright, magnetic boy becomes something of an obsession for Andrea. Then, on her seventeenth birthday, she receives a three-hundred-year-old love letter from Isaac Newton. Andrea knows that Isaac will change the world with his groundbreaking discoveries; the letter tells Andrea that she will change him.

As Isaac’s letters intensify in passion and intimacy, Andrea grows determined to follow his clues to their shared destiny—despite a burgeoning romance in the present. Only when she discovers the way into Isaac’s time does Andrea realize that she faces a heartbreaking decision: between what was . . . and what might be.

Review:

I loved and was flummoxed by this book in turns but it always, always kept me reading.  I finished it in less than 24 hours so while I have Things to say know that Love and Gravity is hard to put down.

Also be rest assured that I’m not going to spoil anything… here.  If you’d like to read a more detailed, spoiler-filled version of this review head over to the goodreads version where I give those spoiler tags a run for their money.

Now that that’s out of the way…

~takes a deep breath~

Wow.  What a book.

The good:

  • Time travel and time slip plots can get hairy as far as sequence of events go, but Sotto keeps events mostly on the rails. (Caveats below.)  Each chapter starts by telling us which character we’re following, Andrea or Issac, and places them in time by date and/or age.  In the narrative we’re reminded which years are important, so even when the chronology jumps around we can keep things basically straight.
  • The cast is small so there aren’t too many people to keep track of.  We watch them all grow over time in strikingly realistic ways.
  • Yea for epistolary (ish) novels!
  • If you don’t know much about Issac Newton’s life you’ll find yourself going down delightful wikipedia rabbit holes out of curiosity.
  • Even when things are crazy, even when you’re yelling “What?” and “How?!” at the pages, you will be compelled to read on.
  • Do you need a cathartic cry?  I hope you need a cathartic cry.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • This is a novel with a romance, not a romance novel.  If you know what that means then you know what I mean.

The not-so-good:

  • Anachronisms, we haz them.  Spoken British English in 1666 sounds a bit too close to modern American speech for my liking.  There are others but they have to go in the spoiler-ful review.
  • The curse of working in medicine is finding medical goofs in novels.  Won’t bother everyone, I’m sure, but I had to put down the book and vent to my partner before continuing.
  • Events and sequencing get more complicated by the end and I have the feeling that if I looked I would find something that doesn’t check out.  Sotto earned just enough of my trust for me to gloss over inconsistencies, and man there are a lot of balls in the air, but the nagging feeling that something is wrong won’t go away.
  • The whole book stemmed from a plot bunny in a chest, and at times it feels like revisionist history. Andrea is can be seen as a wish-fulfillment Mary Sue – Newton was a great guy and never got married, so let’s go back and put a woman in his life!
  • An apple or gravity reference is cute once or twice but there are so. many. I couldn’t stop rolling my eyes.

In sum my reading experience went like this:

Beginning – Ooo, interesting!  Tell me more.
Third of the way through – I’m not sure I’m on board but I want to see how you manage this…
Halfway point – Hello, anachronism.
Middle-ish – I saw this coming but what the hell was that?!
Last few chapters – ~sob~ No, I’m fine, it’s just that… ~sob~
End – ~runs to write review posthaste~

The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

Translated by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush

32988669How do you clothe a book?

In this deeply personal reflection, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jhumpa Lahiri explores the art of the book jacket from the perspectives of both reader and writer. Probing the complex relationships between text and image, author and designer, and art and commerce, Lahiri delves into the role of the uniform; explains what book jackets and design have come to mean to her; and how, sometimes, “the covers become a part of me.”

Review:

While this book, an essay really, is only 80 pages long there isn’t much here here. Lahiri likes some of her covers and doesn’t like others. We learn that she has little say in what clothes her book… but that’s it. I think it would be compelling at a shorter length, maybe as an article in the New Yorker, but it doesn’t grab me here.

Lahiri would like it if more English-language books were dressed up in uniforms. I wanted to ask if she’s ever strolled down a genre aisle.  Harlequin Presents fits her ideal perfectly – similar look to the series, go together on a shelf, each different but part of a larger editorial whole. Or look at the first nine books of the Mercy Thompson series, where the head to knees three quarter pose of the heroine gives the line a unified feel. Avon designs a cover font for each author so the books hang together, as well as give them striking spines. Literary fiction may be letting her down but the rest of the book store has her covered and she doesn’t realize it. Sigh.

I was hoping to learn something or be enlightened but no dice.

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)”

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber

32815566Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten. What about on a scale of spicy to citrus? Is it more like a lava lamp or a mosaic? Pain, though a universal element of human experience, is dimly understood and sometimes barely managed. Sonya Huber moves away from a linear narrative to step through the doorway into pain itself, into that strange, unbounded reality. Although the essays are personal in nature, this collection is not a record of the author’s specific condition but an exploration that transcends pain’s airless and constraining world and focuses on its edges from wild and widely ranging angles.

Huber addresses the nature and experience of invisible disability, including the challenges of gender bias in our health care system, the search for effective treatment options, and the difficulty of articulating chronic pain. She makes pain a lens of inquiry and lyricism, finds its humor and complexity, describes its irascible character, and explores its temperature, taste, and even its beauty.

Review:

I knew from the opening lines of the first essay, Pain Bows in Greeting, that I would like this collection.

Pain wants you to put in earplugs because sounds are grating.  Pain has something urgent to tell you but forgets over and over again what it was.
Pain tells you to put your laptop in the refrigerator.
Pain runs into walls at forty-five-degree angels and ricochets back into the center of the room.

The essays range widely from the near poetry of the above to magazine-type explorations of what it means to live with pain.  Some spin out metaphors.

Pain twists me like the ends of a Halls cough drop wrapper.  A few cunning turns transform a flat square of wax paper into a neat home for a lozenge.  If I do not unroll pain, I carry it.

All are fascinating.  Huber tells us what it’s like to watch your body slowly decline, to mourn the healthy body you’ve left behind, to try and explain and quantify your pain in just the right way to doctors and specialists.  You’re frustrated in reducing your pain to a number on a ten point scale.  You underestimate it so you’re not labeled as a drug seeker.  When yet another person suggests that doing yoga would help, you read “the implication: if you tried harder, you could fix it.”

It’s a window into life with pain that I’m grateful to have.  As a medical interpreter I feel better armed to assist patients who are in chronic pain themselves.  I also feel like I have the tools to be a better human.  A theme that has come up in my reading this year is that when someone tells you their story, listen.  Believe them.  Huber gives you no other choice.

I like some essays more than others, but it’s still an easy recommend to anyone who works with or knows someone in chronic pain, or just wants a beautifully written peek into that world.

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