A Contemporary Romance and a Classic: 20 Books of Summer # 5 & #6

Another Friday! We made it through another week, although to be honest time is still a slippery concept for me even though I’m working again. Just living in America right now is mentally exhausting, watching the virus case numbers explode again and seeing half of the people out there disregard others and public health by not wearing masks. I am angry every day. Thank God for books to keep me sane and help me escape. Fridays seem to be my only day for blog posting at the moment, so freshly fueled by Oreos, almonds, and a cup of white tea, let me tell you about books 5 & 6 for 20 Books of Summer!

First up, The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai (2019.) I’m still kinda new to the romance genre. I’m still not sure if I actually like the romance genre. (How many books do you need to read in a genre to know if you like it? Do you even need to say that you like a genre or is it enough to just like a book? Is genre an outdated notion anyway? That’s something to ponder, please tell me if you have an answer.) Anyway. This was… okay. There were things about it that I liked, main characters of color, an interesting subplot about CTE (brain damage caused by repeated concussions on the football field,) and the steam factor was pretty steamy! But it felt overly long and kinda boring. And the female lead did that thing that a lot of romance characters do, which is talk to herself about how much she liked the male lead but how she had been burned in the past and didn’t want to trust him, I mean, it happened a LOT. And I was like, “Yes, I get it, you have TRUST ISSUES.” So I don’t know, plenty of people have liked this more than I did, so maybe it was just not for me. I finished it, which means that I didn’t hate it. It was engaging enough for me to finish pretty quickly. ⭐ ⭐ 1/2

Next up, a real winner! Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym (1977.) Some of you mentioned that it was a melancholy read but honestly I found it refreshing and often hilarious. I found myself thinking about the characters for days after I finished, wondering what they were up to, wishing I could be in their company again. We have four 60-something office mates, working at a nondescript job, but we’re later told that when they retire no one will replace them, so it’s obviously something a computer could be doing. And anytime we’re in the office they’re talking about going out to lunch or having a snack so honestly I haven’t a clue what they do! Marcia and Letty are set to retire first, with Norman and Edwin sometime later. They’re all single, and Edwin, a widower, is the only one to have married. Edwin is obsessed with the church and the various holy days of the saints, visiting different churches on different days. Norman is the grouchiest one and doesn’t seem to have much going for a social life, although he does have a brother-in-law, the husband of his late sister, to see on holidays. Letty is supposed to go live in the country with a friend when she retires, but her friend surprises her with a change of plans. And Marcia… well, Marcia was the one character that did make me sad. I guess she is suffering from some sort of dementia or mental illness at the beginning of the book, because she lives in deliberate squalor and hordes things like plastic bags and milk bottles. Her situation deteriorates rapidly throughout the book, but the other three don’t seem to understand how bad off she is until it’s too late. These characters aren’t what I would call friends but seem perpetually on the verge of making a deeper connection with one another and just missing the timing.

When I write it down it does sound depressing and you probably won’t believe me when I say that really it wasn’t. Pym’s sly humor cuts through what could be rather gloomy situations. I laughed out loud many times, for example this unexpected exchange in a conversation between Letty, her friend, Marjorie, and Marjorie’s new beau, Father Lydell.

‘Ah, London…’ Was the sigh too extravagant?

‘Of course David is here for his health,’ said Marjorie, coming back into the room and entering eagerly into the conversation.

‘Do you find the country is doing you good?’ Letty asked.

‘I’ve had diarrhoea all this week,’ came the disconcerting reply.

There was a momentary- perhaps no more than a split second’s – pause, but if the women had been temporarily take aback, they were by no means at a loss.

‘Diarrhoea,’ Letty repeated, in a clear, thoughtful tone. She was never certain hot to spell the word, but felt that such a trivial admission was lacking in proper seriousness so she said no more.

This did feel darker than her earlier novels, and it is one of her last books before her death in 1980. I believe she had had health problems too when she wrote this. So the perspective of older people contemplating the last quarter of their lives makes sense. I also think that 60-something meant something different in 1977 than it does today, perhaps. These characters feel more sedate and stuck in their ways than today’s 60-somethings tend to be. Outdated gender roles also have something to do with it, as women without a partner or children today seem to have more options for income, social connections, and independent pursuits. In any case, I found this book thoroughly delightful and entertaining, with a small ray of hope at the end and a little corner of the world that I didn’t want to leave. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ Also, this is a book from my Classics Club list so I killed two birds with one stone!

What books or TV shows have you been able to escape into these days? How are your various yearly reading goals doing? I’m currently reading books 7 & 8 for the challenge, The Reckoning by Jane Casey and So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo. I really should do some sort of halfway through the year look at my reading goals but I’ll save that for another time. I hope you are all well and relatively sane in this maddening time. ❤️ 

How To Be An Antiracist and New Waves: 20 Books of Summer #1 & #2

There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism. This may seem harsh, but it’s important at the outset that we apply one of the core principles of antiracism, which is to return the word “racist” itself back to its proper usage. “Racist” is not – as Richard Spencer argues – a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it – and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.

I honestly feel like I don’t know how to best review How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s the kind of book that can change minds and lives. I feel like I need to read it again and make sure I’ve really absorbed what I’ve read. I will probably do so. I could have quoted two-thirds of the book here in this space, because there are so many salient and persuasive points. Here’s another:

Incorrect conceptions of race as a social construct (as opposed to a power construct), of racial history as a single march of racial progress (as opposed to a duel of antiracist and racist progress), of the race problem as rooted in ignorance and hate (as opposed to powerful self-interest) – all come together to produce solutions bound to fail. Terms and sayings like “I’m not racist” and “race neutral” and “post-racial” and “color-blind” and “only one race, the human race” and “only racists speak about race” and “Black people can’t be racist” and “White peoples are evil” are bound to fail in identifying and eliminating racist power and policy.

There is a lot to digest in Kendi’s ideas but this book is very readable and approachable. He brilliantly starts and ends each chapter with a story from his own life, starting in childhood and all the way to the present, where he confronts his own racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas, thereby showing a personal example of how people can learn and grow in becoming antiracist. It’s a very disarming approach and made me consider the ways in which I have been marinating in our toxic racist, classist, sexist, homophobic culture and absorbing ideas, consciously or unconsciously. I now consider antiracism work to be about power and policy, not just about hearts and minds. I feel like this book can be a game-changer. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I have not yet read his National Book Award-winning book Stamped From the Beginning, but I definitely will. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

img_5740New Waves by Kevin Nguyen is an interesting novel. It’s contemporary literary fiction that feels all at once breezy and melancholy. The two main characters, Lucas, an Asian customer service rep at a tech startup, and Margo, a Black programmer tired of being taken for granted, are best friends who “met” virtually years ago on a music pirating server. Margo’s specialty was obscure Japanese pop and Lucas’s was obscure Bossa Nova. They conspire to steal the startup’s user database and get away with it. But soon after, Margo is hit by a car and dies. (The reader knows this from the first chapter and the book jacket so it’s not a spoiler.) Lucas ends up with her laptop and discovers that he didn’t know his best friend as well as he thought he did. This book skillfully examines technology and ethics, friendship, grief, and love. Lucas doesn’t always make the best choices but he was a sympathetic character anyway, and I felt invested in his story. Another interesting thing about this book is that Margo wrote science fiction short stories, and every now and then one is interspersed into the narrative. Despite the melancholy tone this book made me feel hopeful at the end, and I think it’s one I won’t soon forget. I will definitely look out for Nguyen’s next novel. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

How is your 20 Books of Summer journey going? My reading pace is slow because I’m too tired after work to read much so I have to save it all for the weekends. Next up: The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Classics Club & Buddy Read)

In that fine place, in the ripened Indian summer weather, those two once again choose us. In circumstances where smaller spirits might let envy corrode liking, they declare their generous pleasure in our company and our good luck. What we felt last night when we fell into a laughing bearhug and fused our frosty breaths outside their door, we feel again on this placid hill. We have been invited into their lives, from which we will never be evicted, or evict ourselves.

91Vq1lzeOaLHaving read and loved Stegner’s Angle of Repose years ago, I had high hopes for his 1987 novel Crossing to Safety. I also owned a copy so choosing it for my March Classics Club pick was a no-brainer. I’m happy to say my expectations were matched and I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience. Augmenting my pleasure was doing a a Buddy Read with Pauline of Smithereens blog, and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. I don’t know that I provided any great contribution to our email and Twitter conversations, but I was grateful for the company and the added push to read it.

Stegner is a beautiful writer – thoughtful, measured, insightful about human nature. His detail for the natural world is also a delight, anchoring his characters in a very rich and real place. This novel centers on two young academic couples, Larry and Sally Morgan, and Sid and Charity Lang. The action takes place in both the Midwest of the Great Depression, in Madison, Wisconsin, and also forty-some years later in rural Vermont. We follow the two couples as they bond very quickly and go back and forth in time ultimately to their later years, as they gather at the end of one of the foursome’s life. The men are college English teachers trying to get published and promoted, with varying degrees of success. The women are housewives as was typical of the time period, and they do have children, although the kids are mostly an afterthought in the narrative until the end.

What drives the story is the beguiling and maddening character of Charity Lang. She is what you’d call a “force of nature,” a whirlwind of energy, spirit, and generosity. I admired her but didn’t entirely warm to her, although I suppose if she’d taken me under her wing as she did the Morgans, I would probably always be in her debt and her thrall. You see, the Morgans are poor, and the Langs are wealthy. But somehow that doesn’t really come between the two couples as much as you might think it would. There are equalizers, such as Larry Morgan’s more successful writing career. There is more conflict between Charity and Sid over his stalled career than there is any conflict between the couples.

This is a quiet novel, but rich in character and detail. Deep friendship and the complicated bonds of marriage are the themes, as well as a meditation on what makes a life well lived. Reading this in such a precarious, anxiety-inducing time as this was a balm to the soul. As Pauline astutely noted, the characters feel very far away from the cares of the world in the book, although serious events occur. If you’ve never tried Stegner before I would highly recommend this one, especially if you like character-driven, thoughtful, but not overly padded, novels.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Format: owned paperback

See my Classics Club list here.

Friday Afternoon Bookish Ramblings

It’s a beautiful sunny but cold day here at a Big Reading Life Manor, and it’s been a while since I’ve posted. I just haven’t had time or energy to write about books or anything else. There is sleep to prioritize (self-care 2020!) and also I’ve been finishing watching The Good Place and Netflix’s Next in Fashion. But today I have a bit of time and wanted to catch up on things. So, hello! I hope your week has been a good one. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty much sick of winter. I’m sick of gray and I’m sick of rain. I’m trying to remind myself that everything changes, and so will the seasons, in time.

Anyway, I’ve read some good books lately, for which I am grateful. One five-star read (The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel, which had been on my TBR List since 2015) and three four-star reads: Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe, and Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson. Two of the latter were ones I owned, so whoopee for reading my own books! Lately I’ve been really trying to look at my own shelves and also the beginning of my TBR list and trying to choose reads from those. It’s a constant struggle to balance those considerations with the newest, shiniest books that I have on hold at the library. You can relate, I am sure.

51anPJ5-ihL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_What am I currently reading? Lindy West’s new essay collection The Witches Are Coming, which is AWESOME and so smart and funny. I’ve only read the first four essays but so far she’s killing it. I just finished Mavis Gallant’s short story collection In Transit, which I’d been reading since December. It was good – she’s masterful at capturing humans trying and failing to relate to one another. But for me overall it was a bit depressing and I’m relieved to be finished. I am not sure what work of fiction I’ll pick up next. I think I need something light to boost my mood! I may try Helen Hoang’s romance The Kiss Quotient, which I just checked out from my library.

Next month I plan to participate in Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month, so I need to pick at91Vq1lzeOaL least one Irish book – this event always sneaks up one me. I also will be reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety with Smithereens as a buddy read – another selection from my Classics Club list. Please read along with us in March if you’d like!

So that’s it from me for now. I’ll leave you with some body positive affirmations from Megan Jayne Crabbe’s book (if you’re on Instagram, you should consider following her @bodyposipanda. She’s delightful.)

I’m grateful for everything that my body allows me to do in the world, and all the ways it takes care of me.
I am hotter than the inside of a poptart in this outfit!
There’s no such thing as a problem area, my body is not a problem to be fixed!
My softness is beautiful.
My cellulite clusters are constellations mapped across my thighs and I am magical.
I deserve the space I take up in the world.
I am good enough.
My body is not the enemy.

Also – how do we like this new “block editor” thing WordPress has given us? I don’t like it at all and when I tried to switch back to the classic editor it’s made my spacing weird in this post. Hmmmph. Oh well. I hope you have a very good weekend, friends – may you have lots of time for reading!

 

The Finished Stack Mocks Me

When I finish a book that I think I want to write about on my blog, I put it on top of my desktop computer tower (yes, Fogey McOldster has a desktop computer and it works fine, thank you very much!) I don’t write my posts at the computer anymore, I write them on my iPad, but I’ll finish them up on the desktop which is easier than the iPad (putting in the pictures, setting up links, things like that.) Anyway, when the finished stack gets to be four books tall it starts to make me anxious. At that point, I either say, FORGET IT I DON’T WANT TO WRITE ABOUT THESE DUMB BOOKS ANYWAY or I say, okay, it’s time for some mini-reviews.

It’s time for some mini-reviews!

img_5291Anti-Diet:Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison

I have avoided writing about this book for weeks now because I don’t feel like I’ll do it justice. Christy Harrison is an Anti-Diet registered dietitian nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counselor with a background in food and nutrition journalism. She knows her stuff, and she has done her research. She shreds Diet Culture here, showing how its roots lie in historical ideas steeped in sexism, racism, and classism. She details how Diet Culture (which she calls The Life Thief) steals our time, money, well-being, and happiness, and ultimately it doesn’t even give us the lasting weight loss we so desperately crave. She then gives us strategies to resist diet culture and deprogram ourselves from years of steeping in its toxic messages. This is an excellent book if you aren’t familiar with the Anti-Diet movement or the concept of Health At Every Size. If you are familiar and just want more information, it’s still an excellent book! It’s well-researched and a fast- paced read. I loved it and highly recommend it if you’re someone who has let the Life Thief steal your joy over the years, or if you’re interested in social justice. Make no mistake, how we treat people in larger bodies IS a social justice issue.            ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (Another good book to check out, more of a memoir on the topic, is Caroline Dooner’s The F*ck It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy.)

Piecing Me Together by a Renée Watson

This contemporary YA novel took me by surprise. It drew me in from the start and kept me engaged with its fully-realized and heartfelt portrayal of an African American high school junior in Portland, Oregon. Jade is a talented artist and uses the medium of collage to express her feelings and process things. She is also looking forward to hopefully getting nominated to go on a spring break service learning trip that deserving juniors get to participate in. Instead, her Principal gives her an “opportunity” for African American students, to participate in a Mentor program for the year. Jade is angry and disappointed because she wants to be the one who gives for a change, instead of being the poor girl at the private school who receives all the time. Plus, her mentor isn’t doing that great a job, flaking out on her from the get-go. I loved how Watson explores class and race but also gives us a set of wonderful characters in Jade, her mother, cousin, and her two best friends. If you’re the kind of reader who has had bad luck with YA novels in the past, I highly recommend this one. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

I loved this novel set in Los Angeles, which references the racial tensions and violence of the Rodney King era but mostly takes place today. Two families, one Korean and one African American, are brought together by an act of violence that seemingly comes out of nowhere but has roots in L.A.’s explosive recent past. I thought the characters grappled with some very complex contradictions and questions, and there were no easy answers anywhere. It’s a fast-paced novel of forgiveness, justice, secrets, and family bonds. The characters felt real to me and I appreciated the care with which they were written. Apparently Cha has written a crime trilogy and I think I’ll have to check it out. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Atmosphere for days! Brooding, gothic, intense, psychological. I love it when a novel feels as immersive as this one did. Frances has recently buried her mother, a rather mean woman whom Frances had to nurse for years. She has gotten a summer position at Lynton’s, an abandoned English estate recently purchased by an American (who hired her to report on the condition of the grounds and gardens.) She is joined by a couple who is also working for the American, cataloguing the rooms of the house, Peter and Cara. Cara is volatile and moody, Peter handsome and flirtatious. Frances is dazzled by the couple, and they draw her into their web with warmth and a freedom that she has never before experienced. She is very socially awkward, and as the book progresses we come to realize that she is not as trustworthy a narrator as we might initially think. There are spooky touches in the abandoned house, strange noises, unexplained faces in windows, wild animals turning up unexpectedly, adding to the tension. This captivated me and I will have to read another book by Fuller – perhaps Swimming Lessons next. Thanks to Anne of I’ve Read This and Rebecca of Bookish Beck for putting this on my radar.    ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read any of these? Anything appeal to you?

Classics Club Spin #22: A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

Oh my goodness, how do I write about this short story collection? I feel enormous trepidation as I begin this post. This book is just really freakin’ weird. 😃 And dark. And twisted. And brilliant. But I was relieved to finish it, so what does that say?

Ten stories filled with mean people, ignorant people, unwanted visitors, negligent parents, gossips, hypocrites, killers, racists, xenophobes… sounds like a swell way to spend your reading time, right? Yet when I entered into each story (one a day, that’s all I could take) I couldn’t pry my eyeballs from it. The characters, despicable though they might be, were so fully realized and the stories so well constructed that I was hooked.

The collection starts with the title story, and it’s a shocker. A family of four and the grandmother are traveling to a Florida on a road trip, with the grandkids sassing off to their racist, annoying grandmother constantly, until she tricks the whole family into driving down this dirt road so they can see an old abandoned plantation that she “remembered.” (She gets the kids excited about it by craftily telling them that there is a legendary secret panel in a wall in which the family silver was kept.) When a chance accident happens on the deserted road and a band of sketchy dudes comes along on the scene, all hell breaks loose. It’s an eye-opening way to start off, to say the least.

Some of the stories are a bit more sedate but no less compelling. My favorite story was “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,”which features a precocious, mischievous young girl putting up with a weekend visit from her boy-crazy, older second cousins, Susan and Joanne. There’s a traveling fair in town, and two local boys are enlisted to take the girls and get them out of the house for an evening. The title of the story comes from an anecdote that the girls laughingly tell at dinner about part of their Catholic school education.

— if he should “behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile.” Sister Perpetua said they were to say, “Stop, sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” and that would put an end to it.

When the girls come back from the fair they obliquely tell the child (we don’t learn her name) about something they saw in the “freak tent” that unnerved them.

The tent where it was had been divided into two parts by a black curtain, one side for men and one for women. The freak went from one side to the other, talking first to the men and then to the women, but everyone could hear. The stage ran all the way across the front. The girls heard the freak say to the men, “I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.” The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal, and neither high nor low, just flat. “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.” Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over to the women’s side and said the same thing.

The girls explain that the “freak” was both man and woman but the child doesn’t understand what that means. She later has a vision as she goes to sleep that the “freak” was leading a church service and says they are a “Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Still later in church she again thinks of the “freak” and how they said that this was how God wanted them to be. It’s a quiet, oddly beautiful story, and I loved how the child could embody a kindness and acceptance towards the “freak” that the rest of the characters couldn’t seem to muster.

I’m glad I read this and glad that the Classics Club Spin landed on this selection. I know it’s a hard sell, but I do think this is worth the read. I have all sorts of questions about what O’Connor was like, why she wrote such dark, religious, tense stories. This is the kind of book I would love to have discussed in a classroom setting because I know that I’m missing some nuances and symbolism along the way. I rated it five stars on Goodreads but it’s not one I can call a favorite, simply because I am confident that I will never be inclined to read it again. If anyone has any biographical knowledge of O’Connor or thoughts about any of these stories, I’d love to hear them!

Format: Library paperback, 252 pages.

See my original Classics Club list here.

BRL Best Books of 2019

Here they are – my favorite books of 2019 (note: I read a lot of backlist titles so they’re not all published this year.) Overall I seemed to have less 5-star reads this year than last year, but plenty of 4-star reads. Let’s get to it (in no particular order:)

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008.) Strout has emerged as one of my favorite writers. I’d been meaning to read this for years and I’m so glad I did. Gut-wrenchingly beautiful writing.

The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner (2019.) I haven’t written a lot about this but this has been a year of positive changes for me in terms of my body image, weight, health, all that stuff. This is the book that got the ball rolling for me, and it’s funny, smart, relatable, engaging. I love the author’s Instagram feed as well. She’s a hoot. If you’re interested in Health at Every Size or have issues with food and exercise I highly recommend this book.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths (2019.) Smart, atmospheric modern-day Gothic mystery. Loved it!

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951.) Brilliant, suspenseful, masterful novel with a heck of an ending. Who exactly was the manipulator in this novel? I’d read this again in a heartbeat.

March:Book Three by John Lewis (2016.) The last in a graphic memoir set that just blew me away. I feel like I learned more about the Civil Rights movement in 1960’s America from this three-volume set than I did in all my history classes. The artwork provides a visceral wallop that drives home how violent and dangerous the struggle for rights was. This set also made me realize what a hero Representative John Lewis is.

The Nickel Boys by a Colson Whitehead (2019.) I thought Whitehead’s last book, The Underground Railroad, was a masterpiece, but he did it again with his next book! In spare prose he focuses on two teenaged black boys in Florida in the 1960’s. They become friends at a reform school for “delinquent ” youth, mostly black kids who were petty criminals or just unwanted kids. He could have wallowed in the horror these boys faced but he didn’t, and I’m grateful. He didn’t waste one word in depicting the injustice and harsh circumstances these young men faced, but instead shined a light onto what was a real situation for hundreds of boys in a real life school like this in Florida. Very moving without being manipulative.

The Lager Queen by J. Ryan Stradal (2019.) This book just went straight to my heart. I don’t even like beer.

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain (2019.) I’m grateful that I read this because it’s given my family our Tech-Free Sunday time, where we put down our devices and just hang out with one another. We look forward to this time, even my video-game-obsessed 8 year-old. A very good, very short book about the benefits of unplugging one day a week.

In the Woods by Tana French (2008.) So atmospheric! So intricate and haunting. I got lost in this book. I don’t know why it took me so long to try French.

Over the Top by Jonathan Van Ness (2019.) A very brave memoir from a very open and brave man. So good!

A18h+5O2G3LHonorable Mention: Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore (2019.) Historical romance that’s super-smart and well-written. Didn’t tempt me to roll my eyes even once. Great characters and plot, and just enough steaminess to be fun but not annoying. Can’t wait to read her next one.

I like my range of styles here – two self-help books, a contemporary fiction, two mysteries, a graphic memoir and a regular memoir, two literary fiction titles, a classic, and a romance! No one can accuse me of a narrow reading life. I hope your 2019 reading lives were big and wide and full of five-star reads.

Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness

I may have mentioned before that I love the Netflix series Queer Eye. LOVE IT. It’s a balm for the weary 21st-century soul. Five adorable, kind gay men meet a person who is stuck somehow in their life… mentally, physically, emotionally, sometimes all three… and, with great compassion, help them break out of their funk and start to go after their dreams again. It’s just lovely and practically every episode makes me cry happy tears. It’s hard to pick a “favorite “of the Fab Five, but if I had to it would be Jonathan Van Ness. He is the hair and skin “expert” but like all the guys he has many more layers.img_4998

Little did I know just how many layers he has until I read his new memoir, Over the Top. Wow. He really lays his life out there for the reader and I find it so brave to be that vulnerable.

When people had asked me whether I was ready for my life to change, I don’t think I really understood what they meant. It wasn’t just that strangers would know who I was. It was this other thing that started to happen to me: when I looked in their eyes, sometimes, there was a little voice in my head wondering, Would you still be so excited to meet me if you really knew who I was? If you knew all the things I’d done? If you could see all my parts?

Over the course of the memoir we see how childhood sexual abuse and growing up gay in a small, conservative Midwestern town affected his life. Despite a loving, pretty accepting family, they didn’t seem to have the emotional tools to deal effectively or help Jonathan deal effectively with his own pain and anxiety. Young Jonathan turned to food and imagined skating and gymnastics routines to escape his complicated emotions.

From the outside, my carpet-skating routines were not actually quite as major as they felt inside my head, but they gave me something so important. Choreographing routines on my own in the basement for hours on end gave my imagination a place to roam free. Nobody was there to tell me how to move my body or what music was right for me to listen to. I could daydream about how if I nailed this short program I’d be heading into the long program in second place and could lock down my spot on the Olympic team. Being able to entertain yourself is a valuable skill, especially if you’re in a prolonged dark space. (For me, that was Quincy.) Maybe that’s dramatic, and maybe I’m too sensitive, but there wasn’t much naturally occurring joy in that era for me, so it was up to me to make my own. Especially being such a soft, round kid – who wanted to be a fit, sporty one – dancing made me feel graceful. It gave me a freedom I didn’t have anywhere else.

Later, Jonathan would develop an addiction to drugs that proved very hard to kick, as well as a sexual addiction. He delves into some very dark times in his life with amazing honesty, including the period of his life that he was a male prostitute. Reading this I felt amazed that he’s still alive considering all the risky and dangerous positions he put himself in. It’s a real testament to his family and to his spirit that he persisted and fought for a better life for himself.

When you’re a survivor of abuse, living in chaos can be the most upsetting yet comforting thing in the word. It was for me.

I loved reading about how he got into the hair business and started turning his life around. The section where he worked at a very posh, high-pressure salon in L.A. was fascinating. It sounds like a hellish, toxic environment that I’d never want to work in but he came away with so many skills and a new confidence in his abilities.

His step-father’s illness and death, his own HIV diagnosis, his eventual introduction into show business and landing the part on Queer Eye, they’re all covered. This is a very open, brave book. He showed that he’s not just the sunny, ultra-positive person he often seems on the show. Those are real parts of him but also there is real trauma and messiness there too.

Over the years I’ve heard horror stories of celebrities being dicks to nice people, and I always thought that was horrifying – why wouldn’t you be nice to your fans? What did you think you were getting into? But what I’ve realized is that you can’t be the same version of yourself at all times. Maybe your kidney function test results came back weird, so you have to go back to the doctor and you’re worried, but you can’t explain that to the fan who just wants a selfie. Maybe you just held your thirteen-year-old cat in your arms as the took their last breath, but the group of people wanting a picture don’t care – they just want their bubbly JVN, and they want him right now. It’s been the honor of a lifetime to be held to this ideal, but what I really want to tell the people asking for photos is: I’m literally just as lost as you. And I’m just as much of a perfectly imperfect mess. People are layered- good and bad, filled with joy and sorrow. The key is being grounded in the relationship you have with yourself. Basing my worth in how I treat myself despite how others treat me has been the key to my success – and I want that for you too.

I really do feel like this book will help people. People with addiction and circumstances similar to Jonathan’s and people who just have your average insecurities and anxieties. It’s a fast read, engaging and at times funny with lots of Jonathan’s trademark phrases he uses (ferosh for ferocious, etc.) I loved this book. It’s a must-read if you’re a fan of the show and even if you’re not, it’s an entertaining and moving read. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

When Edith was feeling low like this, baking a pie had never failed to make her happy. Like how some people talk about yoga or mountain climbing or music, it was how she lost herself and touched something else. It was her church away from church. It wouldn’t solve any problems, but it might make her and a few people forget them for a while, and that was something.

She stocked up on ingredients at Cub Foods. She took out the last of the canned rhubarb from Lucy, and used the fancy lard from Block’s Provisions, that expensive and tiny store on Hennepin. She felt the dry flour between her fingers, and thought about being a great-grandmother. She thought about it like how a tree in winter thinks about its leaves. She rolled this thought over the dough, and pressed it into its edges. The sun fell outside, and she didn’t reach for the lights. The pie baked in the dark, and she sat in her quiet kitchen and waited. She was good at that. She was seventy-seven years old, and she had all the time in the world.

51a2My+6uGLI’ve found my leading contender so far for favorite book of the year. I know there’s a lot of year left, so I’m leaving the door open for something else to come in and touch me more than J. Ryan Stradal’s second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. But it had better be darn good, because I’d give this book more stars if Goodreads would let me.

Lager Queen is about sisters and pie, and yes, beer. It alternates points of view between three characters: sisters Edith and Helen, and Edith’s granddaughter, Diana. Helen is an unlikely sort of young woman in the 1960s, who figures out that she wants to make beer, and she knows she’d be good at it. Her older sister Edith is the settled one, the dependable one, the one who Helen says “putting cake frosting on a bran muffin” is her idea of fun. When their father gives all the money from the sale of the family farm to Helen to help start her beer making venture, Edith and her sister stop talking, and the silence only gets louder and louder over fifty years. Year later, Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, who Edith has to help finish raising after a terrible accident, exhibits both Helen’s fiery spirit and her grandmother’s practicality. But after getting caught making some very questionable choices, she is given a new opportunity to find something she’s good at, and it’s closer to her great-aunt’s path than she could ever guess.

This book just hummed with authentic characters and believable dialogue, two of my criteria for good fiction. J.Ryan Stradal has a gift for creating characters the reader cares about, people who aren’t perfect but are fully dimensional and whose actions are credible. And just like his first book, Kitchen of the Great Midwest (which I loved,) featured some killer foodie scenes, this one is filled with interesting and zingy writing about beer. I’m not a beer drinker but I almost wish I was reading these sentences.

The four examples of IPAs were meant to break Diana’s brain open about the possibilities of what an IPA can do, but these beers were too far beyond her comprehension.

Her first, second, and third impression of each IPA steamrolled her ignorant palate; drinking them was like losing a boxing match to become a better boxer. It’s unfair, she thought, that whatever the hell she’d made would be called beer, on a planet where these beers existed. They her feel terminally bewildered.

Other sentences I loved:

“Her grief was a forest with no trails, and she couldn’t guess how long her heart would walk through it, as her body walked other places.”

“It was like a man to scratch his name on the banister of history, but Helen had come to believe that it was better to be the stairs.”

All three women go through a lot over the course of the book, which feels like real life too, with loss, disappointments, and victories big and small over the years. By the time the end comes around you can feel all the threads coming together, only you’re not sure if it’s all going to end the way you want it to. I’ll say this: it’s one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in a long time, and I totally bawled. It’s the kind of book I’m tempted to immediately read again, but I can’t because it’s a library copy and people are waiting on it! And then I had the thought that I need to buy Kitchens of the Great Midwest and read that again. So I guess I’m a J. Ryan Stradal-head now. This is one of those books that I am sure I can’t do justice to in a review, so I’ll just say that I wholeheartedly loved it.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

 

 

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski

The introduction to Burnout reads: “This is a book for any woman who has felt overwhelmed and exhausted by everything she had to do, and yet still worried she was not doing ‘enough’.” Um, hello! The Nagoski sisters have been reading my mail.

A1+-unICxaLI loved this book. I need to own a copy to be able to flip through and underline and reread. There are so many good points in Burnout that I decided against writing a traditional review and simply share some quotations that meant the most to me instead. Here goes.

  • “Physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live. Physical activity is the single most effective strategy for completing the stress response cycle.”
  • “To be ‘well’ is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.” 
  • “Meaning is not made by the terrible thing you experienced; it is made by the ways you survive.”
  • “At the heart of Human Giver Syndrome lies the deeply buried, unspoken assumption that women should give everything, every moment of their lives, every drop of energy, to the care of others. ‘Self-care’ is, indeed, selfish because it uses personal resources to promote a giver’s well-being, rather than someone else’s. “
  • “Feeling helpless and hopeless after watching news about the state of international politics? Don’t distract yourself or numb out; do a thing. Do yard work or gardening, to care for your small patch of the world. Take food to somebody who needs a little boost. Take your dog to the park. Show up at a Black Lives Matter march. You might even call your government representative. That’s great. That’s participation. You’re not helpless. Your goal is not to stabilize the government… your goal is to stabilize you, so that you can maintain a sense of efficacy, so that you can do the important stuff your family and your community needs from you.”
  • “Maybe you don’t look like you used to, or like you used to imagine you should; but how you look today is the new hotness. Even better than the old hotness. Wearing your new leggings today? You are the new hotness. Hair longer or short, or a different color or style? New hotness. Saggy belly from that baby you birthed? New hotness. Gained twenty pounds while finishing school? New hotness. Skin gets new wrinkles because you lived another year? New hotness. Scar tissue following knee replacement surgery? New hotness. Amputation following combat injury? New hotness. Mastectomy following breast cancer? New hotness. The point is, you define and redefine your body’s worth, on your own terms. Again and again, you turn towards your body with kindness and compassion.”
  • “Instead of just looking at your body to evaluate her well-being, turn to her and ask her how she feels: ‘What’s wrong, honey? Are you hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Lonely?’ She can definitely tell you, if you listen. You might have to stop what you’re doing, take a slow breath, focus on the sensation of your weight on the floor or the chair, and actually ask out loud, ‘What do you need?'”
  • “Your body is not the enemy. The real enemy is out there – the Bikini Industrial Complex. It is trying sneakily to convince you that you are the problem, that your body is the enemy, that your body is inadequate, which makes you a failure.” 

What my body needs right now is to stop writing this post and get up and stretch – ha ha! Reading this book was like talking to a very wise, compassionate friend. The tone is so intimate and warm, but also pragmatic. Here’s the situation, and here’s what you can do about it. It’s the kind of book that can start to crack deeply ingrained thought patterns and let in some light and freshness to your stale habits. It’s also refreshing that it doesn’t put all the blame for this crap on the individual – it acknowledges the big societal and cultural structures and attitudes that contribute to our stress. I am so grateful I happened upon this book. If you are a woman who feels overwhelmed, run down, worn out, helpless, or like you need a boost of confidence, this is a book for you!