Westering Women by Sandra Dallas (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3.5/5

Another great novel of the Historical West by Sandra Dallas.

This story brings to life a “wagon train of spinsters” as they make their way from Chicago to California ostensibly seeking good, Christian men to marry. Under the leadership of two preachers, the motley crew of women tackle a five-month trip across prairies, mountain ranges, and deserts in a race to cross the Sierras before winter sets in.

Dallas excels at writing women — their lives, thoughts, and relationships with each other. Starting the journey as a disparate set of individuals — each with something they are anxious to escape — they become more of a family than most have ever had: a real “band of sisters.” The story is set in beautifully described natural scenes and is suffused with well-researched details of life in that time and place: what they ate, how they cooked, what they wore, how they washed clothes, and what they valued. Topics are introduced from multiple perspectives: Mormon polygamy, engagement with Indians, racial injustice, and even different “models” of Christianity. A lot of fairly horrifying men populate the stories, but quite a few wonderful men as well. While I find her action scenes a little terse, I was instantly absorbed by her characters and their journeys — both physically across the country and internally to become a tight community of strong, self-reliant, confident women.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 7th, 2020.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (YA)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

There are no Monsters left in the town of Lucille. Long ago, in a time not often spoken about, the Angels rid the town of Monsters and left the inhabitants with a peaceful existence. But when Jam’s mother, Bitter, paints a picture that comes alive when accidentally touched with Jam’s blood, it appears that perhaps not all of the Monsters in Lucille are gone after all. It appears that “Pet” has come hunting a Monster, and it is closer than anyone would like…

The book’s description did not prepare me at all for the vibrant, powerful, writing. It is vivid and visceral — the kind where every phrase says far more than its constituent words would suggest. Strong themes of righteous vengeance against evil combined with realistic and subtle explanations of what people do. “Monster” is the epithet for people who do bad things, but “Angels” and “Monsters” aren’t pretty or ugly like the pictures in a book: “It’s all just people, doing hard things or doing bad things. But is all just people, our people.”

The plot is actually a bit simplistic (aimed at a middle school audience), but the characters, writing, and themes make it impossible to put down. Emezi is going right on my “follow” list.

Some of my favorite quotes:
“Jam always felt lucky when she stood in the path of her father’s joy.”

“Everyone, everything deserved some time to be. To figure out what they were. Even a painting. Bitter finishing it was just her telling it what she thought it was, or what she’d seen it as. It hadn’t decided for itself yet.”

“You humans and your binaries, Pet said. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing.”

“It built a stone of guilt in her chest, and Jam added it to the pile that had been forming there since she told Pet to stay.”

“That’s precisely the point, little girl. Your knowing, you think it gives you clarity, sight that pierces. It can be a cloud, a thing that obscures.”

“Jam nodded, even though the fear was still a tangled necklace in her stomach, heavy and iron.”

“The creature growled low in its throat and changed its body language, small shifts that bled naked menace into the room.”

“But Jam could still feel the anxiety and fear like a spilled sourness soaked up by the floor, circulating through the house.”

“Not one of my concerns in this life, to be nice, to sound nice, what is nice.”

“Your world is unpleasant, your truths are unpleasant, the hunt is unpleasant.”

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Character: 5/5

21-year old Zelda is obsessed with Vikings. Drawing inspiration from Viking lore, she is writing (and living) her own legend, tackling life with courage and loyalty to her tribe. She was also born on the fetal alcohol syndrome spectrum (FASD) and is aware of needing to take things slowly, follow rules, and study things more thoroughly than others. Her brother Gert — with his shaved head, tattoos, and a thug-like exterior — has been taking care of her since he extracted both of them from the abusive Uncle who took them in when their mother died.

A remarkable cast of characters populates this unique coming-of-age story as Gert gets into some questionable means of support in a neighborhood rife with violence and trouble … and Zelda tries to help. It has one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, and meaningful endings I’ve ever read. It wasn’t the traditionally happy ending I was expecting, but one in which people had to learn some hard truths about themselves and the people they loved. I particularly appreciated the way nobody was presented as all “bad” or all “good” but merely people trying to do their best, not always succeeding, and coming to terms with how to make the best of what they had.

Zelda’s voice is quite engaging. While many reviewers call it “humorous”, I actually found it to be innocent and completely lacking in artifice — which I found quite refreshing. From Zelda directly, galvanized by her Viking research: “Dagaz means to become awake or to transform. That is what I want to do in my legend: I want to go from a normal Viking to a hero.”

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Gallery/Scout Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Jan 28th, 2019.

Gender Mosaic by Daphna Joel and Luba Vikhanski (Non-fiction)

This book was fantastic — one of the few I’ve read that managed to completely shift the way I thought about something because the clear evidence-based ideas made so much sense in an area that has been utterly confusing to me for a long time.

Beginning with scientific studies on the structure and function of brain components and their correlation with sex, the book proceeded to question our concepts of sex and gender and ended with a discussion of what the world would be like without gender at all. The main message: get rid of the gender binary — it’s artificial and not linked (on a group level) to anything biological. Or as the authors put it — “stop dividing people by their genitals.”

Quick definitions: sex is what you are born with: XX chromosomes (female), XY chromosomes (male), and less than 1% born intersex (a mix). Gender is a social construct — socially acceptable options used to be man and woman, but the latest number of options on Facebook is 58!

Some of the main points (each illustrated with anecdotes and substantiated with solid research findings):
• There is no such thing as a male brain or a female brain — each human brain is a unique mixture — or mosaic — of features traditionally thought of as “male” or “female.”
• While there are some structures and functions in the brain (and hormonal systems) that are on average different for males and females (for example, males on average are better at spatial rotation), individually people fall on a spectrum of values for that aspect of brain function. For example, many females will be better at spatial rotation than the average for a male and the overlap for potential spatial rotation capabilities between males and females may be quite large. Very few individuals have an “all male” or “all female” brain based on those averages.
• Brain systems are not static — many influences such as stress, competition, or even spending time with an infant can shift the level of hormones in the system — including the “big 3”: testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.
• Bias — often unintentional — exists. Most people do not want to be biased, and when it is pointed out to them in a non-confrontational and private way, they may even take steps to correct it.

The text is calm, measured, based on copious (and referenced) research and not political (thank you!). The examples and results from various research projects are absolutely fascinating. It is just technical enough to be interesting and sensical, but not overburdened by technical jargon that can muddy the point. The authors present a balanced view, explaining how gender norms can be problematic for both males and females, and they address many common questions and concerns that have been brought up during lectures. I really appreciated the non-confrontational approach to explaining bias and privilege.

On a personal level, I would be so much happier to get rid of thinking about gender at all rather than take on the cognitive load of trying to remember exactly which category each individual person wants to be part of for that particular day and having to use all the correct pronouns, names, and other associated gender paraphernalia. Wouldn’t it be easier to treat each person as an individual, complete with his or her (or some new pronoun) own preferences, habits, and interests? I know I was born female and never thought twice about it, but I never felt I was a “typical” woman — I hate shopping, don’t wear makeup, always paid my own way, and worked very comfortably in a male dominated field (computer science). I’m lucky that societal pressures never had much of an effect on me, but obviously it could have been much harder.

I underlined just about everything in this book, but here are some good quotes that I think get to the heart of their messages:

“Sex does affect the brain, and there are average differences between females and males in many brain features. But because of the interactions between sex and so many other factors, the effects of sex — that is, of being female or male — mix up in a unique way in the brain of each individual.”

“Even when they don’t find themselves in a shipwreck, men often get a raw deal by virtue of belonging to the group empowered by the patriarchal order. It is mostly men who die in droves in wars, are injured in work-related accidents, and feel compelled to become providers, often at the expense of following their hearts to a career in the arts or other non-bread-winning fields.”

“I hope that in the not-too-distant future, this idea will be taken for granted; that gender studies will be a history course; and that when the topic of gender comes up, children will need to ask their parents (or grandparents) to explain why on earth someone had once thought people had to be grouped by their genitals.”

“On the other hand, many people are happy to discover their own and others’ implicit biases, especially if you point these out to them in private and in a nonjudgemental manner (nasty comments on their Facebook wall are less likely to be welcomed). And if in the course of these revelations you become aware of the power or privileges granted to you by the gender system, why not use this power and these privileges to try to eliminate this system from our lives?”

“One objection that’s been raised at a lecture of mine is that even without gender, women and men would still behave differently because they differ biologically. I see no problem with that. On the contrary, if we believe that biology would drive the behavior of females and males apart, there’s surely no reason to introduce all those gender conventions to achieve the same end.”

“Gender is one of the prisons within which we live. It divides the world into things for males and things for females. And if we want things that are not on “our” side, we are punished by society.”

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

Witches’ Dance by Erin Eileen Almond (Fiction)

Thank you to Lanternfish Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 22nd, 2019.

Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3/5 Writing: 3/5

An ambitious novel about a young violinist who must fight her own inner demons while in thrall to an extremely talented — and potentially crazy — teacher and former prodigy. The chapters rotate through the perspectives of the three main characters: Hilda, the young violinist who we meet at age 15; her mother Claire, a ballerina whose career was killed by an unplanned pregnancy; and Phillip Manns, a former prodigy who suffered a nervous collapse eight years previously and is only now allowing music in some form back into his life.

The story is gripping. While there were some wonderful musical references, the story is far more about the melodrama of their relationships and personal discovery (or lack thereof). Personally, I would have enjoyed more about the music, the drive, and the “art” portion of those with artistic sensibilities. This is more of a drama with an excellent musical background than a literary piece that manages to convey what it means to be such an artist. For example, while Hilda spends an astonishing amount of time practicing, all her thoughts and reflections are bent towards her obsession with Phillip Manns. Manns, on the other hand, is obsessed with the music but is haunted by the memory of his “beautiful, doomed mother,” Domenica. Claire is struggling to both hide and express the “Secret Mother” within her — the mother who wishes she wasn’t a mother at all.

Strong, dramatic plot, decent writing, characters that I did not bond with(but you might) and some beautiful musical context. My big takeaway — I want to go to the bi-annual Paganini competition held in Genoa next Fall.

Toil and Trouble by Augusten Burroughs (Memoir/Humor)

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 1st, 2019.

It’s hard to believe but this is my first Augusten Burroughs book! I’ve heard of Running With Scissors of course but somehow never managed to get to it. My loss. Burroughs is funny, clever, and writes in a wickedly delicious, entre-nous style. In this segment of his ongoing memoirs, he and husband Christopher make the move out of Manhattan. This includes convincing Christopher that he wants to move, searching for houses, and engaging with the “perfect” home once purchased. The heavy thread running over, under, and through it all (as you might have guessed from the title) are his “magick” and witchcraft skills. Regardless of your opinion on witchcraft, this is a compelling and comprehensive story, comprising personal experience, historical references, an analysis of what witchcraft really is, and lots of lots of laugh-inducing stories. I tossed skepticism aside and just ate it all up.

Reading this book (and probably all of the others), it’s hard not to want to want to befriend the guy (whether he’d want to befriend us back is another story). He manages to turn his (self-reported) “spectrum directed mind” and anxiety (his “default emotion”) into pure entertainment for his readers. I’d really like to have him over for dinner.

Pretty much every line is a quotable quote, but here are a few of my favs:

“Once we pull into the driveway, I know right away: this house is a vampire. It will want all our neck blood and then the blood of our unborn parallel universe children.”

“I’ve always been incredibly socially awkward. Autism runs in the family like detached earlobes. I obviously got sprinkled with enough of it to make me come across as a horrible snob. I wish there were more opportunities to turn this to my advantage, but so far, no luck.”

“I feel off atrocious news stores the way most people today consume kale. Nutrition comes from abductions, electrocutions, capsized boats, and freeway pileups.”

“Every sound of dropping signals water penetration. I wish I could be injected with ape tranquilizers.”

“Being plunged into the colonial era is informative. I learn that my mental health and stability is directly proportionate to the mount of charge on my phone.”

“Back in 1990, the internet was made of paper and it wasn’t called the internet, it was called the Village Voice.”

“It is moving day and we are already an episode of Hoarders.”

On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger (Non Fiction)

A fascinating and thought provoking read. Guendelsberger — an unemployed journalist and previous editor of The Onion — goes “under cover” in three low-paying, highly monitored positions — all designed to handle massive amounts of personnel churn. She tries an Amazon fulfillment center at “Peak” (December), a Convergys call center, and a McDonald’s (located at the corner of Tourist and Homeless in downtown San Francisco).

This is part investigative journalism and part humorous memoir — Emily is FUNNY. I particularly valued the actual description of each job — the processes, the training, the working environment were fascinating — and her personal reflections on how each job made her feel and what coping strategies she personally had to put in place to last as long as she did. Each section included some background context (Frederick Winslow Taylor and the birth of management consultants, Henry Ford and the birth of the assembly line, the effects of long term stress on the human body, etc.) and a few interviews with co-workers.

I was less enamored of her conclusions on the “future of work” — jobs like these that are dehumanizing and “suck.” Techno-Taylorism — she may have coined this phrase — refers to applying technology to increase industrial efficiency — usually by monitoring employees’ every movement and issuing warnings, alarms, and omnipresent progress widgets to spur faster, more efficient work (and massively stressful and draining for the employee). According to Guendelsberger, the stress resulting from this externally sourced drive to suppress our humanity is the thing that is causing the American masses to spiral into depression, anger, and drug abuse. I was hoping for more of an “expose and propose” approach to the issues, but instead I got a “complain and throw up our hands” approach — suggesting that everyone simply go home and think about how to make this world a better place. I did find a lot to think about from reading this book, but I think the issues run a lot deeper than corporate greed and the stress of constant technological surveillance.

Overall a fast and completely absorbing read. Guendelsberger is an excellent writer and made the material easy to absorb. The writing was unapologetically personal. She was quite up front about knowing that she could (and would) quit any time, not having a family to support as many of her colleagues did, and admitting how personally unsuited she was for many of these tasks. There were times when I found myself thinking “ugh — another whining Millenial,” but I’m sure I would have been whining even more loudly, and although I wish there had been a few more interviews with colleagues, those that she included did present a broader and sometimes contradictory perspective to her own.

Her writing is my favorite part — I can hear The Onion in it. Some quotes:

“Right now though, exhaustion has shrunk my circle of empathy to the point that it’s barely big enough for myself. I didn’t know that could happen, and it’s not pleasant.”

“As a culture, we put far too much blind trust in data and technology. Math and logic are beautiful languages. But it’s so pretentious to pretend that they have adequate vocabulary to accurately describe a human, much less whether a human is happy or miserable. Our brains are the most complicated things in the known universe, with a hundred billion neurons making connections in a mind-bogglingly complex web that constantly changes. Our levels of technology aren’t remotely close to being able to accurately describe that mess, and they won’t be for a very long time. Numbers and statistics just aren’t up to communicating how something feels, even though that’s often extremely important information.”

“The constant monitoring I found so stressful doesn’t bother these women. I felt like someone was always watching in case I screwed up; they feel like someone’s taking note of the good work they do. All three have had to pick up slack from deadbeat coworkers at other jobs; when it’s obvious who’s working and who isn’t, you never end up doing someone else’s job on top of your own…”

“Why is the country ready to riot over jobs — immigrants taking them, trade deals killing them, Wall Street destroying them? Because these jobs suck donkey balls.”

“I frequently fantasize about MBAs from the F. Kafka School of Management cackling as they designed this system for maximum alienation, frustration and existential anxiety. I’m sure the reality is mundane, though — I’m guessing some rep figures out how to use Telegence to steal customer information, so upper management isn’t willing to risk letting any reps officially use it despite the lack of a functional replacements.”

“I often picture Crowley as the original designer of modern scheduling software, because it frequently feels like we’ve been understaffed at the precise levels that will maximize human misery on both sides of the counter.” (referring to the demon from Good Omens)

“I’ve been developing a sort of callus over the earnest part of myself that genuinely cares about the customers and wants to do a good job for them. It thickens every time someone says something terrible to me. As it gets tougher, I’ve become increasingly numb to my customer interactions, good and bad. It’s harder for angry people to upset me, but I get much less pleasure from making people happy. This dead muted feeling reminds me a lot of depression, and it worries me.”

“But at this moment, techno-Taylorism, the decline of organized labor, automation, and the ongoing destruction of the shark-cage worker protections have tipped the balance of power in the workplace way, way in favor of employers. It’s gotten so out of balance that even many workers seem to truly believe that the things that make them less efficient than sharks or robots are weaknesses — moral failings, like original sin.”

“Bezos then brainstormed a list of traits that make the public think of a company as “cool” or “uncool”. Uncool things: defeating tiny guys, rudeness, conquerors, hypocrisy, mercenaries, pandering. Cool things: the young, explorers, inventing, being polite, taking risks, empowering others, thinking big, authenticity, and winning — especially when you’re defeating bigger, unsympathetic guys.”