Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review: A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug

When Sarah Lacy achieved some success in tech journalism, she decided she could take the leap of having a child. She knew the discrimination and setbacks that working mothers could face, but realized that this might be the best moment. So she had a son, and then she had a daughter, and then she built a new company from the ground up. Lacy's book is a rallying cry for women to realize that having children does not make you a less valuable employee and being someone with passion for your career does not make you a bad parent.

The Uterus is a Feature, Not a Bug is several things combined between two covers. It's one woman's story of rising through a mainly male profession; it's a deep dive into the statistics that prove that women and parents in the workforce are a strength, not a weakness; and it's an exploration of what we can do to change workplace culture.

Lacy covers a lot here, but one of the most interesting things is the idea of benevolent sexism. She writes about superiors who would never call themselves sexist, but might have neglected to place you in the running for a promotion because you have a small child or you're too "nice" for management. Lacy also destroys the idea of "distracted mothers." The whole concept is a bit ridiculous--are we actually proposing that non-parents have never been distracted by things going on in their personal lives? And "mommy brain?" Parents can be some of the most focused, productive workers; they know there is no time for chatting at the water cooler or perusing the internet because they want to make it home for that bedtime story.

Some reviewers have pointed out that Lacy can be divisive where she means to be unifying: if you open your book by pointing out that non-mothers can never understand what it's like to birth and raise a child, you are dividing (and perhaps offending) some of your readers right from the start. But I think she is right to point out that, whether or not you intend to have children, women are often considered a liability because they might have children. Men's possible parenthood, however, is seen as a non-issue.

This is not a perfect book, but I do think it's a great starting point for everyone--working moms and dads, their colleagues without children, and the bosses who are determining who gets a seat at the table with them. There is a clear need for change in our places of work. Some of us will become parents and some won't. But we need to leave the possibility for you to attend your child's play or take your parent to a doctor's appointment or just take a mental health day sometimes. If we could base our promotion and pay decisions on the merits of someone's work instead of sitting at your desk for a certain number of hours, I think we would see a huge shift in people's success and love for their jobs.

The Uterus is a Feature, Not a Bug
The Working Woman's Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy
By Sarah Lacy
Harper Business November 2017
320 pages
Received from the publisher for TLC Book Tours

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Nonfiction November Mini-Reviews: American Fire and That Crumpled Paper Was Due Yesterday

On November 12, 2012, firefighters were called to a blaze in an abandoned house in Accomack County, Virginia. Little did they know that it would be the first of 86 fires over the next five months. Journalist Monica Hesse traveled to Virginia and met the firefighters who spent night after night fighting fires, the police officers who tried to find the perpetrators, and the people arrested for the crime. American Fire is her examination of what happened and why it happened in this particular place with these particular people.

Monica Hesse really embedded herself into the lives of the people of these Virginian towns and her careful research helps readers to understand how this could happen in an area where most people dangle perilously over the poverty line and abandoned structures are abundant. While she does interview both people arrested for the fires, there is a feeling that law enforcement, the lawyers, and Ms. Hesse herself never quite got the full story. This is probably not unusual and doesn't take away from a fascinating story, as long as you realize that you won't get every answer you seek. Otherwise, this is a well-researched and fascinating look into five months of confusion and terror, the people who set the fires, and the people who brought them to justice.

American Fire
Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land
By Monica Hesse
Liveright July 2017
255 pages
From the library

Many of us who are parents have a moment when we can't believe our kid forget his math homework again or wonder why our kid's intelligence doesn't seem to be matching his English grade. Ana Homayoun works as an educational consultant and spends her days helping students find methods to improve their grades and become great students. In That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week, she breaks down the organizational tools that will help your child succeed in school.

I picked this book up because my favorite 9 year old was having some trouble with getting his homework from school to home and I wanted to help him organize his academic life. This book is aimed at kids in middle and high school, but parents of younger children can still find some pertinent ideas. It's a fine place to start, but I found myself wishing there were some more concrete tools. It seems like common knowledge that a child might not reach his full potential if he spends hours in his room "doing homework" (aka on his phone) or that a child's GPA can suffer if there has been a huge life change like a divorce or death in the family. That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week is a good book to skim for some introductory ideas, but I'm still on the lookout for techniques I can use with my son.

Note: Yes, I'm sure you could use these techniques for girls too. My daughter is only four, so we are not quite there yet. Parents of boys and girls, do you find that disorganization is more frequent in boys or is it a family trait?

That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week
Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School and Life
By Ana Homayoun
TarcherPerigee January 2010
304 pages
From the library

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Comic Mini-Reviews

During the most recent 24 Hour Readathon, I interspersed my reading with some comics. I had heard great things about each one, so I picked them up from my library and met some new comic authors and illustrators.

The first one I read was Petty Theft, which is about a man in the midst of a crisis. Pascal has just been dumped by his girlfriend, he can't seem to get inspired to start a new book and, to top it all off, he injured his back and can't get his feelings out through running. While wandering the aisles at a bookstore, he sees a woman steal his book from the shelf. He is instantly intrigued and convinces himself if he can only meet and befriend that woman, everything will be ok.

Pascal Girard's drawing style is spare in black and white. He doesn't shy away from showing the indignities of being middle aged and overlooked or crashing with friends when your life is a mess. Pascal and the object of his affection make many questionable choices and can be tough characters to root for, but it's a good pick for someone who needs to laugh when everything is going wrong.

Next, I read Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie. This book is about the titular Aya, a teenager living on the Ivory Coast of Africa during the 1970s. The author writes in the introduction that she wanted to portray regular life, with its fleeting romances and family squabbles, instead of the war and famine that seem to represent Africa in popular culture. Aya takes readers with her as she goes out with friends, meets boys, and navigates the transition between teen and adult.

Reading Aya was interesting because it is a story like any other teen story; only the illustrations with the sandy roads and the colloquialisms throughout remind us that we are in Africa instead of the US or Europe. The authors truly try to bring you into the time and place of their story and the last few pages include recipes and fashion tips from the characters. If you enjoy Aya, there are five more books about her life and community.

Paper Girls was my favorite of the three. I've read comparisons to Lumberjanes, a favorite in our house, and I can see the resemblance. In this comic, it's the later 1980s and Erin is out delivering papers in the early hours after Halloween. She expects things to be a bit strange, but she is unprepared to find a spaceship and zombie ninjas. Erin teams up with the other paper girls to keep each other safe and figure out what is going on in their town.

I was pretty little in the late 80s, but the fashion and colors are so fun to see on the page. It's definitely aimed at teens and adults, though, because this is one dark and violent tale. The story is wildly inventive, as you might expect from Brian K. Vaughan, and he leaves the first issue on a fabulous cliffhanger. There are three more volumes if you get swept up in the story of Erin and her fellow paper girls.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Netgalley mini-reviews: The Lauras and Warp

In the middle of the night, Alex's mother decides it is time for a road trip. The two of them head across the country to find people from Ma's past. As they travel, Ma tells Alex about her life and they stop for a while to see someone or earn enough money to keep going. Their journey will bring the two closer together and push them apart, as they decide how they want to live the rest of their lives.

The Lauras is a very unique story. Taylor's debut novel The Shore did some creative things with storytelling as well. But The Lauras can be a difficult book to read; Alex is coming to terms with their sexuality and complicated family and Ma is trying to find peace with a painful past. At certain parts, this book seems to be an ode to human resiliency, but it never becomes trite. I didn't adore this book in the way that I loved her previous one, but Sara Taylor is an inventive and talented writer and I will be interested to see what she does next.

The Lauras
By Sara Taylor
Hogarth Press August 2017
304 pages
Read via Netgalley

Hollis has graduated from college and now lives a listless life. He and his friends wander through their days at meaningless jobs and wonder what happened to their dreams. Hollis and his friend decide that the best way to spend their weekend is to break into an abandoned mansion, get drunk, and talk about the people they know and the people they wish they could be.

This book was republished after the success of Grossman's Magicians Trilogy. Hollis is very clearly an early iteration of Quentin Coldwater. It's a really good thing that Quentin became a magician because without magic, the moody twenty-something protagonist is painful to witness. There's an inevitable comparison here to Holden Caulfield. If you are a fan of that character, this might be a good read for you. The rest of us should probably stick to Grossman's more magical books.

By Lev Grossman
St. Martin's Griffin September 2016
192 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nonfiction November: Become An Expert

It's Nonfiction November!

This month, many readers are putting away their novels in favor of learning something new. I try to read a nonfiction title or two each month, but it's nice to focus on them during the month of November. This week, we are talking about becoming experts on a certain topic.

I just finished and loved Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. In this book, she recounts the year when her family attempted to eat only things that were grown locally or by the family themselves. I am slowly working my way to better food for our family, so I am excited to read other books about gardening, healthy eating, and maybe even getting some chickens.

I have a few books on my tbr list already, but I want your suggestions too. What book helped you as a beginning gardener? What changed the way you think about eating locally? What in the world do you cook in winter when all the produce is shipped from halfway around the world? Which cookbooks do you turn to when trying to eat an entire crate of strawberries or broccoli?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: A Tangled Mercy

In 1822, Tom Russell is a blacksmith with an impossible choice to make. He has been asked to make weapons for a revolt orchestrated by his fellow slaves in Charleston. If he helps them, the consequences could be deadly. But toeing the line doesn't promise safety for him or the woman he loves, either. In the present day, Kate Drayton has messed up spectacularly. She walks out on the lecture she should be teaching and ends up in Charleston, the hometown of her mother. Her mother's recent death has left Kate with a lot of questions about their family and why her mother was researching a failed slave revolt in 1822.

Joy Jordan-Lake walked a precarious road while writing this book. She is a white woman who could easily draw on her own experience as a harried PhD candidate, but had to use research and empathetic imagination to give voice to people who might have lived through the very real revolt of 1822. She was almost finished with the book when a horrific shooting happened at Emmanuel AME Church, an important location to her story. She made the careful choice to incorporate that into her story; as much as we would like to think that everything is different 200 years later, it is clear that prejudice and hatred still live in our nation.

There were certain moments where I wished this book had been edited with a heavier hand, when plot points were dropped or details didn't make sense, but I was still pulled into the stories of Kate and Tom. It's clear that Jordan-Lake is enamored with Charleston itself, as well as its history. The city almost becomes its own character, as we wander down its streets today and 200 years ago. The characters are so compelling and the history is so beautifully blended with story that you may find yourself reading just a few more pages (or chapters) than you meant to read.

It's difficult to examine the horrors of the past without becoming overwhelmed or brushing past them with the claim that things are better now. Joy Jordan-Lake has written through a lens of hope and possibility without ignoring the tragedies that occurred. This is a wonderful book for any reader who loves historical fiction.

A Tangled Mercy
By Joy Jordan-Lake
Lake Union Publishing November 2017
462 pages
Read for She Read Book Club 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review: Shalom Sistas

Osheta Moore and her husband were deeply involved in urban ministry in their New Orleans community. She taught ballet at the community center and invited teens into their home, while her husband taught literacy skills and trained people to start new jobs. When Hurricane Katrina hit, their home and the community center where they worked were both destroyed. The family decided to move to Boston, but Osheta found herself without a purpose. She believed that she was called to help people and to practice shalom, or peace-making, in her community, but didn't know how to do it with three small children in tow and no title or funding. As Lent approached, she decided to take those 40 days to study what the Scriptures say about bringing peace to our worlds and then put those things into practice.

In Shalom Sistas, Osheta tells readers that making peace is for everyone. It's for the people who work full-time jobs, the moms and dads who are home all day with little ones, and those of us who feel a bit too snarky to be considered a saint. In fact, Osheta becomes convinced that peacemaking is an active and audacious process, and it needs people who are ready to speak with power and a bit of sass. She writes a manifesto to remember what people seeking peace should be doing every day, which includes things like believing we are enough, seeing the beauty around us, choosing subversive joy, and serving before speaking.

Some of the practices Osheta writes about in Shalom Sistas are ones we have heard before, like remembering to rest so we can do good, hard work. But in other chapters, she deeply challenges her readers. When she read about the Steubenville rape case, she was heartbroken as a fellow victim of sexual assault. But she also sees that, if we are truly committed to peacemaking, there has to be a road to redemption for the perpetrators too. When her daughter's school throws a daddy/daughter dance, the family decides to take the more difficult road and throw a free party instead of attending the event that not everyone could afford. Osheta writes in an extremely conversational and encouraging way. If you are looking for a book that will give you ideas to make peace in yourself, your home, and your community, Shalom Sistas is a great place to start.

Shalom Sistas
Living Wholeheartedly in a Broken World
By Osheta Moore
Herald Press October 2017
240 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Review: Something Beautiful Happened

Yvette Manessis Corporon knew that her family made a brave choice during WWII when her grandparents and their neighbors hid a Jewish family. She has heard the stories of their time together on the island of Erikousa and knows that Savvas and his family survived the war. But no one seems to know where the family went after the war ended. Yvette sets out to discover what happened to them, in the hopes that her family and their family can be reunited. She is overjoyed when she finally finds them, but her joy quickly turns to grief when her relatives are murdered by a neo-Nazi. Yvette and her relatives struggle to make sense of the knowledge that the bravery and joy of the past do not keep them safe from the evil of the present.

Something Beautiful Happened is one of those books that is both universal and specific. Few of us can claim that our grandparents saved someone's life during World War II, but all of us will learn that there is evil in the world that can hurt those we love. What do we do with that grief and anger?

There are moments when the writing in this book veers a bit to the cliche but ultimately, we have two choices when tragedy strikes: either we fall apart or we find those small, beautiful moments that carry us through. Yvette travels around the world and encounters many people, but she finds that they are bound together by the power of story and the unexpected discovery of hope. As the generations who survived the Holocaust are getting older, we must seize our last opportunities to hear about their lives. Their stories of bravery and kindness in one of humanity's darkest moments can give us the strength to hope that good does come after evil.

Something Beautiful Happened
A Story of Courage and Survival in the Face of Evil
By Yvette Manessis Corporon
Howard Books September 2017
320 pages
Read via Netgalley