mini-review · stuff I read

salt. by Nayyirah Waheed

Summary from Goodreads:
Salt is a journey through warmth and sharpness. This collection of poetry explores the realities of multiple identities, language, diasporic life & pain, the self, community, healing, celebration, and love.

salt. is a self-published book of poems about the experience of being a woman of color, an African-american woman, of African descent, an immigrant, loving an immigrant, of ancestry.  A few poems hit back hard at tourism by affluent whites to the poorer, browner areas of the world.  I know very little about Nayyirah Waheed herself, her website and Goodreads Author page have no biographical information, so I have to read and interpret these poems without any knowledge of her influences.  These poems are stark and raw but also beautiful.  Waheed has taken great care not just with her imagery but also with the structure of these poems.  Her line breaks are very precisely placed.

And now I come to the rub of publishing.  I had to read this wonderful book via kindle app since there doesn’t seem to be a way to get this elsewhere except from Amazon. Even my well-stocked, very-up-on-what’s-popular-and-relevant local public library doesn’t have a copy in either ebook or print. I have tried to order the book through my store’s distributors – because we can order CreateSpace books if/when we can – but according to the distributor it isn’t available anymore.  However, checking the actual CreateSpace site reveals that the book is available to order and that CreateSpace is an Amazon subsidiary…. This is why I included the BN link above.  Because of whatever decision made behind the scenes at Amazon/CreateSpace I have no way of getting paperback copies of salt. into my store to push into customers’ hands.  And I want to push this at everyone who comes in looking for Milk and Honey and Citizen because salt. should reach just as many readers as those books can.  So please publishers, offer Waheed a P2P contract.  She has a gift.

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mini-review · Readathon · stuff I read

We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler

Summary from Goodreads:
Feminism has hit the big time. Once a dirty word brushed away with a grimace, “feminist” has been rebranded as a shiny label sported by movie and pop stars, fashion designers, and multi-hyphenate powerhouses like Beyoncé. It drives advertising and marketing campaigns for everything from wireless plans to underwear to perfume, presenting what’s long been a movement for social justice as just another consumer choice in a vast market. Individual self-actualization is the goal, shopping more often than not the means, and celebrities the mouthpieces.

But what does it mean when social change becomes a brand identity? Feminism’s splashy arrival at the center of today’s media and pop-culture marketplace, after all, hasn’t offered solutions to the movement’s unfinished business. Planned Parenthood is under sustained attack, women are still paid 77 percent—or less—of the man’s dollar, and vicious attacks on women, both on- and offline, are utterly routine.

Andi Zeisler, a founding editor of Bitch Media, draws on more than twenty years’ experience interpreting popular culture in this biting history of how feminism has been co-opted, watered down, and turned into a gyratory media trend. Surveying movies, television, advertising, fashion, and more, Zeisler reveals a media landscape brimming with the language of empowerment, but offering little in the way of transformational change. Witty, fearless, and unflinching, We Were Feminists Once is the story of how we let this happen, and how we can amplify feminism’s real purpose and power.

We Were Feminists Once is a very accessible examination of the commodification of feminism through the last 30 years or so. A lot of thought is given to “choice” feminism and how that plays into brand marketing. The takeaway here is that it’s much easier to put on a pair of sweats that say “feminist” on the butt than go to a march or have a nuanced discussion. Because “feminists” are still portrayed as baby-eating family-wreckers in the media rather than humans with equal standing (see also: the ERA).

Dear FTC: I borrowed this from the library.

mini-review · stuff I read

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Summary from Goodreads:
Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.

Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.

There isn’t much more about Hidden Figures that I could say and not have it been said by about ten other people already.  This is such an amazing untold story about the black women who literally did the math that made the space program possible. They could have broken or bailed or given up so many times in the face of discrimination on two fronts. But they didn’t. And we are so much richer for their perseverance.

Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

mini-review · Readathon · Reading Graphically · stuff I read

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls edited by Hope Nicholson

Summary from Goodreads:
The Secret Loves of Geek Girls is a non-fiction anthology mixing prose, comics, and illustrated stories on the lives and loves of an amazing cast of female creators. Featuring work by Margaret Atwood (The Heart Goes Last), Mariko Tamaki (This One Summer), Trina Robbins (Wonder Woman), Marguerite Bennett (Marvel’s A-Force), Noelle Stevenson (Nimona), Marjorie Liu (Monstress), Carla Speed McNeil (Finder), and over fifty more creators. It’s a compilation of tales told from both sides of the tables: from the fans who love video games, comics, and sci-fi to those that work behind the scenes: creators and industry insiders.

A very diverse (both in creators and contents) anthology of “geek” ladies’ origin stories, worries about relationships, identities, dating, and fandom. Some pieces are straight prose, some comics, some feel more like short fiction, some confessional memoir.  Loved it.

(Our buyers put this in Graphic Novels but it really feels like Women’s Studies would be a better fit.)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

Austenesque · mini-review · Readathon · stuff I read

Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places by Margaret Doody

Summary from Goodreads:
In Jane Austen’s works, a name is never just a name. In fact, the names Austen gives her characters and places are as rich in subtle meaning as her prose itself. Wiltshire, for example, the home county of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, is a clue that this heroine is not as stupid as she seems: according to legend, cunning Wiltshire residents caught hiding contraband in a pond capitalized on a reputation for ignorance by claiming they were digging up a “big cheese”—the moon’s reflection on the water’s surface. It worked.

In Jane Austen’s Names, Margaret Doody offers a fascinating and comprehensive study of all the names of people and places—real and imaginary—in Austen’s fiction. Austen’s creative choice of names reveals not only her virtuosic talent for riddles and puns. Her names also pick up deep stories from English history, especially the various civil wars, and the blood-tinged differences that played out in the reign of Henry VIII, a period to which she often returns. Considering the major novels alongside unfinished works and juvenilia, Doody shows how Austen’s names signal class tensions as well as regional, ethnic, and religious differences. We gain a new understanding of Austen’s technique of creative anachronism, which plays with and against her skillfully deployed realism—in her books, the conflicts of the past swirl into the tensions of the present, transporting readers beyond the Regency.

Full of insight and surprises for even the most devoted Janeite, Jane Austen’s Names will revolutionize how we read Austen’s fiction.

Jane Austen’s Names is a book I didn’t even know I needed until I saw it on the shelf at Prairie Lights.  Come to mama, Jane Austen literary criticism nerd book.

I ❤❤ this book a lot – the minutiae of place names and personal names and etymology and how that commented on Austen’s characterizations was so great.  She gets in a little dig at naming conventions in historical romance novels (which I totally get – sometimes those names are buh-nanas).  Recommended for Austen fans and people super-into English history. It’s not quite perfect – there’s a huge late digression during a discussion of place names in Mansfield Park which has an interesting premise but it feels much longer that discussion of the other novels so feels out of place (I could be biased, MP is not my favorite Austen novel). (And a strange statement about Erotic love in the Conclusion that seems to come out of nowhere….)

Finished book 1 of #24in48readathon! (Whee, academic writing makes for slow reading – BUT it was a good pick for Readathon since I was making time for long stretches of reading, which is what this book needed.)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book OF COURSE.

First to Read · mini-review · stuff I read

The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

Summary from Goodreads:
A comic, bittersweet tale of family evocative of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Everything Is Illuminated

Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch and his family would like to mourn the passing of his mother, Rachela, with modesty and dignity. But Rachela, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, is rumored to have solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem. Rumor also has it that she spitefully took the solution to her grave. To Sasha’s chagrin, a ragtag group of socially challenged mathematicians arrives in Madison and crashes the shiva, vowing to do whatever it takes to find the solution — even if it means prying up the floorboards for Rachela’s notes.

Written by a Ph.D. geophysicist, this hilarious and multi-layered debut novel brims with colorful characters and brilliantly captures humanity’s drive not just to survive, but to solve the impossible.

If I said The Mathematician’s Shiva was really funny would you believe me?

Well, it is. This book is LOADED with kooky academic math-nerd humor in among all the my-mother’s-shiva-has-been-invaded-by-non-family-members-and-what-the-hell-all-is-going-on-in-this-house scenes. This is a really wonderful novel that examines how one remembers and honors a parent when that parent isn’t just a private person.  Sasha also discovers a lost part of his family over the course of the week.  Rojstaczer also uses the setting of Madison – a college town in the midst of winter to his advantage.  If you’ve been to UW’s campus, you’ll know exactly where he has put his characters.

And I learned a bit (I think) about Russian-Polish Judaism (I was raised Lutheran so the specifics were all a bit fascinating). I appreciated greatly how words or phrases in Russian/Polish/Hebrew/Yiddish(?) weren’t always translated and that made the dialogue and writing seem very natural.

An excellent debut novel (also, A+ cover design Penguin, I love it).

Dear FTC: I won a copy of this book waaay back when it was published in a Goodreads First Reads contest.  I read it then, but somehow never managed to get it reviewed on my blog.  So I’m doing it now.

mini-review · stuff I read · The Self-Improvement Crazy-train

Unf*ck Your Habitat: You’re Better Than Your Mess by Rachel Hoffman

Summary from Goodreads:
Finally, a housekeeping and organizational system developed for those of us who’d describe our current living situation as a “f*cking mess” that we’re desperate to fix. Unf*ck Your Habitat is for anyone who has been left behind by traditional aspirational systems: The ones that ignore single people with full-time jobs; people without kids but living with roommates; and people with mental illnesses or physical limitations, and many others. Most organizational books are aimed at traditional homemakers, DIYers, and people who seem to have unimaginable amounts of free time. They assume we all iron our sheets, have linen napkins to match our table runners, and can keep plants alive for longer than a week. Basically, they ignore most of us living here in the real world.

Interspersed with lists and challenges, this practical, no-nonsense advice relies on a 20/10 system (20 minutes of cleaning followed by a 10-minute break; no marathon cleaning allowed) to help you develop lifelong habits. It motivates you to embrace a new lifestyle in manageable sections so you can actually start applying the tactics as you progress. For everyone stuck between The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Adulting, this philosophy is decidedly more realistic than aspirational, but the goal is the same: not everyone will have a showcase of a home, but whatever your habitat, you deserve one that brings you happiness, not stress.

Unf*ck Your Habitat is a good, solid “kick in the pants to stop procrastinating and take care of your mess” book by the UfYH creator. It isn’t over-prescriptive or unrealistic (you are not expected to hold each object in your home to see if it brings you happiness, for instance). There’s a lot of acknowledgement that real people are busy, or have messy, sheddy cats, or roommates, or family members, or have trouble with mobility or pain or illness, or mental illness that wreaks havoc on ones ability to even get out of bed much less make it afterward.

The main point is to just get started, even if it’s five minutes of dishes or five pieces of clothing put away – those little bits will eventually add up.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

stuff I read

Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Watching ’80s Movies by Jason Diamond

Summary from Goodreads:
For all fans of John Hughes and his hit films such as National Lampoon’s Vacation, Sixteen Candles, and Home Alone, comes Jason Diamond’s hilarious memoir of growing up obsessed with the iconic filmmaker’s movies—a preoccupation that eventually convinces Diamond he should write Hughes’ biography and travel to New York City on a quest that is as funny as it is hopeless.

For as long as Jason Diamond can remember, he’s been infatuated with John Hughes’ movies. From the outrageous, raunchy antics in National Lampoon’s Vacation to the teenage angst in The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink to the insanely clever and unforgettable Home Alone, Jason could not get enough of Hughes’ films. And so the seed was planted in his mind that it should fall to him to write a biography of his favorite filmmaker. It didn’t matter to Jason that he had no qualifications, training, background, platform, or direction. Thus went the years-long, delusional, earnest, and assiduous quest to reach his goal. But no book came out of these years, and no book will. What he did get was a story that fills the pages of this unconventional, hilarious memoir.

In Searching for John Hughes, Jason tells how a Jewish kid from a broken home in a Chicago suburb—sometimes homeless, always restless—found comfort and connection in the likewise broken lives in the suburban Chicago of John Hughes’ oeuvre. He moved to New York to become a writer. He started to write a book he had no business writing. In the meantime, he brewed coffee and guarded cupcake cafes. All the while, he watched John Hughes movies religiously.

Though his original biography of Hughes has long since been abandoned, Jason has discovered he is a writer through and through. And the adversity of going for broke has now been transformed into wisdom. Or, at least, a really, really good story.

In other words, this is a memoir of growing up. One part big dream, one part big failure, one part John Hughes movies, one part Chicago, and one part New York. It’s a story of what comes after the “Go for it!” part of the command to young creatives to pursue their dreams—no matter how absurd they might seem at first.

If you are looking for an actual John Hughes bio, read the blurb and try again.

Searching for John Hughes is an interesting meta-memoir (Diamond’s memoir, a little John Hughes biography/filmography, and a little “how this book came into being”). In a year that seemed to have several books and movies that brought back 80s nostalgia, Diamond’s book doesn’t look back with yearning – he looks back with something akin to relief and maybe a little irritation that he didn’t get what was promised him in the movies. His childhood was not easy, his family life was far from ideal, he was homeless for several years in his teens, and the glowing Shermer, IL, promised on the screen didn’t exist for him (Diamond grew up in those same Chicago suburbs amalgamated into the Hughes backdrop). After years of work, the book Diamond eventually made is how you get up everyday and keep going.

It’s interesting to note that the three 80s film books I read this year (Searching for John Hughes, Brat Pack America, and Life Moves Pretty Fast) are all very different books, like three sides of a triangle.  Diamond’s book is a memoir, Smokler’s book lies more toward film criticism, and Freeman’s book is a lighter pop-culture look at the decade.  All with different perspectives, all great reads.

Dear FTC: I got a review copy of this book from the publisher.