Reading Women · stuff I read

Victoria The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

33894921Summary from Goodreads:
From International New York Times columnist Julia Baird comes a biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and resilience.

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty years old, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.

Drawing on sources that include revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings to life the story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning.

I picked up a galley of Victoria the Queen at BEA in 2016 and it, unfortunately, has been in a pile of to-read books ever since. But I recently found it on the library’s Libby site, so I decided to give it a read. Baird has done a remarkable job reconstructing the inner life of a woman whose family and official biographers tried to mold into the myth she had become. Victoria was remarkably contradictory in her views, believing that she had the right to tell her ministers what to do and shape foreign policy yet felt inferior to her husband and didn’t believe in women’s suffrage, etc. (which I was surprised to learn).

(The audiobook narrator was dreadfully slow – I had the speed kicked up to 2.25x by the end – and had terrible German pronunciation.)

Dear FTC: I had a galley of this book from BEA but wound up borrowing the audiobook from the library.

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Reading Women · stuff I read

Sick: A Memoir by Porochista Khakpour

33026961Summary from Goodreads:
In the tradition of Brain on Fire and Darkness Visible, an honest, beautifully rendered memoir of chronic illness, misdiagnosis, addiction, and the myth of full recovery that details author Porochista Khakpour’s struggles with late-stage Lyme disease.

For as long as writer Porochista Khakpour can remember, she has been sick. For most of that time, she didn’t know why. All of her trips to the ER and her daily anguish, pain, and lethargy only ever resulted in one question: How could any one person be this sick? Several drug addictions, three major hospitalizations, and over $100,000 later, she finally had a diagnosis: late-stage Lyme disease.

Sick is Khakpour’s arduous, emotional journey—as a woman, a writer, and a lifelong sufferer of undiagnosed health problems—through the chronic illness that perpetually left her a victim of anxiety, living a life stymied by an unknown condition.

Divided by settings, Khakpour guides the reader through her illness by way of the locations that changed her course—New York, LA, New Mexico, and Germany—as she meditates on both the physical and psychological impacts of uncertainty, and the eventual challenge of accepting the diagnosis she had searched for over the course of her adult life. With candor and grace, she examines her subsequent struggles with mental illness, her addiction to the benzodiazepines prescribed by her psychiatrists, and her ever-deteriorating physical health.

A story about survival, pain, and transformation, Sick is a candid, illuminating narrative of hope and uncertainty, boldly examining the deep impact of illness on one woman’s life.

I have long been a fan of Porochista Khakpour’s work online and I’ve been waiting for this memoir since it was announced.

Sick is a finely wrought memoir of Khakpour’s battle with Lyme disease and, more broadly, how the early trauma and displacement of her childhood intertwines and muddies the challenge of “putting a name” to the cause of her symptoms. Lyme is an insidious illness, hard to diagnose, hard to treat, and almost impossible, in many cases, I am learning, to determine a fixed time of infection. Was Khakpour infected as a child? An adolescent? A college-student? Her Lyme symptoms cross a time-line where chemical addiction and symptoms of anxiety could have caused or exacerbated those same symptoms. And even once she has a diagnosis, that does not mean she can now pop the right pills and return to her life disease-free. Khakpour generously details how she lives and works and tries to remain a person, not a disease, day by day.  Her writing is beautiful and a privilege to read, from the sentence-level on up.

We talk in the bookish community about how books can provide windows and doors, how reading is a way to step into someone else’s experience and try to understand them. I am a fairly healthy person. I have my share of aches and pains (hello, 33 years of dancing) but I do not experience pain or fatigue so overwhelming that it makes even leaving my bed impossible. I don’t have a medical condition that is questionably or poorly understood. I don’t struggle with mental illness. Reading Khakpour’s words gave me an opportunity to listen to her story and understand how she lives and works and loves. And then sit very uncomfortably with the times I have been ungenerous with my criticism of someone who suffers from poor health.

Sick is out tomorrow, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. And then I bought a copy.

Update: Since Sick was published, Khakpour has suffered a severe setback in her health, much of it stemming from mold that infested her apartment from an illegal demolition that occurred in her building. She is receiving treatment but it is very expensive and often not covered by insurance. Please buy a copy of Sick (unfortunately, her previous works of fiction, Sons and Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion, are out of print). In addition, a Go Fund Me has been set up for Khakpour to help defray the costs of this round of treatment, if you wish to make a donation.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

35297351Summary from Goodreads:
Calling to mind the best works of Paul Beatty and Junot Díaz, this collection of moving, timely, and darkly funny stories examines the concept of black identity in this so-called post-racial era.

A stunning new talent in literary fiction, Nafissa Thompson-Spires grapples with black identity and the contemporary middle class in these compelling, boundary-pushing vignettes.

Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide—while others are devastatingly poignant—a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.

Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an original and necessary voice in contemporary fiction.

Another outstanding short story collection for 2018. Thompson-Spires has bookended darkly comic and satirical stories about being black in America, including one about two feuding mothers who communicate through notes in their daughters’ schoolbags and another about an able-bodied woman who develops a fixation on men with physical disabilities – I found this to be ingenious commentary about white men who fetishize/objectify women of color), with two moving pieces about the violence perpetrated on young black men by law enforcement. The writing and form are superb.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy for my nook because the digital galley file wouldn’t open.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi (Tangled Axon #1)

18214164Summary from Goodreads:
Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually-advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego . . . and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything—even destroying planets—to get their hands on her!

Jenn at Get Booked also has recommended Ascension multiple times. So when I had a hankering for a space opera, I remembered that I had this on my nook.

Koyanagi created an intriguing world both inside and outside the transport ship Tangled Axon. Ascension itself as a book is somewhere between a three and a four star read. Primarily, it could use a bit of editing since the plot is a little poky and unnecessarily convoluted in places. But, damn, I really enjoyed what the author was getting at with found families, faith, chronic illness, and metaphysics. Alana is such a wonderful character, very complex, and she plays against Tev so very well.  I’d love to read more in this world, with these characters (uh, one of the characters is a humanoid male who either is also a dog or has a dog spirit or something and I have questions because this is interesting), so I really hope that Koyanagi writes more.

Dear FTC: I read the copy on my nook.

mini-review · Reading Women · stuff I read

Brass by Xhenet Aliu

34837009Summary from Goodreads:
A fierce debut novel about mothers and daughters, haves and have-nots, and the stark realities behind the American Dream

A waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner, Elsie hopes her nickel-and-dime tips will add up to a new life. Then she meets Bashkim, who is at once both worldly and naïve, a married man who left Albania to chase his dreams—and wound up working as a line cook in Waterbury, Connecticut. Back when the brass mills were still open, this bustling factory town drew one wave of immigrants after another. Now it’s the place they can’t seem to leave. Elsie, herself the granddaughter of Lithuanian immigrants, falls in love quickly, but when she learns that she’s pregnant, Elsie can’t help wondering where Bashkim’s heart really lies, and what he’ll do about the wife he left behind.

Seventeen years later, headstrong and independent Luljeta receives a rejection letter from NYU and her first-ever suspension from school on the same day. Instead of striking out on her own in Manhattan, she’s stuck in Connecticut with her mother, Elsie—a fate she refuses to accept. Wondering if the key to her future is unlocking the secrets of the past, Lulu decides to find out what exactly her mother has been hiding about the father she never knew. As she soon discovers, the truth is closer than she ever imagined.

Told in equally gripping parallel narratives with biting wit and grace, Brass announces a fearless new voice with a timely, tender, and quintessentially American story.

Here is the deal: I do not like alternating narratives where the point-of-view changes, especially if one of those perspectives is told in the second person. Almost no one can pull off second person perspective. Like, only Italo Calvino.

And now Xhenet Aliu. My friend Nathan told me I needed to read Brass as soon as humanly possible. Which I tried but then there was a problem with the Edelweiss galley file, then the little bugger expired with about 70 pages to go (and the whole “put your iPad in airplane mode” does not work with Bluefire epub files). So I finally just bought a copy out of exasperation. It was worth it for those 70 pages.

Brass is of the few books to use a second person point-of-view narrator (Lulu) to good effect and in contrast to a first person point-of-view (Elsie). Daughter and mother were both so similar and so different from one another – Aliu really leveraged the contrast in style to help the reader understand their characters. It was very hard to predict how Aliu was going to wind up the narratives.  Another knockout book from editor Andrea Walker at Random House.

Congrats to Aliu on her selection in the Barnes and Noble Discover program.

Dear FTC: I was reading a galley from Edelweiss from the publisher and then bought a copy.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Summary from Goodreads:

Selected by Emma Watson as the Our Shared Shelf Book Club Pick for March/April 2018

“Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot is an astounding memoir in essays. Here is a wound. Here is need, naked and unapologetic. Here is a mountain woman, towering in words great and small… What Mailhot has accomplished in this exquisite book is brilliance both raw and refined.” ―Roxane Gay, author of Hunger

Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father―an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist―who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.

“A sledgehammer. . . . Her experiments with structure and language . . . are in the service of trying to find new ways to think about the past, trauma, repetition and reconciliation, which might be a way of saying a new model for the memoir.” ―Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

“I am quietly reveling in the profundity of Mailhot’s deliberate transgression in Heart Berries and its perfect results. I love her suspicion of words. I have always been terrified and in awe of the power of words – but Mailhot does not let them silence her in Heart Berries. She finds the purest way to say what she needs to say… [T]he writing is so good it’s hard not to temporarily be distracted from the content or narrative by its brilliance…Perhaps, because this author so generously allows us to be her witness, we are somehow able to see ourselves more clearly and become better witnesses to ourselves.” ―Emma Watson, Official March/April selection for Our Shared Shelf

I don’t know what got into Spring 2018 publishing, but Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot is another knock-it-out-of-the-park book. I cannot even begin to tell you how beautiful and heartbreaking this slim memoir actually is (and I mean slim – barely 150 pages). Mailhot’s use of contrasting style and tone is perfection. Her critique of how Native women’s language is taken from them and twisted is breathtaking. An early forerunner for best memoir of the year.

My only critique is that the extra-textual information contained in the flap copy above really does not figure directly into the narrative that Mailhot is working through in this book.  Details flit around the periphery. The reader has to work to piece everything together, right along with Mailhot. And I don’t think the extra-textuals are needed because then we spend the whole book searching for the matching details.

If you are following #metoo, Sherman Alexie did provide an Introduction to this book (not sure if it will stay for future editions/printings). But it really adds nothing to the book. If he bothers you, you can safely skip it, read Mailhot’s writing, and then read the Afterword by Joan Naviyuk Kane, which is a Q&A with Mailhot and amazing.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book because YES.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

All the Names They Used for God: Stories by Anjali Sachdeva

35082451Summary from Goodreads:
A haunting, diverse debut story collection that explores the isolation we experience in the face of the mysterious, often dangerous forces that shape our lives

Anjali Sachdeva’s debut collection spans centuries, continents, and a diverse set of characters but is united by each character’s epic struggle with fate: A workman in Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills is irrevocably changed by the brutal power of the furnaces; a fisherman sets sail into overfished waters and finds a secret obsession from which he can’t return; an online date ends with a frightening, inexplicable disappearance. Her story “Pleiades” was called “a masterpiece” by Dave Eggers. Sachdeva has a talent for creating moving and poignant scenes, following her highly imaginative plots to their logical ends, and depicting how one small miracle can affect everyone in its wake.

Lordt, y’all, All the Names They Used for God is face-meltingly good. The stories in this smallish collection all turn on the juxtaposition of the real with the fantastical, one-click off from traditional fairy tales in feel. I got a little brain-tickle as each one reminded me very subtly of an older tale but without retelling any one in particular. “Killer of Kings” is flat-out gorgeous, “All the Names Used for God” is quietly mind-blowing, and the final story “Pleiades” is devastating. Another outstanding collection from an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum.

This collection is kind of flying under the radar so if you’re looking for a story collection, go pick this up.

Dear FTC: My digital galley expired so I bought a copy on my nook to finish reading it.

Reading Women · stuff I read

Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine by Michele Lent Hirsch

Sum33931697mary from Goodreads:
An exploration of women navigating serious health issues at an age where they’re expected to be healthy, dating, having careers and children.

Miriam’s doctor didn’t believe she had breast cancer. She did.

Sophie navigates being the only black scientist in her lab while studying the very disease, HIV, that she hides from her coworkers.

For Victoria, coming out as a transgender woman was less difficult than coming out as bipolar.

Author Michele Lent Hirsch knew she couldn’t be the only woman who’s faced serious health issues at a young age, as well as the resulting effects on her career, her relationships, and her sense of self. What she found while researching Invisible was a surprisingly large and overlooked population with important stories to tell.

Though young women with serious illness tend to be seen as outliers, young female patients are in fact the primary demographic for many illnesses. They are also one of the most ignored groups in our medical system–a system where young women, especially women of color and trans women, are invisible.

And because of expectations about gender and age, young women with health issues must often deal with bias in their careers and personal lives. Not only do they feel pressured to seem perfect and youthful, they also find themselves amid labyrinthine obstacles in a culture that has one narrow idea of womanhood.

Lent Hirsch weaves her own harrowing experiences together with stories from other women, perspectives from sociologists on structural inequality, and insights from neuroscientists on misogyny in health research. She shows how health issues and disabilities amplify what women in general already confront: warped beauty standards, workplace sexism, worries about romantic partners, and mistrust of their own bodies. By shining a light on this hidden demographic, Lent Hirsch explores the challenges that all women face.

This spring is bringing a small crop of books focussed on women’s health and/or marginalized groups’ health. I reviewed Doing Harm a few days ago and Ask Me About My Uterus is also out today (I didn’t get a galley, so I’ll be checking that out later). Today is Invisible‘s turn.

Michele Lent Hirsch used her own experience as a queer woman with chronic pain and illness as a jumping off point to both a) research societal and medical attitudes toward young women with chronic illness and b) interview women all across the spectrum of gender identity/expression and race to give us a taste of what women with chronic illness experience. Chronic illness affects whether or not a woman is able to maintain her personal and professional relationships after symptom onset or diagnosis. It affects whether she can even acquire new relationships. It affects whether she is believed when reporting symptoms.

Invisible is the most intersectional book I’ve ever read. Hirsch has clearly made an effort to create a truly inclusive cohort of female-presenting interview subjects: straight women, gay women, women of color, queer women of color, women who are single, women in relationships, women with children, women without children. A qualitative researcher could take her notes and write a scientific paper about the common themes found in those women’s words. Her information is that good. The only other thing I can say is that the subtitle speaks for itself and this should be required reading for everyone. I think Hirsch could have done more summation or wrote a conclusion to tie all the books’ chapters together. Or perhaps not – maybe we deserve to hit the end of the book and sit there with our thoughts because chronic illness and its effects on women’s lives really has no end or conclusion.

Invisible is out now!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.