Sunday, June 13, 2021

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson (audiobook)

genre: fantasy

Vivienna and Siri, two sisters of Idris who have always known the role they would play in a land where their small highland kingdom has never felt safe from the shadow of the kingdom of Hallandren. Hallandren, where their gods live sequestered yet are accessible for occasional petitions for grace or a miracle. Hallandren, where the magic of colors (Biochroma) has been harnessed so that those with “breath” can perform all kinds of marvels. Hallandren, where a mighty God King will marry a princess of Idris and keep her as a queen to secure the treaties between their kingdoms.

But things don’t quite happen how Vivenna and Siri expect. And the one who thought she was off the hook ends up in a Hallandren palace and there are those who would prefer a war to peace and both Gods and suspicious strangers are plotting to an unknown end.

It’s a lot, this book. A LOT of world building to sort out, a LOT of fantastical history to process and a crazy intricate magical framework. But I LIKED that! The ideas of “colors” and “breaths” and “heightening” were interesting to me. I even found myself invested in how it would all sort out.  While I really only read this because it is one of my son's favorite books of all time and he wanted me to try at least ONE Sanderson book, I'm not sorry I give this my time.  For me, the dialogue is a bit too cheesy and repetitive but I cannot deny that the world of Warbreaker is a wide one.  

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

 genre: non-fiction

As a person who has loved the water for as long as she could remember, I found myself drawn to this book about how humans have interacted with water - in ways both beautiful and disastrous.  Bonnie Tsui, as a swimmer and as a journalist, dives deep (see what I did there?) into not just how we swim but into how water can be such a deeply emotional and encompassing part of life here on earth.

It's so readable, so interesting.  I learned about things I didn't even know where out there to learn about.  She took me all over the world and into the minds of different kinds of people and through it all - swimming - people in water, near water, experiencing water.  And I was all in.  Some of it I found really wanted to talk about with people, ideas of our human history and all the different ways we have evolved to live with a substance that can sustains us as easily as kill us.  It's a fascinating thing and while the subject may not interest everyone as much as it interests me, it is still a well written, if very niche, type of book.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

 genre: short essay

In World of Wonders we are introduced to both the magical and splendid of this planet earth: flamingos and narwhals, axolotls and fireflies.  Within their magic, though, our author has found links, ties, that connect her and her life experiences to the ideas and moods that these creatures bring to mind.  It is lyrical and thoughtful - World of Wonders reminds us that we humans are not the only ones here and that our lives are so intwined all the flora and fauna that exist on this planet that to miss those connections is to miss truly living.  

I can tell from reading other reviews that some readers don't like how each story is both about the natural world and our author's life but that's what I loved most about it.  For me is was beautiful to see the interdependence, the relationships between how animals and plants interact with the world and how Aimee, the daughter of a Filipino father and Indian mother, grew up and flourished in a way that tethered her to the land and the waters and all those creatures who call this world home.  I thought the writing was lovely and although it's not for everyone, I read this quickly and with relish.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Caroline, Little House Revisited by Sarah Miller

 genre: adult historical fiction

As any lover of the Little House on the Prairie books know, Carolina is the given name of Ma, Laura Ingalls Wilder's mother.  While Laura's experience on the trail and on the prairie is so familiar, in Caroline, her story is told from the point of view of her mother as she and Pa lead their family to their new homestead in Kansas.  As they leave Wisconsin and everything familiar, Caroline is the glue that keeps her family of four together amidst the wonders of nature and the forces of man.

For myself, I LOVED reimagining Laura's experience through Caroline's eyes.   Sarah Miller has captured the female experience in an uncannily precise and intimate way, not shying away from the more human parts of the western expansion experience.  The lack of bathroom facilities and privacy of any kind, the heavy tasks of keeping people fed and clean, the minding of the children in an age before any kid of modern entertainment in a land full of danger - THIS resonated with me.  Caroline's struggles with both selfishness and undying love, her appreciation for and yet frustration with her husband, all while so isolated and vulnerable.  I just really appreciated this perspective of womanhood, of a woman doing what is essentially my same job as a stay-at-home-mom, in a different time period.  Sometimes Caroline's insights on even just BEING a woman, the way the world has stifled and put us in a box but also the very deliberate and specific skills that we can have that are sometimes beyond even the thoughts of men - were so spot on.

So, for all this is it sometimes raw - our author doesn't shy away from the fact that they are in Indian Territory and that they are essentially squatting on stolen land.  There are raw bits of sickness and childbirth, lovemaking and doctoring - the frontier was a wild and painful place to try and make a life.  For me, maybe partly because I knew the general plot, it was a bit slow going. I'm making it 4.5 stars instead of the five it maybe deserves but it took me so long to read it - but part of that might be that I was savoring the truly lovely writing, pencil in hand, drenched in another world and time.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women by Renee Engeln, PhD

genre non-fiction, womens studies, psychology

Renee Engeln knows how women think about themselves - she's studied it. A lot.  Her methodical study of our culture's obsession with women's bodies is laid out in this book that outlines how our culture portrays women and it's expectations of their appearance, how women can become "beauty sick" and, luckily, how they can begin to claw their way out of it.

It's such a readable book for such an absolutely important topic.  As someone who has always been on the fringe of what our culture accepts as beautiful, I have thought about this topic a lot and even more so as I've gotten older.  I appreciate all the anecdotal information presented here as well as actual empirical data, both parts felt important and well presented.  I believe Dr. Engeln's assessment and I want to put this book into the hands of every woman who thinks she has to look a certain way in order to be acceptable.  It is so powerful to try and let our minds go beyond the outside of our bodies, it's both terrifying and exhilarating to imagine what you could think about if you stopped thinking about how your body looks.

My only hangout was the lack of much diversity - we do get a little - and while I know that's not the focus of the book I also know that our skin color is another huge way that our way of seeing the world is affected.  It is, however, a really important summary of the current literature on the subject as well as an interesting commentary.  It gave me a lot to think about and I'm glad I read it.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Black Boy by Richard Wright (audiobook)

genre: memoir

In Black Boy, Richard Wright takes us back in time to his earliest memories as a child in Mississippi and Arkansas in the early 20th century. All the misunderstandings and frustrations of youth are compounded in his experience as a Black child in the Deep South. The financial instability, the family drama, the constant knowledge that there is something huge you don’t quite understand - Richard’s intelligence and fierce independence means that he will figure out the world in his own way and once he does - the plight of being Black in America will hit like  like an unfathomable weight.

Black Boy is his story. His struggle. His processing of his life and learning, Black Boy is Richard’s trajectory from youth to manhood in a world that stamped him second class from the moment he left the womb. So many painful and traumatic dead ends. To be in his head on the journey to understanding the way his life would play out because of his Blackness has deeply affected me as a modem white person. He’s so human in his self depreciation, so honest in his desires and faults that my heart actually ached with the tragedy and horrors of race history in this country. I especially kept thinking about the brilliance and innovation and talent that NEVER had a chance to flourish because of the way Black people were kept in poverty and ignorance ON PURPOSE - there is no time to write or imagine or create when you can’t literally even find food to eat or a place to put your body at night.  The writing is so good that it sucked me right into his whole world and it was a really hard place to be.

I am taking off half a star, though, because the last 20% or so was far less interesting to me. It’s about his political experiences as a young man and while I did learn a lot of context and history that I had no idea of, it just wasn’t as compellingly written in my opinion, I had a harder time wanting to read it.

Overall, though, I am sad that this book intimidated me so much that I waited so long to read it. I wish I’d read it in my early twenties or even high school because I honestly don’t know if I have ever read about the real life experience of a Black man from this time period, told in his own words. It’s so poignant and powerful and, yes, painfully raw. It MAKES you look at Jim Crow and race relations and forces you to see how denigrating and upsetting this America was for so many of its citizens for so long.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

 genre: speculative fiction 

The Gulf Coast that we know no longer exists.  Natural disasters and a blood fever have led to the walling off this entire part of our country and, fifty years later, for teenager Fen, this world is home.  A trade and barter society helps sustain a more primitive kind of life - but it's a violent one where there are few you can trust.  When Fen is suddenly in charge of something she'd never anticipated and an outsider shows up with something to hide, Fen has to make some huge decisions - and the consequences could be far reaching.

The world building is really interesting here, I love post-apocalyptic stories and this one intrigued me.  The story was interesting enough although, to be honest, when we are looking at the world through the other point of view, things just felt a little too forced, I just couldn't quite believe that storyline.  Fen's dialect was consistent, which matters, and I didn't really see how the book would resolve, which I also appreciate.  I don't think it's the best plotted story and it took me way longer to read that I'd imagined when I started it but it felt me thinking about it, so that's three stars for me.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements edited by by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha

genre: science fiction anthology

WOW is this an amazing collection of stories!  All told by authors of color, all with elements of both science fiction AND social justice, in one way or another.  There are super hero stories and revolutionary stories and stories that are completely out of this world at all.  They make you think of what's possible and what might be coming if we aren't careful.  There are stories about the climate and about race and religion.  There are characters your root for and characters that leave you wanting.  There are activists and victims - governments and tiny enclaves of survivors.  

I am such a huge fan of speculative fiction anyway, I loved the slant of these stories, the possibilities they offered up to me, the way that race and social justice were a piece but a different kind of piece every time.  Of course they are some I liked more than others but the writing was super solid across the board and I particularly liked the essay about Octavia Butler and her influence at the end, how it wrapped up so many of the different themes and ideas.  This is a great anthology.


Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (audiobook)

 genre: science fiction

Binti is leaving her earthly home to travel to an intergalactic university. With her unique background and gifts, Binti knows it will be challenging but she is willing to say goodbye to her desert home and family to take this incredible opportunity.  On the journey, though, tragedy strikes and only Binti is able to sort through the madness and save herself - but at what cost?

This is a novella, so super short.  I LOVED the Afro-tech-speculativeness of it.  So lovely.  Her customs, her intelligence, the aliens she encounters - I just thought it was a fast moving and really interesting story. It's not perfect and the resolution is very tidy considering all that happens before but for me, I was all in with this fantastical science fiction world where one girl can make such a difference.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Nothing Was the Same: a Memoir by Kay Redfield Jamison

 genre: memoir, non-fiction

Kay’s memoir about loosing her husband Richard to cancer is not just about the resiliency of love but also about the possibilities that exist when we give our lives to the pursuit of knowledge and the joy of appreciating what we already have. The writing is emotional and raw - Dr. Jamison’s life experiences as both a practitioner of and life as someone with bipolar disorder has a huge impact on her marriage and the way she sees the world. To use a popular phrase, Kay and her husband are hands down “relationship goals” - some of Richard’s writings to his wife made me actually teary with both the images and words he uses to describe his feelings for her.

It is a bit long winded and lofty sometimes but it read fairly quickly and I loved how science and learning was such an important girder in their relationship. Glad that book club led me to this one.
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