20 February 2018

Book Review: I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell

This is the first book I’ve ever picked up by Maggie O’Farrell, but it was so incredible that I’ve ordered in her earlier books so that I can read those, too. This book is subtitled “Seventeen Brushes with Death” which sounds grim, but actually turns out to be a brilliant conceit. Maggie O’Farrell tells her story as a series of essays, each concentrating on a near death experience. The first chapter, in which she encounters a murderer, is certainly one of the most gripping.  In it, the author is just turned eighteen and is out hiking in a remote area on her own. She meets a man on the trail whose presence absolutely chills her, but she walks on by. A few minutes later, he has somehow gotten in front of her and cuts her off, lassoing her with the leather strap of his binoculars to look at some birds.  Thinking quickly, she immediately ducks out of the strap and starts to babble loudly about how she’s expected at work, powerwalking down the hill toward the village. She reports the incident to the police, but they dismiss her as hysterical. Two weeks later, another young woman from the village is found strangled on the same trail – and all of this is recounted as a way to explain why the author is a bit spooked by the thought of  hiking with her young daughter alone, and why to this day she doesn’t like to wear scarves or have anybody touch her neck.

Not all of the chapters are as edge-of the seat as the opening one.  In one of them, she recounts some of the foolish decisions she has made in her life, like jumping off a high pier at night into the sea below, only to find herself stuck in an undertow, and utterly unable to detect whether she was swimming towards the surface or dragging herself farther under. Or when she was a child and ran into the street, straight into the path of a car.

She also juxtaposes the pernicious childhood disease that she survived against the life threatening allergies that her daughter has. Her writing is luminous and soul-searching, whether she’s recounting her childhood or reflecting on her adulthood. And I think the most amazing thing is how she turns each of her seventeen brushes with death into a jumping off point for an essay that examines life. 

Also, the cover is very pretty, with the feather done in a shiny, coppery gilt.

16 February 2018

Book Review: World of Wakanda comic

I’m not 100% sure, but I think that Black Panther: World of Wakanda is the first comic that I’ve read in my adult life.  It is, without a doubt, the first comic that I’ve read in a long, long time.  I picked up this prequel to the Black Panther series when I was browsing at the delightful White Square Books in my new hometown. Despite working in another bookstore, I am incapable of leaving a good bookstore without a purchase, so I decided to give this a go. I chose World of Wakanda for various reasons, but mostly because I like to vote with my pocketbook: I wanted to support the efforts of Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I also figured that reading a comic prequel would put me in good stead for watching the forthcoming Black Panther movie when the film is released.

Alas, the book was not for me, but I rush to add that I think it’s more to do with my inexperience with the comic book world and my general lack of enthusiasm for super heroes in general*. Although in retrospect it should have been obvious, I should have expected that disjointed feel going into my reading, since it’s actually the bound copy of the first six issues printed together.  Naturally that would result in large jumps in time, locale, and character for each issue, but the lack of cohesion really threw me off.  Also, the entire thing is written in ALL CAPS. This was hard to read, and I’d love for someone to enlighten me: is this a typical thing in comics? It drove me batty. On an even pettier level, the grammatical errors distracted me out of the story every single time.

All of that being said, in no way do I regret my purchase, as I am happy to support this franchise and the much-needed diversity it brings to the world of Marvel comics. Moreover, I dug the story of the Dora Milaje, the fierce warrior women of Wakanda, sworn to protect the royal family, who evolve into something more, and I really dug the love story between Captain Aneka and Ayo.

If you read comics of the super hero variety, and particularly if you’re interested in supporting diversity in a field that has for too long been dominated by white cis-male characters and readers alike, you’d probably like this.

Full list of authors and illustrators: Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Yona Harvey, Rembert Brown, Alitha Martinez, Roberto Poggi, Rachelle Rosenberg, Afua Richardson, Tamra Bonvilain, Joe Bennett, Rahzzah, and Joe Sabino

* I felt the same way about watching last year’s Wonder Woman film.  Super glad I voted with my pocketbook to show the powers that be that it’s important for super heroes to reflect more than the white boys who grow up to be heroes. And I loved the first half of the movie. But like with any super hero story, I quickly grew weary of the ever-increasing unbelievability of the exploits. 

10 February 2018

Book Review: Code Girls by Liza Mundy

In an effort to work a little more nonfiction into my reading this year, I picked up the audio book to Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II when my store was sent a box of complimentary items that included both the audio and regular hardcover versions of this book.  Thank you, Hachette!

The title is pretty self explanatory -- this book is an overview of women’s involvement as cryptographers and cryptanalysts during the war, and the author does a creditable job of bringing these women’s stories to light.  More than 10,000 young women worked as code breakers during the war, but because they took secrecy oaths under penalty of death and also because most of the women were forced out of work once the war was over, their stories are not part of our shared lore and history of that war. Until now, that is.

Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government started sending letters to young women attending various colleges in November 1941, inviting them to secret meetings where they were judged on various aptitudes for numbers, patterns, and languages, as well as their character. Those deemed worthy enough then pursued further training before being invited to Washington, DC, after graduation.

This book ranges from the thrilling to the mundane, talking about the desperation for breaking both the Enigma machine on the European front and the various Japanese codes on the Pacific front, but also ranging into the daily lives of these women -- the hardships they faced, but also the simple joys of having escaped the dreary confines of the proper lives they had, up until recently, been expected to assume.

One thing I enjoyed was hearing more about the involvement of Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges for the war effort (since they’re both local to me) both in terms of the number of their young women who joined the ranks of codebreakers and the training grounds that they became for female officers, once the Army and Navy decided to admit women.

While the author did a terrific job describing the raging sexism and misogyny that these women were facing, I would have appreciated hearing a bit more about the rampant racism of the age since the reader only gets to know white women and their contribution to the war effort. It remains mostly unspoken that it was only white women who were college educated at the time, and of good enough pedigree for the US government.

Erin Bennett was the reader for this book and while I don’t recall anything that stood out about her performance, she was a solid reader. Mundy’s research seems solid, based on the footnotes in the physical book, but I do wish that the narrative had been a bit more streamlined. There were multiple times when the narrative diverted to epistolary excerpts between one of the women codebreakers and the young man who was in love with her -- they didn’t advance the storyline and they weren’t interesting enough, either from a romantic or a historical point of view, to include them. Overall, however, this is a book I could easily recommend to the general reader, but particularly to readers of historical nonfiction and those interested in knowing more about the stories of those people who have traditionally been marginalized. 

03 February 2018

Last Month in Review: January 2018

January was a very busy month for me.  My reading stats are really decent this month but that’s thanks in part to a couple of days of travel, ratcheting up my YA reading, and working on a good audio book. I  got to attend the fantastic indie bookseller Winter Institute in Memphis, which was exhausting and exhilarating in pretty equal measure, but which led to lots of great book acquisitions.  I’ve also been dealing with some existing and potential career stuff that has resulted in rather more sleepless nights than usual that have also contributed to rather more reading than usual. In chronological order, then, here is what I finished reading in January:

1. Anatomy of a Miracle by Jonathan Miles. This was a rewarding novel with conflicted and complicated characters -- just the way I like my fiction.  Review here.  Qualifies for my Diversify Your Life challenge. This book will be published in March, and I’m keen to introduce readers to this one.

2. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.  My first nonfiction of the year, and which I also happened to have reviewed already. This was an amazing, but non conventional, biography of the artist and scientist, and I happened to listen to the audio version of it.  Also qualifies for my Diversify Your Life challenge.

3. Love by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Loren Long.  Damn, but it is really possible that I’ve written three book reviews for the first three books I read this month?  IT IS.  Color me surprised.  This picture book still makes me cry when I go back to it, and it makes me very happy indeed.  Also qualifies for my Diversify Your Life challenge.

4. American Histories by John Edgar Wideman.  This is a short story collection, and as primed as I was to love it, it was more miss than hit.  I hasten to add that it’s simply because it doesn’t dovetail with my own reading preferences, not because it’s not a good collection. I think it’s simply because I prefer my stories a bit more concrete.  That being said, the first story, which is a sort of dialogue between John Brown and Frederick Douglass, is very interesting, but the one that resonated most for me is the one with an autobiographical narrator in conversation with his sister about the death of their father.

5. The Universe is Expanding and So Am I by Carolyn Mackler. This was a very quick airplane read for me, and while I found it engaging, I also found it problematic.  I hope to get around to reviewing this one soon.  It’s the sequel to the YA sensation, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.

6. The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surveils. I picked this book up at Winter Institute and read it on the plane ride home.  This is another YA book that was a quick read, and while I warmed to it by the end, I also found a few problematic things about it.  I hope to review this one, too. Also qualifies for my Diversify Your Life challenge.

7. I Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman. I’ve read and reviewed Gayle Forman here and here, but this was a bit different. Less emotionally hefty than If I Stay, but very engaging.  This book explores the way that having a friend who believes in us can help us discover, and be true to, the person that we are. It also qualifies for the Diversify Your Life challenge. Hope to review this one, too.