Category Archives: Review

Review: Grasshopper Jungle

#ReadingIsResistance

Grasshopper Jungle
by Andrew Smith

Title: Grasshopper Jungle
Author: Andrew Smith
Published: 2014
ISBN-13: 978-0-525-42603-5
Publisher: Dutton
Twitter: @marburyjack

What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture

This one has mutant praying mantises which eat the world, horny teenaged boys, and a protagonist who is confused beyond what he considers normal for an adolescent.

History chews up sexually uncertain boys, and spits us out as recycled, generic greeting cards for lonely old men.  (p. 30)

If history were written the way Austin Szerba told it, more people would be interested in history. On the other hand, Austin’s honesty about life in his dying small town in Iowa, his love for his girlfriend Shann, and his confusing love for his best friend Robby might be more than people might want to know.

Grasshopper Jungle is such a funny story, even while dealing with the grim realities of being a teenager in any time and place.  What happens is so fantastical that the science fiction/ fantasy nerd in me giggled even while hurting for Austin and his confusion about being attracted to both Shann and Robby.

A thing I learned about in my reading for February is called bisexual erasure.  Basically, it’s the ridiculous premise that there’s no such thing.  It turns into another way to marginalize people who identify as bi.  Being bi means someone’s not gay enough to be gay, and is thus unwelcome in the gay community.  It also means that they’re not straight and have no place in the straight community.   Bi people can buy into this as they try to make sense of their feelings.

Everything makes Austin horny.  He is, after all, an adolescent boy.  But when he thinks about how much he liked kissing Robby on the roof of a building in the minimall they hang out it, some form of “but I’m not gay” enters his thought processes.  It gets even more confusing when he fantasizes about a three-way with Robby and Shann.  Horniness is its own character in Grasshopper Jungle.  Every action, every thought is laden with horniness. Austin isn’t equipped to deal with this.  All he can do is write his history and try to sort things out.

As if Austin’s life weren’t complex enough, enter the giant, horny praying mantises accidentally unleashed by the boys while hiding from the bullies from a rival high school.

To dwell on the sexual aspects of this book is to give short shrift to the apocalyptic story line.  The mutant praying mantises may be horny, but they are also hungry and set about eating their way through the humans of the world.  Leaving the world a lonely, shiny toy box for the survivors, most especially Austin and Robby.

The deluxe underground compound the three kids stumble upon is its own special kind of character.  Straight out of the 1970s when smoking was in and shag carpet was the height of fashion, the compound has its own history stretching back generations to Austin’s grandfather crossing the Atlantic from Poland, winding up in Iowa and building a successful urinal company.

The survivors amount to Shann, Robby, and Austin with assorted parental units.  And the baby Shann has from the mid-apocolyptic sex she has with Austin in the compound’s bowling alley.

It’s a new world when they emerge back into the world.  Ending in the pristine snow of a sharp winter day as Robby and Austin get set to ransack the world for supplies and nifty cars it feels as though, despite the dismal prospects, life is normal and goes on, even in the face of the stark new reality they face.

Histories are actually full of conjectures.  Those conjectures become so accepted by descendants and readers that time itself is forced to rearrange its own furniture.  This is a new history and I cannot do such a thing.  (p. 367)

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate.  Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others.  It leads us to understanding.  It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change.  Join the resistance, read.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Review: Not Otherwise Specified

#ReadingIsResistance

Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz
Not Otherwise Specified
by Hannah Moskowitz

Title: Not Otherwise Specified
Author: Hannah Moskowitz
Published: 2015
ISBN-13: 9781481405959
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Twitter: @hannahmosk

What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture

“Not gay enough, not straight enough, not sick enough, not healthy enough.  I am Etta Not Otherwise Specified.”  (p. 77)

When I was a SFF con-goer I used to describe myself as, “too mundane for the freaks, and too freaky for the mundanes.”  (Substitute muggles for mundanes and you get the picture.)

Reading Not Otherwise Specified took me back to those days, and all the others when I didn’t know where I fit.  That, in a nutshell, is the story of Etta, a black, bisexual, food disordered, high school student who wants to dance and get out of Nebraska.

Etta doesn’t fit in with her clique, the Disco Divas who shunned her when she had sex with a boy.  She doesn’t fit in with the others in her support group because she’s not sick enough to be given a specific diagnosis for eating disorders but not well enough to be considered healthy.  This, by the way is where the title comes from,  EDNOS – Eating Disordered, Not Otherwise Specified.

Throw into the mix an 14-year-old anorexic girl from a fundamental Christian family with a closeted gay brother who falls in love with a boy from another town, a new boy for Etta, and there’s conflict for all kinds of stories.

Sounds like the story of me.  Only, I’m white, straight, well above high school age, and I kick my food addiction’s ass every day.  But not fitting in, anywhere, that I know like it was braille.

The thing I like most about Moskowitz’s writing is how relatable  she makes everything.  Etta is snarky, fearful and fearless, broken and healer.  Any one of her issues could belong to anybody else.  Every human has fought with their sexuality, not fitting in, not knowing where they wanted to go, afraid of doing something true to themselves because it might alienate someone.

Having changed my relationship with food not quite a year ago, this really resonated with me.  Read what Etta has to say about food disorders and recovery.

“Recovery was my choice, and sometimes it sucks like I can’t believe.  But the truth is I am really damn positive about it …”  (p. 7)

That might as well be me.  Recovery was my choice, and, in the beginning, it sucked so hard I would sit in my car in the parking lot and cry because I was afraid leaving the parking lot meant I would head straight for food.  And even while I was going through that, I knew I had made the right choice.  So crying in the parking lot it was.

Which leads into another issue I identify with so deeply, body image.  Etta wants to be a ballet dancer, has since she was a little girl.  But, her body is not what anyone would call ballerina friendly.  She’s too big and she lets a friend convince her that her body will never allow her to dance the way she wants.  So they give Etta’s toe-shoes a proper burial in the backyard.  Only, Etta keeps hearing their siren song, and with the help of her new friends, she decides  to exhume them and audition for musical theatre school.

“I’m the girl who’s too loud and too much and too big for a lot of people.  I’m the girl who got through two rounds of cutthroat auditions on her damn personality.”  (p. 246)

Etta learns at 16 what it took me decades longer to figure out.  I’m the woman who changed the way she relates to food, and gained a lot of confidence in the process.  I’m also the woman who can be too loud, and too much for some.  And, bonus points, I was too big for a lot of the world.  So yeah, relating to Etta is easy.

In the end, I found myself rooting for them all.  For recovery, living out of the closet, and dancing.  Etta inspired me.  Not Otherwise Specified also made me wish that I had known in high school what Etta learns.

Hannah Moskowitz deserves your readerly attention.  Etta deserves an afternoon with you explaining how screwy life is for those who don’t fit into a nice, neat, little box.  And follow Moskowitz on Twitter (@hannahmosk), because she’s a hoot.

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate.  Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others.  It leads us to understanding.  It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change.  Join the resistance, read.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Book Review: Shye Ryder

Making Mandi by Shye Ryder
Making Mandi
by Shye Ryder
What About Marsha? by Shye Ryder
What About Marsha?
by Shye Ryder

#ReadingIsResistance

Title: Making Mandi & What About Marsha?
Author: Shye Ryder
Publisher: Mordant Media

Full disclosure:  I have worked as proofreader, and sometime copy editor, for Mordant Media.  I make it a policy not to review books I have also worked on.

I can’t do justice to these books anyway.  Not being the target audience, it’s hard to judge whether Shye’s books are a good fit for the lesbian romance genre.  What I will say is what a great time we live in, where lesbian romance is an openly acknowledged legitimate genre for readers, and writers.

My eyes are not shut to the continuing fight for equality for everyone not white, straight male.  Especially in today’s political climate.  But to have writers like Shye Ryder take a step out in boldness and write stories about characters who reflect a reality other than hetero-normative, is a wonderful thing.

If romance, lesbian or not, is your thing, check out Shye Ryder’s work.

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate. Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others. It leads us to understanding. It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change. Join the resistance, read.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Review: Prague Winter

Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright
Prague Winter
by Madeleine Albright

#ReadingIsResistance

Title: Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948
Author: Madeleine Albright
Published: 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0-06-203031-3
Publisher: Harper Collins

I have long admired Madeleine Albright, the first woman to become Secretary of State in the US.  To rise to that level and make a difference seems to me to be an astonishingly difficult job.  To do it as a woman raises the difficulty scale even higher.

In The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, Albright discusses the role religion has played in world affairs, something that isn’t going to go away any time soon.  She also reveals hard truths about herself, including the fact she didn’t know she had lost relatives to the Holocaust or that she was, in fact, Jewish.

Prague Winter is a product of Madame Secretary’s research into her own history, which is intertwined inextricably with Czechoslovakia and World War II.

This is not an easy book to read.  This is well-researched, often emotional, retelling of one little girl’s life as Hitler rose to power and began to exterminate millions of people.  Albright was only a child, but her memories, backed up with research, make for sorrowful reading.

Focusing on Czechoslovakia and its struggle to remain a united, independent country in the face of internal divisiveness between Czechs and Slovaks, and the onslaught of Nazis and Communists under Stalin, Albright’s story reminds the reader that nothing, truly, is every simple when zealots and ideologues are in charge.

She is fair in her assessment, through the long lens of history, that decisions made by Western leaders, while short sighted, were what politics of the time demanded.  Neville Chamberlain will always be remembered as an appeaser, but what is rarely discussed is the force of Hitler’s personality and his ability to fool people into thinking he was a reasonable human being who simply wanted to strengthen Germany in the face of the disempowering Versailles treaty of World War I.

Albright’s story is one of heartbreak, and agony.  It’s also an important story to know, because the true atrocities of Hitler and Stalin often get masked by the statistics and overwhelming amount of information available.  Madeleine Albright’s story is about one family, and one country’s struggle during World War II.  It puts into perspective the horrifying truth of what it is to be “other,” when that means certain death.

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate.  Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others.  It leads us to understanding.  It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change.  Join the resistance, read.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Review: Hitler’s Furies

Hitler's Furies by Wendy Lower
Hitler’s Furies
by Wendy Lower

#ReadingIsResistance

Title: Hitler’s Furies
Author: Wendy Lower
Published: 2013
ISBN-13: 978-0547-86338-2
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Wendy Lower focuses on the women in Eastern Poland serving the Nazi regime during World War II.

While narrow, this exploration of women’s roles in the bureaucracy of the Third Reich is grimly fascinating.  All roles from civilians through low-level administrators to those with access to the powerful men who made the decisions are covered.

What was it like to live during this horrific period of time in Europe?  And what was it like for women whose roles were limited both by the Nazis, and their gender?  70 years after the end of World War II, a multi-disciplinary list of researchers and readers are still trying to come to grips with the horror of the Holocaust.  I find myself strangely fascinated by it and, like so many others, keep asking the question, “How could this happen?”

Despite the sometimes salacious, gossipy nature of the narrative, Wendy Lower offers a look at women in history that has only begun to be researched.  Most women who served the Nazis were looked over or not taken seriously because of their gender.  Yet, here are more examples than I could care for of women who were closely involved in the banal bureaucracy which kept the camps running.

As with all books having to do with atrocities, the sheer horror described can be nightmare inducing.  There’s no getting around that if one wants to know what happened.

Hitler’s Furies is not for everyone.  But I do believe it covers an important, often overlooked, facet of Nazi bureaucracy.  The world needs to know what happened then, because something like is happening now.

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate.  Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others.  It leads us to understanding.  It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change.  Join the resistance, read.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Review: The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Beautiful Struggle
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

#ReadingIsResistance to racism, and economic inequality.

Title: The Beautiful Struggle
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published: 2008
ISBN-13: 9780385527460
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

What’s Auntie Reading Now picture

To be a black male is to be always at war …. because … we are met by the assumption of violence, by the specter of who we might turn on next.  (p192)

This is the last #ReadingIsResistance book for January’s theme of social and economic justice.  It seems appropriate to end the month with Ta-Nehisi Coates.

It’s hard to know how approach this book.  Ta-Nehisi Coates’ experience is so far from mine, I just as well be from another country.

His memoir of life in Baltimore is  colloquially written, exploring family life and growing up in a confusing family dynamic, in neighborhoods where the danger was palpable.  His father had children by several women, and their lives wove in and out of each other’s in ways different from what one would expect.  My life has taught me that family is who you chose, blood or no, and the family dynamic doesn’t follow a proscribed route.

Coates was surrounded by his father’s books from the Black Panther black power movement and historical treatises teaching the Knowledge of being black in America.  His parents’ world was just as fraught with peril too, and Coates was meant to learn that and apply it to his own everyday survival.

My default position was sprawled across the bed staring at the ceiling or cataloging an extensive collection of X-Factor comic books.  This never cut it for Dad, who insisted I learn the wavelengths of my world.  In the quiet chaos of my room, everything was certain. (p. 51)

That, I can relate to.  It wasn’t comic books, I didn’t know those existed in a form other than the Archie and Jughead comics available in the check-out line at the grocery store.  But I was surrounded by books, and paper for writing was always available.  My parents didn’t insist I go out and play.  I stayed in my room and read voraciously.  There was no wavelength of the community to pick up on.

But I lived in small-town America during my formative years, not the teeming, crowded life of Baltimore.  My family life was unstable, but I was never forced to learn the history of anything other than what I was taught in school and the books I chose to read.

In some ways, I envy Ta-Nehisi Coates’ upbringing.  It was unsafe, unpredictable, and hard but he had someone who made sure he was taught about the Knowledge and the things which were important to know about surviving in his world.

But envy is a useless emotion, especially when taken in the context of this:

The most ordinary thing – the walk to school, a bike ride around the block, a trip to the supermarket – could just go wrong. (p. 55)

A white girl couldn’t possibly know, much less understand, what it was like to be unsafe just by walking out the door.  I couldn’t possibly have known why belonging to a gang of some sort was often the only option for survival.  “The streets” meant nothing to me other than something cars drove on.

I can only thank Ta-Nehisi Coates for sharing his life so honestly.  For opening himself up so I could get a glimpse of what it means to be something other than what I am.  He has given me insight which grounds my liberal tendencies in something other than the theoretical.  He is the story teller I would most love to sit and ask questions of as I learn what his world is like.

There is no way I can give a comprehensive review of The Beautiful Struggle.  What I can say is that I understand the meaning of the beautiful struggle as it applies to my own life and the evolution of my self, and world.  I know every one of us has a beautiful struggle going on.

I encourage you to read Ta-Nehisi Coates and open yourself to the deeply personal way in which he writes about being black, male, and in America.  His is important work, and must continue to be disseminated, especially in the turbulent times we find ourselves in under the Trump administration.

Thank you Mr. Coates, thank you.

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate. Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others. It leads us to understanding. It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change. Join the resistance, read.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Review: We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

#readingisresistance

Title: We Should All Be Feminists
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published: 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1-101-91176-1
Publisher: Anchor Books

Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problems of gender. … It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.  (p. 41)

This is a little book I want to send everyone I know.  But especially the young women.    It’s also hard to choose just one quote to use in a review.  I found myself wanting to quote the entire essay.

Based on her TedTalk, Adichie’s essay is rich and powerful.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s perspective is that of black woman who has experienced sexism in both her home country of Nigeria, and in America.  She addresses herself to the men she encounters and explains what it feels like to be looked upon as an object, especially by those who have experienced other forms of oppression – like racism.

I identify as a white woman born to a certain amount of privilege because of my whiteness.  There was much to learn from Adichie about being a black woman.  And many things she says about sexism and the need for feminism resonate deeply.

This essay touches on the many ways sexism is normalized in all parts of society; from schools appointing only boy class monitors to corporations with mostly men on their boards and how marriages can be affected by this normalization.

This little book is something I’ll be reading again, and again.  Adichie’s eloquence is something to savored, and thought over as we continue to confront the issues of gender equality around the world.

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate.  Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others.  It leads us to understanding.  It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change.  Join the resistance, read.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Review: The Water is Wide

The Water is Wide
Pat Conroy

#readingisresistance

Title: The Water is Wide
Author: Pat Conroy
Published: 1987
ISBN-10: 0-553-26893-7
Publisher: Bantam Books

What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture

The people on the island are black.  And, my God, the hopelessness of teaching in a black school cut off from society by water, is an agony few people have experienced.  (p. 234)

The Water is Wide came to me in an exchange with one of my nieces.  We’ve started sending each other books we’ve read and want the other one to enjoy.  “He’s kinda big deal around here [in Charleston, SC].”  I had no idea.

If the only book Conroy ever wrote was The Water is Wide, he’d be a big deal to me.  Because The Water is Wide resonates as though it was written last year, not in 1972 about experiences Conroy had teaching black students on an island separated from the rest of the world by a tidal river.

1969’s young teacher could be any teacher today.  Passionate about changing his students’ outlook, teaching them to use their minds for more than just remembering the alphabet and the multiplication tables.

What he encounters is heart breaking.  A black community with nothing, literally.  A two-room schoolhouse filled with children K-12 who cannot read, do not know their alphabet, much less they are American citizens and their island is part of a country called USA.  These children, and their parents, live a hardscrabble existence with no plumbing, no telephones, no books, and no hope.

It sounds like so many students in our contemporary era.  Inner city kids who get passed on without learning anything on the way.  Urban kids, of all races, with problems too large to be handled by a school bureaucracy still dominated by men.

I’ve seen first hand the poverty which keeps our children from getting any kind of education aside from survival.  I’ve also seen the well-meaning white liberals who do the wrong thing because all their knowledge about kids like the ones in Conroy’s book is theoretical.  On the other hand, I’ve seen what happens when no one wants to be bothered, only paying attention to the star athletes nurtured to get a scholarship at a big college and then go pro.

Conroy’s story is so familiar.  He writes with accuracy about the stupidity of bureaucracy, the banal finality of racism, and the incredibly foolish ways willing students and passionate teachers are ignored.

There are many fascinating stories about how Conroy connected with his students, and their families.  The reader goes on field trips off the island with them, flabbergasted at the things one takes for granted as common decency and sense.  A little boy peeing in the middle of a square raises an eyebrow, until one realizes that on the island everyone pees where they are when they need.  Their propriety is different.

Betsy DeVos would be horrified at the way these children behave.  Horrified, and quick to throw some racist shade disguised in politically correct verbiage about school vouchers, charter schools and school choice.  Completely missing the point.

35 years after this book was published, there’s just as much to be angry at, and baffled by.  In 2017 we should know better, we should do better.  Apparently, “we” don’t know and don’t care.  Two days in to the new administration and it’s clear there’s a lot to resist coming our way.  Pat Conroy’s book, The Water is Wide, is a reminder of just how bad it was, and still is, and just how much farther we have to go to reach an educated critical mass who can think their way through the many complex problems facing the world.  Education may be the key, but people like Betsy DeVos are the lock.

For the Yamacraw children I can say little.  I don’t think I changed the quality of their lives significantly or altered the inexorable fact they were imprisoned by the very circumstances of their birth.

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate. Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others. It leads us to understanding. It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change. Join the resistance, read.

 

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save