“The Defiant Middle” by Kaya Oakes – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Women are expected to be many things. They should be young enough, but not too young; old enough, but not too old; creative, but not crazy; passionate, but not angry. They should be fertile and feminine and self-reliant, not barren or butch or solitary. Women, in other words, are caught between social expectations and a much more complicated reality.

Goodreads


I had read one of Oakes’ books before (“Radical Reinvention”) and loved it, so I was excited to get on the advanced reader list for her newest book! The title refers to both being middle-aged, and also being caught in between society’s expectations of a woman and the life choices you want to make.

There are so many juicy bits in here, I found myself highlighting a LOT. But it’s bad form to quote an ARC directly, so this will be a challenge.

Each chapter examines an idea that society holds about women: they may be seen as too young, old, crazy, barren, butch, angry, or alone. She weaves in stories of her own life and ones from history. She examines how women of a certain ilk may have been treated in different times, religious sects, or in pop culture.

Also of note, Oakes writes with religion in mind – specifically Roman Catholicism. I think that the stories will appeal to anyone interested in women’s issues, though, even if they are not of this (or any) religion, because this is only one lens she uses to examine the issues at hand.

To offer one example that might appeal to my writer friends: in the chapter on women being labeled as crazy, Oakes laments that, as a student, most women authors she had to study in school carried that label (Dickinson, Plath, Shelley). She argues that some of them may have had other legitimate issues, but nevertheless, even as an MFA student in writing, she was told over and over again that women writers were all crazy.

She spends some time on trans women, and even offers a couple examples of trans women in history – women I definitely had not learned about before. (Like the Universal Friend.) She also discusses the idea that you do not have to have kids – or even the ability to carry them – to be a woman (as anyone with a hysterectomy can attest to).

I think this book would appeal to women of all stripes – women with or without kids, women in or not in relationships, women with or without an interest in religion. I have definitely already recommended it to multiple friends!

This book hits shelves today, November 30th. I was able to read in advance thanks to the author, Kaya Oakes.


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“Small Changes” by Alicia Witt – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Alicia Witt isn’t here to dole out lists of dos and don’ts. But she is here to share her own journey to forming better habits and show the ways that adopting the small changes philosophy has allowed her to find balance, eat better, and feel better physically and emotionally.

Goodreads


Many years ago, I wrote for a blog about independent music. During that time, I interviewed Alicia Witt, who is both an actress and a musician. She was coming to Nashville to play a show at the time – but now, she lives here.

So of course I was interested to see that Witt was putting out her first book! The full title is “Small Changes: The Easy, No-Rules Way to Include More Plant-Based Foods, Peace, and Positivity in Your Life,” – which is a lot.

There are only a handful of chapters here, but they are each pretty substantial. In the first one, she recounts her history and career. That part was fun, honestly, even though I knew parts of it already. She also gets into her philosophy of making small changes over time.

As the full title implies, Witt is vegan – or, as she admits, mostly vegan. But she comes back often to the idea that if you do have a thing that you love, or can’t give up – don’t live in constant guilt over it. It’s not worth beating yourself up over. I like this part of her philosophy.

This book has a lot about food in it, but it also touches on other subjects including exercise, beauty products, having pets, journaling, and just going with the flow in general.

While I do like her approach from a mental standpoint, there are some things that didn’t sit right with me. For example, she repeatedly recommends gluten-free alternatives – but really, no one needs to be gluten-free unless they have an allergy. (I get the feeling that, for Witt, it’s more about cutting the carbs in general than the actual gluten in them.) She also advocates giving your pets “human grade” pet food. If you are into getting high-end pet food because your dog or cat likes it, go for it. But human-grade has always felt like one of those marketing/labeling ploys to me. (Here’s a brief piece on it.)

There are a bevy of recipes in the back, and gorgeous pictures of the finished products. (I feel like there is a zero percent chance my attempts would come out looking like these – but if you love ogling food pictures, these are worthy!)

This book comes out today from Harper Horizon, and I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley. Also, as part of the book launch, Witt will be doing a virtual panel at the Southern Festival of Books later this week.


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“Love in Any Language” by Evelyn Kohl LaTorre – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Love across cultures is tested when Antonio, a penniless university student, and Evelyn, a strong-willed Peace Corps volunteer, succumb to their attraction to one another at the end of her two-year commitment in Peru and Evelyn gets pregnant. Deeply in love, the twenty-three-year-olds marry in Cusco—and decide to begin their married life in Northern California.

Goodreads


From reading the synopsis, I thought I would love this book. I did like this book, and it’s interesting for several reasons. But I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. I was struggling to put my finger on why, when the book itself answered my question for me in its last pages. And the reason was, admittedly, a little selfish. More on that later.

Obviously, the book is told from Evelyn’s perspective. She was born in Montana, as 1 of 6 kids in a blue collar, Roman Catholic family. Her parents moved to California as their kids got older, because they wanted them to have easier access to institutions of higher learning.

Right away we can see that, while Evelyn was raised in a pretty traditional manner, she and her family embrace a few more modern values. Not only did she expect to get a college education, but she also had her eyes on traveling internationally, and joined the Peace Corps. Not bad for a young woman in the early 1960s.

And this brings me to one of the key things I liked about this book: Evelyn was pretty ahead of her time in a lot of things. She was often juggling work and kids, and was sometimes even the breadwinner of the house. She continuously pursued higher degrees, additional certifications, more challenging jobs, and opportunities to travel – with or without her husband! She comes across as a strong woman – especially mentally.

Another interesting aspect is seeing how her work – and various things that intersect with it – evolved over the years. She started out in social work, and added psychology to the mix. She spent most of her career working within various school systems. She started out administering tests to determine students’ ability levels, and was later in charge of innovating ways to accommodate students who had different abilities. This book spans the 60s – 90s, mostly, and during that time we see new laws introduced that protect differently-abled students, and ensure their access to a public education. We also see the advent of computers, the introduction of the Meyers-Briggs personality test, and other concepts that affect Evelyn’s work.

While I found these aspects – and the international travels – fascinating, I still had a kind of “meh” feeling about some of the story. In thinking about it, I felt like every time she encountered a problem, it was solved within a page. I felt like the book lacked real conflict, basically. I’ve seen other reviewers applaud her “straightforward” writing style, so I thought maybe it was just that – she didn’t oversell or dwell on the issues. That made them feel a bit like non-issues to me, but I just kept rolling with it.

In the last pages, Evelyn puts out a thought that I hadn’t considered while in the midst of the story – but it definitely hit a chord with me, and I think it’s part of why I had trouble sympathizing with her “quick solutions.” Since the copy I read was an advanced copy, I won’t quote it directly. But the idea is that she benefited from many social nets that aren’t as easily available today – from low-cost childcare and subsidized housing to flexible work schedules and bosses that often gave her freedom to pursue what opportunities she wanted to.

Dr. Evelyn LaTorre accomplished a lot – and continues to do so, as this isn’t her first book! She was also helped by her family, and the many opportunities that were available to an educated woman at the time. If you have any interests in education or social work, I would definitely recommend her story.

“Love in Any Language” comes out today, September 28th. I was able to read an advanced copy through Books Forward.


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“America Calling” by Rajika Bhandari – Review

By: Angie Haddock


International students and immigrants have been the secret ingredient in America’s recipe for global success. America Calling shares one immigrant’s story, a tale that reflects millions more, and shows us why preventing the world’s best and brightest from seeking the American Dream will put this country’s future in jeopardy.

-Goodreads


This book was “right up my alley,” as the saying goes, and I almost missed out on reading it! I was approved for the advanced reader copy, but never saw that email – spam folder, maybe? – and didn’t find out until a few days before it came out! This is why I’m posting my review a week late – the book actually came out on September 14th.

The author came to the US as a grad student in the early 90s, and studied at a state school in North Carolina. Initially, she came because that is where her boyfriend was studying.

Later in life, though, she starts working for the Institute of International Education, which compiles data and research on exchange students in the US and elsewhere. So the first two-thirds of the book is her own story and experiences as a student first, then as an immigrant seeking a work visa. The last third of the book is other stories she’s compiled through her current job, as well as stats and figures from the world of international education.


Some statistics that struck me:

International students add $45 billion to the economy yearly. (Most pay their own way, or are awarded scholarships from their own countries to study abroad. Then, they still have to buy furniture and groceries here, like the rest of us.)

Only one out of ten US students studies abroad. (Meaning that an international student on their campus here may be their only exposure to other cultures.)

One out of four founders of start-ups valued at $1 billion first came to the US as an international student.

Then there are the softer stats, like how so many students who study here and return to their home countries become advocates for US universities, or the US at large. They offer a large and vast network of unofficial diplomats in all areas of the globe. Bhandari mentions the Fulbright scholarship program as a shining example of this. The program offers both scholarships for international students to study in the US, and ones for US students to study elsewhere. Over its history, it has sponsored 400,000 students. 39 of those have gone on to become heads of state in their home countries, 60 have won Nobel prizes, and 88 have won Pulitzer prizes.

Her own experiences are no less interesting, of course, although not as easy to break down into small bites. A few things she touches on, though, include reckoning with how Asians are considered the “model minority” here. Realizing that the freedoms she enjoyed as a woman in America made her unfit to return to her home country. Having to push hard to get through her masters and doctorate programs in 6 years, because being here on a visa meant she had strict time limits and couldn’t take any breaks.

I did study abroad when I was in college, albeit for only one semester. When I returned to my home campus, though, I joined a group whose members acted as unofficial ambassadors to the international students there. There were debates about food, music, and soccer – as would be expected – but there were also instances of giving rides to the grocery store or the mall. It was fun to have these conversations, and be able to pitch in on things like getting Christmas presents for their families back home. These experiences are why I said at the top that this book was “right up my alley,” of course. I had some exposure to international students when I was college-aged, and I appreciate knowing a little more about the issues surrounding studying internationally.

Thanks to Books Forward for introducing me to this one!

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“Yume” by Sifton Tracey Anipare – Review

By: Angie Haddock

A modern-day fantasy novel about demons, dreams, and a young woman teaching English in Japan.

Goodreads


This was a pretty hefty read – the paperback is expected to come in at 536 pages – with twisty and sometimes intense story lines. I am also not very well-versed in Japanese mythology, so I definitely took a while getting through this one. But it was certainly a wild and colorful ride!

Our main characters are Cybelle and Zaniel, although they don’t officially meet each other until the middle of the book. Cybelle is a black woman, originally from Canada, who has been teaching English in Japan for a handful of years now. Zaniel has a day job that is unimportant to the story… but by night, he finds human women for his boss, a demanding yokai named Akki.

How gorgeous is this cover?!

The world of yokai (mythical creatures of all shapes, sizes, and abilities) has been rocked recently by the arrival of a new creature. She grows larger and more powerful by eating – and she can also turn anything she wants into food to eat. At one point this includes Akki’s house, which puts her immediately at odds with the hot-tempered elder yokai.

Meanwhile, Cybelle is struggling to decide whether or not to renew her contract at the English school. The kids and parents are mostly ok, but she only gets along with one of her co-workers. She still feels like an outsider, at work and out in the world, even though she’s lived in Japan for over five years.

SEMI-SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!

The new yokai eating her way through the dream world is Cybelle, when she’s asleep. I say this is a semi-spoiler because I felt like it was fairly evident from early on… but Cybelle herself doesn’t understand it until the end of the story.

Zaniel, being well-versed in yokai, figures out the new yokai’s identity much earlier. This is what brings him to Cybelle’s school, acting like he’s applying for a job. He really wants to get to know her real life persona, and thinks that they can help each other.

Their adventures together are wild – both the ones they take in person, and in the mythical dream world. This is where the book really starts gaining speed, in my opinion. As Akki comes after them, and they need to fight to save themselves, things also start to get pretty gruesome.

One of the interesting things to ponder throughout this story is how Cybelle’s feelings – being an outsider, being different, being tired and hungry – seem like intangibles in the real world, but are then very real in the dream world. How much of her transforming into a yokai directly came from these feelings? Or was it something else entirely – a cursed object or apartment?

This was a fun read, although not a quick one. It is the author’s first novel, and the part about teaching English in Japan is autobiographical. This book comes out today, but I was able to read an advanced copy through Netgalley and Dundurn Press.


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“Beautiful Country: A Memoir” by Qian Julie Wang – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In Chinese, the word for America, Mei Guo, translates directly to “beautiful country.” Yet when seven-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994 full of curiosity, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. In China, Qian’s parents were professors; in America, her family is “illegal” and it will require all the determination and small joys they can muster to survive.

Goodreads


This was a good, albeit sometimes heartbreaking, read. Because the main character is only a handful of years younger than I am, I could identify with some of her memories that related to pop culture – the clothes, toys, books, and TV shows of the nineties make many appearances.

Qian tells first of her life in China – or, what little she remembers of it, since she was fairly young. But overall, her life there was pretty good. Like most kids, she didn’t really think about it or worry too much – it just was what it was.

And then, her dad left to come to America. She began to fear that he wouldn’t come back. A year later, she and her mom joined him in New York City.

She had previously only known of America through TV and movies, and she had heard that everyone there was rich. So it boggled her mind that her family had to live the way they did while there.

They often shared one room, in houses where other rooms were rented to other families, and they all shared one bathroom and kitchen. There were sometimes rats. Her parents worked long hours in miserable conditions, in places like sweatshops and fish factories. They garbage-picked their furniture.

Qian herself was first put into special education classes, because she couldn’t speak English. It seemed no one at her school was entirely prepared to help her with that. But, with a library card and a love of reading, she soon taught herself. Kids are both smart and resilient.

Even when she started doing better in school, though, she couldn’t quite shake her “outsider” status. Mostly because her parents couldn’t afford the clothes, shoes, and toys that the other kids thought were cool year after year.

Her parents had both been professors in China. Her dad seemed resigned to his fate – that they’d just have to be poor in America. He was probably depressed. Her mom was not ready to give up so easily. She put herself through some additional schooling, with the hopes of getting better jobs someday. Her mom also got very ill for a while, however. After her recovery, she was determined to get herself and Qian out of their miserable conditions – even if Qian’s dad didn’t want to come along.

If you want to know what happens, pick up a copy – “Beautiful Country” comes out today! I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley and Doubleday Books.


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“The Secret History of Food” by Matt Siegel – Review

By: Angie Haddock


An irreverent, surprising, and entirely entertaining look at the little-known history surrounding the foods we know and love.

Goodreads


This was a quirky book I found randomly on NetGalley. It was a short and fun read, with ten chapters covering:

How the history of food/agriculture is intertwined with human history, pie, cereal, corn, honey, vanilla/ice cream, celebrations surrounding food and drink, having too many choices, chili peppers, and how we fall prey to misconceptions about (or willful mislabeling of) the foods we eat.

Some of my favorites were the sweet chapters, like the ones on pie and ice cream. For example, did you know that ice cream’s popularity in the U.S. skyrocketed during prohibition? Apparently, we needed an alternative method of drowning our sorrows. And ice cream became a staple of soldiers’ diets during WWII – good for both fast calories and boosting morale.

The chapter on chili peppers was also entertaining, as it basically points out the craziness of doing things that hurt us. Various kinds of peppers were used in early agricultural days to keep animals out of the crops – by planting them around the perimeter, the would-be pests would encounter the hot peppers first, and turn the other way. And yet, we eat them on purpose. Are we just adrenaline junkies, or do we feel we have something to prove?

The last chapter is a bummer, though, as it gets into how much of our food is mislabeled, not as healthy as it claims, or doesn’t get inspected as much as it should. Specifically, vitamins and seafood are often not what they purport to be.

The book is so meticulously researched, though, that the footnotes take up HALF of the length. So, as I said earlier, it’s a quick romp to get through the ten chapters.

This book comes out today, August 31st. (The full title is “The Secret History of Food: Strange but True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat,” but that seemed a little long for the header of this post.)


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“M, King’s Bodyguard” by Niall Leonard – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Based on a true story, M, King’s Bodyguard is a gripping, atmospheric thriller about anarchy and assassination in Edwardian London, and one detective’s mission to preserve the life of his king and prevent a bloody war in Europe.

Goodreads


I don’t read a ton of mystery/thriller novels, so I picked this one out just for variety. And its setting – London in 1901 – makes it more akin to Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie than the more contemporary thrillers.

William Melville worked within Scotland Yard, and had a special assignment protecting the Queen – very much like what we Americans would call the Secret Service. Upon the Queen’s death, his services transfer to her heir, the next King. While preparing for the royal funeral, Melville uncovers a plot to attack the Kaiser – the leader of Germany at the time – during the funeral procession.

He feels compelled to run down every lead to stop this act of terrorism, but has several obstacles. First of all, can he be sure his leads are even valid? He also has to balance the wishes of his boss at Scotland Yard with those of his real boss, the King. Lastly, the King is insistent that Melville works with the man in his position within the targeted Kaiser’s retinue – a man named Gustav Steinhauer – but Melville isn’t entirely sure that Steinhauer is trustworthy.

There are several women characters in the mix as well, and while they don’t feature as prominently as Melville or Steinhauer, they do prove to be pretty integral to the plot.

There are a few twists I didn’t love, but obviously… as the story is based on true events, I can’t very well blame the storyteller here. Sometimes real people are messy.

The story was fun, and fairly full of action. The fact that it was based on real events makes it even more intriguing.

“M, King’s Bodyguard” is being released today, July 13th. I read an advanced copy through NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing.


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“Millennial Nuns” by the Daughters of St. Paul – Review

By: Angie Haddock


More and more people—especially millennials—are turning to religion as a source of comfort and solace in our increasingly chaotic world. But rather than live a cloistered life of seclusion, the Daughters of Saint Paul actively embrace social media, using platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to evangelize, collectively calling themselves the #MediaNuns.

In this collective memoir, eight of these Sisters share their own discernment journeys, struggles and crises of faith that they’ve overcome, and episodes from their daily lives. Through these reflections, the Sisters also offer practical takeaways and tips for living a more spiritually-fulfilled life, no matter your religious affiliation.

Goodreads


This book appealed to me just from the description, as I’ve had a fascination with nuns for years! But these aren’t the nuns your parents complain about from their Catholic school days… these ladies are young and on Instagram.

Even though I grew up Catholic – and around nuns – I hadn’t heard of the Daughters of St. Paul before. Having been a media/broadcasting major back in my school days, I can’t help but be attracted to their mission.

From the intro: “The Daughters of St. Paul reflect deeply on how people interact with the media and are formed by it.”

(Good thing for my husband that I didn’t find this order in my formative years!)

After an introduction, the following chapters of the book are each written by a different member of the order. Almost all of them tell the story of how they came to learn about the Daughters of St. Paul, discerned their calling to be a nun, and maybe what they do within the order now.

I read a lot of memoirs, and love a good personal story. But, after a few chapters, I felt like the format started getting repetitive. Obviously these women have different backgrounds and details to their stories, but most came to discover their longing to be a nun around college age. Many of them confirmed their belief in this calling by visiting the order’s Mother House in Boston.

But about halfway through the book – right when I started feeling the repetitiveness – we meet a nun who is in charge of helping curious young women with this act of discernment. So now, we can see the process from the other side. It was exactly the change of pace that was needed at that point.

I would also say that one of the most compelling personal stories comes in the back half of the book – so it is worth moving through the slight repetitiveness.

There are a lot of good thoughts and quotes in here, many of which are about faith. But there are also inspiring thoughts on finding and pursuing one’s calling in life, which could appeal to people of any (or no) faiths.

This is a fun and uplifting read. I have even looked up a few of the contributors on Instagram – and from there I learned that they also have a podcast!

This book releases today, July 6. I was able to read an advanced copy through Netgalley, and Tiller Press.


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission–and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

Goodreads


This is the third official full-length novel from Andy Weir, who is mostly known for having written “The Martian.” (Even if you didn’t read that one, you may have seen the Matt Damon movie version.)

If you’re familiar with Weir’s other works, you will find this to fit right in. It’s heavy on science (and math), and comes in just under 500 pages. It also focuses on a character who needs grit and ingenuity to survive his circumstances, and it’s full of humorous asides.

The actual plot is entirely different than that of “The Martian” or “Artemis,” obviously, but how much can I tell you without being spoiler-y?

The story goes back and forth between what Grace is doing on his spaceship, the Hail Mary, and what happened on Earth before the ship’s launch. In these flashbacks, both Grace and the audience learn what his mission is, and why he’s involved.

That second part turns out to be a bigger deal than you’d think. More on that later.

We learn that our sun is being attacked by a small organism that humans name “Astrophage.” It’s reducing the sun’s energy/light output, which puts Earth on track for catastrophe in approximately 26 years. (Even a slight reduction in the Earth’s temperature will cause crop failures in some areas, leading to collapses of food chains and extinction of various species. It’s like current discussions of climate change, except with everything getting colder.)

Grace is a junior high biology teacher. So how does he end up on a space mission? We learn first how he got involved in researching astrophage, which makes slightly more sense. As the preparations ramp up for figuring out how to deal with the astrophage problem, Grace stays with the team determining what to do next. At this point, he knows more about astrophage than anyone else, so this still makes sense. We don’t learn how he actually ends up on the ship until we’re 80% through the book, and… it’s a total gut punch.

While this mystery keeps you guessing in the flashbacks, the real joy of the book happens in the segments on the ship. Grace has traveled to another solar system that seems to also have astrophage present, to see what’s happening there and if it can help Earth in any way. He’s been asleep for most of the trip, but now has to find what he’s looking for – once he remembers what that is. This is not as lonely and boring as one might think, but I don’t want to give away what happens. Let’s just say it’s fun, sometimes heartbreaking, and ultimately pretty awesome.

I am a classic right-brained person who is not great at science-y things, therefore I took this one kind of slowly. I didn’t look up the things he was talking about, to try to understand the science behind it. I know Weir is known for doing a good job with this stuff, overall, despite fictionalizing where needed. I just kicked back and enjoyed the ride. And it’s totally one you can enjoy, if you like science fiction at all.

This is sure to be another blockbuster under Weir’s belt, and it comes out today, May the Fourth. I was able to read an advanced copy through the publisher, Random House, and Netgalley.

Also, if you’re a fan of Andy Weir, check out this interview on Goodreads.


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.