“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.


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“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.


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An Interview with Author Evelyn Kohl LaTorre

By: Angie Haddock


Earlier this week, we reviewed “Love in Any Language,” by Evelyn Kohl LaTorre. I read an advanced copy through the Books Forward program, and the lovely folks at Books Forward also shared the following interview with LaTorre.


Q: You detail it in your first book, “Behind Inca Walls,” but can you give a quick summary of how you and your husband met?

A: My future father-in-law, Adolfo Eguiluz, had requested Peace Corps volunteers to work in Abancay, Peru, for several years. My roommate, Marie, and I went there to work on community development projects. Four months into our stay, we met Eguiluz’s stepson, Antonio, and I felt an immediate attraction. He returned to Abancay often.

Q: What were some unexpected challenges or surprises that you noticed at the beginning of your relationship?

A: One was how deeply Antonio cared about my well-being. As well as how volatile our feelings for one another could be, changing from cool to warm to hot and back to cool again. He also wanted me to pursue graduate studies — though he was dissatisfied with his own course of study.

Q: Did your studies in psychology and multiculturalism help you through some of the learning curves of a relationship with someone of a different nationality and ethnicity?

A: Very much. I learned that personal relationships are more important in life than material possessions and bodily comforts. In college, my favorite classes were psychology, anthropology and sociology — how countries and people are similar and different in their values, food, music, manners and priorities.

I had been enamored with the Hispanic culture since college when I volunteered among California’s migrant workers in the Central Valley. Also, the theory of personality types has offered me an explanation for human differences.

Q: What advice can you give about raising bi-cultural children?

A: Listen and learn about your partner’s culture. Then, agree on your priorities and the values you want to impart to your children. There are many ways to live life other than the way you were raised. Learn what science has discovered about children’s emotional needs. You may find a healthier way to raise offspring than how the previous generation did it.

Our children are open to differences between races, income levels and customs because they’ve experienced different cultures with diverse expectations. They tend to be flexible and accepting of others unlike them.

Q: Was it difficult for you while writing the book to disclose personal information and stories? How do you decide what information to include and what topics are off-limits?

A: It was more difficult with the first book because I wrote about an important religious rule that I broke. (Angie’s note: Getting pregnant before she was married.) Initially, I felt afraid of being judged in the same way my mother had judged (me). I knew a memoir writer can be harshly criticized by others who have narrow viewpoints of what is right and wrong. People like to judge others’ decisions when they don’t mirror their own.

I remember the day I presented the chapter about the circumstances of my first pregnancy to my writer’s critique group in front of male members. I was super self-conscious and embarrassed. But I soon discovered that writing about uncomfortable incidents takes away their shame. Being honest about one’s life is a relief.

Q: What were some of the expectations society placed on you as a wife and a mother? What changes have you personally seen regarding gender roles for women in the past 60 years?

A: In the 1970s a husband was expected to be the breadwinner and head of the household as opposed to sharing decisions and duties equitably. Improvement has certainly been slow.

In terms of changes in the workforce, when I was pregnant, pregnancy was seen as a disability that required leaving a job two months before the baby’s birth. Contraceptives had been available for only a few years. And employers today can’t legally discriminate against a pregnant woman and force her to quit. Also during most of my career, women felt they could do little about sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement changed that.

Q: What do you hope readers gain from reading the story of you and your husband’s relationship?

A: The first is that the challenges of a mixed cultural marriage are worth the extra effort it takes. There is the potential to learn new, often better, ways to accomplish life’s tasks in an intimate relationship with someone from another country.

Marriage is like a dance but with both partners taking turns leading. It’s OK for one partner to step up and the other partner to step back as their situation requires it. It’s also sometimes worth “hanging in there” and persisting to make a marriage work.

And finally, there is value for both people in a partnership to use their strengths equally. A man comfortable in his own masculinity won’t fear a strong woman. The most important ingredient in a satisfying relationship is mutual respect and appreciation.

If you haven’t read our review of LaTorre’s new book – which came out this week – check it out here.


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“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.


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“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.)


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“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.


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“Twice a Daughter” by Julie Ryan McGue – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Julie is adopted. She is also a twin. Because their adoption was closed, she and her sister lack both a health history and their adoption papers―which becomes an issue for Julie when, at forty-eight years old, she finds herself facing several serious health issues.

Julie’s search for her birth relatives spans years and involves a search agency, a PI, a confidential intermediary, a judge, an adoption agency, a social worker, and a genealogist. By journey’s end, what began as a simple desire for a family medical history has evolved into a complicated quest―one that unearths secrets, lies, and family members that are literally right next door.

Goodreads


The Goodreads description gives away the entire plot of this memoir, really… but of course, there are tons of juicy details and emotional entanglements within the pages.

When the story begins, Julie is actually resistant to the idea of trying to find her birth parents. She is largely afraid of rocking the boat with the parents who raised her. Her husband, Steve, pushes her into starting this journey, though – for her own health, and that of their four children.

She gets her twin sister to agree to split the costs with her, but Julie is going to be the person doing the work. Her dad is supportive from the beginning, but her mom is not.

While initially interested only in medical histories, Julie becomes more engrossed in the emotional aspects of her search – wondering why her birth parents gave her up, if they’ll want to meet, and whether or not she has half-siblings.

Even after trying to obtain her original birth certificate, she hits one road block after another. The first one is a big one: Her mom used an alias on her original birth certificate, and the father isn’t listed at all. Apparently this was easier to do back in the 1950s.

Working in her favor, as far as the records are concerned, is that she is a twin. There could only be so many sets of twins born on a given day at a given hospital, right?

Also working in her favor are a lot of sympathetic people within the courts, Catholic Charities, and other avenues Julie tries to reach out to for help. In addition, the family members she eventually locates often bristle at the intrusion at first – but then soften because they have adopted members of their current families, and can understand the issues from both sides.

The issues at play are, of course, the birth parents’ rights to privacy versus the adoptees’ rights to know their history.

Most of Julie’s search takes place around a decade ago. She and her sister do use a DNA-testing kit to see if that gets them any leads, but to no avail. I have to imagine that the increase in use of such sites (and kits) in recent years is now shaking up the implied privacy that birth parents assumed they had in earlier eras.

(Backlist bump on that topic: “Inheritance” by Dani Shapiro.)

Overall, this was a good read. Not too heavy, but it can tug at the heartstrings here and there. It might be even more emotional for you if you’ve gone through something similar.

This book comes out today from She Writes Press, and I was able to read an Advance Reader’s Copy through Books Forward.


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“Shatner Rules” by William Shatner with Chris Regan – Review

By: Angie Haddock


This collection of rules, illustrated with stories from Bill’s illustrious life and career, will show you how Bill became WILLIAM SHATNER, larger than life and bigger than any role he ever played. “Shatner Rules” is your guide to becoming William Shatner. Or more accurately, beautifully Shatneresque.

Goodreads


William Shatner has written several books – in both the memoir and fictional/sci-fi genres. I had found this one at a used bookstore years ago. It was written in honor of his turning 80 in 2011, and I thought the occasion of his turning 90 would be the perfect time to read it!

This one is not laid out chronologically, per se, but has some fun anecdotes. A lot of the fun comes from him name-dropping other celebrities he’s worked with on all his various projects. The overarching theme, if there is one, is that the guy – at 80, and probably to some extent now – keeps himself busy! There are few opportunities he says no to. (That is even one of the “rules!”)

As a Star Trek fan, there was one part that irked me a little. He gets into his beefs with George Takei and some of the other cast members from the Original Series, and none of that is new news at this point. He basically says that Takei – as well as Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, and Walter Koenig – were glorified extras. I think history and legions of fans might say they were a little more than that. I think it will surprise no one that Shatner has a huge ego, and holds onto his “top-billed” status even now.

On the flip side, one of his criticisms of Takei was kind of fair. He mentions that Koenig was the best man at Takei’s wedding, even though they aren’t really close, and that Takei milks his ties to the Trek world for his own publicity.

Shatner has nothing but good things to say about Sir Patrick Stewart, though, so there’s that.

Other anecdotes see him traveling, interviewing notorious criminals and celebrities alike, and recording albums with the likes of Ben Folds and Henry Rollins. He also talks a lot about his family, his horses, and his pride in being Canadian.

Overall, this book was an easy and fun read, very gossipy, and sometimes silly.


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