“Warda” by Warda Mohamed Abdullahi – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Set in the rugged shrublands of rural Ethiopia, the contentious neighborhoods of South Africa, and the icy streets of Michigan, Warda is the story of a fierce young woman on a tireless quest to become the first member of her family to go to college.

-Goodreads


This book is so good! It’s not a long read, anyway, but the amazing tales within it makes it go fast.

Near the beginning, before we really get to know the main character, we learn about her family. Warda doesn’t even remember her mother, who died when she was just a baby. Because of financial woes and ethnic prejudices, her father was living away from Warda and her mom. But when baby Warda got sick, her mom was determined to take her back to where she was born to get medical help. While crossing the Red Sea, the boat they were in capsized. Her uncle was also aboard, and found Warda floating on a blanket. He also found her mom, but she was already deceased. Her father didn’t even know they were traveling.

And that’s only the beginning.

Her dad takes Warda to his father’s farm, where she is raised with many aunts, uncles, and cousins of all ages. She thinks of her grandpa as her father, and does not understand that he is not. She faces several dangers – often in the form of wild animals trying to attack their herd of sheep – but gets no formal schooling. When she is ten years old, her dad wants her to move to South Africa so she can start receiving an education. The trip there takes her a little over a year.

Of course, even after arriving there, Warda has a big challenge to her education: she speaks none of the languages that classes are held in in most of the schools around her.

After only a few years, her family has to move again. This time, they’re taking a big leap to come to the United States. When they land in Michigan, there is already snow on the ground – something Warda has zero experience with.

She also has another new language to learn. She wants to learn to drive. She needs to learn to navigate not only her American high school… but college applications, scholarship essays, SAT and ACT prep, and being away from others who share her culture and religion.

Thankfully, Warda is assigned a mentor who helps her immensely. With her mentor’s gift of keeping Warda organized, and her own passion for wanting to get to college, they come up with a plan to get Warda through high school in only a few years. To make up for lost time, she often has to take extra classes online and in the summer. She has to really push hard to get to her dream… which is to ultimately become a doctor.

If I had to describe this book in one word, I’d pick: triumphant. You’ll be hooked from the early scenes of Warda’s life, and you’ll want to cheer her on through so many more adventures and obstacles.

This book was independently published over a year ago, but the team at Books Forward is promoting it now to coincide with World Refugee Day. World Refugee Day is celebrated on June 20th, and you can learn more about it here.


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“Secrets of the Sprakkar” by Eliza Reid – Review

By: Angie Haddock


For the past twelve years, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report has ranked Iceland number one on its list of countries closing the gap in equality between men and women. What is it about Iceland that enables its society to make such meaningful progress in this ongoing battle, from electing the world’s first female president to passing legislation specifically designed to help even the playing field at work and at home?

Goodreads


This non-fiction does have a lot of stats in it, but it still manages to be quite fun. It was written by the current First Lady, who is originally from Canada. So, her personal perspectives include those of a mother, public figure, and immigrant… aside from being a woman herself, obviously.

But Reid doesn’t rely solely on her own experiences and some easy-to-dig-up statistics – she interviews dozens of women from around the island, famous and not, on a variety of topics. She also intersperses these larger chapters with smaller stories from Icleland’s history.

The bigger topics include: parenting, networking, Iceland’s views on sex, women in corporate roles, the media, working outdoors, the arts (and sports), immigrant and minority women, and politics.

As Reid points out in the final pages, everyone she interviews can easily fit into multiple categories.

Obviously, the gender equality concept here intrigued me. But I have to admit, what made this book actually fun to read was learning about Iceland! The terrain, customs, and culture seem very different than those of the US.

For example, would we even need a whole chapter on working outdoors? But, much of their economy comes from agriculture and fishing, so it’s an important distinction for them that women can do these jobs, too. (Especially on fishing boats that don’t have bathrooms, where one is expected to “go over the edge.”)

I loved that, in the chapter on politics, one of Reid’s interviewees was heading up a student council at a large university. I think we tend to think of those sorts of things as opportunities to learn, or stepping stones to a future job (perhaps in politics, or not)… but we don’t treat our young people like they’re equals, already doing important work. So, even who was chosen to be interviewed shows how different their outlook on these topics are from our own.

If you’re up for a book with quite a few stats, and really long names, this is an interesting read. I realize, though, that those things aren’t going to appeal to everyone.

I was able to read this book for free through the Sourcebooks Early Reads program.


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“Coyote Gratitude” by Julie Haberstick – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Nearly thirty and disconnected, Julie Haberstick was staring at an endless loop of traffic and toxic relationships. Heeding a quiet intuition, she left her fiancé, packed her life into her car, and — on October 1st, 2019 — just started driving.

Goodreads


Happy June! Now that the summer months are here (in the US, anyway), how about a quick road trip book?

Julie Haberstick’s journey started in California, with the rebellious act of getting all her hair cut off. She then travels east, through the Southern United States. She’s a poet at heart, and finds a few open mics, where she shares her poems out loud and meets other like-minded people. Along the way, she also picks up a ukulele.

This book is a travel journal – edited, of course. While some entries tell of her adventures, others are merely a picture or a poem.

Haberstick finds herself entranced be New Orleans, and the artsy people she meets there. She continues her journey by making her way up and down the East Coast. She has friends and family in various states here, and also some events to attend for said friends and family, so she goes back and forth some. We get to meet some members of her family, and even get a poem by her mom!

All the while, she keeps thinking back on New Orleans, though. Her original travels are supposed to take her to the end of 2019, but she tacks on another month in NOLA in January, 2020.

She decides to stay, and then the pandemic hits. This makes it hard to meet new people in her new city, but she’s already made a few good contacts. By the time October rolls around again, she’s contemplating whether or not she’s ready for commitment. But her original road trip started the previous October, and she wants to celebrate that. So she decides that her next big adventure will be a commitment, after all – and she adopts a puppy.

(For those wondering, like I was… Julie and her pup are still together, and still in New Orleans.)

I think we’ve all has those moments when we fantasize about dropping everything and starting over… right? Whether you’ve done it, or just thought about it, this short read may be your cup of tea.

I was given a copy of this book by the author, and the kind folks at the Books Forward program.


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“Women Warriors From History” by H.G. Hicks – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Are you tired of the lack of female representation in history books and stories and wish your little lady had the example of some inspiring women to look up to?

In many areas, women can now achieve whatever their hearts desire for the first time in history… And yet not know how far they can go due to lack of historical example.

Women Warriors from History gives young, female readers the inspiration and motivation to fight for what they believe in.

Reedsy


The full title of this one is “Women Warriors From History: Badass Divas to Inspire Your Little Lady” – and already, I was left with more questions than answers! The use of “little lady” bothered me right from the start, as it sounds both antiquated and belittling. So is this book for… possessive men? Parents? It starts off talking about school textbooks, so I assume it’s actually aimed at young readers themselves. So, what’s up with this title?

The question of audience doesn’t stop there, as the author continuously uses the term “Badass Divas” to talk about the subjects of the book. Now, I am all for cussing, myself, but if the book is supposed to be for young readers I don’t know if this is a great tactic to use.

And, oh, get ready for a lot! of! exclamation! points!

I could go on about how terrible the writing is here, but an astute reader can probably already infer that it doesn’t get better.

I picked this book to read, though, because I do love the subject matter. Some good stories are in here – some I’d read about before, some I hadn’t – and the book does cover women from different time periods and cultures. A few of the topics include women Samurai, pirates, and queens. The author also covers healers (from when women could not officially become doctors), artists, and spiritual leaders.

One inclusion that I found odd was that of goddesses. As these women did not really live, and weren’t mortal humans, their inclusion felt unnecessary. However, if the point of talking about them was to show that some societies worshiped female deities, I guess I could see that as important?

There are some good and fun tidbits in here. If you are truly a young person, or someone who for whatever other reason has never read about women warriors or leaders, this might be a good intro to these topics. If you are an adult, and want to find detailed and well-written stories of women in history, I’m sure you could do better than this one.

I read this one through Reedsy Discovery, and my review also appears there.


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“The Book of Delights” by Ross Gay – Review

By: Angie Haddock


a genre-defying book of essays—some as short as a paragraph; some as long as five pages—that record the small joys that occurred in one year, from birthday to birthday, and that we often overlook in our busy lives. His is a meditation on delight that takes a clear-eyed view of the complexities, even the terrors, in his life, including living in America as a black man; the ecological and psychic violence of our consumer culture; the loss of those he loves.

Goodreads


This is another one off my TBR, and I honestly don’t remember how long it’s been there. But what a great one to be reading around New Year’s Eve! It even prompted my to start my own list – although mine is less eloquent than Ross Gay’s.

The idea is this: Ross set out to keep a chronicle of things that delighted him for one year, starting on his 42nd birthday (in August) and ending on his 43rd. It’s a little like a gratitude journal, but not quite. Also, since he is a poet by trade, his musings are wordy and worded in fun, unique ways. That is to say… reading his words are a delight in and of themselves, regardless of what delight he is talking about in any given chapter.

And the chapters are small, easy to read. Some are really just a paragraph.

His musings often center on plants, and other things found in nature (birds, bees); music; nostalgia and memories; and other people/people watching. And some of those are interconnected – music can bring up memories, often connected to other people, for example.

Many of the musings are really about connectedness, I think. His ones on people often describle how people greet one another, or whether or not he is acknowleged by people in his surrounding area (at the coffee shop, airport, etc.). One delight is about a stewardess calling him “baby!” So, while this is obviously a person who takes his gardening and plants seriously… he’s also very observant of the connections between humans.

A few fun quotes:

“And further, I wonder if this impulse suggests – and this is just a hypothesis, though, I suspect there is enough evidence to make it a theorem – that our delight grows as we share it.”

“It might be that the logics of delight interrupt the logics of capitalism.”

If you’re looking for a sweet little pick-me-up sometime, keep this one in mind.


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“Butterfly Awakens” by Meg Nocero – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Butterfly Awakens depicts the story of the extraordinary transformation of a forty-something Italian American attorney as she moves through unimaginable grief and sadness watching her beloved mother lose her battle to breast cancer. This tumultuous life experience shifts her world, causing her to question her life choices and opening her up to her soul’s calling. Nocero brings readers along on her journey through a dark night of the soul as she deals with the grieving process, a toxic work environment, and intense stress that results in depression, anxiety, and an acquired somatic nervous disorder called tinnitus. Through it all, she never gives up, instead looking for the help she needs to start to heal and find her light. In the end, like the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, this story is a beautiful love letter that honors Nocero’s mother’s legacy while detailing the awakening of her own.

Goodreads


This book came out in September, and I had heard of it around that time. I wasn’t sure I was up for a memoir on grief and loss, but I put it on my TBR for another reason: in her journey to find herself, one of the things the author tackles is El Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage, often taken people looking for religious or spiritual insight, has fascinated me for years!

Meg Nocero’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer while Meg was pregnant with her second child. The first 20 percent of the story tells of her mom’s diagnosis, battle, and death.

After that, Meg has some rough times. She eventually takes a brief leave from work, even, to try to get herself together. But still, she struggles. She starts having issues with stress-induced tinnitus – ringing in her ears – which also leads to insomnia. Going to work tired leads to more stress, so it’s a constant circle.

She eventually starts coming out of it by following advice from various friends and inspirational authors, speakers, etc. While this part of the book is often fun, it also feels a little muddled to me. She goes to big events and meets people like Oprah, Wayne Dyer, and Chris Martin (of Coldplay) – and these stories are definitely fun and inspiring! But she never really addresses whether or not she solved her tinnitus or insomnia problems. I assume they lessened eventually, as she found her new “groove” in life?

Meg even writes and self-publishes a book about finding your bliss! But all the while, she is still at her same day job, where she has been passed over for promotions for years. While she’s a lot happier than she was right after her mom’s passing, she is still kind of treating her own bliss as a hobby instead of a full time gig. And I get it to an extent – she has two kids to support, so there’s a financial aspect. But it does seem kind of ironic.

She eventually does quit, though, and plans a trip to hike El Camino in Northern Spain. The preparation and hike take up the last portion of the book. This part was fascinating to me – I loved hearing about the little towns they hiked through, the food, the old churches, and the history.

I enjoyed reading this book overall. There were definitely parts that were sad or frustrating, but there were also parts that were fun and uplifting. It was one in which I bookmarked a lot of the other inspirational things she read, so I can find them later!

I read this book through the Discovery platform, and my review will also appear there.


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“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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