The only excuse I have for waiting so long to draft a review of this short story collection is that I was too busy telling everyone I know about it in person. I stumbled across A Manual for Cleaning Women based, I think, largely on browsing algorithms in my library’s app. I’d never heard of Lucia Berlin, but these stories evoked the same response in my heart as hearing John Prine for the first time. An enthusiastic, “Where have you *been* all my life?” after a deep itch has been scratched.
I loved every one of the 43 stories in this collection, although I can admit that some are stronger, more emotional, than others. “Macadam” has become a common word in my house now. I think often of Sally and her children, of Melina and César, of Bella Lynn. Sometimes, I think of Jesse, Amelia and her pobre mojito, Dr. HA Moynihan’s toothless mouth, and the narrator’s mother, but that’s more painful.
The one story that set me weeping above the others—the one I listened to on audiobook multiple times and the one that forced me to sit in the parking lot after I’d arrived to work just to pull myself back together—was “Stars and Saints.” It begins, “Wait. Let me explain…” and tells a story of terrible circumstances all piled together outside of anyone’s control in a way that inevitably result in each character making the worst decisions for everyone. I can’t say more about it. If you can spare 15 or so minutes, read this story. And you might want to be alone and give yourself 5 or so extra minutes to clean yourself up afterward.
Did anything other than sexism keep Lucia Berlin’s largely autobiographical stories away from me until now? She does a wide range of unladylike things. But I enjoyed her stories of addiction and sex and blue-collar jobs much more than any of the Bukowski we read in college. Because she doesn’t try to make it seem glamorous or even that fun most of the time. She manages to enjoy herself despite the terrible situations she gets into, not because of them. She shows all the dirt under her fingernails and shrugs. Isn’t this the way life is, she asks? Messy and full of life and hope and heartbreak?
If you have a pulse and empathy and can read, check out A Manual for Cleaning Women. And behold humanity.
In this fantasy novel, the first in a series, a teenaged girl comes of age in a world that’s suddenly not the one she thought she knew. It’s way more interesting.
I don’t want to reveal too much, but watching Kendra realize that her hallucinations are actually a view into the world as it really is—full of magic and creatures and alternate realities—is a delight. The reader cheers for her throughout the story as she discovers more and more people in her life are in on the deception, and she faces down threats without fully understanding her own power or theirs.
There’s no way to avoid being drawn in to the world with her, watching her figure out the rules, possibilities, and limitations while learning to trust her own instincts.
The author (who, full disclosure, is a personal friend of mine) does a great job at revealing this magical realm slowly, giving readers the outline of its hierarchy and purpose without delving too deep into the mechanics. I don’t often read series—too much of a commitment—so this slow reveal confused me at first. I finished the book with question marks still around what this all means for Kendra and what she’s ultimately capable of. But, of course, I’ll have to read the next two or three forthcoming books for that part of the story!
And I will continue with this series. Kendra is too likeable, and the world too threatening, to abandon her after Book One. I look forward to enjoying Book Two as much as I enjoyed Book One!
Mrs. Dalloway is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. This most recent read was not the first and won’t be the last. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a novel I’ll revisit over and over again throughout my life, gleaning new perspectives and a new respect for it every time.
What do I love? The balance of detail between physical actions and internal monologue, including how one influences the other. The empathetic rendering of not just the POV characters, but every character, so you feel exactly what they’re feeling, in the full context of their lives. The contrast between Clarissa’s life and Septimus’s life, both so important, so essential, although not in obvious ways. The weaving together of their storylines throughout this single day in London. Their reactions to love, to ambition, to societal expectations. Their interactions with the secondary characters, and the secondary characters’ reactions to them, which we also see in stunningly honest detail. And so much more.
I reached out for Mrs. Dalloway on instinct, like looking for a rocky outcropping after a shipwreck, as antidote to the state Ulysses left me in. Of course, Woolf was reading Ulysses while writing this, so that’s no coincidence. Although scholars, and even friends, may disagree, I think these two show Woolf’s blatant superiority to Joyce. He may have written an “important” novel, but it’s unreadable and unrelatable.
Woolf shows that, as a skillful, careful writer, she can tell a deeply personal story about a single day through multiple first-person accounts and make it enjoyable and emotional. Not just readable, it’s re-readable, over and over.
In this deeply honest book, Evan J. Peterson introduces and defends PrEP while laying bare his sexual anxieties and exploring how PrEP has helped them. Through short personal stories, we learn about his experience of being a gay man born into the era of AIDS and the relief of seeing a way out of the nightmare. Many readers, I suspect, won’t have much knowledge of PrEP before reading this, and it serves as a great introduction.
Full disclosure: I’ve been friends with Evan since we met at Florida State University, and I’m a straight cis woman, and I didn’t know about PrEP (or even HIV-pos undetectable status) until Evan started writing about it.
Why didn’t I know about PrEP? Evan points out that HIV has become un-newsworthy as treatment options have improved. HIV is not the death sentence it was when Evan and I were growing up. Our attention on disease has moved on to Ebola and zika, our fundraising efforts to cancer research, our demographic judgments to opioid addiction. In the straight community (still dominant, despite concerns that Pride celebrations have become too mainstream), there’s just not much concern about HIV anymore. And in a lot of ways, that’s a good thing! Thirty years ago, few of us imagined that medicine would have come so far in treating—and now preventing—HIV. What we gave up is keeping the disease in the conversation so we’d know of advancements like PrEP.
Beyond PrEP, this is a sexual memoir. To a straight, cis girl like me, raised in the same era and similar culture as Evan, gay sex was one of those things that all the kids joked about, but I doubt that most of us knew exactly what was involved. With other shaming prohibitions against porn, masturbation, and sexual experimentation, there wasn’t a lot of room to even ask questions. Evan’s open and honest narrative covers not only the technical details of his sexual experiences, but also the anxieties, awkward moments, and uncertainties that formed his understanding of what it meant/means to be a gay man.
I highly recommend this book. Share it with your friends. Use it as a conversation opener to talk about PrEP and HIV. Use it as an opener to talk about sex. Let it help you work through those questions you were too shy to ask. And enjoy Evan’s open—and often funny—take on the experiences that have shaped his life.
I wish we could make George required reading for all potential parents, or at least for all teachers. I loved it.
I don’t often read middle-grade books, but I received my copy at ALA Annual 2016 when I accidently found myself in line to have Alex Gino sign it. As they signed it, I told them I wasn’t familiar with it, but it sounded intriguing. They were gracious and wrote something kind inside the cover.
The plot of George is incredibly simple, focusing on George—a 4th grader who knows she’s a girl even though everyone else thinks she’s a boy—and her desire to play the part of Charlotte in the class production of Charlotte’s Web. Although George is told she can’t play Charlotte because she’s a boy, and although she undergoes some bullying related to her gender identity, the story of her coming out to those around her is one of the most inspiring and beautiful I’ve heard of. When I grew up, even gay kids didn’t have such an easy time (and I’m not *that* old, but the area where I lived was quite “socially conservative”). The idea that a young, transgender kid could get as much support as George does from her parents and teachers and peers is so hopeful and wonderful.
Not every transgender kid has it so easy, even these days. But the fact that this book can present this picture of life and make it feel real, I think, can inspire kids and the adults who love them to be fearlessly authentic. George reminds us not to question what’s “wrong” with transgender people, but to encourage them to be who they are, the same way you might encourage someone who shows an early aptitude for playing the violin or solving math problems. If every boy was a high school quarterback and every girl was a cheerleader captain, the world would be a terribly boring place. George celebrates our diversity, even the diversity within a family.
I’m not sure how I would have discovered George if I hadn’t wandered, dazzled, into that line at ALA. But I’m so glad I did, because now I can share this beautiful story with everyone.
More of a poem than a novel, and a better poem than most. Virginia Woolf pulls threads of images through the fabric of individual characters’ lives in a way that exposes their innermost thoughts and feelings, impressions they may even hesitate to admit to themselves, let alone to the other characters around them. By exposing her characters down to their essences, Woolf creates a cast of distinct individuals that readers can relate to one by one through the common humanity of their anxieties and sudden waves of affection.
Although the narrative jumps frequently from one character’s mind to another, the impressions are distinct and clear enough that the reader doesn’t get lost in the translation of these cloud-like expressions to the printed page. We understand James’s seething hatred just as we understand why his father continues to tickle his leg. We understand Lily’s certainty about moving the tree toward the middle just as we understand Tansley’s insistence that women can’t paint, can’t write.
There’s not much plot to the story. In parts 1 and 3, the focus instead is on a microscopic view of a few hours of life. In part 2, the view zooms out so far that 10 years pass in an instant. These hours may not seem significant in the scheme of things—in parts 1 and 3, no one is born, no one dies—but they influence every life who experiences them. And Woolf‘s genius conveys this quiet drama beautifully.
This recording is a beautiful, comforting walk that leads you to take a hard look at your emotional reactions to yourself and to others. Tara Brach comes at her advice from a Buddhist perspective, but many of the concepts are recognizable from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She explains the concepts clearly in a gentle voice, and then she walks the listener through some short meditations to reflect on what she’s been teaching. I think most everyone can learn something from here, and I highly recommend it.
How surprising to learn that a 162-year-old novel with the dreary title of Bleak House could be so charming, so engaging, and so funny! But it really is. From Esther’s self-deprecating, clever point of view to Matthew Bagnet’s maintenance of discipline in “the old girl” to the acerbic narrator’s description of the English political and judicial systems, every sentence drips with careful craft and intention. The heavy satire and irony reminded me strongly of Monty Python sketches about English manners. Before reading this, Tale of Two Cities was my favorite Dickens (over Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol), but Bleak House has taken its place. (That said, Tale at least has brevity going for it.)
As the novel gets rolling, the reader is introduced to so many characters that it begins to feel like Doctor Zhivago or something. But all the characters are differentiated well in look, in manner of speech, and in their unique ticks. Mr. Snagsby's specific coughs of communication, Grandfather Smallweed's need to be shaken up frequently, Inspector Bucket's roaming index finger... the traits are consistent throughout and help to convey important characterizations. Every character here--even the most minor, and even the ones that never actually appear but are only spoken of--comes alive under the narrator's description. While there are a lot of characters to like, even love, there are many others to like less. Did I really hate any of them? No, because even the worst among them (probably Mr. Tulkinghorn or Grandfather Smallweed, followed by Mr. Vohles) are such delightful caricatures that you just have to smile at their horribleness.
The social and political criticism of the novel is shockingly contemporary. You'll have no trouble following the discussions about Boodle and Coodle and Foodle if you can keep up with a conversation about Perry, Bush, and Kasich, for example. Sir Leicester's reaction when he discovers that an ironmaster is rallying voters against him and his party in the North is completely relatable to a modern reader. The description of the court system had me laughing out loud. You heard me: the description of the mid-nineteenth century English civil judicial system had me laughing out loud. It really is a remarkable book!
Like many long, old books, I listened to this one rather than reading the text. Simon Vance did a good job with the narration, keeping the voices pretty consistent and pulling out the humor. And he's British, so he sailed through the pronunciations of names that I, as an American, would have stumbled over (even Jarndyce, which Vance pronounces more like "JON-dis").
I've seen some criticism that Esther is too good, too perfect, and therefore irritating. But I encourage you to look little closer, and consider the ideals of womanhood at her time, not to mention her upbringing. Esther's sharper than she lets on. She's also more prideful and vain and judgmental. But she knows how to hold that back and reveal only the most flattering portrait of herself and those she loves (Jarndyce and Woodcourt also seem a little too perfect through her eyes). Even though parts of the narrative are in her voice, she states early and repeats that she's writing it for external readers. That is, this isn't her private journal. She's giving us her public face only.
I highly recommend Bleak House, despite its length and gloomy title. I was so wonderfully surprised by it!
I re-read Siddhartha after more than 15 years. While High School Me appreciated it to some extent, I think I got much more out of it as an adult. By now, I've had the chance to make some life choices the way Siddhartha did, and I've been able to see some of their results. During high school, I was still at the stage he was right before he joined the aesthetics. Now, I'm probably somewhere closer to his time as a wealthy merchant. I really enjoyed watching Siddhartha's choices, understanding his arrogance, and being at some points just a little closer than him to knowing what makes life worth living.
I pulled this off my shelf somewhat randomly, knowing I had a couple long plane trips coming up and looking for something smallish to carry around with me. How different travel can be when your head is still floating around Siddhartha's world! I think I smiled like a fool at everyone I saw.
Hesse's writing here is quiet and gorgeous. He's not following any of the rules we know about how to write engaging fiction. It begins with a montage of Siddhartha's happy childhood, being loved by everyone--not exactly the action hook we expect these days. And it proceeds in a soft, explanatory voice, interrupting a narrative that spans years with a few specific anecdotes here and there. When we think back on our own lives, doesn't it replay in much the same way?
By the end, I found myself reading more closely, wanting to really understand what Siddhartha is saying and doing, even as he was explaining the inherent shortcomings of communicating and teaching. You have to discover it for yourself through your own experience, not seek it from others. Not even from Siddhartha himself.
I've read a couple books by Thich Nhat Hanh now, and I consider him to be brilliant and inspiring teacher. This CD (which I thought was an audiobook) is actually excerpts from a series of lectures he gave during a retreat. On the first disc, he offers a few meditation techniques that are easy to incorporate to a regular practice. And on the second, he talks in more detail about the benefits of meditation and how to be mindful during daily life, especially with loved ones. The version I listened to did not include any music from the monks at Plum Village or videos, as I see some of the other versions do.
The longer I maintain a meditation practice and the more I focus on trying to be mindful, the more I hear about it. At the TEDxColumbusWomen conference last week, one of the speakers talked about using mindfulness to control the body monitoring that women do an average of every 30 seconds. Mindfulness is an important part of cognitive behavioral therapy, to help you understand your feelings and reactions by first observing them without judgement. During a recent keynote speech at a marketing conference, Arianna Huffington talked about being so overworked and under-rested that she collapsed in her office, as a result of which she made some lifestyle changes that included mindfulness. She went on to promote a session she was doing as part of Oprah and Deepak Chopra's online meditation series, which included Kobe Bryant talking about the importance of meditation. Even my health insurance company is pushing mindfulness and meditation as stress-reduction techniques.
I think it's wonderful that living mindfully is becoming not only accepted, but encouraged in the US. If we all take some time to breathe, clear our minds, and reflect upon ourselves and our interactions with others, we can all be a bit happier and get along better. It's worked for me. I'm not exactly a Zen master, but I feel calmer and happier than I used to. I'm more patient, both with myself and with other people. I try to focus on being generous. And when I'm not being my best self, I find myself more able to step back, recognize what I'm doing, forgive myself for it, and start over.
Meditation's not hard. If you're looking for a place to get started, listening to Thich Nhat Hanh speak on The Art of Mindful Living is a great option.
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