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Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

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Starting with a Labor Day weekend jaunt to NYC, here’s what I have been reading:

The Accidental Beauty Queen, Teri Wilson
Anne put this one in her Summer Reading Guide and I flew through it on the train to NYC. Charlotte gets tapped to impersonate her identical twin, Ginny, in a beauty pageant, much to both their chagrin. I loved the nods to Harry Potter (Charlotte is a fan), the way both women had their preconceived notions tested, and the insights about family. So much fun.

Here if You Need Me, Kate Braestrup
When her husband died, Braestrup took up his dream of becoming a minister, and found herself serving as a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. This thoughtful, often wry memoir is a glimpse into that world, and into her family life. Engaging, though I wanted more, somehow. Found recently at More Than Words.

We Walked the Sky, Lisa Fiedler
Calliope VanDrexel is following in her grandmother’s footsteps as a tightrope walker. But when her mother gets a new job at an animal sanctuary, Callie has to leave the circus and she’s not happy about it. This dual-narrative YA novel tells both Callie’s story and that of her grandmother, Victoria (in the 1960s). I enjoyed both narratives (though Callie drove me nuts), and the circus setting is so fun.

The Right Sort of Man, Allison Montclair
As London recovers from World War II, Gwen Bainbridge, widowed and bored, and Iris Sparks, a snarky former intelligence agent, join forces to launch the Right Sort Marriage Bureau. But when one of their clients is murdered, presumably by another one, the women jump into an investigation to clear his name (and theirs). I love plucky amateur sleuths, especially British ones, and this story was great fun, especially the witty dialogue. First in a new series; found at the Strand.

The Book of Lost Saints, Daniel José Older
Marisol disappeared during the Cuban Revolution, lost to her family and the world. Half a century later, her spirit visits her nephew, Ramon, a hospital worker by day/DJ by night in New Jersey. Haunted by dreams that are really Marisol’s memories, Ramon starts digging into his family’s messy history. I love Older’s Shadowshaper YA series. This novel (for adults) is a gritty, sometimes bleak, often wisecracking look at cubano family ties and the ways past actions reverberate down through the generations. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 5).

Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke
Temporarily in limbo in both his job and his marriage, Texas Ranger Darren Mathews drives up to tiny Lark, Texas, to investigate two murders: a local white girl and a black man who was passing through. This well-crafted mystery explores the layers of race, love and conflicting loyalties in East Texas. (Darren is black, raised by two uncles: a Texas Ranger and a lawyer.) I loved the true-to-life portraits of locals and the exploration of exile and the pull of home.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay
I loved Gay’s essay collection, The Book of Delights, and my friend Kate sent me this book of his poetry. The poems are – as one of the blurbs says – “bold and wild and weird.” Family, love, racial politics, music, grief, and the orchard Gay works in and loves – they’re all here.

This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, Cameron Dezen Hammon
After converting to Christianity as a young woman, Hammon moved to Houston with her then-boyfriend and became a worship minister. This memoir traces her struggle to reconcile the gender politics of evangelical churches with her own craving for love and past scars. Thoughtful, though a bit vague at times; some of her frustrations definitely reflected my own. We need more stories like these. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 22).

Death and Love Among the Cheetahs, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch is finally married, and she and her Irish husband, Darcy, head to Kenya for an extended honeymoon. But instead of paradise, they find complicated sexual politics, theft and murder. I love Georgie and her adventures, but I’d hoped for a slightly more peaceful honeymoon for her!

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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fire-on-high-book

I feel like I blinked and it’s mid-August. I’m still settling into my new apartment and all the life changes (thank you for the kind comments on my recent post about that). Here’s what I have been reading, when my overstuffed brain will allow:

Where the Light Enters, Sara Donati
Donati’s sequel to The Gilded Hour (which I haven’t read) picks up the lives of her characters, notably two female physicians (who are cousins) in 1880s New York. Sophie is grieving the death of her husband, trying to decide whether to resume practicing obstetrics, and planning to establish a scholarship for young women of color to study medicine. Anna is struggling with various personal and professional challenges. Both of them are called in by Anna’s cop husband, Jack, to consult on a tricky case of multiple murders of pregnant women. A sweeping, complicated, engaging novel set largely in my favorite tangle of streets in the West Village. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 10).

American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
I grabbed this at the library after reading a review in the Shelf. Marie Mitchell is a frustrated FBI agent in 1980s NYC who is tapped for a mission involving Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso. A young, intelligent black woman, she’s perfect for the role, but she feels uneasy about it, especially since one of her handlers has a connection to her deceased sister. An ambitious spy thriller and family drama – Marie is a great character – but the ending was far too abrupt.

With the Fire on High, Elizabeth Acevedo
A high school senior and gifted chef, Emoni Santiago has a lot to juggle, including caring for her young daughter and helping out her abuela. When she gets the chance to take a cooking class, it might catapult her dreams forward–but she’s keenly aware of her obligations. A vivid, thoughtful, sweet, funny, engaging YA novel about a teen mom who’s much more than that. So good.

The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste
Ethiopia, 1935: the country is bracing for an Italian invasion, and Hirut, a young servant girl, is caught up in her masters’ plans to raise an army. She becomes a warrior and a guard, and her path crosses with an Italian Jewish photographer who isn’t sure he wants to be a soldier. Powerful, complicated and dark; I didn’t know about this piece of history and it’s a brutal one. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 10).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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alice network book chai red

It’s no secret I love a good spy story – especially if it features a badass female protagonist. This column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Spies are paradoxically famous for flying under the radar. Both their livelihood and their success depend on remaining undetected. For women, their gender often provides an additional layer of disguise: many men overlook women or doubt them to be capable of a spy’s cunning and deceit. (They’re wrong.)

Kate Quinn’s 2017 novel The Alice Network brings to life the work of female spies in occupied France during World War I. The titular network revolves around whip-smart Alice Dubois (an alias, of course), who smuggles information up the Allied ranks via hairpins, skirt seams and her web of crackerjack female agents. Though Quinn’s protagonist Eve Gardiner is fictional, “Alice” and her compatriots really existed, and the novel is a fitting homage to their courage.

Spanish seamstress Sira Quiroga finds herself swept up and then abandoned by a charming man in Maria Duenas’s powerful novel The Time in Between. Stranded in Morocco, Sira hones her sewing skills and becomes a successful couturier whose designs eventually catch the eye of Nazi diplomats’ wives. As war swirls on the Continent, first in Spain and then everywhere, Sira passes coded information through her elegant gowns, stitching herself into the complex worlds of high fashion and espionage.

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is used to being underestimated: as a retired widow, she’s also downright bored. Presenting herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., she argues her way into a position as an undercover agent, launching an unorthodox career that has her crisscrossing continents throughout the Cold War (though her neighbors never know it). Dorothy Gilman’s series, which spans 14 novels, lives up to the name of its first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, in delightful fashion.

In fiction as in real life, female spies are often underrated–but their stories are reliably fascinating.

Who are your favorite lady spies – real or fictional?

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james baldwin quote books

Here in the middle of Black History Month, I have to start with a disclaimer: any reading list I can offer will be woefully incomplete.

I am reading more books by and about people of color these days, but I have a lot of catching up to do. While I recognize the gaps in my reading list, and the absurdity of highlighting black history during only one month of the year, I wanted to share a few titles that have helped me see beyond my own experience.

These books celebrate the accomplishments of black Americans, ask difficult questions about race and responsibility, and tell a good story – fiction or nonfiction. (For a list of great kids’ books on this theme, see my librarian friend Shelley’s recent post.)

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is the fascinating true story of the brilliant black women who worked for NASA (doing complicated math the likes of which I can’t imagine) during World War II, the Cold War and the space race. It focuses on their accomplishments but doesn’t minimize the discrimination they faced. I also loved the movie version, starring Octavia Spencer and a knockout cast. Meticulous research + engaging writing + fantastic real-life characters = a brilliant launch.

I’ve recently discovered the work of Tracy K. Smith, who was named U.S. poet laureate last summer. I read Smith’s new collection Wade in the Water (out in April) for review; it’s thought-provoking, often searing, with some gorgeous lines. Then I picked up her memoir, Ordinary Light, which I just finished. It’s beautifully written, and powerful. (I appreciated Smith’s admission that she didn’t want to deal with the hard truths about her heritage for a long time.)

I love young adult fiction, and I’ve recently read several spectacular novels that feature young black women:

  • Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham is a dual-narrative novel that tells the story of the Tulsa race riots of 1921 and also hits on present-day issues.
  • Nicola Yoon’s second novel, The Sun is Also a Star, has one protagonist who’s terrified she’s about to be deported back to Jamaica, where she can barely remember living, when she meets (and falls for) a Korean-American boy.
  • Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give needs no introduction from me. It’s a horrifying portrait of the aftermath of a shooting (from the viewpoint of a witness), but I also loved it for its rich, complicated depiction of family life.

An oldie but a goodie: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was the first book I ever read (at around age 10) that featured a black protagonist who wasn’t a slave. Cassie Logan lives in Mississippi in the 1930s; her family owns their land, but is still dealing, every day, with the legacy of slavery, sharecropping and pervasive, damaging racism. I loved Cassie and her family, and my heart also broke for them every few pages. The sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, is also great.

Fast forward to a recent discovery for me: Brittney Cooper, whose essay collection Eloquent Rage is out this week. Cooper tips her hat to bell hooks, Audre Lorde and other giants of black feminism, but her tone and approach are very much her own. So much here to ponder; so much that made me uncomfortable, for good reason.

I recently read A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality and the Law (out in March), a transcript of a conversation at NYU Law School by four leading black thinkers and activists: Sherrilyn Ifill, Loretta Lynch, Bryan Stevenson and Anthony C. Thompson. It’s short, but thought-provoking, and reminded me that I still need to read Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

You probably don’t need me to tell you about Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jacqueline Woodson, Jesmyn Ward or Colson Whitehead. Or about James Baldwin, whose quote (above) I found in the bathroom at McNally Jackson in NYC. Some of these authors are still on my to-read list. And they are only the beginning. I know, above all, that I still have so much to learn.

What are the most essential books you’ve read by and about people of color? Please share in the comments.

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the winter sea book cover lights bare feet

It’s still cold: it is January in Boston, after all, though most of our recent snow has melted. I’m switching between getting out in the weather (commuting, running, seeing friends) and curling up inside with good books. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion, Catriona Menzies-Pike
Menzies-Pike describes herself as a “gin-addled bookworm” who traded late nights for long runs, to her own surprise. She took up running almost on a whim, and it has transformed her sense of how she moves through the world. I recognized myself (I’m a novice runner) in this wry, insightful, whip-smart memoir about running, grief, moving forward, and the politics of running as a woman. Fantastic, and the perfect book for me right now.

The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley
Novelist Carrie McClelland heads to the ruins of Slains Castle, north of Aberdeen, to research her latest historical saga. She invents a heroine, naming her Sophia after a distant ancestor, but soon finds she’s writing down details she couldn’t have read elsewhere. Kearsley intertwines Carrie’s story with Sophia’s journey and the history of the Jacobites. Perfect midwinter reading – I loved the characters (especially the Countess of Erroll and Colonel Graeme), the romance and the setting.

Moxie, Jennifer Mathieu
I heard about this YA novel from Shelf Awareness, Sarah and Kari. Vivian is a good girl in small-town Texas who gets fed up with the egregious sexism at her high school from male students and administrators. Inspired by her mom’s Riot Grrrl zines, she makes her own – called Moxie – and starts a movement. I loved the fierce girl-power vibe, but also how messy and real it felt: Viv and her friends struggle to take a stand and reach across lines of race, class and cliques. Inspiring, fresh and often funny.

A Fountain Filled with Blood, Julia Spencer-Fleming
This sequel to In the Bleak Midwinter finds the Reverend Clare Fergusson and chief of police Russ Van Alstyne dealing with a rash of hate crimes in their small New York town. We learn more about their respective military experiences, and the plot deals (somewhat obliquely) with homophobia. Not as gripping as the first one, but I like these characters, especially Clare.

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper
“Owning anger is a dangerous thing if you’re a fat Black girl like me,” Cooper writes. But she owns her rage in these powerful essays, with brilliance, bravery and wit. We need – I need – more voices like Cooper’s, as we grapple with questions about race in this country. She urges us to own our complicity, ask good questions and join the fight for justice. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 20).

I’ll Be Your Blue Sky, Marisa de los Santos
I adore de los Santos’ luminous novels about family, and loved this dual-narrative one about Clare, whom I know from Love Walked In. Days before her wedding, Clare meets an elderly woman named Edith, who gives her some wise advice (which leads to Clare calling off the wedding) and later leaves her a house and a mystery to solve. Lovely and insightful – vintage de los Santos – and I loved revisiting these familiar characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 6).

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading this winter?

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In memory of Mary

mary tyler moore hat

A few years ago, soon after I moved to Boston, I fell completely in love with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I’d watched it occasionally in reruns as a child, but this time I checked the DVDs out from our library and savored every single episode. I love Lou Grant, Rhoda, Murray and the whole cast, but Mary Richards – sweet, spunky, hardworking, brave Mary – is my favorite.

I loved her chic wardrobe and cozy studio apartment. I laughed aloud at her eloquent facial expressions and quick wit. I cheered as she made her own way in a big city, forging a new career (as I was doing much the same thing). And I related in a deep and visceral way to the struggle between being a “nice girl,” staying true to yourself and your values, and standing up to sexism or other prejudices.

Mary belongs to my grandparents’ generation, and her show was popular in my parents’ youth. But much of what we’re fighting for, as women and as human beings, has not changed. (In the current political climate, this truth is coming home to me every single day.)

Mary Tyler Moore died this week, and I’ve been thinking about her – both the character I love and the actress who pushed television forward with her bold, funny, utterly real performance. She may have “turned the world on with her smile,” as the show’s theme song has it, but she also lit up the world with her courage, wit and grace.

Thank you, Mary. You made us laugh, you made us think and you made us brave. I think you made it after all.

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hidden figures book tea scone

Before “computer” came to mean a sophisticated calculating machine, it meant a person: someone with a firm grasp of numbers and their myriad practical applications in the real world. In the 1940s, as the U.S. rapidly expanded its flight program to fight the Axis Powers, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia tapped into a new source of computing power: a group of whip-smart, highly educated African American women.

For the next two decades, the “colored computers” applied their mathematical knowledge to solve problems of flight at Langley, first in aviation and eventually in the space race. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the previously unknown story of these women in her first nonfiction book, Hidden Figures.

Sixty years after the narrative of Hidden Figures begins, we are living in fraught times here in the U.S. Many voices are calling for respect, equality and civil discourse while other voices–which often seem louder–are trumpeting hatred, bigotry and violence. I don’t always know how best to add my own (white, privileged) voice to the chorus of the former. But I believe that listening to, and helping tell, the stories of people whose experiences are different from my own is a vital first step.

It’s my turn again at Great New Books today, and I’m raving about the brilliant, bold women of Hidden Figures. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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