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Book 7

I’m Meep: a 20something librarian, originally from New England, living in Tokyo. I eat books and bleed poetry.

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Among Others

Among Others - Jo Walton I haven't given this a starred rating because I can't decide how I feel about it. I liked some parts and didn't like others. I don't know if I liked this book or the book I thought it should have been.

[Originally read May 16-23, 2013.]

Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein

Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein - Amanda Peet, Andrea Troyer I wanted to like this book, but for various reasons, I did not. Review to come.

We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement

We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement - Andi Zeisler “The rise of feminist underpants is a weird twist on Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, wherein consumer products once divorced from inherent use value are imbued with all sorts of meaning. To brand something as feminist doesn’t involve ideology, or labor, or policy, or specific actions or processes. It’s just a matter of saying, ‘This is feminist because we say it is.”

The Good

I added this book to the 2016-2017 purchase list for the high school library with the note to the teacher-librarian that “It’s The Beauty Myth (already in the collection) for 2016 instead of 1992.” Not that I’m knocking The Beauty Myth! We should have both in our collection and I hope this becomes a classic.

Andi Zeisler articulated my frustration with mainstream contemporary feminism, which Zeisler labels “marketplace feminism.” The coopting of feminism for capitalist ends isn’t new (“You’ve come a long way, baby”?), and neither are attempts to “rebrand” feminism. Ziesler examines the flaws of a neoliberal, capitalist “feminism” and deconstructs the ideological failure of an “I choose my choice,” individualist “feminist” identity – and slams the companies who want to sell it to you.

Ziesler argues that “feminism” isn’t a static metric to measure consumer choices. “Empowerment” (another word Ziesler argues has been coopted and diluted to virtual meaninglessness) should mean more than the freedom to choose which color of $45 “feminist” granny panties you buy. (Yes, $45 underwear are an actual thing.) It’s not a victory if a few (mostly white) women make it to the top by stepping on other women and conforming to strict hetero-patriarchal capitalist standards.

Finally, I can recommend this book instead of explaining (again) why I haven’t read Lean In and probably won’t ever.

The Bad

I wanted to rate this book as four stars, but it lost one whole entire star for “women-born-women.” That is some TERF bullshit, usually written “womyn-born-womyn.” I tweeted about my displeasure – and to my surprise, Ziesler responded. Hopefully the transphobic construction “women-born-women” will be edited in later editions to “cis woman” or something less ugly. I bumped my review back up to four stars under the assumption that this will be fixed. How she didn't know this already is beyond me.

Judging a Book by its Cover

It’s OK? I bet most of the people buying this book know about Ziesler through the magazine she co-founded, Bitch. I think it’s supposed to look like a riot grrrl zine? I don’t know, it doesn’t really do it for me.

tl;dr

I called it “The Beauty Myth, but for 2016.” What more do you want me to say?

Straight: The Surprisingly Short History Of Heterosexuality

Straight: The Surprisingly Short History Of Heterosexuality - Hanne Blank “We don't just want what we want because we want it; we want what we want because that's what we've learned to want.”

The Good

I like books that teach me more about what I think I already know. Take the blunt force “common knowledge” (doxa) and pull it apart until you have a finer, more nuanced understanding of the world. This was one of those kinds of books. It brought together a lot of information (some familiar to me, some new) and traced the history of heterosexuality.

I’m a queer (lesbian asexual) and it was refreshing to have the centered position taken apart, for a change. I don’t subscribe to an innate, biological “born this way” approach to sexuality. If people were born straight and all that implies in 2016, then there would’ve been a word for it a long time ago. Way longer than the 1800s.

While none of this information was brand new to me (with one exception, which I’ll get to momentarily), the book pulled information together in a coherent way, including some information I knew, but had not thought of as necessarily related to sexuality. (The process of ethnically diverse European immigrants “becoming white” in the States, in part through dating (and then, intermarriage), was an angle I had never considered.)

Now the surprise: Blank mentions, almost offhandedly, that in cultures without a concept of “romantic love,” people generally don’t experience it. I know it’s outside of her thesis, but I wish she had devoted a little more to this truth bomb, or at lest footnoted it with where to read more. I’ve tweeted her to ask; I’ll let you know if she gets back.

The Bad

Blank really wants her relationship to be “queer.” I’m not here to police other people’s sexual identities, but as a queer woman without the option to “shelter under the sturdy roof of straightness,” it just made me uncomfortable. Her partner is assigned male at birth, identifies and lives as a man, and has functional “male” genitals. Blank, as far as I know, is likewise assigned female, lives as a woman, and explicitly identifies herself as femme. But her partner is XXY intersex, which she claims makes them a queer couple. They might be two queer people in a couple, but that coupling is straight.

They weren’t, at publication, married, but in 2012, they could’ve if they wanted, anywhere in the country. I know her partner looks androgynous and sometimes is mistaken for a woman, but for social and legal reasons, they’re straight.

I had the same problem with this as with Blank’s other history of sexuality, Virgin: There was just not enough inclusion of queer issues and what was there was awkwardly worded and badly researched. I know her focus is on heterosexuality, but there was almost nothing about trans issues. I think the existence of trans people in opposite gender relationships (with cis or other trans people) is hugely relevant to a shifting understanding of what it means to be “heterosexual,” but the only two mentions were somewhat tragic.

For all Blank is an academic, she doesn’t have a good grasp of LGBT+ terminology: Billy Tipton was not “a woman.” Billy Tipton was a man. Blank’s assertion that he was discovered to be “a woman” is not a direct quote; a responsible researcher/reporter should have quoted that incorrect understanding and then corrected it. She also uses “transsexual,” which is definitely not standard trans terminology these days.

I knocked an entire star off of my rating for all of that.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

This isn’t really the kind of book that sells by its cover. It’s not quite as academic as I’d expect from a textbook, but it’s not as clever or funny as, say, Mary Roach’s Bonk. (It’s priced like a popular science book, not a textbook.) The cover design is completely unremarkable, but I imagine you’d have to have an interest in the topic before you picked it up, and not the other way around.

tl;dr

This book wasn’t a bad review of heterosexuality, pulling together a lot of background information in an illuminating way. This falls in an uncomfortable space between academic and popular; it’s too shallow to be an academic text, but too dry to be much fun as a popular text.

I’d recommend it to a certain type of person on an infamous blue website before they start spouting off about what they don’t fully understand.

Notebooks of a Middle School Princess

Notebooks of a Middle School Princess - Meg Cabot The Good
OK, I bought this book for the cover – a Black princess? I’ll take it. My students love princess books and I want to at least get a little diversity in the princess collection. (But more about Olivia’s heritage and the role it plays (or doesn’t) in “the bad.”)

This is a fun read aloud. I read it to third and fourth graders, and for the most part, they enjoyed it. Some of the kids (boys, especially) were all “eww, princesses” when we started, but they got into it eventually. I’m not usually a very hammy reader, but this book really called for my best Valley Girl accent and I went for it.
That’s … pretty much it.

The Bad
This book is full of wasted opportunities. I really feel like Meg Cabot just didn’t care, because she knew it’d get published and sell a zillion copies on the coattails of Princess Dairies. (The movie version, anyway. This audience is way too young for the books.)

There’s so much potential in a “secret royalty” plot, not to mention the best friend’s sneaking suspicion that Olivia’s aunt and uncle are car thieves. But the biggest letdown of all? Olivia’s race is barely addressed.

On one hand, it’s refreshing that this isn’t a “problem novel” about Olivia’s mixed race heritage. She can just go on being a princess like whatever. On the other hand, the diversity is merely cosmetic: you could swap out a few descriptive words here and there and Olivia could be Japanese-American, or Nishi’s family could be from Ghana, and nothing would change. I’m not saying these characters should be reduced to stereotypes, but their identities have real world consequences that never show up in the story.

In an obviously contemporary story (lots of cell phones and selfies and texting), that’s just lazy. Olivia’s race is briefly addressed when a tabloid posits that Olivia was kept a secret because her mother is African-American, but like so many interesting plot threads, it was ultimately dropped in favor of princess porn, and never addressed again.

Speaking of “princess porn,” I know this is ostensibly about the joy of finding your real family, but despite the stated moral at the end - “And not because it turns out I’m a princess and I get to live in a beautiful palace [etc.] … It’s because I finally have a family that loves me.” – the real reward for Olivia is moving up to the 1%. The last chapter (the only chapter set in Genovia) is six pages talking about the perks of being royalty, and a paragraph or two of didacticism on “the real meaning of family.”

Olivia’s adoptive family (her aunt, step-uncle, and step-cousins) are cartoonish, half-baked evil stepfamily, and Olivia’s “”real”” family mostly show their affection by buying her fancy things – and one time showing concern for her bloody nose. If this is a realistic enough world that snotty people meticulously avoid gluten because it might make them fat, it should be a realistic enough world to have nuanced familial relationships. Not to mention, it would be a more interesting story if she lived with a loving family and had to choose between the better of two good options.

Meg Cabot didn’t come here to tell a good story. She came here to cash in, and it shows.

Judging a Book by Its Cover
Like I said, I bought this book for its cover. Olivia looks cute and approachable, just the kind of thing my patrons look for in a princess book. None of this weird silhouette to disguise that the main character is a person of color, either. There’s an African-American girl right on the cover of a book with the word “Princess” in the title.

tl;dr
A lot of negative reviews here soften the blow with “I’m not the target audience,” which… a badly written book for children is still a badly written book. I’m a “professional reader” (elementary school librarian) and I’m here to say: this book is just bad and Meg Cabot milked the cash cow by spinning off her most popular series without giving it any of the wit or charm of the original and maybe brought in a few new readers by cynically exploiting #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

That’s not just bad writing, it’s insulting. Kids are smart.
SPOILER ALERT!

Made You Up

Made You Up - Francesca Zappia “Sometimes I think people take reality for granted.”

I’m still looking for what I wanted from We’ll Never Be Apart (my review). This got a little closer, but we're still a long way gone.

Review
While I was reading it and not thinking too hard, this book wasn't so bad. I sped through it because I wanted to get to the good parts, but once again, I felt like the good parts never quite arrived.

I originally gave this book three stars; I bumped it down to two. The more I thought about it, the more things bugged me.

I won’t get into the wildly inaccurate portrayal of schizophrenia; Clementine’s review goes into some detail, and a perusal of one-star reviews will get you the gist. I don’t have a background in psychology and I don’t have any up close and personal experience with schizophrenia. Even so, I could tell something was way off – especially when just being around the love interest soothed her symptoms.

This idea that if you love a sick person enough, and they love you enough, they’ll just get better is, frankly, insulting. You can’t love someone so much you cure their cancer. You can’t love someone so much you cure their schizophrenia.

(I had the same problem with Made You Up. Why is it always a boy and a cure, instead of your own self and learning to live with the reality of the situation and cope the best you can?)

I wish I knew more about Charlemagne. That could’ve been the whole plot, right there. At least, unlike Made You Up, it’s (sort of) explained how Alexandra “sees” her interacting with people – but it’s a mystery why her parents not only played along with this delusion/hallucination (it’s both/neither) but apparently encouraged it, setting a place for her at the table and buying her Christmas presents long after she died. I… what?

Oh, and the mom’s relationship with the therapist, and the therapist’s relationship with Alexandra? Woah. I saw a therapist for six(ish) years. My mother was sometimes involved with my treatment; probably with a schizophrenic patient, you’d need more family involvement for a minor.

Therapists are not your enemy. If you don’t like your particular therapist, hopefully you can find a new one. If your meds aren’t working, talk to your psychiatrist and adjust the dose or change the prescription. This is such a dangerous cliché. I didn’t see a therapist when I needed one (financial reasons) and, well, it almost ruined my life. See a therapist, kids!

As for the rest ... Well, I originally left it out of my review because it was pretty forgettable. There were too many threads and none of them made any sense. Like Miles's mom. She's been stuck in a psychiatric hospital for eight years without her consent, and not having committed any crime, because her husband says she's suicidal? What is this, 1950? Or Miles himself, struggling to readjust after living abroad. That could all be very interesting, but it just wasn't. Or the McCoy and Celia subplot. Any of these things could have been a good book in their own right, but crammed into a single story and not fleshed out they just floundered. Less is more.

And why is the whole school crazy? It seemed like high school on a TV show, not real high school. At first I thought it was part of Alex's illness, but apparently not.

Judging a Book by Its Cover
I love the design for this book. It’s what originally caught my eye before I got on this “mentally ill unreliable narrator” kick I’m in. It’s visually arresting, and we’ve got Alex’s red hair. I think a lobster would have been more intriguing, though.
It loses points for the flagrant misuse of Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song.”

tl;dr
Quick read, but I wanted more. Didn’t care much about the characters and the one I liked best turned out to be a hallucination all along. Once again, the interesting bits about what’s real or not get lost under a teenage love story, and the reality of mental illness is ignored in favor of stereotypes and what’s cool.

Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse

Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse - Marilyn Singer Two things I don't care for: fairy tale retellings (getting old, imho) and poetry, especially for children (nonsense verse, ugh) BUT this was clever and, I can tell, fiendishly difficult to write. Updated review coming after I've read this to my students.

Tsubasa: WoRLD CHRoNiCLE 2

Tsubasa: WoRLD CHRoNiCLE 2 - CLAMP It's hard to review individual manga volumes. This gave me a lot of feeeelings, but at least 90% of those feelings were nostalgia. Is this manga even any good? I don't know, but I love the characters, so I don't even care.
SPOILER ALERT!

We'll Never Be Apart

We'll Never Be Apart - Emiko Jean “So where does a story that ends in fire and death begin?”

I have to start by saying this: I read a review of We’ll Never Be Apart that spoiled the twist when I was about a third of the way through the book and I wasn’t even mad, because I had long since called the twist. So this “psychological thriller” wasn’t very thrilling. I kept reading to find out how the twist happened, but when it finally came, the denouement glossed over all the interesting bits.

Review:
What I really wanted to know was how Alice’s mind warped her memories to make room for Celia. I can understand making up an imaginary evil twin sister. I guess I hoped the writing was cleverer and rather than just twisting her memories, if Alice looked back and realized, like, nobody ever really talked to Celia. (Like how she realizes Chase never actually said Celia was in the D ward.) I was a little surprised by Jason’s twist, at least.

Now, probably, I would’ve enjoyed this more if I were the target audience and unfamiliar with the genre. But only if this is the first psychological thriller I’ve ever read. I’m not a horror fan; I don’t usually scary books – but I do love an unreliable narrator. So this might be “my first psychological thriller,” but I wouldn’t recommend it to a fan of the genre.

Which isn’t to say I couldn’t get into it, but my interest was more in craft than story. I really wanted to see how Alice discovered the truth about Celia. Even though I called the twists, there weren’t many breadcrumbs along the way to let a less genre savvy reader figure it out.
Something that threw me out of the story that I can’t not mention: the repeated use of homophobic slurs. Alice’s roommate, Amelia, repeatedly calls another patient a “muff eater.” Amelia is a sympathetic character, the closest thing Alice has to a friend. Her casual homophobia is never called out. Ouch.

Since we’re on the subject of Alice’s relationships, I need to talk about Chase. Chase. I guess I kind of liked him, but he was more of a cardboard cutout than a person. Frankly, I found it insulting that Alice’s breakthrough comes because of a boy stealing her private medical files and helping her escape the mental hospital to force a confrontation with herself.

How did he sneak around so easily? Escaping the hospital, stealing keycards, sneaking around at night… I think Harry had an easier time creeping around Hogwarts, and Hogwarts is a fantasy boarding school staffed by questionably competent teachers, not a contemporary mental health facility supposedly run by qualified doctors and nurses. Suspension of disbelief suffered.

Judging a Book by Its Cover:
One of the reasons I picked this up was the cover. I remember being little and playing on the swing set outside and trying to see or imagine secret messages spelled out in the branches.

… too bad that had nothing to do with this book. I guess the orange version is firey, but the ebook versions have a purple tone. I guess because of that one time she feels purple?

I would have saved this design for a book about a character with apophenia and given this book a cover that fit its contents.

tl;dr
I didn’t hate it, obviously, because I finished it, but I was disappointed. I wanted the climax/reveal to come sooner (and not because a boy violated her privacy, but it’s OK, because he meant well) and the denouement to last longer (and really get into the nitty-gritty psychological details).

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse - Chris Riddell My students adored this, but I hated it. The puns got old by chapter two and didn't stop until the end. DNF.

Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion

Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion - Alex T. Smith So-so readaloud. The fairy tale retelling didn't quite "work," and I didn't like how the Lion's comeuppance was a series of gendered insults - doing his mane/hair up in braids, putting him in a pretty dress.

Cupid

Cupid - Babette Cole (The cataloging for this and Truelove is a mess, BTW.)
A student picked this one up and asked me to sit with her and read. So I did... and I regretted it. There's irreverent, wacky humor, and then there's weird racism - and this was definitely weird racism, from the "Indian" costume Cupid wears and the East Asian(?) Hi Wun of Lowhi. Yikes.
Do not recommend.

A Crankenstein Valentine

A Crankenstein Valentine - Samantha Berger, Dan Santat A+ read-aloud, can't wait to share it with my kids again

Kristy's Great Idea: Full-Color Edition (The Baby-Sitters Club Graphix #1)

Kristy's Great Idea: Full-Color Edition (The Baby-Sitters Club Graphix #1) - Ann M. Martin, Raina Telgemeier Believe it or not, this is was my introduction to the Baby-Sitters Club. I knew about the books (of course, I'm a 90s kid, how could I not?) but I never read one because they were too girly for me and there weren't enough sword fights. I think I appreciate it more as an adult, anyway, and Telgemeier's storytelling is superb.

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War - Steve Sheinkin ... wtf, that was amazing.

Review to come.

Takeshita Demons

Takeshita Demons - Cristy Burne, Siku While I would give the book maybe three or even a measley two stars if I read it quietly by myself (not a horror fan), I'm giving it five for my review because it was such an excellent, A+, enjoyable readaloud book for my students! There's nothing like a classroom full of kids begging you to read for "just five more minutes, puh-leeeaaaaase???" every. single. week.