This book kept me on the edge of my seat mainly because I had no idea what was going on until the very end, but when I finished it, I felt let down. The idea behind Wilder Girls is so cool - a bunch of girls stuck Lord-of-the-Flies-style on an island plagued by the gruesome Tox. They're all living at a boarding school when girls suddenly start experiencing horrific, painful symptoms. Byatt grows a second spine. Hetty's eye seals shut. Someone sprouts gills. Reese gets a scaly hand. I mean, how twisted is that? The island is quarantined from the mainland, and the girls and two remaining adults set up a system for survival. The mainland sends food and supplies as they try to discover a cure. This is how I like my horror, grisly and terrifying.
I loved how all the elements of this meshed together into something cohesive - post-apocalyptic, survival, feminist, sapphic horror, environmental critique, and a smidge of romance and longing. If I'm ever cut off from society in a pandemic, I want the girls from this book with me as my survival squad. The whole book felt very girl power-ish but not in a corny way at all. I appreciated the unique name choices, unique but not outrageous like Moon Puzzle. Some of the names I've been seeing in YA fiction lately make me cringe. Who can take Moon Puzzle seriously? All of the main characters are assumed white.
One of Byatt's cyclic changes forces her into the infirmary, but she never returns. Hetty is determined to find her. Reese is quiet and brooding, and the sexual tension between Hetty and Reese is electrifying and gradual. The girls grapple with the physical challenges created by the Tox but also with one another and the elements outside their compound. The Tox has affected nature, and wild animals show signs of infection. My biggest issue with the book was the reveal of the nature of the Tox including the secrets surrounding it and the adults who are controlling information on the island. Answers are teased through the whole book and then dumped in your lap in a giant, messy pile with no fanfare. It's like the author decided to wrap things up by spilling all the secrets in one anticlimactic word vomit. I felt like I was holding my breath through the entire book, and then the big gulp of air I got to take at the end was stale and smelled like a paper mill at the same time. Harsh. If you've never smelled the emissions from a paper mill, consider yourself lucky. It's a putrid mix of sauerkraut and rotten eggs. I digress. My main point is that I was frustrated with the ending and the reveal, and it ultimately ruined the book for me.
I wish I had read this years ago, and it was a perfect complement to White Fragility by DeAngelo. I can honestly say that my understanding of issues surrounding race and racism have been dramatically altered in the last year as I've been on a quest to read more nonfiction. Although Michelle Alexander's book was published over ten years ago, it continues to be a trailblazer, clarifying history and explaining how our current social and racial structure is just another version of the Jim Crow caste system from the Reconstruction era.
Mass incarceration started as a result of a loophole in the 13th Amendment. This amendment abolished slavery except in cases where it's used as a punishment for a crime. Southern whites, angry about losing their slave labor and watching blacks become part of "their society" enacted Jim Crow laws to forcibly separate blacks from whites, preserving the best schools, jobs and neighborhoods for whites. Additionally, free blacks were arrested for committing petty crimes in alarmingly higher rates than whites. Misdemeanor offenses were elevated to felonies, and new laws were created to criminalize black life. Crimes included stealing a pig, walking beside a railroad, spitting, speaking too loudly to a woman, and selling goods after dark. These black, incarcerated men, women, and children were then leased out to private businesses as laborers. Convict leasing became a huge economic boost for the South, and it's no coincidence that arrest rates went up during cotton-picking season. A lower caste is created to keep black people from upward mobility.
Michelle Alexander uses her book to point out that this lower caste system is propped up on the backs of the complex systems in place in our society. Mass incarceration is based on the label of jail and not necessarily the length of prison time. One a person is labeled a felon, they are immediately barred from ever moving up in society. Institutions in place in our country lock people of color (she focuses on black men) from being able to move from this lower caste. There are so many examples of this that I could go on forever. Some of the ones that stuck out the most to me included the traffic studies in New Jersey and Maryland. While studies showed there were actually more white people traveling on the roads, 80% of the stops were of black people, and they resulted in minimal amount of drug seizures. The Reagan-era War on Drugs has been largely ineffective in curbing drug use but highly effective at subjugating more and more black people to this undercaste system despite the fact that drug offenses are committed at roughly equal rates across races. Drunk driving rates and deaths were skyrocketing at the same time as the War on Drugs, but penalties were much higher for first-time users of crack. Statistics showed that drunk drivers were more often white males while the harsher penalties were given to black males for low-level drug offenses. Felons are not allowed on juries, can not vote, can not apply for public housing assistance, and have a nearly impossible time finding jobs. Once a person is labeled a felon, they are rarely able to better themselves. Jails were being filled up with black men during the War on Drugs, and the tough-on-crime attitude of the 80s and 90s seemed to be focused mainly on crimes committed by black people.
This caste system has been perpetuated by policies created under both political parties. In the version I read, Alexander has a new Foreward that discusses this book in today's politics. She discusses Obama's record-high number of immigration detentions, Trump's tweeting of a white power supporter and calling the Charlottesville white supremacists "very fine people", Reagan's ineffective War on Drugs, and Clinton's disastrous three strikes crime bill. The Supreme Court has effectively blocked black people from legally fighting against racial bias. The ruling in the McClesky vs. Kemp case requires people to present such an impossible burden of proof with regards to racial discrimination in the justice system that it virtually makes bias and discrimination constitutionally acceptable. The layered, interlocking systems in place in our society lock poor people of color into a second class status. Alexander also points out that our nation's emphasis on colorblindness creates a racial indifference that allows these systems to stay in place, to a point where today's racial caste is no different than that of the Jim Crow era. She calls for a society where we see one another, learning and caring about our differences.
When I finished reading this, I felt hopeless and sad. I can't even begin to imagine how people of color feel living with this grim reality every day. Alexander does not offer solutions in her book as she focuses mainly on research and data. I felt the need to read up on what solutions exist to combat some of the things discussed in Alexander's book. I found the Sentencing Project's Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System, and they recommend the following:
*Ending the War on Drugs
*Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences
*Reducing the use of cash bail
*Fully funding indigent defense agencies
*Requiring the use of racial impact statements
*Implementing training to reduce racial bias
*Addressing collateral consequences
I highly recommend this book if you're looking for some perspective on the complex issue of race in America. As a white person, I wish this had been required reading much earlier in my life, and I will forever sing its praises.
I've always been fascinated by religion especially those sects that veer off into the fundamentalist realm. There always seems to be so much secrecy and an acceptance of hypocritical thought among believers. Followers are fervent, and it's interesting to read what makes some people stay and others leave the religious communities they're raised in.
Hasids are ultra-Orthodox Jews who dabble in mysticism and practice a strict adherence to ritual laws. Deborah Feldman, assumed white, is raised by her grandparents after her mother leaves their Satmar community in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. Her father is mentally ill and the family doesn't seek treatment or help for him. Deborah struggles to understand why the Hasid community keeps such tightly locked secrets. She's not allowed to read secular books, and she spends her days hiding library check-outs under her mattress and stealing time to read. She questions Hasidic law and custom at every turn and feels like the adults in her life are always keeping things from her. She longs for freedom from the ritual structure of her community and finds her own ways to rebel in small doses until she eventually leaves the Satmar group for good.
Married women are required to cover their hair, and many Hasids shave their heads and wear wigs. Women are required to visit the mikvah, a bath for a ritual cleansing after their periods, and Deborah talks about how uncomfortable she feels being forced to participate in the custom. Marriage is arranged by a matchmaker, and elaborate gift-giving customs are part of the engagement. Deborah is married at age 17 and completely unprepared for life with a man. Both she and her husband experience sexual dysfunction and can't initially consummate the marriage. She's horrified when her new husband's family tries to intervene and longs for privacy and a marriage that's forged out of mutual love and desire.
There's a lot of controversy surrounding Deborah's version of events in her memoir. I wish she had explained Hasidic customs more in-depth as I felt lost trying to understand many of her brief recollections. Part of this may be because she didn't understand them herself when she actually wrote her story. As a reader with zero knowledge of this faith community, I was longing for more detail and background on the reasons for some of the practices. In my own personal view, religion should stand up to questioning. People who are truly curious thinkers will most likely never be satisfied with answers of "just believe" and "because this is how it is." I also find it appalling when religious groups ostracize and shun family members who choose another path. I can't get behind any system that treats people this way. I was also disgusted by how women are subjugated in Deborah's Hasidic community. Of course, this is only one perspective, and I can't assume this is reflective of all practicing Hasids, but I was alarmed by the repressive elements of her life story and can empathize with her choice to speak out.
I found this to be slow and klunky at first, but strange and engrossing as I got further along. The book got me interested in learning more about these enigmatic Hasidic communities and to follow up with learning about other followers' experiences.
Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery by Catherine Gildiner
Be prepared for this book to tear your guts out and leave them in a sloppy pile on the floor. It will make you feel like complete garbage for ever complaining about anything in your life. Catherine Gildiner is a white therapist who tells about her work with five patients suffering from traumatic life experiences. She tells their stories with tenderness and obvious fondness. Each patient overcomes the debilitating elements of his or her own emotional turmoil, finding ways to create success and exemplifying the qualities of true emotional superheroes.
Gildiner starts with a white woman named Laura, forced into parenting her younger siblings after her father left them abandoned in a remote winter cabin. Next up is Peter, a painfully shy son of Chinese immigrants, who was left alone in a room above the family's restaurant for so long that he suffered severe developmental gaps that created intimacy issues in his adult life. Although all of the stories were heart-wrenching, Danny's struck a particular nerve with me. Danny, of the First Nations, lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and was referred to Dr. Gildiner by his boss when he was unable to show emotion or feel pain after the loss. After learning more about Cree indigenous cultural norms, Dr. Gildiner helps Danny discuss his painful childhood when he was torn away from his native family and sent to a Canadian residential school designed to eliminate his identity. He was horrifically abused and spent the rest of his adult life blocking out all emotion. Alana, white and of high intelligence, was sexually abused by her father, and Madeline, also white and from a wealthy family, suffers from OCD and shares how her mother would psychologically torture her in various ways, greeting her each morning with "Good Morning, Monster."
While Gidiner shares lessons from each person's story, she also discusses the mistakes she makes and how these cases helped shape her professional growth. She's quick to point out her own flaws and ways in which she could have done things differently, and this reflective quality makes me like her even more. While not for the faint of heart, this book will give you the space to consider your own emotional resiliency in comparison, and lord knows we can all use some hopeful models to look up to these days.
I've been reading intense books lately, and was happy to find this murder mystery to be a bit more breezy. I finished it in two days since Lucy Foley keeps the reader in suspense up until the absolute last chapter. Right away, I felt a real Agatha Christie vibe as Foley sets the scene for a dark, moody wedding on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. I love the haunting descriptions of the harsh landscape, mucky bogs, and the stories of dead bodies stuck under the mire. The setting is crucial to the overall atmosphere of this doomed wedding. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different person including the bride, groom, best man, wedding planner/venue owner, and some of the guests. All characters are white, except for one usher named Femi who is black. Each person begins to reveal their connection to the wedding and their motivations for being disgruntled toward one or more persons involved in the big day. This slow tease is what I enjoyed most; I had so many predictions for who would be murdered and why, and it fluctuated drastically with each new chapter. Many of the characters seem like perfectly horrid people, and Foley does a great job showcasing their flaws and even some redeeming qualities. If you like your murder mysteries to keep you guessing, you can't go wrong with this one.
Ryn is the main character, and she's a badass gravedigger who also slays bone houses (living dead) in her spare time. This YA fantasy reads like a step back in time but it packs a modern punch. Ryn and her siblings live on their own in a small village surrounded by an iron fence built to keep the bone houses out. Much of the folklore surrounding the bone houses in Colbren is viewed as just that - old stories, but Ryn knows better. She comes upon a mysterious man named Ellis being attacked by one of the risen dead, and after she saves him (hooray for females who do the saving) she finds out he's a mapmaker who has gotten himself lost. I felt very distant from the characters when I first started reading this, and the magical elements felt too separate from Ryn's story, but I stuck with it and was not disappointed. In fact, I was riveted. Things pick up when Ryn and Ellis team up to figure out why the bone houses are suddenly attacking in mass. Some of the plot elements surprised me so much that I had to reread parts to make sure I was understanding what happened. I love when books take me by surprise.
I especially love how both Ryn and Ellis' characters were developed slowly and expertly. Ellis may have some physical weaknesses but Ryn's strengths make up for it, and they complement each other in a way that doesn't leave one overpowering the other. They become a team that isn't based on stereotypical gender roles. When Ellis is tender, Ryn is tough. They bond as orphans and the agony of not knowing exactly what happened to one of their parents.
Without spoiling anything, there's also a zombie animal that plays a big part of Ryn and Ellis' journey to stop the bone houses. This decaying pet becomes their savior in many ways and was a fascinating supernatural element. Bravo to Emily Lloyd-Jones for a fantasy zombie book that is so satisfyingly unique and special.
The Office is one of those shows that I put on when I need a guaranteed laugh, and it never lets me down. I really enjoyed hearing all of the actors, writers, and directors talk about the entire process in their own words. The style of this book highlights just how unique and special this show is. They reveal some of the actors that were originally imagined for Michael Scott's role, and how much work went into making sure the set and wardrobe were as authentic to the everyday world of a small paper company as possible. The actors/actresses also revealed the scenes that made them break, and of course, one that had them in fits was the dinner party episode. Between Dwight's dinner date, Jan's candle business, and Michael's tiny TV, the episode slays. I also really appreciated how much they thought through the characters and developed them in ways that were so much more than just comedic effect. If you're an Office fan, this is your Bible.
My husband and I, as inexperienced international travelers, embarked on a six country European travel blitz a few years after getting married. We had no idea what we were doing, but this trip is what started our travel obsession. Out of the six cities we stopped in, Budapest was the one that left me with the most wonder. Split into two parts, Buda is the western, hilly side with grand views and thermal spas. Pest (pronounced PESHT) is the flat, commercial business side. The two sides united into one city in 1873, but they couldn't be more distinct. Budapest has a beauty and grandeur that I wasn't expecting. There's a curious juxtaposition of atmospheres here that entranced me from the moment we arrived.
Turning Pages: Places to Check Out
Hungarian Parliament Building
This was under renovation when we visited, and we didn't end up visiting the interior of the building at all. Taking in this grand structure from across the Danube both during the day and night are some of the most vivid memories I have from our entire Europe trip. The symmetry of all the arches and spires is dazzling. I can't imagine living and working in a place where this is your view on a daily basis. How does this thing even exist?
Younger, thinner, and sporting natural, unprocessed hair, I couldn't get enough of these bridges. They're everywhere. I loved how each bridge has it's own character and personality. The Elizabeth Bridge is modern while the Chain Bridge is more historic and the most recognized in all of Budapest.
This street is known as the soul of the tourist district. Here you will find tons of shopping and cafes, all located along a pedestrian walkway lined with sophisticated buildings.
We were surprised to learn that Budapest is well known for its thermal waters, and there are many baths to choose from, each with it's own unique features. The baths all use the mineral-rich water from the ground and are great for entertainment, healing, and just general relaxation.
Completely unprepared and having done zero research ahead of time, we chose one, Szechenyi, and showed up with suits in hand. The man in the window knew we were idiots as we couldn't figure out what to do. He spoke no English, and this was before cell phones so we couldn't look up anything to translate. As I said before, we were very inexperienced and should have been prepared to ask for help in Hungarian. There was a menu hanging up above the ticket window, so we randomly pointed to something and hoped it was an entrance ticket we were paying for. He pointed to a door and off we went. We went to separate gender changing rooms and then met up on the other side in a beautiful room with tall columns and a long, skinny pool. There are varying temperatures in each of the different indoor pools, and we tried several. The outdoor pools weren't open when we visited which was a bummer because they're incredibly grand. See photos and videos of both:
Menu Pages: Eats and Drinks
Great Market Hall
This indoor market is located on the Pest side, and is an overwhelming assault on your senses. You can definitely spend hours here eating your way through the first floor food vendors. Try the langos. These are a deep-fried bread that you can get with various sweet or savory toppings. We tried the cheese, and it was amazing and incredibly cheap.
Hungary's national drink, Unicum is everywhere. We had it in shots before a meal. It's bitter and has a piney taste that was just too medicinal and herbal for me, but it obviously has its fans all over this country.
Appendix: A Hodge Podge
Holocaust Memorial Center - a moving tribute to the more than half a million Hungarian citizens/deports who became victims in the Holocaust
Heroes Square - largest square in Budapest
Folk Dinner and Gypsy Show - lots of places offer folk shows, and these are fun to watch people in traditional Hungarian costumes dancing with bottles on their heads and cracking whips. They often grab tourists out of their seats to join in on the fun.
Postscript: What I Missed
There are oodles of places that we didn't get to and wish we had. These are just a few on our list for next time.
Royal Palace (Buda Castle) - includes the Hungarian National Gallery, the National Széchenyi Library, and the Castle Museum
Gellert Baths - has an Art Nouveau style and an outdoor wave pool
Danube river cruise - we did one in Amsterdam instead so we decided to skip it here
Faust Wine Cellars - sample wines underneath Buda Castle
Budapest is only one of the stops in this impressive historical fiction monstrosity, and the city fits the vampiric, moody vibe of this book like a sleek, black velvet glove.
Vampires and librarians and history, oh my! It's a nerd trifecta, and I loved every bit of it. You have to love historical fiction to read this. It's very dense in the history department but in an exquisite, luscious, romantic kind of way. It's also a beast of a book, literally. At 642 pages, I found myself slogging through it at times and just wishing it would wrap up. In the end, I was satisfied and glad to have stuck it out.
The narrator begins the story as a young girl who finds a book with a woodcut of a dragon in it among her father's things. She asks him about it, and Paul slowly and reluctantly unravels the story. The book mysteriously appeared in his study carrel when he was a younger man studying at the library during his graduate program. Interested in it's origin, he takes the book to his mentor, Professor Rossi and is stunned to find out that Rossi also has a copy of the same book. Rossi explains that in his research of the strange book, he uncovers information about Vlad Tepes (Dracula) and believes he is still alive. Soon after, Rossi goes missing, leaving behind a blood-smeared office. Paul is devastated and heads off on a whirlwind world adventure to figure out what happened to his beloved mentor. All three characters are presumed to be white. The book weaves in and out of libraries, small villages, quaint cafes, and monasteries. The adventures span various cities including Amsterdam, Istanbul, Budapest, and a host of other eastern European locations.
I was spellbound by the vivid descriptions of each location. Elizabeth Kostova does an incredible job capturing the hypnotic effect of traveling around the world. Not only was the travel meticulously detailed, but the historical backgrounds of every, single location were weaved in so seamlessly, you felt like you were part of each page. Now I love historical fiction, but this one really crammed it in. The middle pages got repetitive, and I was wishing for a change of pace in the plot elements. I wasn't sure if I would ever finish this book, but you could tell this was a dramatic labor of love for this author. Without spoiling too much, I can't stop thinking about how awesome it is to have beady, little librarian vampires roaming around. I keep imagining scrawny, bat-faced men dressed up in tweed suits. Libraries are pretty much my world and combining these two elements is almost too much for my bibliophile heart to take.
This book made me think about racism in a completely different way. Here I am, thinking I'm just fighting the good fight and trying to be anti-racist, and then this books knocks me down a few pegs, rightfully so. While a lot of this information is likely obvious to some readers, I found the material to be thought-provoking and discussion-worthy, which to me, is always the mark of a good read and will definitely inform my life going forward. Robin DiAngelo is white and is speaking specifically to white readers after years of training as a sociologist and working as a diversity trainer in the business world. She talks about how racism is not an action but a systemic fact. Racism exists pure and simple, and it's not in the binary good/bad ways we've always framed it. When people think of racists, they think of the Klan or those angry whites from the Civil Rights era screaming in the faces of little black children on their way to school. But racism is so much more than these scenes. Racism exists in structures. It exists because blacks have not been able to accumulate generational wealth. It exists because most of the "top ten" lists of wealthiest people are white men. It exists because most of the people serving in positions of power in Congress are mostly white men. Award winning movie directors are all white men, and the list goes on and on. Racism will continue to exist until whites give equality to people of color. She starts the book explaining this concept with the example of suffrage. Women were not given suffrage until those in power changed the laws. White men gave white women the right to vote. Women of color were not given that right officially by law until much later. It's up to the group holding the position of power to change it. Nothing will change unless white people stop acting defensive when talking about their racism and recognize these structural deficiencies in this power imbalance.
One thing that really struck me since I'm such a big reader is the idea of white as the default race. When I read and even write book reviews, race is only mentioned when a character is of color. Why is white the automatic default? Why do we assume that someone is white unless we specifically point out their race? I do this all the time in my reviews. I'm white, and the reason I do this is because of my own racism. Do I wear a pointed hood or scream at black children? Do I make racist jokes or say the N word? Never, but I've learned racist things without recognizing them as such just simply because I'm white living in a world where white has always been the default. This is something I'm going to commit to working on, and it's ever-evolving. Another poignant moment for me with this book was the section on segregation. Sure there have been laws to abolish segregation, but we still live in a mostly segregated society from housing to schools, etc.
This book angers a lot of people. If you read it without being open to the idea of discussing your own white race, you won't gain anything from it. The fragility exists when we are unable to talk about how whiteness is entangled with racism because we're afraid to be labeled bad or good. Our social environment insulates us from ever having to deal with stress related to discussions of our race, and therefore we become ultrasensitive to any kind of conversation about it. It's not up to people of color to end racism. It's our responsibility as white people to learn from POC about their experiences. I like how DiAngelo points our her own racism and what she did when she learned of it. Her personal examples and sociological points are the highlights of this book and cement it as one of those reads I just can't get out of my mind.
The Galvin family consisted of 12 children born between 1945 and 1965 which is worthy of a story just based on the sheer insanity of having that many children within a span of 20 years. The shocking thing about this family is that six of the children (all boys) were diagnosed as schizophrenic. Robert Kolker goes on to describe Mimi and Don Galvin's remarkable family as years of seeking, blaming, violence, denial, and abuse tear the family apart and break down their seemingly ideal lives. Kolker not only goes through the history of schizophrenia research, but he also does justice to the family by telling their devastating story in a humane way, showing empathy for the mentally ill boys, siblings, and parents despite the family's dark secrets and dysfunction. Eventually the Galvin family is studied by researchers at NIMH. Their case study informs genetic research and debates on nature vs nurture. The most fascinating part of this entire family study is that it helped researchers find a dietary supplement, choline, to add to prenatal vitamins in an attempt to alter or eradicate the illness completely. The trial is currently in progress. This book reminds me of another terribly sad history, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The authors in both tell the stories behind medical and scientific progress with particular attention to the sacrifices, humanity, and callousness in which these advances are often gained. It's important to hear the full stories and recognize what has been given and often taken behind the grandeur of progress.
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.