Evicted (CBR9 #40)

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In April of 2017 Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. I am relieved to discover that, because the idea that there was a better, more eloquent, well researched, and presented book released in the competition period I would have eaten my hat. Or your hat, I have trouble finding one that fits me.

Desmond is a Harvard sociologist and a MacArthur “Genius” grant winner, which is shorthand for this dude is awesome (he’s in the same class as Ta-Nehisi Coates). This book is based on his research and creation of the Milwaukee Area Renters Survey where the team he headed examined court records and conducted extensive fieldwork interviews to build a complex picture of what the high rates of eviction do to disrupt the lives of low-income Americans, and specifically African Americans. Desmond is shedding light on how entrenched poverty and racial inequality are built and sustained by housing policies in large American cities.

Evictions used to be rare. But now with many poor families spending more than half of their income on rent (and you can forget owning a home) and evictions becoming an ordinary occurrence for which families plan for which, is demonstrated by the stories of the eight families Desmond highlights in Evicted.

Desmond brought fresh eyes to the survival strategies of struggling families, overturning the longstanding assumption that people in economic disaster turn to their extended family for assistance. Policymakers and pundits have long stated that family and faith should be able to step in, but what if you don’t have the perfect nuclear family they imagine you have? What if your kin or faith family is in no position to help you? Desmond has the answer for that: today, poor families often form intense, but brief relationships with strangers, creating a network of “disposable ties” to meet needs. Near strangers watch over each other’s homes, children, and decide to cohabitate based on need and these relationships come apart as fast as they went together, further destabilizing primary relationships needed for both survival and success.

This is a difficult read, don’t for a minute think it is not. But it is so important. During my childhood my family’s fortunes turned dramatically downward. I remember vividly going on free and reduced lunch, checking the mail to see if the check came so we could go buy new shoes for school, eating meals based more on their price per serving than anything else. The stories told here could have easily been mine if we hadn’t started slightly ahead – if my parents hadn’t been helped with their first home, and then before it all came crashing down sell their next house for enough to be able to buy the house I grew up in outright when we moved states. I think back now that if we’d had a mortgage payment, or a car loan, in those tight years things would have turned out very differently. We are all in good places now, but things are often still tight with my siblings and I often living paycheck to paycheck with very little cushion. Just six months ago I was facing the reality of living on my own in my current city costing me half of my take home income. It would have possibly destroyed me financially. I managed to find another housing solution, only spending a third of my take home on rent, but it was a scary time and balancing student loan debts (hello rising education costs!) as well as other debts and basic cost of living… it is still scary.

But I’m not trying to take care of a family of three with $20 left over after rent. I have it pretty good. There is even now privilege at play in my story, and this book brings it into an even more defined light.

All of this to say – read this book as fast as you can.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we want (with a few guidelines), and raise money in honor of our fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Lobster is the Best Medicine (CBR9 #39)

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When crystalclear reviewed Lobster is the Best Medicine, she suggested passing along this book about friendship to your friends. I am lucky enough to call her friend – and I am the same friend who moved recently and had the naked refrigerator in need of fun Liz Climo magnets – so when she was over my house the other night she handed me this book and I immediately blew through it.

Reviewing this one is a bit tough, as it is very straightforward in its purpose. If you aren’t familiar with Liz Climo’s art, and I hope you are because it is delightful, it is set up in two panel “set ‘em up, knock ‘em down” jokes with clean backgrounds and simple but evocative illustrations. Climo has centered this collection around friendship and trots out her usual suspect characters, and highlights the similarities and differences amongst the animals to find resonate humor about our relationships. The panels are as simple as their base level and can be viewed simply for a quick pick me up, but they also speak softly and intentionally about the power and value of friendship. These quick comics are more often than not highlighting how the ways in which we care for each other are the glue that holds the whole darn thing together.

Why am I placing so much value on the meaning behind the comics, which Climo spells out in her introduction? Because I believe wholeheartedly in the message it sends. Love your people, love them well, and make sure they have had a smile today. And who wouldn’t love a rabbit who makes sure a bear has pizza for dinner instead of carrots?

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This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We read what we want, review how we want (with a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

The Soldier’s Scoundrel (CBR9 #38)

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The past few years I’ve been attempting the Read Harder Challenge put on by Book Riot, and hile I’ve completed it the past two years, I am not on track to do that this year. But, one of the tasks is LGBTQ romance, and there are always a TON of suggestions for Romance around the Cannonball Read. So, while on vacation I made sure I moved one to the head of the list.

The Soldier’s Scoundrel  is a historical m/m romance. It strikes me as in the Lisa Kleypas school of recognizable history with lovely smoldery romance woven in. Is it up to the high, HIGH standards of Kleypas’ Wallflowers and Hathaways series which I have just completed? Not quite. But Cat Sebastian is a relatively new author (this is her debut), which means she has room to grow. I like her modus operandi though: Cat writes steamy, upbeat historical romances. They usually take place in the Regency, generally have at least one LGBTQ+ main character, and always have happy endings.

As to the story itself, I thought the romance was delightful. We have Oliver and Jack, two men from different class in the society who find them selves crossing paths as war injured Oliver returns home to find his married sister has paid Jack Turner a large sum of money, and he is determined to find out what for. Turner, making his living filling in the gaps in the justice system in Regency England, will not be sharing that information if he can avoid it, and is put out when Oliver Rivington inserts himself in his latest case. This is a well-written enemies-to-lovers where the relationship progress is slow-burn with undeniable sexual chemistry and tension. My main problem with the book, taking away a full star, is pacing. While the slow burn requires a slow start this one is a bit too slow, and the end moves a bit too fast. But I did love how Cat Sebastian decided to anuever these two characters into closer social circles for their happily ever after (which is strengthened by the characters ability to be accurate about their situations).

This is first in a series, and I’ve added book two The Lawrence Brown Affair featuring Jack Turner’s brother Georgie to my to read list.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Unmentionable (CBR9 #37)

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One of the questions I receive most often at my job as a educator at historic sites is “wouldn’t you love to live back then?” For reference, that encompasses a period of time roughly 1820-1920 and the answer is a resounding no. I am all about indoor plumbing, air conditioners, and not being considered property. This book, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill lays out all the ways life was downright terrible for women life was during that same approximate period.

For most people this would not be considered a beach read. For me it absolutely is. Lumenatrix coined the style of this type of book as “accessible non-fiction”, which I completely agree with and am now stealing. I’ve always thought of it as “non-fiction with a sense of humor” like Mary Roach’s books. Therese Oneill is wonderfully sarcastic and direct in her prose, and the structure of the book is well thought out and easily followed. Oneill moves naturally from one aspect of daily life to the next laying out all the differences for life of women in the firmly upper middle class then to life today.

For me, the best part of this book is the way in which Oneill weaves in primary resources, both visual and print into her narrative. While I already knew much of what Oneill discussed, having access to her resources was a bonus to me. So much so, that I immediately passed it along to Ale since she is researching Victorian ladies and their unmentionables for an upcoming project.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (CBR9 #36)

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I have been waiting expectantly for book five in the Harry Potter series ever since I embarked on this re-read. I’ve alluded to this story’s previous place as my favorite in the series. I don’t know any more if that’s true. But I’m also not comfortable naming another one my favorite (it is a competition between this and Prisoner of Azkabanif you’re wondering). Taking a step back from the experience of reading it, I can say that the transitional nature of this story – we are most definitely at war by the end – as well as moving towards the more adult stories in the series (books six and seven as memory serves are much more A than YA, while books 3-5 are YA, and books 1 and 2 are safely Childrens, in my opinion) are the underlying strengths of this novel. Rowling balances the interior and exterior forces at play and produces an entirely unique book, which is simultaneously firmly within the structure of her series.

But I’ll take even another step back. When I reviewed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban I spoke about how expertly woven that book is. There’s not an ounce of fat on it and every chapter propels the central mystery of that book forward until we get to the climax chapters and the revelations of the truth in the Potters’ history. But, that book doesn’t scratch the same itch as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which, while not as concise and taut as its predecessor, was the sort of long rambling book that I often enjoy. It is that rambly, world suggesting and building aspect that is found in  Order of the Phoenix. In this way, Order of the Phoenix takes the tapestry plot weaving skills of Rowling and applies them to world building and setting up the final two books and moves away from a central mystery structure which has been the standard of the previous four books. At the very end of this book Dumbledore unveils the real mystery and battle to come: neither can live while the other survives.

While I love that there’s not a part of this book that is wasted, it is not in the same way as Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s exciting, dramatic, and dark. But it is also – and this is incredibly important – wickedly funny in places and the humor is balanced exquisitely with darkness and fear of feeling truly helpless against the forces that would do us harm, another component carried over from Goblet of Fire.

The set pieces are wonderfully realized, specifically the growth of the roster of characters to fill in those spaces. Some characters who had only previously been name-checked, or had flitting appearances are now active players in the larger story. A personal pet peeve of mine is what I like to call the Friends party problem. On the show we only really know the core six (for many seasons) but whenever there’s a party its full of strangers to the audience who we are supposed to believe are integral to these peoples’ lives. While a perfectly practical part of production, it sucks from a storytelling standpoint. Rowling never does this to us. The D.A. has a few completely fresh faces, but they are linked to previously mentioned and developed side characters so that having a group of 25 students doesn’t feel in any way strange to the reader, no “where have these people been the entire time?” reaction. Which leads us to perhaps most importantly we have the introduction of Luna Lovegood and Dolores Umbridge who are equally remarkable characters, especially as they are polar opposites in their personal ethos, and thus our estimation of them.

We also now have a wizarding world which feels truly and epically cohesive. The introduction of the interior of The Ministry of Magic as well as St. Mungo’s settles us even more firmly into the world and the story. Every new place feels narratively woven together: think of how important Grimmauld Place and Kreacher become later in the series.  On re-reading, and knowing the endgame, I was hyper focused on Sirius telling Harry about his extended family  and the ways that most pure-blood wizard families are all interconnected, which only strengthens Dumbledore’s  and the Sorting Hat’s “We’re All in This Together” spiels we have heard along the way. Harry has to think beyond his comfort zone of Ron, Hermione, and Sirius if he is going to succeed, and Ginny, Luna, and Neville step to the forefront.

We have also learned as readers that Rowling wastes nothing and the reader needs to be on the lookout. What could have been a throwaway detail:  Sirius had a younger brother named Regulus and he was a Death Eater, instead becomes a major plot point in the final book. Regulus was killed, presumably because he had grown uncomfortable with what Voldemort and the Death Eaters were doing and tried to quit. In the short term this is meant to teach Harry and the rest of us once again that the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters. But it isn’t just that. It is a truth that is going to snowball into a crucial part of the endgame.

Rowling’s themes in this book are slightly more intimate, but no less crucial to our lives and times. The reader isn’t placed on a mystery to solve (I couldn’t have cared less by the end that Umbridge sent the Dementors, I had simply assumed that they had gone rogue much earlier in the story as that is a plausible explanation given by Dumbledore) but instead sinking into life in a tremulous time. The themes and the subject matter explored in Order of the Phoenix resonate with me now in a way that is both powerful, yet uncomfortably familiar. I feel exhausted after reading; it’s not the same thrill and a rush  as I remembered it, which has left me unsure of how to rate it, and where to rank it.

Just a few of these themes, and the ones that warm my heart, are as follows. Our lovely trio, and their friends, learns the power of actually doing something to change things makes a world of difference. In that we have the parallel stories of the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore’s Army. The adults are reforming the group which fought Voldemort the first time, and are actively working against the misinformation coming out of the Ministry. Dumbledore is bringing together a disparate, but equally effected, group of magical creatures and persons, and doing his best even though they are struggling against the media machine. By being left out of the adult group, and forced to sit on their hands in their Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, brings another Hermione genius idea to the forefront: they can train themselves. This subversive group serves to unite members from three of the four houses and prepare them for the battles to come, unwittingly in the Department of Mysteries before long.

We also see various arcs of Character Growth, and I’ll focus on three of my favorite boys in the story and Ginny. Ron, my favorite, has self-esteem issues. His best friend is the most famous wizard of their age, their other best friend is the brightest witch of their age, and he’s Ron. Just Ron, not the best in any subject, not particularly handsome, not particularly known for his humor. He’s just Ron. He is also the sixth son in a family of rather successful wizards as far as Hogwarts goes at least, and is constantly in the shadow of Fred and George and their outsized antics. It is for these reasons why Ron’s Quidditch success and the reclamation of “Weasley is Our King” is so important to the story. It’s not just about Quidditch. It’s about Ron finally getting out of his own way and seeing himself as more than an appendage to someone else’s story. It is important for all of us to see ourselves as the hero of our own life.

Which also leads to Harry’s letting go of Quidditch. It isn’t permanent, we know, but he does not. He loses his broom and his ability to play, which is the only thing he truly feels confidant doing. But instead of sulking he supports his best friend, his team, and finds something else to pour his passion into. He becomes focused on doing his best to support the fellow members of the D.A. so that they can grow, always focusing on their achievements over his own. It is Harry at his best, and certainly a nice break from the emotional upheaval that is the connection to Voldemort and being fifteen.

And finally, we are brought to Neville finding a way to let others in to his pain, and overcoming his shortcomings. Neville, throughout four books, has been the poor student, the shy one, the afterthought. Ron has Harry, and Seamus has Dean, and no one has Neville. We find out at the end of the book that Harry’s story could so easily have been Neville’s, if only for a slightly different reading of Trelawny’s prophecy. Neville has suffered, and suffered alone. Yet, he is a warm, friendly boy who is inquisitive and wants to please. In some of my favorite chapters in the book (22-23 or so) we discover so much more about Neville (including that he has been using his father’s wand, and of course that is going to affect his magical ability. Not using your own wand lessens your effectiveness, as we’ve seen before when Ron had to use a wand that wasn’t his). We also see him focus on improving his skills in the D.A. and fighting with all he has in the Department of Mysteries and literally carrying Hermione out of harm’s way once he establishes that she is still breathing. Our Neville has grown up right before our eyes and uses his newfound truths – that he is worthy and competent – to finally open up honestly to his friends about his life.

Ginny is also growing into the powerhouse we need and want her to be. While Harry is suffering alone, Ginny reminds him that she has suffered similarly, she can be a friend to him through this time. She, much like the rest of her family, is no nonsense and supportive. (As a very sidenote, Mrs. Weasley continues to be a delight to me. Her love for Harry is on easy display – in a rough chapter – as his dead body is also used in the littany of dead bodies the boggart shows her. It is a supremely sad moment, living with Mrs. Weasley in her fear.)

Like narfna, I’m a huge fucking nerd and Order of the Phoenix is a nerd’s paradise. There are exams, stress, new and rare areas of study, medical mysteries…  This book paints a clearer picture than any other of what it’s like to truly be a student at Hogwarts, not just using Hogwarts as a physical location away from the muggle world. Maybe it’s that the 5th years have more homework than ever, but the way that Harry and Ron have to juggle everything, and often don’t while Hermione seems to have a handle on it, (even though she loses her cool at exam time) really portrays Hogwarts as a real place, with its own particular rules and rhythms. We also see these rhythms disrupted by Umbridge in Inquisitor mode.Watching all the students go through O.W.L. testing as Rowling brings back the greatest hits of these characters accomplishments and all they have done over the past five years puts everything into larger perspective. She has grown these characters to match what is yet to come, and we are able to sit and enjoy the ride. As long as enjoying an academic tumult is your jam.

There is so much more I could talk about, the return of Lupin (something about his struggle always speaks to me), the introduction of Tonks (surprisingly less badass in the book than I remembered), Sirius’ death and how it destroyed me (still not okay), all of the ways Rowling laid in for that death to be avoided (never forget what your going-away presents are, folks), and Dumbledore’s admission that all he has done for Harry, and the way he has structured his interactions were because of his selfish desire to let Harry have a normal life, even though that was never going to be in the cards for long. McGonagall continuing to be a bad ass (Have a biscuit, Potter) and surviving four stunning spells to the chest (life goals right there), and the sheer terror that is Umbridge (I hate child abusers, I hate abusers of the system, and I hate power demons. I’m not sure I could hate a character more than I hate Umbridge, I hate her more than Voldemort). But I will not continue, I will return to my own thoughts about The Order of the Phoenix, and wonder what else it still has to teach me, and all of us.

 

This book review is preceded by The Goblet of Fire.  In due course it will be followed by The Half-Blood Prince.

Married by Morning & Love in the Afternoon (CBR9 #34 & 35)

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The Hathaways series by Lisa Kleypas was supposed to be my “read during the year” romance series for 2017. Five books spaced out over 12 months would give me something to look forward to and get some more classic Kleypas under my belt. But then I read book three, Tempt Me at Twilight and realized that book four took place immediately thereafter and decided why bother savoring? Give me all the books right now.

I am so glad I did, and it is probably why I’ve rated Married by Morning higher than some of Our Ladies of the Kissing Books, because its links to the stories around it helped to buoy it in to steady 4.5 stars territory for me. While Love in the Afternoon takes place a few years later than the middle three books in the series, it is also aided I think by having the previous plots, characterizations, and memories of its heroine so firmly in the mind’s eye.

It is nearly impossible to summarize these two outside the other three, so I won’t bother and instead give you a series rundown.  The Hathaway family have been elevated in society by a seemingly cursed estate (the males keep dying). Leo Hathaway inherits, and as he is hell-bent on self-destruction, his sister Amelia takes over – the events of Mine Till Midnight cover this time.  Once the family gets its feet under it, and Leo chaperones second sister Win to France so that she can regain her health (and to a lesser extent his) they return and the should be skipped or at worst skimmed for the  Amelia and Cam parts book two, Seduce Me at Sunrise takes over. (Seriously, just… Merripen in that book is terrible and it feels off entirely to who that character is in the rest of the series.) In order to get the family into society for the benefit of the younger sisters, Poppy and Beatrix, a chaperone and governess is brought on, one Miss Catherine Marks. She helps, but that does not stop Poppy from marrying the manipulating hotelier Harry Rutledge in what is perhaps the most twee, and certainly has a premise that should be beyond frustrating but is instead delightful (Kleypas writes great characters).

Which brings us to book four. It is uncovered that Catherine Marks is really Harry Rutledge’s half-sister and is in hiding from something terrible in her past. She and Leo Hathaway have spent the previous two books bickering in only the way that people who are going to end up together do. Now Leo is set on discovering why Marks has been lying, and eventually putting himself on the line to protect her. Once those two are settled in (your mileage may vary on how Kleypas makes that all work) we are off to book five, a few years later, when a now 23 year old Beatrix is probably firmly on the shelf and declining another London season, but has accidentally fallen in love with a soldier in the Crimea. Now she has fallen in love with Christopher, but he thinks she is someone else, and she has sworn not to reveal the secret. That is, until it is impossible for Christopher not to realize that the woman he believed himself to have fallen in love with possess none of the qualities he fell for.

Married by Morning and Love in the Afternoon do not stand out in a plot summary, but rather in the execution of what Kleypas is after. She builds strong characters with strong familial ties, who are bucking the system (whether that be Society, Family Expectations, or the Limelight) and places them in a situation where the reader is able to happily ride along. It is difficult to find the words for why I found these two so lovely and enjoyable (partly because I put this combined review off for nearly a week), but also because what Kleypas achieves is so subtle as to be difficult to describe. I wanted more time with these characters; to see them improve over time and be strengthened by their relationships, and enjoy a good bit of smolder as well.

What greater compliment could I pay them but to say I wished to reread them almost immediately?

These books were read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it however we see fit, and raise money for the American Cancer Society in memory of a fallen friend.

Life Moves Pretty Fast (CBR9 #33)

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I read a decent amount of non-fiction in my life, so Cannonball Read’s June Book Club book, Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies was right up my alley. I also really enjoy the process, the lore, and the production decisions surrounding Hollywood and the film industry, which is why I decided to skew our non-fiction selections a certain way.

I liked this book fine, but I think Hadley Freeman (while an accomplished writer) had quite a few missteps, which prevented me from rating this anything above three stars. Freeman attempts to explain how the big movies of the 80s (which is a VERY broad starting point) are worthy of study and teach us something. She also discusses the ways in which the process of film production and marketing have changed the quality and type of movies we see. All in 300 pages.

It’s too much. Freeman’s scope prevents her from putting together a detailed looks at her chosen movie subjects, and by adhering to the “lessons taught” subtitle Freeman ends up with chapters which do not argue the point she is trying to make. There are two chapters in particular which drive home the weaknesses of the book to me: the Ghostbusters chapter and the Eddie Murphy chapter.

The Ghostbusters chapter doesn’t actually prove her point in its duration. The lesson that Freeman ascribes to the movie is “How to Be a Man”, which is honestly not even a lesson I think is accurate to the movie in the first place. But Freeman spends time wandering on and on about Top Gun (perhaps the movie she should have built this chapter around) and fails to make even the most basic connection to Ghostbusters and the lesson. In fact, in quoting Bill Murray, Freeman stumbles across the movie’s likely lesson: that friendship which doesn’t depend on misogyny or insecurity is the root of its long term appeal (139). And in a way this leads to her argument of an idealized sort of masculinity that’s neither patrician nor man-boy. Just funny and warm but she doesn’t actually connect the dots.

The other troublesome chapter, to me, is the one about Eddie Murphy. Not because of what she is discussing, the way in which the Hollywood machine functions on tokenism, but the fact that she doesn’t pick a single movie to highlight and even more egregiously, she saves this for the final chapter. If Hadley had structured her book differently, and moved this broader chapter to the beginning and used it to highlight the issues, we see in the other movies she discusses it would have served the book better and made Freeman look more in tune with the critiques she is attempting.

Other random thoughts:

  • Pretty in Pink is NOT BETTER THAN THE BREAKFAST CLUB.
  • The “perfect” aesthetic. Who else missed people looking like people on the big screen?
  • It is still so rare for a movie to be focused on the female gaze.
  • About Dirty Dancing: “It is nothing new for a women’s movie – or book, or TV show – to be dismissed by male film critics as frothy nothingness” (24)We have seen this so recently with Big Little Lies
  • The Princess Bride becomes more than a RomCom because it’s a multilayered look at love, particularly in the story lines of Fezzik and Inigo: good people sometimes do bad things, but are still good, have stories of their own, and are capable of love (49)
  • Woody Allen has always been gross.
  • In When Harry Met Sally, Sally doesn’t perform any of the three usual tasks of women in RomComs – pine desperately for the man, make the man grow up by being a nagging shrew, or be liberated from her frigid bitchiness (95)
  • We cannot bear as a society that each generation being more successful than the last by seeming guarantee is over (Ferris Bueller wouldn’t be made now).
  • We haven’t had a classic womens movie since the 90s: Fried Green Tomatoes and A League of Their Own. The Help doesn’t count since it deals in the whites solving racism trope (171) they have instead been replaced by negative sisterhood movies
  • Parents in teen films have evolved as teens have from someone to be aspired to, to someone to be distanced from, to sentimentalized, but in the 80s good films captured parental figures as flawed, honest people.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.