The Dream of a Common Language (CBR15 #12)

Poetry is a genre that I have a terrible time reviewing but in my personal quest to keep reading the genre – and not give up on it – I find myself trying to about once a year. The Dream of a Common Language is the first one of 2023 for me (I have at least one other poetry collection on my TBR for the year) and while I’ve known about its existence since I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild back in 2012, it took a Read Harder task to get it in my hands.

I can understand why this was a book that Strayed kept with her on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It’s under a hundred pages and the opening page hits with a wallop. As I started I thought to myself, yes I can see turning back to these poems night after night while sitting near a campfire. I don’t know if the fact that the poems held within The Dream of a Common Language were written between 1974 and 1977 makes them easier or more difficult to comment on, but there is enough of the broader human experience to give the reader plenty to think on.

My library copy included marginalia from some previous reader’s experience with the book. I’m glad that it was there, it provided a dialogue I wouldn’t otherwise have with the poems. We didn’t always agree on favorite phrases, but I found myself appreciating their choices. It was also helpful to see someone else’s analysis of themes in this overtly feminist work. I’m still not sure how to review this, other than to recount my experience as positive, that some of the poems hit me in the solar plexus while others skimmed over the surface of my mind. But sometimes that’s all there is to do.  

Why We Can’t Sleep (CBR15 #11)

Why We Can’t Sleep is a book about Gen X Women and how mid-life is affecting them. Why then, am I a Millennial lady reading it? Because as someone who just turned 40 I often find that I identify more with things that are defined as Gen X as opposed to Millennial (the accepted year bracket for Gen X is 1964-1980, but there are models that have put it as late as 1984). I’m like many other millions of people existing on the boundaries of the generational lines but I am certainly by anyone’s math in my middle age, give or take.

My reasons for reading this are similar to my reasons for reading What Fresh Hell is This two years ago. I’m already dealing with it, best to get my head around what’s coming.

I mentioned in my review of Priceless that I’ve been coming up a little disappointed in narrative non-fiction lately, but Why We Can’t Sleep definitely turned the corner on that (I hope it continues). Calhoun grows this book out from an article she wrote for O Magazine. Like most of the rest of the way Gen X has experienced life, mid-life is hitting differently for its women than those who have come before us. This rings incredibly true to me at this time.

Each chapter covers a different topic, and the basis of the book is in interviews that Calhoun conducted with a wide slice of Gen X women (but she is clear in her foreword that this book is about middle class Gen X women, there are other factors which exacerbate the struggle in mid-life of women in lower socio-economic spheres). I appreciate that Calhoun set herself a reasonable boundary to explore, it helps keep Why We Can’t Sleep from growing into a behemoth and instead remain a crisp 250 pages.

When my brother asked me what I was reading when he spotted this book sitting on the table I told him, “Oh, its about mid-life for women and how its all a bit bleak.” He was dumbfounded – why was I reading a book that bummed me out. But then I reassured him, it didn’t – having an author interview 200 women and do the secondary research and turn around and say, yep this is a thing that is happening to lots of women actually lowered my anxiety. I may be worried about lots of things and the feelings that I have to defend the way I live my life, but there’s reasons why its happening and I’m not alone. Not alone, and having language to describe what’s happening, are what help keep me afloat. Is everyone going to love the tone of this book? Nope. There were certainly components that I skimmed through, but I think if you are a lady person in your late 30s or your 40s there is plenty here you might find relatable.

The Hate U Give (CBR14 #53 reread)

Another review of a Cannon Book Club choice, 2017’s The Hate U Give. A peek behind the scenes: this one almost got left off the voting, having been popular over the years but as it’s the 30th most challenged book of the decade 2010-2019 and the fifth most challenged in 2021 the argument to include it felt justified. This YA novel was challenged and banned in school libraries and curriculums because it was considered “pervasively vulgar” and because of drug use, profanity, and offensive language. Other reasons given over the years include violence, it was thought to promote an anti-police message, and indoctrination of a social agenda. I have thoughts about those that I’ll be holding on to until we book club September 16-17.

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed. Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr. But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

Starr is an engaging narrator who straddles different worlds and in unpacking the kind of code-switching life Starr leads, Thomas creates a sympathetic and complex protagonist. The pacing this go through wasn’t great for me, the jump aheads in time took a long time to start and then once they did they were a bit abrupt (but that could also be impacted by my choice to listen to this read via audiobook).

In my review four years ago, I wrote at length about Angie Thomas’s authorial intent where she pulls at the strings of how indoctrinated our society is with the idea that “bad” kids who are acting like “thugs” somehow don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt while the “good” guys who are using “necessary force” must be presumed to be acting correctly. Thomas rightly calls bullshit on that notion as she tears apart that idea by introducing us to Starr, and Khalil, and Seven, and Kenya, and Devante, and all the other characters living in Garden Heights.

The Dark Queens (CBR14 #26)

I work in Public History, but any good public historian (or historian of any stripe) will tell you that it is nearly impossible to know all eras and areas well. There are inevitable blind spots – you have to choose where to apply your limited time. When this year’s Read Harder challenge asked us to read a history about a period you know little about, I was stoked, an excuse to go back further than I normally do and read about some women doing the leading. I had picked out Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe from my to read list (where it has been languishing since 2014)as my pick (and I will still be reading that history about 13th century queens) but Pooja’s review of The Dark Queens in January sent me scurrying to NetGalley and adding that book to my list immediately.

Before picking this book up, I knew practically nothing about 6th century France, or either Fredegund or Brunhild. But it was the subtitle that leapt out to me: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World. In this work of narrative non-fiction, author Shelley Puhak is very clear about that as well as the methodology she used in the research and writing, the existent historical record is used to piece together roughly sixty years of history where Fredegund and Brunhild serve as the stabilizing force, while also upending the systems they were born into. As the European world wrestles with the fall of the Roman Empire, powerful families emerge to take the lead, but it is not a clean or easy affair and through these two women we are able to glean a view into that world. We also see how methodically the stories of their successes were erased or overwritten, how they were recast by those who followed, after their deaths their stories were rewritten, their names consigned to slander and legend, and their legacies buried for over a thousand years.

Brunhild was a Spanish princess, raised to be married off for the sake of alliance-building. Her sister-in-law Fredegund started out as a palace slave. Their paths cross in the middle of the Merovingian Empire where women were excluded from noble succession and royal politics was a blood sport. They formed coalitions and broke them, mothered children, and lost them. They fought a years-long civil war. But these two reigned over vast realms for decades – their combined empires only to be eclipsed by Charlemagne who would build his empire from the ashes of theirs 150 years later – commanding armies and negotiating with kings and popes and ruling as regents.

While Puhak captures the complexity of the women and the courts they lived and ruled in, and this unfamiliar time, striking at the roots of some of our culture’s stubbornest myths about female power, the book is at times uneven, and sometimes strays too far from the titular queens. The scope of this work is a big ask of any book, or any author, and the final copy I ended up reading (out from the library as I had failed to download my publisher provided copy before it was archived) had a few errors which confused matters. This is also a slow read, dense with names, dates, and details. Puhak provides a Dramatis Personae at the beginning, as well as maps throughout, and that’s good because I found myself needing to refer to them as I made my way through the narrative over the course of a week.

I received an ARC of The Dark Queens from Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley, it has not affected the contents of this review.

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls (CBR14 #23)

When I read ASKReview’s review of The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls in December 2021 I immediately threw it onto my to read list for 2022. A book described succinctly as “a call to action written by a queer woman of color” was absolutely something I want to read.

There is much in the world that is fucking awful and the roots of that go squarely back to the global patriarchy we all exist under, because the pushes to limit civil rights and freedoms – particularly of LGBTQ folk – are the ways patriarchy attempts to control. The patriarchy t harms everyone, but as Eltahawy rightly points out, it harms some more than others. With that in mind, and with her own incandescent rage firmly lit, Eltahawy wrote The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls as a manifesto for throwing over the patriarchy in seven actions.

While I found the sins themselves instructive (and not unexpected) what I was really struck with in this book is Eltahawy’s insistence on bringing as many intersectional and often underreported examples as possible to the forefront in order to illuminate examples of how each sin was needed to fight back against the harm patriarchy inflicts. It reminded me of Our Women on the Ground in that it told me stories I should have already known from a voice on the inside. Seven Necessary Sins is the call to arms twin to Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too  Loud as Eltahawy calls us to disrupt, disobey, and disrupt in order to harness our power against that which denies us freedom – not to survive it, but to dismantle it.

To the sins themselves they are the things women, and Eltahawy points out many times throughout the book that it is inclusive of trans women and non-binary and genderqueer folk as well, are not supposed to do according to the patriarchs (government, faith, family, etc.). Be angry, ambitious, profane, violent, attention-seeking, powerful, and lustful. Most of these I have no trouble with and spent my time nodding along. Violent was the tough one to mentally wrap my mind around, but Eltahawy frames much of the chapter around the legal argument that women’s violence is punished to a far greater degree than men’s, and I can accept more easily the need to defend women’s right to justifiable violence more than I can think of a time where I’d feel comfortable using justifiable violence. The other that I went in skeptical about was Lust, having done a lot of thinking about compulsive sexuality and compulsive hetero-monogamy specifically over the past year (thanks in no small part to Ace and Queer: a Graphic History) and while I wish that Eltahawy had given more than just a sentence in the chapter to asexual folks, I can appreciate that the chapter spends a bit more time pulling apart the compulsives in order to make a broader point about bodily autonomy and choice.

Miss Iceland (CBR14 #16)

This is a book that you have to give yourself over to, you have to meet it where it is and accept its way of imparting the story, of whether there is a story at all, and how the author has built her main character, and how that main character chooses to share her world with you.

Once you’ve done that the book embraces you like waves coming onshore. But is it the cold waters of the North Atlantic or something warmer? I have my opinions, and I know you’ll have your own.

Through Hekla we see Iceland in the early 1960s as she endeavors to be a published author, but more importantly to be herself. We accompany her from leaving her family’s farm in the west of Iceland, travelling to Reykjavik with her few belongings including her typewriter, to meet up with her best friends who are already there, and then finally abroad. We meet Jón John and Ísey, and their own struggles with accepting who they are and what life has to offer them as a gay man and a young mother. We see self-invention in Hekla’s boyfriend Starkadur, of his expectation of who is he and who he will be, and of who Hekla will be in relation to that.

This is a book that deals with the desire for creativity and the desire for beauty and what that means in practical terms. There are those, the poets at the cafes, who spend their time around the idea of creativity and beauty and there are those who sit down and make it happen – Hekla, Jón John, and Ísey – in their own ways.Auður pokes at why there were so few women writers in Iceland in at the time, and how women writers were not expected or encouraged. It is also a book about how a society can limit the creative, sensitive people and following one who would push beyond that for as far as she can push.

All set against Iceland’s physicality, of glaciers and volcanoes, and newly birthed islands, and a city growing into itself.

Eva Luna (CBR13 #77)

Eva Luna

It has been a few years since I last tackled an Allende work, but with tasks in both the Read Harder and Reading Women challenges about translated works (the former asking for non-European novel in translation, the latter asking specifically for a book by a South American author in translation) I had the perfect excuse to move Eva Luna up my to read list.

The amount of emotion, detail, and characterization that Allende weaves into her writing is simply astounding. It always takes me a long time to work through her novels, but that is not a bad thing. There is so much history, allegory, and personal stakes woven into the story that you want to spend the time, you want to give the book its due. Like The House of the Spirits each paragraph, each page, and each chapter in Eva Luna need time to be digested and understood.

The book follows Eva from her earliest years, moving from Eva’s description of her mother’s life, and her own conception. Eva’s mother dies when Eva is still young, and she is forced to fend for herself. From there we follow Eva as she faces the death of her mother’s employer the Professor and is forced to move on and eventually stumbles her way into the care of La Señora, the owner of a brothel, and then eventually on to Agua Santa, and then back to the city where she reunites with Melecio, now known as Mimí and takes back up with Huberto Naranjo a leader of a guerrilla unit fighting a revolution. In typical Allende style the country remains unnamed, and it doesn’t matter.  As time goes on, Eva realizes that Huberto is not the man for her. Throughout the novel a parallel narrative is told: the life of Rolf Carlé. As Rolf grows up, he becomes interested in reporting news and becomes a leading journalist, shooting film footage from the front line. Rolf films the guerrillas, meeting Huberto, and later Eva.

Eva Luna easily finds its place in Allende’s works which all involve young women and misfits of society who search for truth and love all while combating class conflicts and oppressive governments. The picaresque is combined with magical realism in Eva Luna, in which the title character survives one crisis after another with the aid of unseen powers and the force of her own imagination. Eva’s ability to induce others with her stories is her gift to the world, helping her deal with the difficulties that many women, like herself, faced in a tyrannical and explosive political environment.

Wordslut (CBR11 #44)

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Cannonballer kdm posted on Facebook about reading Wordslut and based on her recommendation and its bright eye-catching cover I immediately requested it from my library. I’ve read my share of feminist books over the past several years, trying to build my own repertoire of experience and knowledge whether it be in the form of a treatise on Single Ladies, the recollections of a self-described Bad Feminist, or feminist geeks, or the story of a heroine of mine the Notorious RBG. Amanda Montell’s Wordslut is a worthy addition to those other books, it covers hundreds of years of linguistic history and today’s cutting-edge research in sociolinguistics.

How often do we really think about language, specifically the language we ourselves use? Thankfully there’s entire fields of scientists studying just that – tracking how language develops and how we use it. Building from her own degree in Linguistics and her interest in feminism and inclusive language Montell gives us 10 chapters exploring how we got to the language we have and suggestions for ways to reclaim certain phrases, find more inclusive alternatives, and generally being comfortable with how our word choices and sentence structures tell the world who we are.

Listen, I have a lot of space to grow myself, just today I was putting some chickens away in their hen house and when speaking to them called them “guys”. They are all laying hens – they are girls. But this book pulls apart why my brain went to “guys” instead of “ladies”, or even better “folks” or “friends”. Montell also gives fantastic, well-researched, and inclusive arguments for the singular they, non-binary pronouns, and using y’all because English is missing a second person plural pronoun.

My two favorite sections of the book marry nicely – the first discussing how words go through the process of amelioration or pejoration, either gaining more positive or more negative meanings over time. The second is all about cursing while female presenting. Apparently, we tend to curse for humor, for emphasis, and in a category almost exclusive to us: as part of our personality. In that way so many of the perjorized words that have become vulgar are feminine we’re actively using them (and others) to express who we see ourselves to be. But, we are also using language differently in single-sex situations, really letting the f-bombs fly to show intimacy and trust. I know I do this, as I got more comfortable with one of my previous coworkers my vulgar language use skyrocketed (as, it should probably be noted, did hers).   

So why for the I Love This Bingo square?  I’m a logophile, a lover of words. I love finding very specific words, I love learning new words, and I really love foul words. I also love a book that takes on a non-fiction topic (in this case language) through an historical lens and isn’t afraid to be humorous while deconstructing social norms. Read this book, won’t you?

Missoula (CBR10 #17)

Rape culture is real.

But that doesn’t make me want to face it any more than I already have to in my life. I have had this book on my to read list since it was published in 2015.However I didn’t read it then, instead I picked up Into Thin Air to get a taste of Krakauer’s style before jumping into the deep end so to speak.  I have comments across many Cannonball Read reviews of this book saying that I’m going to tackle it in the coming months, and each time I found an excuse to put if off a few more months, until three years elapsed and I could no longer justify to myself not picking up Missoula.

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Research shows that the vast majority of rapes will be committed by someone who is known to the victim, and likely someone they trust. On top of that, the person will be trusted because there is no single, reliable way to identify a rapist until they have committed an act of sexual violence. Rapists generally have no sense that their actions do in fact qualify them as a rapist and imagine some other, larger, scarier boogeyman – some “other”- as the true danger without realizing that the behavior they accept as “normal” based on our culture is in fact, not. Our society raises sexually aggressive men and shrouds them in the cover of “boys will be boys”.

In Missoula, Jon Krakauer follows several rape victims and recounts their stories from rape to prosecution in order to illustrate how our justice and educational systems are broken, and how it is affecting rape victims, their families, and ultimately, perpetuating a culture that shelters the rapists, who statistically will almost all go on to assault again. It is upsetting*, rage-inducing stuff. It is also important reading.

*I do not suggest this book for someone who has experienced sexual trauma or is suffering from PTSD. I do suggest it for absolutely everyone else.

Krakauer is an astounding writer; he brings a non-biased accounting that leaves no doubt as to the severe, life-altering consequences for the victims as they pursue their quests for justice. Meticulous research serves as the backbone of this book and Krakauer’s forthright style is the perfect fit for examining the testimony and transcripts that make up the evidence in the highlighted cases. Krakauer does very little editorializing, because the documents speak for themselves. Importantly he chose Missoula because there was a paper trail he could base the book on and held himself to a three person corroboration threshold for including things in the book. There is so much more that didn’t make the book because he didn’t have the third person, and didn’t feel comfortable reporting without it.

Here is the new thing I learned, the thing I did not properly understand and that leaves me infuriated (not that most of the information in this book didn’t leave me infuriated and necessitate that I take a step away from the book every so often) is that across this country prosecutors are declining to prosecute cases referred to them by police departments in staggering numbers. In Missoula during the window in which they were being investigated by the Department of Justice, January 2008 to April 2012, 114 reports of sexual assault of adult women were referred by the Missoula Police Department to the Missoula County Attorney’s office. Of those only 14 were filed by the County Attorney for prosecution. FOURTEEN. The police found probable cause to pursue a case following an investigation for 114 cases and the County Attorney’s office agreed approximately 12% of the time. Twelve percent. The DOJ found 350 reported sexual assaults from January 2008 to May 2012, and the 236 were not referred not because they were found to be false or specious, but rather the vast, vast majority were not pursued because there was too little evidence for the police to determine probable cause. Taken at that level only 4% of all sexual assaults even made it to court.

The story of Missoula is in many ways the story of the average American city, its stats line up with the national average, and all of that should upset us greatly. I don’t know exactly how to end this review, as I am well and truly in my emotions about this book. Perhaps that is the best response I can give it at this time.

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

Mockingbird: I Can Explain & Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda (CBR9 #69 & 70)

I had been itching for a while to get my grubby mitts on Chelsea Cain’s eight issue run of Mockingbird. I had been following along with some stellar reviews at Cannonball Read, as well as Chelsea Cain’s experiences with this her first venture into comics via the media. She was nominated from a Best New Writer Eisner for this run but Marvel Corp failed to pass along pertinent information to her about how to attend, etc. this summer and all that happened after rabid so-called fans chased Cain off of Twitter last October because volume 2 of this run, Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda, featured the character wearing a shirt with the same.

As the books’ two Eisner nominations would suggest these are quality work, both from Cain as writer and the amazing roster of artists who put in more than common effort to make for simply stunning visuals.  I have not read many comics, but the style of these from the lettering to the color scheme made them incredibly easy to read while feeling warm and welcoming. That plus Bobbi Morse’s unique sarcastic delivery via Cain made for a treat of a reading experience.

Bobbi is our narrator and shapes the story, setting the tone as it suits her. She can be unreliable and twists her recounting of the events we experience as she wants. But this topsy turvy narration experience is built on strong bedrock of character: this is a series that balanced its deep, introspective look at its lead character with superhero-related ass-kicking and zany-ness, all while not shying away from her personality quirks.

These are genuinely wonderful, clever, and funny comics. This is to my understanding a step to the side of what traditional comics are; the creative teamed played with structure and character in ways that make the series feel fresh and funny, but also expected the reader to be engaged. If you are going to get the full Mockingbird experience you have to pay attention. The issues in Volume 1 can be read in any order, there is a litany of easter eggs hidden in the background art which add layers and meaning to the action on the page. I often stopped and just unpacked the visual banquet waiting for me on each page behind the dialogue bubbles.  While this run is named for her alter ego Mockingbird, this is really a conscious look at Bobbi Morse as a character both beyond and including her super hero identity. She is a woman fighting for her place in the world, and not being quiet about the bullshit she sees around her.

Mockingbird presents its lead as a lens through which to have timely (when is there not a good time?) discussions about gender, toxic masculinity, sex, and love. These subjects become crucial to understanding the way Bobbi thinks and operates as both a woman dealing with her troubled relationships and as a hero in a world that always told her she couldn’t be one. The series is quietly a deeply personal examination of Bobbi while not being afraid to bring the funny (there are mercorgis folks, what more can I say?) but at the end of the day being more than just a quick little jaunt.

All in all it made me miss Adrianne Palicki as Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird on Agents of SHEILD. I feel like she would be the perfect person to play this version of the character, which is pretty close to the one she played on the show.



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