Stealing the Show (CBR15 #15)

May is Preservation Month, and in honor of that there is a push in the museum community to work on safety and preservation policies and procedures that all too often get pushed to the bottom of the to do list. Disaster and emergency preparedness are parts of my job that I enjoy and this year’s May focus for me was theft reporting procedures, which made Stealing the Show timely reading. But I wanted the book that this one’s subtitle describes and this isn’t it. (I’m bummed since Managing Expectations did such a good job, well, managing expectations with its subtitle.)

So, what is this book then? A personal history of John Barelli and his time with the security department of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Barelli spent the better part of forty years responsible for one of the world’s most diverse museum collections, but also the museum’s staff, the millions of visitors, as well as the dignitaries which make their way to the museum each year. Barelli shares his experiences of the crimes that occurred on his watch; the investigations that captured thieves and recovered artwork; the lessons he learned and shared with law enforcement professionals in the United States and abroad; the accidents and near misses; and a few mysteries that were sadly never solved. While it is a comprehensive forty-year look, it is also uneven. It also is more a recounting and less a history and I couldn’t tell you which six thefts Barelli intended to be the focus.

What I did take away from this one in the positive column is the ways that Barelli helped establish what are now industry standards in museum security (although I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out the amazing work that the Getty does – and shares with other institutions, something the Met is not known for). This one is short, coming in just shy of 200 pages and I wonder if a retooling away from a personal history and instead a focus more heavily on the art and antiquities would have made this a better read for me. But – I might be the wrong audience for this, knowing too much about the field.

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.

On the Line (CBR15 #7)

I had some unexpected travel last week and grabbed the nearest library book to read on the plane. On the Line: a Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union had come to my attention due to a pro-union cat on twitter (@jortsthecat – which if you haven’t encountered, I promise he and Jean are worth taking a quick deep dive). I don’t know if it was the time/place I was reading it, or my affection for the recommending source and their tone, or the actual writing of the book but this one was firmly middle of the road for me.

On the Line is Daisy Pitkin’s retelling of her time spent as a union organizer for industrial laundries in Phoenix, Arizona. In it she captures her own mindset, and the questions she was asking herself about the work as well as her relationships she had with the workers in the laundry – especially Alma (with whom the profits of the book are shared). It also documents the strategies her union (UNITE) attempted to use to organize the laundry, those of the union they merged with during the five-year campaign, and the fallout for all involved as the struggled against a rather vicious anti-union campaign from the company.

There were parts of this book that I enjoyed, and that I think are important as we reckon with labor laws that have been eroded to the point of being too weak to help most workers fight back and win in the United States. Based on who I am as a person the sections where Pitkin lays out the actual history of the unions which eventually become UNITE (garment workers) and how that story is mythologized were the strongest for me as they are both important social history but provide a lens to view organizing and its costs. I appreciated that Pitkin explicitly reckons with the privilege she brought with her into her experience in Phoenix and the imbalance of power that comes from top-down organizing but I was left with the sensation that while she named it, she didn’t fully interrogate it or land on a final thought.

What didn’t work for me were the sections of this book that make up the other half of the narrative. I know Pitkin was going for a metaphor or allegory in unpacking her consistent nightmares about moths during her time organizing in Phoenix and her later continued fascination with studying them, but the sections stood starkly in contrast with the other sections. The other thing isn’t the book’s fault so I’m not weighing it against my rating (not Pitkin’s fault I’m currently very mad at my union and reps).

Secret Life of Bots & Bots of the Lost Ark (CBR15 #2-3)

In catching up on reading end of CBR14 reviews I clocked narfna’s review of Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 132 since she titled it “Attention: Murderbot stans: I have a short story for you.” Consider my attention grabbed. I love Murderbot very much and anything that gives similar feels is something I want to at least peruse, and narfna so helpfully provided links to both The Secret Lives of Bots and Bots of the Lost Ark (and if you click those titles – so have I!).

Suzanne Palmer won the 2018 Hugo for Best Novelette for The Secret Life of Bots, and its sequel, Bots of the Lost Ark, won the 2022 Hugo (both published in Clarkesworld). Having now read both, I can easily see that these are worthy of the awards they received. Novelettes are a tough length, or they can be, at 7,500 to 17,500 words. Palmer uses that limited word count to build out the nuanced world of Ship (who feels very ART-like to me), the bots who serve on it, and the human crew. In The Secret Life of Bots the humans are tasked with a wartime task that is a last ditch effort, but it’s the bots who really get anything done. Palmer’s day job is as a systems administrator and it shows how she crafts the bots, their mantras, and the logical programming and its limitations.

Our protagonist is Bot 9 who is a tiny bot who has been woken from stasis after a very long time and assigned task 944 in the maintenance queue. It’s a bit disoriented and feels that it should be given a higher priority task, until it begins to make its way through Ship and gets a feel for just how long it was out of commission, the state of Ship, and what is going on with the new bots it runs in to. Task 944 is to take care of a biological incursion (read: pest) that has made itself at home in Ship while it was in the junkyard and is a nasty thing which may affect the other bots ability to get Ship ready to complete the task the humans need completed. Palmer switches the narrative between the human crew and Ship to Bot 9 allows for both plotting tension and humor to make their way into the story.

I loved the way The Secret Life of Bots ended, thus my rating it 5 stars, and was initially put off by the opening of Bots of the Lost Ark. When Bot 9 is activated at the beginning of the story 68 years have passed, the humans are all in stasis, and all hell has broken loose with the bots (including 4340 misinterpreting its job as refers to the pest population of Ship. The bots have been tasked with completing the tasks the human crew should be doing, and as part of their response have taken on the identities of the crew… leading to all sorts of problems as Ship is about to enter the space of a species which does not trust AI and will destroy them on sight if a human is not in complete control. Ship and Bot 9 must work together to get everything in order if they have any hope at all of getting back to Earth. I struggled initially with the lack of humans in this story – there wasn’t that lovely back and forth of POV and a lack of humor – but once some crew are awake again things started really clicking for me, giving this one 4 stars.

Make You Mine This Christmas (CBR15 #1)

Make You Mine This Christmas cover featuring three people walking owards a village. The man has his arm around the blonde fat woman's back and she is holding hands with the brunette woman who is using a cane.

I love the fake dating trope, so I was pleased as punch that November’s Illumicrate Afterlight book was Make You Mine This Christmas, even more so when forced proximity and all the bisexual chaos enter the equation. The story focuses on Haf who has been having a terrible year and lets her roommate convince her to join them at crashing a Christmas party they may or may not have been invited to. It’s at that party that Haf meets Christopher and following feeling badly for some mistletoe they are caught kissing by his ex.

The next day his family were told that they were dating and is expecting her to join them for Christmas. In the litany of things that have gone wrong in Haf’s year was forgetting that her parents had booked an all-inclusive holiday without her for Christmas and without better plans, and to help Christopher deal with his own issues with his ex and his family, Haf finds herself agreeing to be his fake girlfriend for the holiday. This should be a funny story they tell at parties for years to come, the time Haf pretended to be Christopher’s girlfriend – until Haf meets Christopher’s sister and realizes she’s one in the same to the mysterious, magnetic woman she met at the bookshop. It’s the golden rule of pretending to be someone’s girlfriend: don’t fall for their sister, but it may already be too late.

This book is chock full of representation, a budding F/F relationship between a bisexual, neurodivergent plus-size main character & a lesbian love interest with hEDS, Haf’s nonbinary roommate and best friend who is against the fake dating from the start and provides excellent takes throughout, and a whole town full of people portrayed in real ways. I’ve gone with four stars on this one because while I agree with narfna that the dialogue in this book is amazing, it didn’t, as she would say, vibrate at exactly my frequency – but it was really close. I enjoyed this one so much that I went back and shifted a review of another book down because I didn’t feel comfortable rating them both four stars.

Read Harder Challenge 2022

As the year closes I am two tasks shy of completing 2022’s Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. The important part is the way it makes me expand my horizons, and I hope to finish books in the early part of 2023 that complete those challenges as I’ve already got books picked out for a number of 2023’s tasks.

  1. Read a biography of an author you admire.
  2. Read a book set in a bookstore.
  3. Read any book from the Women’s Prize shortlist/longlist/winner list.
  4. Read a book in any genre by a POC that’s about joy and not trauma.
  5. Read an anthology featuring diverse voices.
  6. Read a nonfiction YA comic.
  7. Read a romance where at least one of the protagonists is over 40.
  8. Read a classic written by a POC.
  9. Read the book that’s been on your TBR the longest. (All added January 6, 2012)
  10. Read a political thriller by a marginalized author (BIPOC, or LGBTQIA+).
  11. Read a book with an asexual and/or aromantic main character.
  12. Read an entire poetry collection.
  13. Read an adventure story by a BIPOC author.
    • The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
    • Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (audio)
  14. Read a book whose movie or TV adaptation you’ve seen (but haven’t read the book).
  15. Read a new-to-you literary magazine (print or digital).
  16. Read a book recommended by a friend with different reading tastes.
  17. Read a memoir written by someone who is trans or nonbinary.
  18. Read a “Best _ Writing of the year” book for a topic and year of your choice.
  19. Read a horror novel by a BIPOC author.
    • Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn (ALA’s 2014 William C. Morris Award for best debut young adult novel)
  20. Read an award-winning book from the year you were born.
    • The Witches by Roald Dahl (Whitbread Award, now Costa Award)
  21. Read a queer retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, folklore, or myth.
  22. Read a history about a period you know little about.
  23. Read a book by a disabled author.
  24. Pick a challenge from any of the previous years’ challenges to repeat!

Transcendent Kingdom

I am an outlier on this work. Yaa Gyasi writes like a motherfucker and I will continue to seek out her work, but this book just wasn’t for me. Transcendent Kingdom aims for big, heavy topics but its treatment of them never feels more than surface level.

This work stands in stark contrast to Homegoing, and while I can see the impulse to go for a different tack there’s such a bare bones approach to the very heavy topics that Transcendent Kingdom attempts to wrangle with – race, depression, and addiction to be specific – that I had a difficult time tracking what Gyasi was after. In fact, it reminded me in that way of We Are Our Completely Besides Ourselves. There was so much that Yaa Gyasi did well, but unfortunately, it’s all the mechanical stuff, the imagery, the word choice. The character growth, development, and pacing are all lackluster and was very clumsy. The narrative is also broken up and told with flashbacks and memories interspersed throughout instead of in a chronological way which only increases the meandering feeling of the book. This is neither an effective character study nor a heavily plotted work. It just is, and that’s a shame.

This book is interested in asking questions about the interplay of religion and science and looks at it through the lens of familial loss and addiction. Transcendent Kingdom is largely composed of Gifty’s recollections and her internal monologue. In that way we are locked with her in her present as a fifth-year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. But… Gifty has shallow character growth. She was detached and emotionless, which is characteristic of someone undergoing profound PTSD (which she is, full stop, not going to argue that fact about this character as her clinically depressed mother is living in her bed) but Gyasi leaves it unexplored. Since the anecdotes are told in retrospect instead of in the moment there is no obvious difference between Gifty as an adult and a child, specifically as refers to her brother, Nana, who was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after a knee injury left him hooked on OxyContin. At the end of the book Gyasi has Gifty tell us she’s made progress, but we don’t see it. We don’t see her create a healthy romantic relationship with Han, or even in it, we are just told it exists and given a hand wave of reassurance that he truly knows her, that’s she’s let him. We are told that Gifty and Han are with her mother when she finally passes away, years later in her own home, in her own bed, having been taken care of by a home health aid as she had once been. We hear that she is running her own lab at Princeton as she wanted to (well, she wasn’t specific about the wished-for university, but Gyasi does like to give Gifty only the best), but we don’t see her in that space leading as she wished she was led. The book is in the gap between the penultimate and final chapters, and we are denied it.

Ace of Hearts (CBR14 #68)

Even before Read Harder had a task for reading a book with an asexual or aromantic character, I had been on the lookout for a Romance featuring them. It was a niche within the larger Romance genre that I wanted to explore. With that in mind I had added Lucy Mason’s Ace of Hearts to my to-read list in October of last year. And then I waited, patiently (or not so patiently) for a publication date to be announced. Fast forward to this fall, and the book became available from NineStar Press, a publishing house that is a boutique publisher of quality LGBTQA romance, erotica, and literary fiction.

Ace of Hearts first caught my attention based on the bullet points it can be broken down into provided by its author: a pun-loving himbo, only 1 bed, childhood friends to lovers, fake dating/marriage of convenience. While that does an okay job of painting an appropriate picture, I have a minor nit to pick regarding classifying its male lead as a himbo (he’s a bit too serious for me to consider him one, but I’ll accept that he has a lot of the identifiers). Ace of Hearts is the story of Hesper Stallides and Felix Morlan who have been best friends for as long as they can remember. Growing up they bonded over their troubled home lives and together moved east to leave those lives behind for college. The book begins with Felix suffering a horrible sports injury which derails his professional athlete hopes and results in the loss of his scholarship. Hesper steps in, eventually offering a proposition: a year-long marriage of convenience so he can get free tuition at the college where she works to finish his degree. She doesn’t mention her selfish reasons for wanting to keep Felix close, even though a sexual relationship is not what she wants (nor is it what he expects).

Everything looks like it won’t be too complicated, until they fall in love. When Hesper reveals that she’s asexual, Felix must reassess everything he thinks about love, and ask himself what he’s willing to sacrifice for a future with Hesper—before the past she’s spent her life running from can take her away from him forever. I thought this book did a really good job of letting the reader into the headspaces of its two leads, of seeing Hesper’s various emotional battlefields and also a view into her being a sex repulsed asexual. We also spend time with Felix as he weighs what that means, really, for the relationship he wants with Hesper. Mechanically there were times that the pacing was a bit off, where time jumps or leaps of thought happen without being denoted in any way on the page, but on the whole for as high stakes as parts of this book were, Mason does a good job of keeping it anchored in a believable reality. And Felix and Hesper are a great pair to read.

Content Warning: Abuse of an adult child by a parent, stalking/harassment, kidnapping/abduction, references to alcohol abuse, incarceration of a parent.

Passing (CBR14 #67)

Passing is about pretense, jealousy, psychological ambiguity, concealment, and duplicity. The messiness of being human s portrayed in the relationship between two women, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield. It is through this narrative that Larsen suggests that both racial and gender/sexual identities are as much artifice as they are intrinsic. Larsen is specific in the manner that she portrays her characters. The mechanics of the writing – and its brevity – are significant indicators of the level of craft on display. Larsen is doing big work in this novel, commenting on the social upheaval of the late 1920s. It is a story of social obligation balanced against personal freedom where really no one comes out the winner.

Irene Redfield is married to Brian, a prominent physician, and they live a comfortable life in a Harlem town house with their sons. Her work arranging charity balls that gather Harlem’s elite creates a sense of purpose and respectability for Irene. But Irene is thrown into a panic when she encounters Clare Kendry, a childhood friend with whom she had lost touch. Clare—light-skinned, beautiful, and charming—tells Irene how, after her father’s death, she left behind the black neighborhood of her adolescence and began passing for white, hiding her identity from everyone, including her racist husband. As Clare begins inserting herself into Irene’s life Irene is terrified of the consequences of Clare’s dangerous behavior. And when Clare witnesses the vibrancy and energy of the community she left behind, her burning desire to come back threatens to shatter her careful deception.

The main characters in Passing are two sides of a coin, two biracial women whose identities are performative as they navigate life with the privilege of passing as White. Clare is inscrutable but her passing is not for the greater good, or a statement. It’s based on how she knows to survive, how being raised in the home of her white aunts impacted her perception and her options to avoid poverty. Because at the core, all passing stories are based around class and the social ladder. Irene’s version of the story is about engaging with her life as a Black woman in order to be a shining example of the possibilities and putting to the side the white parts of her background which provide her outlets.

A socially pretentious setting that functions as an artistic choice, a stage setting to allow its (white) contemporaneous audience to engage with the story on its terms and not to fight against it. Larsen structures the novel in three acts, in a typical stage play format. While I could see the work Larsen did, and why nearly a hundred years later its still an important work of literature it didn’t pull me in which is unfortunate because I really wanted to love it.