Friday, November 16, 2018

#43 [2018/CBR10] "Dance With Me" by Alexis Daria

After my traumatic reading of The Liar's Club, I was eager to get back to some unrealistic, but fun and romantic stories with a fairy tale ending. I don't watch much television anymore (unless I can get it on Netflix), but when I did, I was a sucker for Dancing With the Stars. Being a bad dancer myself, I feel like I can really appreciate the talent of the professional dancers on the show. And there's something about the pairing of professionals and other famous people that is fascinating. So, when I discovered a romance novel that seemed to be based on the show, Take the Lead by Alexis Daria, I enjoyed it enough to pick up the sequel, Dance With Me (2017), when it came out.

Natasha Diaz is a pro dancer on a reality dancing show that we'll just call DWTS. She was roommates with the heroine of Daria's first dancing book. Now that her roommate has found true love and moved out, Natasha is facing a number of problems. Natasha has always had issues with managing her money, and since she recently bought a new, reliable car, she has almost nothing left in the bank. Since they are in between seasons on DWTS, she is not currently getting a paycheck from them. So when her apartment collapses under a water leak, bed bugs infest the building, and Natasha has no money to stay elsewhere, Dimitri Kovalenko offers to let her stay at his place.

Dimitri Kovalenko (who I'm pretty sure is modeled after Maksim Chmerkovsky) is a professional dancer turned judge on DWTS. Natasha and Dimitri have hooked up a number of times and have great chemistry. But they are always one night hook-ups, enjoyable to both parties because they have sizzling chemistry, but they never turn into anything else. Natasha is wary of getting too close to Dimitri and risking her heart because he is a known womanizer. However, she doesn't have much of a choice. In order to keep some semblance of distance, she tells Dimitri that they can't have sex while she's staying at his house.

Dimitri thinks the no-sex rule is ridiculous considering their chemistry and history, but he's willing to be patient because he really likes Natasha. When Natasha injures her ankle during an exercise class she's teaching, Dimitri steps up and takes care of Natasha to an even greater extent. To make matters even thornier, DWTS is cracking down on inter-show romances. Natasha is afraid of losing her job if anyone finds out that she is living with Dimitri.

It doesn't take long before the no-sex rule is deemed completely useless. The two dancers make a great couple and there are only two things keeping them apart. First, is the overbearing rules from DWTS. The second is the insecurity of both Dimitri and Natasha. Both are afraid to admit to the other that what they have is more than a fling and they really like each other. On the one hand, this is ridiculous because they are adults with words, and how many times do you have to have sex before you admit you've got a good thing? On the other hand, I can certainly relate to not wanting to put yourself out there just to get hurt--especially when you've been hurt before.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this book. I love getting an inside view into the professional dancer's lives as well as their view of the show they work on. The chemistry between the main characters was great, and I remember a lot of the story considering I read this one a while ago.

P.S. One thing that drove me crazy while I was reading was that Natasha had to pay for her apartment when it was flooded by water and being sprayed for bed bugs. That's not how leasing an apartment works. The lessor is supposed to provide a livable space, and if they don't, the lessee either gets rent paid back or doesn't have to pay. The apartment company should know better and Natasha or one of her friends should have known better. Natasha gets her money back in the end, but it bothered me in the short term.

#42 [2018/CBR10] "The Liar's Club" by Mary Karr

The Liar's Club (1995) a childhood memoir by Mary Karr, is another book on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. Unfortunately for me, the first blurb on Amazon, from Oprah.com, says that this book is "wickedly funny and almost movingly illuminating." The next paragraph states, "The New York Times bestselling, hilarious tale of Mary Karr's hardscrabble Texas childhood." With this kind of [mis]information, I was imagining a lighthearted comedy, so I eagerly put it on my Kindle to read while on my backpacking trip. But "wickedly funny" and "hilarious" would not be the words I use to describe this book. Maybe haunting, disturbing, and definitely not something to read while you're by yourself in the dark.

Mary Karr is a very good writer, and she tells the story of her family for a couple of years when she is a young child (about seven and eight years old). Mary's older sister, Lecia, and her parents live in Leechfield, Texas, a small oil-oriented town that apparently smells very bad and makes people sick. Both of her parents are alcoholics. Her father is a functioning alcoholic and works at the oil refinery. Her mother is an alcoholic and also struggling with some hefty mental health issues. Her parents fight often, and her mother is completely unpredictable. Lecia and Mary have very few boundaries, and seem to run wild around the neighborhood for much of the book.

When Mary's grandmother dies, her mother comes into some money, and the family moves to the mountains of Colorado. Money, unfortunately, does not add any stability to Mary's childhood, and after about a year, her mother and father divorce. Her father moves back to Texas and pretty cleanly breaks ties with his daughters. It is a heartbreaking scene when he leaves them.

***SPOILERS AND OTHER DISTURBING THINGS***
Eventually her mother and father are reunited and the family moves back to Texas to live together. However, it isn't until many years later that Mary learns that her mother had two children before Mary and Lecia. These children were stolen away by her then-husband and in-laws. When Mary's mother finally found out where they were, she couldn't bring herself to tear them away from the stable home and family that was all they knew at that point. Karr tells us this illuminating story as if it were the reason for her mother's mental illness, and it definitely explains some of her mother's actions. However, there aren't enough details about her mother to really know what was going on with her mental health. Her missing children could have put her under enough stress to cause her mental health issues, or they might have been simply what she focused on when she was really sick.

Anyway, what still haunts me about this book is some of the trauma that Mary Karr survived. She was raped when she was 7 by a 13-year-old neighborhood boy. She never told anyone. It was horrifying to think that some poor little girl can be running around and playing one minute and then her innocence shattered so quickly--when she is barely capable of understanding what happened. And when she is 8, a man who is babysitting her when she is home sick from school forces her to perform oral sex on him. For some reason, this one bothered me even more, and I think it's because she remembers it in even more detail. I wanted to throw up while I was reading that scene.

However, what made me most regret taking this book backpacking is when Mary's mother has a full mental breakdown. I don't want to go into all the details, but Mary comes home from school and finds her mother in a horrible state. She and her sister are alone with her. It is like reading a horror story, but it is real and your own mother is the scary monster.

I can see why this book was notable and won awards. Karr is a good writer, and she hit topics such as mental health and sexual assault that are still not talked about openly today, but was even less so in 1995. Karr primarily discusses only those two years of her childhood and only a small glimpse into her adulthood. Her childhood years are often from the perspective of a child, so there is no grown-up introspection or analysis on how all of this affected her as she grew up. I cannot imagine that it didn't, and I did wish for a little more information on both Karr and her mother.

This was a very well-written memoir, and it is helpful to get a glimpse into people's experiences so different from your own. However, I found it so disturbing, I'm not sure I could recommend it to others.

#41 [2018/CBR10] "A Scot in the Dark" by Sarah MacLean

I know I've mentioned this before, but I've found that when I'm backpacking, I do very well with romances. They are entertaining enough to keep my attention in physically uncomfortable circumstances, when exhaustion can make it hard to focus. And as long as I avoid thrillers, they are not scary enough to make me nervous when I'm sleeping alone in the woods. Knowing I was going on a trip, I picked up A Scot in the Dark (2016) by Sarah MacLean.

Lillian Hargrove is a beautiful red-haired woman who, after her father's death when she was a child, has grown up under the protection of the Duke of Warnick. Not a noblewoman, but not the help, Lily lived a very lonesome life with barely any friendly interactions. When a famous, narcissistic artist notices the gorgeous Lily, her loneliness and lack of experience make her an easy target. The artist seduces her. Instead of marriage, which Lily expected, he leaves her in disgrace with the promise of a public unveiling of a nude painting.

Alec Stuart, the current Duke of Warnick, and Lily's supposed protector is up at his home in Scotland with zero interest in the English nobility. In an unlikely and farcical manner, Stuart had unwillingly become of the new Duke of Warnick after eighteen (?) or so others had died in a quick and tragic (but not really because we don't know anything about them) manner. When his solicitor informs him of the mess that Lily has gotten into, he grumpily heads down to London in order to marry her off and rid himself of the burden of her.

Alec is shocked to discover that Lily is a beautiful, spirited woman. Their mutual attraction is immediate even though they bicker a little at first. Lily wants to marry eventually for love and not be forced into a union to protect herself from scandal. Alec simply wants her wed off as soon as possible, and he wastes no time in trying to set her up with suitable bachelors. However, Alec's plan is hindered by both of them falling all over each other. There is also a bit of a side plot with attempts to buy and/or steal the painting from the artist in order to save Lily's reputation.

***SPOILERS***It doesn't take long for Lily and Alec to give in to their base desires and hook up, but Alec's insecurity keeps them apart. We find out in the end that he basically prostituted himself out back when he was in school after his father cut his purse strings. Alec is so ashamed of his past actions that he does not believe himself worthy of Lily.

And this is where the book went from entertaining to frustrating. Lily and Alec would give in to temptation and hook up in some manner. Then Alec would immediately decide that he is not good enough for Lily and tell her it's impossible. Then it would happen again. The reader doesn't find out until near the end of the book why Alec is being such an ass, and then the problem almost immediately disappears. Does Alec realize how much pain he is causing Lily with his constant dismissals? If he were really in love, would he put her through all that? Does he not realize that marrying a Duke, a Duke that she loves is the best possible outcome for her? Even if the horror of his past were a good reason to keep them apart, I don't think MacLean flushed out the idea enough to make it convincing.

MacLean stated at the end of her novel that she likes to get ideas from today's headlines, and I appreciate her intent. Lily was a young woman who unfortunately decided to trust the wrong person, but society heaped all their scorn and blame on her and none on the artist that cruelly betrayed her. Similarly, today's celebrities (mostly women), whom have had their privacy invaded and nude photos shared, have to deal with all kinds of judgment when the focus should be on the ones illegally sharing and looking at private photos. Anyway, there were some very fun scenes and I liked the intent of this book. However, I couldn't love it because I was frustrated by Alec's stupid excuse for keeping them apart.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

#40 [2018/CBR10] "A Raisin in the Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry

I picked up A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry because it was on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before she Turns 40. It was a quick read for me while I was on my epic backpacking trip this summer. A Raisin in the Sun is an award-winning play that debuted on Broadway in 1959. According to Wikipedia, it was unique at the time for having an almost all-black cast that performed for the primarily white, Broadway audiences. It also drew more black people to the traditionally, mostly white theater audiences. Even though I knew nothing about the plot of this play when I read it, there are numerous spoilers below because this play is such an old classic that I assume everyone else knows all about it.

The play centers around three generations of one family, all living in a run-down, one-bedroom apartment on Chicago's south side. Walter and Ruth Younger, their adolescent son Travis, along with Walter's mother (Mama) and Walter's sister, Beneatha, are the main characters. Walter and Beneatha's father, and Mama's husband recently passed away. The family is awaiting the arrival of a settlement check from the insurance company for $10,000.

The family is wrestling with the daily grind of poverty, and they have different views of how the money can be used to help them. Beneatha needs the money to go to school. Walter wants to invest in a liquor store with some friends of his. Mama wants to move to a nicer place, and Ruth is exhausted and would like to lessen their struggle.

Mama eventually uses some of the money for a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood. She gives the rest to Walter to invest, as long as he sets aside enough for Beneatha's education. Walter's friends take off with the money, including Beneath's educational funds. At the same time, they are visited by Karl Lindner, a white representative of the neighborhood they will be moving into. Lindner offers the Younger family money to not move into the house they just put the down payment on. Walter is at first ready to accept this deal, but he changes his mind. The play ends with the family getting ready to move.

In addition to the issues surrounding the Younger's decision to move into a white neighborhood, and, especially, their steadfastness in getting their own house despite the opposition and fear of violence, Hansberry also addresses identity, abortion, and hopelessness. For instance, Beneatha wrestles with the balance between assimilation of white culture and pride in her own. She is dating two men, one a successful businessman (George Murchison), and one a traditional African man (Joseph Asagai). Joseph Asagai complains that Beneatha is mutilating her hair when she straightens it, and tells her not to worry about the lost money while Murchison is obviously looking for a woman who portrays the standard image of a successful, black woman.

I also felt a lot of compassion for Ruth Younger. She seemed exhausted. Trying to keep up with the work, being a mother, and making ends meet was already too much for her when she finds out that she is pregnant again. Ruth is seriously considering an abortion, something her mother-in-law finds totally unacceptable.

I was impressed by this play. It is still relevant and relatable today, even though it was written over fifty years ago (and almost ten years before The Fair Housing Act of 1968). The characters were well written and felt like real people. I did not quite understand Walter Younger and the faith his mother put in him when she did not approve of his plans, but I think it had to do with traditional family roles and believing in her son. The play ended in an optimistic manner, with the family happy about defying Karl Lindner and excited about moving into their own home. However, I was anxious for what they would have to deal with in a hostile, white neighborhood and I hoped rather than believed that their lives would not be ruined by fear and violence.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

#39 [2018/CBR10] "Hate to Want You" by Alisha Rai

I first found Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai on NPR's Best Books of 2017 List. I was finally able to get it from the library (on Kindle) right before I left for a long backpacking trip. Although I read most of it before getting on the trail, I always look for books that will not scare me when I'm sleeping alone in the woods. Romance novels are usually perfect. Now that I've read it, I don't feel strongly about it. I didn't love it, but I also didn't dislike it. The leads had a good connection and steamy sex, but the story was somewhat convoluted and I didn't really buy into what was keeping them apart.

Supposedly a very loose retelling of Romeo and Juliet (with a happy ending), Livvy Kane and Nico Chandler were high school sweethearts. Their grandparents had started a successful grocery chain and the two families were very close. Everything was great until Olivia's father and Nico's mom (I think I have this right) were killed together in a car accident. There were many unanswered questions surrounding the accident. No one could understand what the two were doing alone together. There was speculation of an affair, of driving while impaired, or even suicide. The Kane family blamed Nico's father while the Chandler family blamed Livvy's mother. Nico's father made the situation worse when he showed up at Livvy's house shortly after the tragedy and bullied Livvy's mother into giving up her share of the company.

Ever since the car accident and the division between the families Livvy and Nico's relationship could not handle the strain. However, they have/had red-hot sexual chemistry. Once a year they meet up wherever they happen to be and basically use each other for one night of uninhibited and mostly satisfying sex.

Things change when Livvy comes home to take care of her mother who just had hip surgery. Suddenly Livvy and Nico are in the same town and their sexual attraction is harder to ignore. Both Livvy and Nico have to deal with their own feelings as well as various problems with family members as they realize they are meant to be together and try to find the courage to do that. Livvy also struggled with depression and is afraid of what that means for a relationship.

In the end, I certainly found this book entertaining enough to distract me from my exhausted legs while backpacking. I liked the main characters and their connection, but I just couldn't get into the whole family feud plot line. At first there wasn't enough information to really understand the causes. As the book went on, it seemed either an unreasonable reaction or a misunderstanding. When you can't really believe what's keeping your main characters apart, it's hard to really get into the romance of it all. I still enjoyed it, but it's not one of my favorites.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

#38 [2018/CBR10] "The Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (1991) by Naomi Wolf is another book from my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40--a list that I'm trying to finish before April. I have mixed feelings about The Beauty Myth. On the one hand, it was often challenging to read. Written almost thirty years ago, it sometimes felt dated. In addition, Wolf uses a lot of sweeping generalizations that I found frustrating. On the other hand, I think Wolf was something of a pioneer in writing about this topic and her take was often unexpected and powerful.

When I was younger, I had a horrible self image. With the height of the average man and tiny breasts, it was clear that my body did not fit what I had been told a woman's was supposed to be. I could not imagine that any man would be attracted to me when there were so many other women around that were so much more appealing. When I was in law school, I met women who were taller than me and, more importantly, comfortable with their height. I think it helped that they were athletes in sports where their height was an advantage. Their example was a remarkable lesson for me.

Anyway, I'm sorry that my younger self had to feel that way, and I'm curious if getting my hands on this book when I was in high school would have made a difference. I'm not sure. After all, one book may not have had enough power to overcome everything I'd seen and been taught my entire life. I have become much more accepting of myself since high school and college, but I'm sure I still have a problem with body acceptance. I can look around and see beauty in all the women around me, but I am much harder on myself. I am still surprised, and I don't entirely trust, when men show interest in me.

The Beauty Myth is separated into eight chapters: The Beauty Myth, Work, Culture, Religion, Sex, Hunger, Violence, and Beyond the Beauty Myth. I thought I had a good idea what was coming from each chapter title, but Wolf often surprised me. She began her book by arguing that men, society, or the powers that be (I didn't think she was very clear on this point) reacted to women gaining more power in the workforce by more severely restricting what women could look like. I had a little trouble with this explanation because women's strict beauty standards were around way before the 1980's, and I did not wholly buy the causation in Wolf's argument.

The next chapter, "Work," was surprisingly powerful. Wolf's most remarkable point was that women were put in an impossible position at work where they had to look good enough to be hired, but not so good that they would be harassed. Most striking were the numerous court cases Wolf cited showing women being fired for looking too old and/or frumpy compared with numerous other court cases that had women losing cases of sexual harassment because of dressing or looking too sexy. The judgments were absolutely ridiculous, and, I hope, not good case law anymore. However, the examples did a very good job of showing the insanity of expectations surrounding women's appearance.

Another chapter that initially surprised me was "Religion". I assumed that it would delve into how religion has affected the beauty expectations of women. Instead, Wolf argued that, as society became less religious, women turned to beauty and the beauty regimen as a new kind of religion. Interestingly, she compared the language used in religion with the language used in make-up and beauty product advertisements. It was something I'd never considered before, but the similar wording was remarkable. It did make me think about beauty products in a different way.

I had a hard time relating to Wolf's "Hunger" chapter. Obviously, I agree that women are held to an impossible standard when it comes to thinness. But Wolf discussed how hard it is to diet and what losing 25% of your body weight does to your mind and body. But that's pretty extreme. Not every woman who is dieting is losing 25% of her body weight. I thought Wolf was taking anecdotal evidence a little too far without really showing that it affects the majority of women in that way. I was more impressed with Wolf's "Sex" chapter. I found it refreshing that Wolf persuasively severed the connection between our modern idea of beauty and sexual attraction.

"Violence" was another chapter that went in an unexpected direction. In it, Wolf compared physical violence against women with the uptick in cosmetic surgical procedures. "The surgeons' market is imaginary, since there is nothing wrong with women's faces or bodies that social change won't cure; so the surgeons depend for their income on warping female self-perception and multiplying female self-hatred." (232) It was chilling to read the almost identical descriptions of the bruising from a victim of domestic violence and the bruising of a recent cosmetic surgery patient. Of course, there are dramatic differences between these two when it comes to choice, danger, and fear, but I still felt that Wolf made a powerful point.

Sometimes this book was difficult to read, sometimes if felt dated, and sometimes I was frustrated by the lack of substance in Wolf's arguments. However, Wolf made some vivid points that have shifted my perspective. When I let go of the details and simply allowed Wolf to show me an idea, The Beauty Myth could be very powerful. Wolf ends the book with the idea that women can wear make-up and dress up all they want, but they shouldn't have to do that to be seen. It's all about women getting along, empowering each other, and doing what feels good.

Friday, October 19, 2018

#37 [2018/CBR10] "Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman

I first noticed Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman on NPR's Best Books of 2017 list. I remembered the blurb said something about a quirky loner who begins to come out of her shell when she meets Raymond, the new IT guy at her work. It sounded like a fun, romantic story that I would enjoy. After waiting eons for the book to become available at the library, I was finally able to read it. And I was right, I very much enjoyed this novel. However, it was also much darker than I was expecting. Eleanor has some pretty tragic demons haunting her that made her life far from normal. She is not just a quirky loner waiting to meet the right quirky loner. A good book, but not exactly what I was expecting.

Eleanor Oliphant is initially both cringeworthy and likable. On the one hand, she is entirely unsociable and willing to dislike everyone around her. Her life is very structured and inflexible; it revolves around work, and drinking when she is not at work. Eleanor also has rigid and unreasonable expectations of what she wants and how other people should act. On the other hand, you immediately feel some sympathy for her when you see some of the casual cruelty visited upon her by her work colleagues.

Eleanor develops slowly throughout the book as she becomes more open to new experiences and the people around her. The catalyst for all this change is when Eleanor and Raymond, the new IT guy at work happen to be close by when an elderly man collapses in the street. Raymond may be a scruffy, laid-back, smoker, but he is also an empathetic, friendly, and genuine person. With neither side interested in romance, Eleanor very slowly makes her first friend. And it makes a huge difference in her life.

While Eleanor is expanding her life, the reader slowly gets to know more about Eleanor's past. In many ways, Eleanor has been living in denial, and she does not remember or understand things that have happened. It is remarkable that Eleanor was able to live as normal a life as she did. But Eleanor also isn't alone anymore, and with the help of Raymond, she is able to face her tragic childhood and move past it.

As I said above, I really liked this book, despite the unexpected darkness. The characters were well-written and their slow movement toward friendship and more felt earned. Sure, Eleanor did change so drastically, so quickly that it felt a little bit like a fairy tale, but I like the idea that friendship and community can make so much of a difference in someone's life.

The one thing that I couldn't buy was how quickly Eleanor jumped on the Twitter bandwagon with no problems or confusion. This was coming from the woman who had a hard time buying a computer and getting internet at her house. Very minor but something I noticed.