EXPeriencing ‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith

Cover image (and a more comprehensive review) via.

As an introduction to Zadie Smith, Swing Time may not have been the best choice. While I did enjoy the novel, Goodreads comments tell me it’s not as good as her earlier White Teeth or On Beauty.

That said, as a standalone novel without the comparison to Smith’s other works, I thought it was a fascinating coming-of-age tale of two girls—one who fancies herself a dancer, and one who truly has talent—who become women with quite different lives. From the narrator and her best friend’s childhood dance classes, to the narrator’s work and subsequent dismissal from her job as a pop star’s assistant, Smith jumps back and forth in time to paint a picture of how two similar childhoods can become very different adulthoods.

One of my favorite narrative elements of Swing Time is that the narrator remains unnamed throughout the entire novel. I find this to be a masterful storytelling technique, that 400 pages can go by, you know the entire life of a character, and yet, you never learn her name. This of course is a far cry from many of the stories I tried to write as a teenager that started with my main character examining herself in the mirror so as to perfectly describe her features before her mother calls her name telling her to come downstairs…

I also found Swing Time to be an important read simply because most of the main characters are people of color. In our new America, it’s more important than ever to read books about brown women written by brown women.

It’s taken me a while to write about Swing Time, and in the time since I read it, the characters haven’t really lived with me. I finished the book and they faded from my thoughts rather quickly. The story sucked me in, but it spit me out pretty fast.

If you like coming-of-age novels and want to read more books by and about people of color, I do recommend Swing Time, but maybe start with another one of Zadie Smith’s novels if you’re more curious about the author’s storytelling than this story’s characters.

Fight, Resist, Rebel… and Rest

Cover image via.

When I started listening to NPR a few years ago, I never thought there would be a day where I just had to turn it off because I couldn’t bear to hear one more horrible thing about what’s happening in our country. I never thought I would go on Facebook and Twitter and be so overwhelmed by news that I would have to hold back tears because it felt like a mountain of animosity was sitting on my shoulders.

But today was that day. I nearly flung my phone away from me at lunch with despair. It was only after listening to Beyoncé and Les Mis really loudly in my earbuds at work and not allowing myself to look at the news that I felt better.

I was alarmed by the crushing despair and anxiety that hit me today. I suffer from depression, so the feeling itself wasn’t new. But the energy and enthusiasm and drive I had felt since the Women’s March evaporated almost immediately, only to be replaced with hopelessness. It was such a drastic emotional shift that I really struggled to get back to normal.

This is when all those self-care tweets you’ve been seeing actually start to make sense. You see people saying to take time for yourself, log out of social media, take a bath, watch a movie. But how can you when the Trump administration does something insane every half hour? Trust me: you can. You need to.

The only way we’ll be ready to secure the House and Senate for Democrats in 2018 is if we have the energy to support Democratic candidates for those offices in the run up to elections. The only way we get the current president out of office in 2020 is by having the strength the come together as a party and elect a qualified candidate. And, let’s be real, the only way we can continue to even watch the news over the next four years and protest and rally and fight for America is if we have the energy.

You only have energy if you take care of yourself. Don’t look at social media for an hour before you go to bed. Read a book. A YA book. Re-read Harry Potter. Watch comedies that have nothing to do with politics. Don’t check your phone during the movie. Binge cooking shows. Eat cookies while watching baking shows. Exercise. Eat more cookies.

Whatever you want to do to rest and recover, don’t feel guilty about it. Listen to yourself. Now, when you’re fighting for the freedoms and rights of all Americans and feel like the world rests on your shoulders, let the weight off a little and do something for yourself that feels good. I promise you’ll feel better.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to go read.

A Woman’s Place Is in the Resistance

Cover photo art by Hayley Gilmore and is available for download along with her other designs! Thank you, Hayley!

Well it’s been a bit of a week, I’d say.

outside-hamilton

Me at Hamilton in Chicago.

On Wednesday, January 18, I saw Hamilton in Chicago with my best friend. It’s hard to put the experience into words (without a lot of superlatives). After listening to the Hamilton Soundtrack for nearly a year and the Hamilton Mixtape since it was released in December, I thought I knew the show pretty well. And it’s true, 90% of what’s on the soundtrack is in the show.

But there’s a reason why musicals are more than just concerts. Everything that’s happening on stage is incredible. From the minimal, rotating set, to the company dancing, to the inflections and movements of the actors, each bit of visual candy creates a richer experience than just blasting the soundtrack in your car every day.

Even though we saw the Wednesday matinee, we saw all the main cast: Miguel Cervantes as Alexander Hamilton, Ari Afsar as Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, Karen Olivo as Angelica Schuyler, Chris De’Sean Lee (a junior in college) as Lafayette/Jefferson, and the new Aaron Burr, in his second day of shows, Wayne Brady. I had my doubts about Brady as Burr, but rest assured, he was incredible. So many goosebumps in “Wait For It.”

The best thing about Hamilton, though, is what makes it so amazing no matter what form you watch or listen to it in: the history of our country’s founding is told through performances by diverse men and women who more accurately reflect today’s America. It was comforting and empowering to see people of color performing roles previously occupied by white men and women telling a story about a country—our country—that fought for its freedom.

But that fight continues today.

It was a unique experience to see Hamilton just two days before America’s first black president left office, only for that office be taken over by the man we must now call President. I couldn’t bear to watch the inauguration and see our country slide backwards.

So when the inauguration ceremony kicked off, I was at the movies watching Hidden Figures, a story of the black women who helped get America’s astronauts into space. What an incredible film! I had never heard the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and all the black “human computers” who worked at NASA in the early 1960s. Not once. To paraphrase a black woman’s post on Facebook about the movie: “I was moved to tears by the movie and so proud of these women. But I’m also angry that I was never taught about these women and others like them. What would have been the trajectory of my life if I’d known of them?”

I, too, am angry and feel a sense of betrayal that I never once learned about these women. I didn’t know they existed. To not teach little girls that women—specifically black women—helped get astronauts into space seems such an egregious oversight. All women and all minorities should have been looking up to Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary for the past 50 years, but we’re just now getting a movie? It’s not fair, especially not to black girls and women.

hamilton-signs

A couple great Hamilton signs at the Women’s March in Indy.

And that is just one reason why on Saturday, January 21, I marched. I marched (or rallied, as it were, in Indianapolis) in my pink hat with a Planned Parenthood button on my Hamilton-Chicago t-shirt because of the inequalities we still face in this country. I marched because women don’t make equal pay for equal work. I marched because I’m afraid my access to affordable birth control is in jeopardy. I marched because I am afraid for the lives of the thousands of Americans who will lose their insurance without the Affordable Care Act. I marched because immigrants deserve the same rights as natural born American citizens. I marched because LGBTQ individuals face discrimination every day, particularly in Indiana. I marched because people of color face discrimination every day, no matter where they are. I marched because I believe in the power of women, not just the power of 3 million women and their friends yesterday who marched across the world, but the power of all of us moving forward to fight for what we believe in.

We will not go back. Let’s get to it, ladies.

womens-march

Love trumps hate, indeed.

EXPeriencing ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker

Cover image via.

Banned books, particularly those by women of color, always seem to be the most beautiful.

I have a long list of books to read on my Goodreads account, and when I was making my 2017 reading challenge, I decided it was high time I made a dent on that list. As I was scrolling through, I saw The Color Purple and I knew I had to make that one of my first reads of the year.

I’m so glad I did.

My previous knowledge about The Color Purple came from watching the 1985 movie version with Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover. Watching it as a kid in the ’90s meant I didn’t quite understand what was happening other than Whoopi Goldberg’s character had a rough life and Danny Glover’s character wasn’t very nice.

Fast-forward 20+ years, and I’ve discovered there’s so much more to The Color Purple than I ever imagined.

The story is told in letters, mostly by Celie. The letters begin when she’s 14 and span her whole life. First they’re written to God, then to her sister Nettie. They depict an arduous life on sharecropper farms in the south. And Celie suffers. She is abused—physically, verbally, and emotionally—by her father, her husband, and the woman her husband loves. Through her letters, Celie recounts her relationships with her family and her friends in their small community, and how those relationships bloom and change throughout her life. Celie begins the novel as a down-trodden individual, but grows into a strong, confident woman. The transformation is slow over the decades, but every new letter reveals a new facet to Celie that we didn’t previously know.

I love how The Color Purple is written: in letters in Celie’s dialect. I’m sure reading dialect isn’t everyone’s favorite, but when it’s done well, as Alice Walker has done in The Color Purple, it tells a story like no one else could. It has to be Celie’s voice in her letters, and no proper grammar is going to get that job done.

The Color Purple is the second book by a black woman I have read in the past three months. In 2016, I read a whopping one book written by a black author. As an addendum to my 24-book reading challenge for 2017, I’m going to ensure that at least half of those books are written by women and men of color. Good books shouldn’t be dependent on the author’s ethnicity, but when all the books you read are by white people, it’s probably time to broaden your horizons. #WeNeedDiverseBooks isn’t just for children and young adults. Particularly as we head into this new US administration, it’s time to broaden our horizons and read books we normally wouldn’t by people with different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions than us.

You may learn a thing or two.

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” —Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Ringing in the New Year

Why yes, I did ring in the new year with tabletop RPG-ing. And yes, I know the photo is blurry.

2016 was a dumpster fire for most of the world. Mass shootings, Brexit, President Elect Trump, the loss of so many icons… For me personally, 2016 was a pretty good year despite these outside stressors. I read a lot of good books, played a lot of good games, helped raise a lot of money at work, and spent time with family and friends.

I didn’t read quite as many books as I challenged myself to (came in four short of my 24-book goal—much better than 2015!), and I almost completely stopped running. For 2017, I’ve made another Reading Challenge goal of 24 books, and I signed up for the Carmel Half Marathon on April 22.

The weight of creating resolutions has almost always ensured I will fail them. I can resolve to “read more” and “start running again,” but those resolutions are intangible. Making goals with deadlines that require consistent steps, however, is another story. I have deadlines: two books a month for 12 months, and training every week with at least three runs per week to prepare for a race in 111 days. If I don’t do those things, I don’t reach my goals. Simple. Actionable. Perfect. (Gotta love those SMART goals.)

Less measurable are the things I’m not doing for myself, but because of who I am. I will continue to support organizations that fight for women’s health and equality for all Americans. I will support the Democratic Party of Indiana to ensure the 2018 and 2020 elections aren’t a slap in the face like 2016 was. I will continue to speak (or write) openly about my opinions on politics, mental health issues, and other topics that I feel strongly about.

I won’t do everything right, and I’ll probably fail at something at least once this year. But it’s a new year, and with the ashes of 2016 behind us and the days inching closer to spring, we can say that today is a little brighter than yesterday, and tomorrow will be a little brighter still.

Happy New Year.

EXPeriencing the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

Cover image via Read, Write, and Read Some More.

The moral of this blog post is to always listen to book recommendations from your friends who work in publishing. When publishing people personally recommend books, you know they’re good. And my friends were absolutely right about Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy.

In my last blog post, I had just started Siege and Storm, the second book of the trilogy. The trilogy got better with every book. Siege and Storm introduced new characters and the conflict grew more dire. In Ruin and Rising, the finale of the trilogy, the stakes were painfully high, the characters were defeated left and right, and through it all, star-crossed lovers fought their fate.

I recognize that’s a hopelessly vague summary, but when you’re talking about the third book in a trilogy, everything is spoilers. I don’t want to give anything away if you’re going to check out the trilogy—and you should. I read all three books in 15 days total, and the only reason I didn’t read them in one straight sitting is because I had to work.

My favorite thing about this trilogy is that the characters feel so very real. Alina, the main character, grapples with her sun summoning powers, and the weight of saving Ravka is on her shoulders. But she’s also weighed down by love for her best friend Mal, the roguish prince who would marry her for a strong alliance, and the relentless pull to the Darkling whose tyranny is driving Ravka into darkness. No one in the series is perfect, everyone has external and internal battles to fight, and there is loss. So much loss. Of lives, loves, home, alliances, everything. Alina is not perfect, and her side is not winning. All of this makes for such a compelling read that you can’t put the books down. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. You hope it will be a victory… but so often it’s not.

The further I read in the Grisha Trilogy, the more I couldn’t help but compare it to the Hunger Games Trilogy—and the Grisha Trilogy wins. Hands down. Everything that annoyed me about the Hunger Games seemed to be done “right” in the Grisha Trilogy. Katniss wasn’t perfect, of course, but her flaws all seemed to be tied to men. Alina struggles with love, too, but it comes second to her duties as the Sun Summoner. She’s willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to do what’s right for Ravka.

I was annoyed when reading the Hunger Games that there was so much violence, but no cussing, and no sex. Characters were getting ripped apart—literally—but Peeta and Katniss never did more than kiss, and there wasn’t a single cuss word to be found in the books. The Grisha Trilogy feels more real. There is quite a bit of violence, but Ravka is in full-out war. There is some cussing—not as much, perhaps, and real soldiers and young adults, but enough in the right places that it feels natural. And, it’s very clear that some of the characters have and/or have had sex. They’re young adults. That’s what happens when they love each other and they might die. I felt at times that the Hunger Games tries to shield readers from sex and bad words, which is a bizarre juxtaposition to the violence that fills its pages. The Grisha Trilogy builds a real world and shows readers a truthfulness not just of war, but of being a young adult and what it means to love.

I look forward to starting Leigh Bardugo’s new series built in the same world as Ravka, Six of Crows. And if you’ve read any of the Grisha Trilogy, hit me up. I need to talk through my feels with someone.

EXPeriencing Escapism & Inspiration through YA

Cover images via Kirkus and Leigh Bardugo’s website.

The 2016 presidential election concluded nearly a month ago, but I don’t think it’ll ever be behind us. Not when our president elect is tweeting his frustrations at a satire comedy show and upsetting international relations.

That’s why I needed some escapism as we head into the end of the year.

Earlier this fall, in an attempt to save money and stop cluttering my bookshelf (a.k.a, my guest room floor), I got a library card for my local library. The first book I picked up was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’d never read it, and it was a beautiful, heartrending book. And as you can imagine, it was not a light read. So as Election Day neared, I wanted to read something light. Something that wouldn’t make me look at the wrongs of our past and fill me with dismay.

I picked up the sequel to the newest series by my favorite young adult author, Libba Bray: Lair of Dreams. As far as not looking at America’s past and feeling shame, fear, and distress, I definitely failed in my choice.

Lair of Dreams, part of the Diviners series, is set in 1920s New York City. The racism and misogyny of the day is enough to make you want to throw things, but Bray’s strong diverse cast of characters helps show the wrongness of those ways–and that there’s hope to overcome it.

Despite the fact that we live 90 years later, those reminders are apparently as relevant as ever.

“America had invented itself. It continued to invent itself as it went along. Sometimes its virtues made it the envy of the world. Sometimes it betrayed the very heart of its ideals. Sometimes the people dispensed with what was difficult or inconvenient to acknowledge. So the good people maintained the illusion of democracy and wrote another hymn to America. They sang loud enough to drown out dissent. They sang loud enough to overpower their own doubts. There were no plaques to commemorate mistakes. But the past didn’t forget. History was haunted by the ghosts of buried crimes, which required periodic exorcisms of truth. Actions had consequences.” —Libba Bray, Lair of Dreams

Thankfully, the mystical elements of Lair of Dreams provided enough escapism that I didn’t feel I was delving into a history lesson for 1927. That’s exactly what I was looking for. The racism and misogyny is certainly present in the novel, but mostly for historical reference. The real conflict comes from ghosts and magic and secret government programs. The conflict and the strong characters drew me in and wrapped me in their magic, and I was happy.

To keep the escapism train going, I finally decided to check out a YA series my publishing friends have been gushing about for years: the Grisha trilogy from Leigh Bardugo. I picked up the first novel, Shadow and Bone, just before Thanksgiving and devoured it in four days. I started the sequel this afternoon and the third book is ready and waiting on my kitchen table.

While Leigh Bardugo’s world is filled with war, it’s also filled with gender equality. That’s Refreshing Element #1. Refreshing Element #2 is that it’s set in a fantasy realm she invented, and it’s not based on Western Europe, but rather Russia. Despite how much Russia has been in the news, Bardugo’s Ravka is completely new and I can process its history without having to think forward to current U.S.-Russia relations.

Refreshing Element #3: Like Bray, Bardugo’s world features a strong female lead, reminding me why I’ve loved YA since I was 12. In today’s world where the most qualified woman in the country can run for president but lose to the least qualified man on Earth, seeing strong young women in action fighting government cover-ups and tyrannical mages gives me hope for women and girls today. If these are the writers and their heroines we have to look up to, I am reassured that our fight over the next four years won’t be in vain.

“The story of America is one that is still being written. Many of the ideological battles we like to think we’ve tucked neatly into a folder called ‘the past’—issues of race, class, gender, sexual identity, civil rights, justice, and just what makes us ‘American’—are very much alive today. For what we do not study and reflect upon, we are in danger of dismissing or forgetting. What we forget, we are often doomed to repeat. Our ghosts, it seems, are always with us, whispering that attention must be paid.” —Libba Bray, Lair of Dreams