June Reading Recap: Summer (So Far) Book Reviews
June was a doozy! I’ll get right into it: below are my reviews, from duds to winners, of books I read last month.
Who is Vera Kelly?
In short, the writing was too melodramatic. I can’t stand a narrator who takes herself too seriously. The story begins in a jarring way, jumping back and forth across decades, one page encountering what could be construed as a suicide attempt, the next flung into Argentina discussing bugs (as in what spies use, not many-legged critters). It took me about 50 pages, pushing myself to continue reading, to get past basic exposition and get settled in, and then I just didn’t even care. I’ve rarely felt so ambivalent toward a book.
Before I returned it to the library, I read the last line just for kicks, and it confirms my decision to drop it:
“In my attic room, while I waited for the eggs to hatch above me, I sometimes heard the brief beating of strong wings” (266).
Arsenault writes a post-mortem of her hometown Mexico, Maine, which had a paper mill that caused environmental damage and correlated with a significant increase in cancer incidence among workers, though investigating a causal relationship between the two has proven a major uphill battle hampered by the powers that be.
The writing sets scene after scene like the best journalism, but it’s the kind of story that you know is a tragedy. I realized I personally didn’t need to know the details, and while I could compel myself to continue reading and get something out of it, I just didn’t want to.
A second strike for Moshfegh. I persisted reading this to about page 100, just waiting for it to get good, and then realized that’s exactly how my previous Moshfegh book went (Death in Her Hands)--only that one never got good despite making it to the finish. Since reading Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which I LOVED, I have had so much faith in this author that I keep doubting my own reading experience. But I was happy to put this one down for good.
Eileen is a grim character. Being in her head is both dark and too much information. (There are several pages dedicated to evacuating her bowels. Really.) At the same time, the writing is top notch. Moshfegh clearly knows what she is doing with the written word. Nevertheless, I’m finding that a talented writer does not always make for an enjoyable read.
I picked this book up to do personal research on period issues to get my cycle back on track. In this book Vitti, a holistic health coach, outlines her five-step protocol that she suggests all women follow for best reproductive and hormonal health regardless of diagnosis.
The protocol focuses especially on food. While Vitti urges readers against orthorexia, a newly identified eating disorder marked by an obsession with “clean” eating, she says if you just focus on eating organic 80% of the time, you can fudge the rest. (I don’t know about you, but 80% organic seems a little militant to me.) Then she lays out a meticulous meal plan with details such as:
Have 8 ounces of water before eating breakfast.
Only have caffeine after you’ve eaten breakfast.
Measure out your grains--no more than 30 grams at breakfast.
Eat lunch 3.5 hours later.
Only have one source of starch at a meal, i.e. if you have beans, skip the rice.
This protocol might work for a person who has the time and money to dedicate to the seemingly full-time project of their health. I also find her instructions oxymoronic--don’t develop an eating disorder, but follow these hyper-controlling rules. The idea of using food as medicine sounds wonderful until that philosophy causes a person to have anxiety about what they’re eating.
Woman Code might also be useful for a person who is having issues with her body’s functioning, but hasn’t succeeded in ascertaining a diagnosis. Sometimes figuring out what the problem is can be an obstacle, and if you want some tips to help you out NOW, I do think this book could probably offer some helpful takeaways.
On one hand, I can get behind a philosophy that basically encourages you to give your body what it needs and taps into its ability to heal itself. This seemingly aligns beautifully with the chiropractic philosophy of health, and I can totally imagine other people in my field loving this book. On the other hand, I almost immediately had a hard time with the one-size-fits-all approach. For me, I prefer the Period Repair Manual by Lara Briden, ND, which you can read about below.
This Is Where You Belong
Boring. So boring! Why did I even finish this book? 1) I wanted to learn practical tips for making Pasadena feel more like home, and 2) This book fulfilled what I consider the “loser” position in my reading life--my before-bed book that I read to wind down. Very few books actually succeed in making me sleepier, but this one sure fit the bill.
The writing lacked focus. Most chapters I wondered what was the point Warnick was trying to make. She could have cut down a lot of words and ended up with clearer, more engaging writing. Instead, I read about Warnick’s random white-lady privileged “experiments” which were really just experiences in her town of Blacksburg, Virginia. The chapters seemed divided into the main pieces of advice, e.g. buy local, walk your town, get involved in local politics, but THEN she concluded the book with this weird hodge-podge of advice that didn’t match up with the chapters at all. There was no central, unifying idea. And it was so. boring. OMG. 😭
I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up
This was a quick, entertaining story. In this Japanese Manga (translated into English) Morimoto takes up her best friend’s offer to get married so that her parents will stop badgering her to find a husband. Only, her best friend is a girl, which throws her parents for a loop. Yet Morimoto learns from her BFF-turned-wife to unearth her true desires and say them out loud with her parents, at her work place, and in her marriage. However, I did find the ending a little unbelievable!
I found this to be light-hearted and not as sexually graphic as other Japanese Manga I’ve read. I would say this is appropriate for high schoolers and up. And quick tip--the book is arranged to be read from right to left! So make sure to turn to the “back” of the book to start at the beginning, and read the frames right to left, too.
Period Repair Manual
Lara Briden, ND
“Women’s health is not a niche topic. It is general health for half the humans on earth. For too long, women’s hormones have been thrown in the ‘too-hard’ basket and managed with birth control.”
I read this for the same purpose as I picked up Woman Code: I want to fix my period without going on the pill. And with this book, I found clear diagnostic algorithms, lists of questions to ask my doctors, and natural (non-pharmaceutical) treatments to get my body back on track. I definitely learned what I hoped to learn by reading this book.
In contrast to Woman Code, this is NOT a one-size-fits-all solution. And while Briden does get into some eating suggestions, she is much gentler in her approach. However, she often suggests eliminating gluten and/or dairy, and you can decide for yourself what you think about that.
While you can cherry-pick the chapters to read that pertain most to whatever it is you’re dealing with (e.g. painful periods, PCOS, menopause, etc.) Briden stresses that it is meant to be read in its entirety. I agree with this approach to an extent. The first six chapters are beneficial to anyone with a period, and then the chapters get more specific. I did read the entire book, and I took extensive notes, but my attention waned for the latter-half content that didn’t apply to me.
Girls & Sex
In short, this was a great non-fiction reading experience. The book is the right length for the topic, the writing is strong, and the ending is hopeful.
Published in 2016, Orenstein describes the sex culture of high school girls and college women based on interviews with scores of them. Her research brings to light the hook-up and drinking culture along with the impact of social media. As a former Big Ten college student with a steady boyfriend, I existed on the fringe of this culture but knew plenty of people living it.
While fascinating, this book is hard to read. In the introduction, Orenstein writes that despite #notallmen, “every girl I spoke with, every single girl--regardless of her class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation; regardless of what she wore, regardless of her appearance--had been harassed in middle school, high school, college, or often, all three” (11). Every. Single. Girl. It hurts to read about girls and women’s sexual experiences that are so degrading and sad. It’s not entirely boys’ fault--they aren’t born with a sense of entitlement, and Orenstein points out that boys have their own pressures and expectations to deal with, too.
I think the culture Orenstein describes is a result of socialization of each of the primary genders (male and female). Boys are taught their pleasure is foremost, and to demand it proves their masculinity. Girls are taught to please without regard for their own pleasure. Whether a person is sexually active, or waiting for marriage, or somewhere in between, those messages are ubiquitous. Orenstein found that in practice a girl’s body is not an agent for her own pleasure; rather, a girl’s sense of self-respect is supposed to be sacrificed for the pleasure of her male partner.
Orenstein sticks with the heteronormative perspective, which is a missed opportunity to tell the full story. Furthermore, even though this book is only five years old, I wonder how much has changed since she published it? How does #metoo factor into the culture she describes? Lucky for us, Orenstein published a companion volume in 2020 called Boys & Sex, which I’ll review next month.
The Unseen World
This novel is close to flawless, in my opinion. If you just want to immerse yourself in a story where there are no issues with craft and characters’ actions are believable for who they are, and has a satisfying and thorough ending, this is the book to read.
It’s tagged as “young adult” fiction, but that may be simply because the main character is a teen for most of the novel. The themes are not simplified or saccharin as I often find in YA lit, and include family, home and belonging, and how memory makes us (and our technology) human.
The Vanishing Half
Even better than her first novel The Mothers, Bennett’s novel The Vanishing Half has received plenty of well-deserved hype.
Twins Stella and Desiree grow up in the small town of Mallard, home to an interracial (Black/white) population who take pride in the lightness of their skin. When Desiree convinces Stella to run away with her to New Orleans, Stella finds she can pass for white, and deserts her sister to live life as a white woman completely cut off from her roots. Desiree, after her marriage turns abusive, returns home with her daughter Jude in hand, a spectacle to the town of Mallard for her “Blue-black” skin. The story follows not only Jude but Stella’s daughter Kennedy, and how the story of each contrasts.
The Vanishing Half is a great title, referring to the vanishing half of a set of twins, the vanishing Black half of biracial Stella. Throughout the book I wondered, which twin shows stronger character? Whose daughter is better off for their mother’s actions? For their skin color?
The writing is beautiful, and so is the story. This is a great book.
I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are
“Who is normal?
Your Freddie Prinze Jr. look-alike crush?
-from a poem Rachel wrote at age 12
Rachel Bloom is one of my favorite people. She wrote and starred in the comedy musical television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend before writing this humor-memoir. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, she addresses mental health in a way that is relatable, hilarious, raunchy at times, but also smart, insightful, and original. Her book is no different.
Rachel has always been up front about her own struggles with mental health. As successful as she is now, it’s not surprising that she had a hard time growing up with anxiety and being bullied. Here she shares what it was like to have OCD as a child before she could really describe or understand what she was experiencing, and what a relief it was to have a name for her mental illness as an adult, because if there was a name for it, then she was not alone. This of course didn’t keep her from coming up with her own names for OCD: “The Guilty Itch, The Hungry Hungry Manson Caterpillar, Stanley Kubrick’s Interpretation of a Mobius Strip, Stomach Ursula, Mr. Bad Shadow Bin Laden, or Oh-God-I-Have-to-Puke-but-the-Puke-Is-My-Thoughts” (46).
The best part of Rachel’s memoir is entitled “Normal People Were Normal Children,” which includes a middle school newspaper article she wrote about inside jokes, a teen diary entry of a free-verse sex poem, and a toilet-training story that was both shameless and laugh-out-loud funny. (Rachel Bloom writes about the scatalogical in a way that makes you want to keep reading, unlike Ottessa Moshfegh.)
If you’re not familiar with Rachel Bloom’s show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, you may not love this book like I did. If you find her show a little too crass for your liking, I’m sorry to say you might find this book a little too crass for your liking. However, you’d be missing out on some of the funniest writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading.