My friend is dead. I have no tapes.

13 reasons why

Exactly a year ago one of my best college friends, Andrew, killed himself. I was devastated by the news. It was another suicide in a long line of suicides of people close to me and my family. That’s what you get when your parent is a psychiatrist in a state with a high rate of mental illness and low access to care and all manner of mental illness runs in your family. While all of them have been painful, I think this one was the hardest. Whenever these tragedies strike, I’m reminded of the book 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher and why I dislike that book’s portrayal of suicide so very very much.

13 Reasons Why is about a high-school girl named Hannah who dies of suicide but leaves a box of 13 cassette tapes, one for each of the people who she blames for driving her to suicide – classmates and former friends who bullied her, a student who raped a friend and assaulted Hannah, and the school counselor who ignored her cries for help – explaining to them why they are responsible for her death. The tapes are delivered to Clay who had a crush on Hannah and shared what seemed to be an innocent make-out session with her, and he is entrusted to make sure the tapes make it to their intended recipients.

Over the years that I have read and reread the book, it was hard to put my finger on the reason why I hated it. It seemed to change with every reading. First I hated that it romanticized suicide. Then I found it distasteful and disappointing that it turns suicide into the tool of a revenge fantasy. It bothered me that it gives Hannah a voice but hands all the glory to Clay on her behalf. I found it hard to believe that Hannah would premeditate her suicide to such a degree as to have time and drive to record all these tapes with such eloquence and clarity, plan how they would be delivered, and then actually go through with it. Sometimes I just wasn’t a big fan of the writing. But Andrew’s death revealed a whole new reason to me – I’m jealous of the closure.

Even a year later, I find myself wondering about the time between him leaving the last person he saw that night, the thoughts that went through his mind, and the decision he ultimately made. Was he lonely? Was he afraid? Did he consider calling someone? Did he call someone? If he thought back on the last 10 years, did he think of our years of college partying that undoubtedly contributed to his addiction with joy or remorse? Could I have done something different? Could we all have done something to help? What had happened to my friend?

I’ll never know. My friend is dead. I have no tapes. All I have is a group of grieving friends and unanswered questions. I have a screenshot saved on my computer of our last Facebook conversation. I have questions that are still nagging me a year later. Every once in a while I have dreams about him. What I wouldn’t do for a recording of his voice offering some kind of explanation, even if it would be hard to listen to. I don’t need 13 reasons. One would be plenty.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

NotoriousRBG

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
Dey Street Books
October 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On the Amelia Bloomer Top Ten list

You probably recognize Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman in history to sit on the Supreme Court, by her small stature, her signature collars, her pursed mouth, or even from the online memes created to celebrate her in recent years. But if you are like me, you had no idea of the whole story. Luckily MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon and founder of the Notorious RBG tumblr, Shana Knizhnik, were here to educate me on all the ways that RBG and her work, even before joining the Supreme Court, has opened doors, knocked down walls, and sought to give women and men equal opportunities and rights (though admittedly we have a long way yet to go). The book is a mix of biography and legal history, covering RBG’s personal life and early career as well as her most famous and influential court cases.

Even more amazing to me than the accomplishments of RBG is the world in which she started her career. As a millennial woman, I knew in a vague way that women didn’t always have the opportunities that I have today, but I had no idea how bad it was. Notorious RBG lays it all out: losing your job for getting pregnant; forced abortions for women in the military even while abortion is illegal in the rest of the country; women unable to get a job to support themselves and their children after a husband dies; working women dying and their husbands not getting to collect benefits because the law assumes no women work; and the list goes on and on. RBG made it her life’s work – starting with her positions at the ACLU and teaching at high-profile law schools and still today with her seat on the Supreme Court – to make the U.S. a better place for women than it was when she was growing up but doing so while also fighting for the equal rights of all people. She is also such a character. From her relationship with her husband to the way she treats her clerks to her personal style, she is a class act and a shero of the highest order.

This book is well researched and readable. The chapter titles come from Notorious B.I.G. lyrics and there is tribute art sprinkled throughout the book. In addition to notes and citations, it has some fun back matter like “How to Be Like RBG” and “R.B.Juicy,” parody lyrics to Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Juicy.”

I don’t have any read alikes for this book, so here are some favorite quotes:

“The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.” (Chapter 4, location 1054 in Kindle edition)

“If women are to be leaders in life and in the military, then men have got to become accustomed to taking commands from women, and men won’t become accustomed to that if women aren’t let in.” (Chapter 5, loc. 1550 in Kindle edition)

“Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.” (Chapter 10, loc. 2633 in Kindle edition)

Roller Girl

rollergirl

Roller Girl
Victoria Jamieson
Dial Books
March 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On the YALSA list of Top Ten Great Graphic Novels & Top Ten Popular Paperbacks

Being a tween is tough, especially when, like Astrid, you start to grow apart from your life-long best friend. The rift between Astrid and her BFF Nicole reaches a breaking point when Nicole decides to go do ballet summer camp with Astrid’s archenemy instead of signing up for roller derby camp. To make matters worse, Astrid can’t even stay upright on her skates, let alone speed around and hip check the older girls, required skills if she is going to make a name for herself (literally, she needs to come up with a catchy, punny roller derby name) among the Rosebuds, the junior roller derby girls in Portland, Oregon. As Astrid tries to make her big break into roller derby, she simultaneously navigates making new friends, maintaining her relationship with her mom (who is apparently single and a also an academic librarian), and exploring her identity, which may or may not include blue hair but definitely doesn’t include pink clothing. In a pitch-perfect display of what it is like to be a totally irrational, emotional, awkward, insecure middle-school girl, Victoria Jamieson creates a character in Astrid that simultaneously makes you want to cheer her on and cringe at her decisions and embarrassments. It will also make you want to strap on some skates over rainbow socks and get out in the rink.

After reading Roller Girl and, of course watching Whip It – that movie with Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore – I’m ready for more roller derby. Portlandia hasn’t parodied it yet, a fact that hasn’t escaped the attention of the Rose City Rollers, the roller derby team that Victoria Jamieson is on IRL!

I think Candace and Toni would put on great war faces.

toniandcandace

Read Alikes

El Deafo by Cece Bell
Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Audacity

audacity

Audacity
Melanie Crowder
Philomel
January 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On the YALSA list of Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults

Melanie Crowder’s novel in verse tells the story of Clara Lemlich, a women’s labor activist in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. We follow Clara from the Russian shtetl where her family was the victim of pogroms to Ellis Island and a new but still impoverished life in New York. With her father and three brothers occupied studying Torah full time, Clara and her mother must find ways to earn money to support the family. Clara finds work in garment sweatshops with abusive managers, unreasonable hours and quotas, locked doors, child laborers, and unsafe working environments, all to earn less than $10 a week. Seeing the injustice and danger in working in such conditions, Clara sets out to unionize the female workers. She is met with opposition from her family, the men’s union, the managers, and their hired goons who beat her up on several occasions, but she won’t be silenced. At great personal cost, Clara perseveres and makes greater gains than her doubters could have imagined. While Clara’s story is compelling – even more so with the modern fight for wage equality and raising the minimum wage – the end of the book is unsatisfying and feels a bit unfinished. Extensive back matter elaborates on Clara’s story and labor issues of the time.

Clara’s family’s Jewish traditions and lifestyle were particularly interesting to me. I’m currently living in Jerusalem and am learning so much about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Much of it is unchanged from what the book describes in the early 1900s. Still today it’s very common for the men in ultra-Orthodox families to study Torah while the women of the family are the main providers, both financially and domestically, usually for families with 6 or more children. In Israel, the government has a welfare system to make sure these families don’t starve, but it is expensive and these families still live in relative poverty. Keeping Kosher while traveling and working on Shabbat are other issues that modern Jews still deal with, though access to packaged food and labor laws regarding religion make these much less of a big deal than they were for Clara’s family.

My other takeaway from this book – I’m shocked by how much Clara gets beat up! There is some serious violence against women in this book, and it is just amazing to me how this doesn’t scare Clara into silence. She really was so brave. She deserves to be held up as an example of standing up for what you believe in.

The Weight of Feathers

weight of feathers

The Weight of Feathers
Anna-Marie McLemore
St. Martin’s Griffin
September 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
William C. Morris Honor

Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Almendro where we lay our scene…

Like the Montagues and Capulets or the Hadfields and McCoys, the Corbeaus and the Palomas are two feuding families in very close proximity, jockeying for turf and fighting with each other over tragedies that happened before some of them were even born. Every summer the Corbeaus and the Palomas, both nomadic families of performers, cross paths in Almendro and old grudges flair. The Palomas cost the Corbeau’s grandfather his steady job (the only one in the family) at the nearby chemical plant; the Corbeaus killed a Paloma uncle; the Palomas ruined the forest where the Corbeaus perform; a Corbeau raped a Paloma, etc., etc. The children of these families have been raised to hate each other through these stories and through family lore about black magic. One summer when a disaster strikes Almendro, two of the children – Lace Paloma and Cluck Corbeau – are unexpectedly thrown together, not realizing who the other is. Lace is kicked out of her family for fraternizing with a Corbeau, and in an effort to reverse some perceived black magic while also keeping her identity secret, Lace ends up working for the Corbeaus and, of course, falling in love with Cluck who is also an outcast in his own family. Everyone in this book has a secret and they surface one by one as Cluck and Lace navigate their own romance under the shadow of their families’ history.

While the comparison to Romeo and Juliet is an obvious one, it turns out the feuding families and star-crossed lovers are the end of that comparison. The Weight of Feathers is neither as tragic nor as straight-forward as Romeo and Juliet. The families’ performances – the Corbeaus do a kind of tight-rope walking act in trees while wearing wings and posing as fairies and the Palomas’s show is their daughters pretending to be mermaids in the lake – the belief in black magic and the supernatural, and the unusual birthmarks that run in both families give the story a dark, whimsical quality. The writing is a little melodramatic for my taste, particularly the passages that build up Lace and Cluck’s relationship. And those names. I didn’t think this was possible, but I also felt like the writing was overly sensory. Everyone and everything smells or tastes or feels like something – sometimes like multiple things – all the time. It started to feel like there was never an interaction where people simply see and hear each other and then move on. Sensory descriptions are necessary in creative writing but in this case it was so over the top to the point of being distracting.

I’m begging you to read this book as an e-book with translation available. There are French and Spanish phrases throughout and very few of them are translated in the text. If I had not been reading in the Kindle app, it would have driven me crazy! That being said, I enjoyed testing out my high school Spanish and French and seeing how much I could remember on my own.

Read Alikes

The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern
Swamplandia by Karen Russell

Drowned City

drowned_city

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans
Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
August 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On YALSA’s 2016 list Top Ten Great Graphic Novels

Released for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Don Brown’s Drowned City revisits the storm, the tragic aftermath, and the failure of political leadership that ensued in the storm’s wake. The graphic novel’s panels are colored in murky grays, browns, and blues and show a masterful use of perspective, as you can see on the cover. The text is clear and straight forward. Brown doesn’t reveal new information or demand that the reader see the storm one way or another. Rather he writes in a way that invites the reader simply to remember or, for the kids who were too young to remember first-hand, to look at what happened and judge for themselves.

In a instance of serendipity, I read this book the same day I watched Beyonce’s Formation music video for the first time. The people of New Orleans, particularly the poor, black people, have never really truly recovered from the economic and social ramifications of Hurricane Katrina, and the country needs to be reminded periodically of the lasting pain until we fix the problems that allow tragedies like this to disproportionately effect the most vulnerable among us.

It’s also important in an election year to have a book like this to remind us of the impact our political leadership has when the unexpected happens. The panels about President George W Bush and his incompetent appointees juxtaposed with the unimaginable suffering of the people of New Orleans made my skin crawl. It’s so easy to forget but important to remember.

Read Alikes

Ninth Ward by Jewel Parker Rhodes

X

X

X
Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon
Candlewick Press
January 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On YALSA’s 2016 list Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults

Malcolm X is a historical icon of the civil rights movement, but how much does your average person know about his young life that led him there? In X, Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, with co-writer Kekla Magoon, presents a fictionalized telling of her father’s young, fast life and illegal escapades starting in Lansing, Michigan when he is 15, and ending in a Massachusetts prison complex by way of Boston and Harlem. It’s not all jazz bars and zoot suits, though there is a lot of those. Malcolm Little, as he was known then, is also in a lot of emotional pain over his father’s death, his mother’s institutionalization, the killing and oppression of black people in America, and the disappointments and betrayals that seem to meet him at every turn. The story is told first-person by Malcolm, who despite some of the illegal and immoral things he does, comes across as a very sympathetic character, someone to root for in spite of his choices. The Harlem and Roxbury settings come alive with music and dance halls and dodgy characters. The back matter is extensive with several notes about the time period, Malcolm X’s life after the book ends, a timeline, a family tree, and further reading.