Dear Girls

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ali Wong
Genres: Memoir, Humour
Pub. date: Oct. 2019 (read Nov. 2019 on Audible)

I don’t think I even knew who Ali Wong was a year ago, but suddenly she is everywhere and she is hilarious. I think I first heard of her when I read this buzzfeed article about how awesome her glasses are and how she finds the frames by converting sunglasses into glasses. I was like, this woman sounds cool, so I watched both her comedy specials on Netflix when I was home sick one day and thought they were hilarious. I made my husband watch Always Be My Maybe with me, and while I had some issues with the movie, I still enjoyed Ali’s acting and comedy.

If you’ve seen her comedy specials, then you’ll probably like this book. She recycles some of the same themes, but it just serves in making you feel like she’s actually a friend of yours. It’s like, “oh yeah, I remember her mentioning that before”, but she’ll take it off on a new tangent and you just feel like you’re getting to know her a little better. Dear Girls is funny, but it’s also meaningful. It’s crafted as a series of letters to her two daughters. It still has Ali’s signature brand of crassness, but overall, its less crass then some of her comedy and she talks about a lot of relevant things.

Some of the book is advice for her daughters on funny things that have happened to her, while other advice is really thoughtful points on comedy and what it means to be a visible female minority. I liked that she talked about how frustrating it is to have your success pinned on your race and gender, but also about how annoying it is to also constantly be asked about it. She will never be “just another comic” and will always be defined and asked about what it’s like to be female and Asian and a comic.

I was dying to request a copy of this from Netgalley, but I decided to hold off so that I could listen to the audiobook instead. The fact that it’s narrated by Ali makes it so much better. She does cycle around a lot of the same ideas though, so I was glad she didn’t overdo it by making the book too long. Personally, I thought she hit a great balance and would definitely recommend both her audiobook and Netflix comedy specials!

Educated

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Tara Westover
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Nov. 2019 on Audible)

Educated was our book club pick for November and I really wanted to listen to it on audiobook, but it took me forever to finish my previous audiobook (The Amber Spyglass), so I was a bit late in starting it and had to really rush through it.

Fortunately it had a good narrator and it was a compelling story, so it wasn’t too hard to listen to and push through. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book since it came out, but I’m not a big non-fiction reader and it sounded a lot like The Glass Castle to me, so I never bothered to pick it up. I was excited to finally read it, but I do have to say that after finishing it, despite some differences, it did still remind me a lot of The Glass Castle.

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked The Glass Castle and I really liked Educated, but it was really hard not to compare the two and at times I definitely got some serious deju-vu from Westover’s story. While Tara Westover and Jeannette Walls did have different stories, there were still a lot of similarities. They both grew up in families with fathers suffering from mental health issues who are very much paranoid about the government and as a result, decide to mostly live off the grid – taking advantage of their families by keeping them isolated and somewhat in the dark to what the outside world is really like.

However, Mormonism plays a very large role in Westover’s story and was one of the more fascinating parts of the book for me. I haven’t had much exposure to the Mormon religion and it was really interesting to learn about Mormon beliefs, how they were interpreted by Tara’s father, and how those beliefs oppressed and impacted Tara throughout her childhood, formative years, and even into adulthood.

Despite the title, Westover’s story was about so much more than just education. In retrospect, her education was probably the part that interested me the least. I like how she examines at the end of the book the role her education played in opening up her eyes and allowing her to escape the cycle of violence in her family, but overall I don’t think most people read this book to learn about her education.

That said, how Tara managed to get into college and obtain a PhD from Cambridge with no formal childhood education is still a mystery to me and something that seemed to be glossed over in the book. I really struggled to believe she would be so successful with so little support (emotional and financial) and I did wonder if we were really getting the full story at times. She says she was bad at math and that she really only ever read the book of Mormon, so its a bit mystifying to me how she managed to get through multiple degrees, much less excel at them. But obviously their family life taught the children something because 3 of the 7 Westover’s went on to earn doctorates.

So while I did like this book and Westover’s writing, I was neither shocked by the content, nor totally convinced of the story. What I do admire though, is that Westover actually wrote and published this account of her family. The entire book really is about her struggle to both emancipate herself from her family, but still be loved and accepted by them. She sacrifices a lot in order to gain an education and even though she recognizes the harmful and destructive tendencies of her family members, she still yearns to be one of them.

It was really interesting to read about the long term impacts that Mormonism had on her life and how long it took her to recognize the ways in which she has been oppressed and ignorant. I say her book is admirable because the very act of committing to paper this story of her family and then sharing it with the world pretty much guarantees her continued exile from her family. The ending is very nebulous because her story really is not over yet and her family story is still unresolved. But I admire her for recognizing the harmful parts of her family’s behaviour and deciding to expose them when her family refused to listen to her or to change. Her father has obvious issues, but her recount of her brother Shawn was much more chilling. Good for her for finally saying, enough is enough, if you won’t change, I will expose you.

I still gave it 4 stars, but I wasn’t quite as enamoured with it as the rest of the world seems to be. It’s well written and thought provoking and it works well as a memoir, I just found it a bit of a challenge to suspend my disbelief when it actually came to her education. That said, Tara was gaslighted by her family for years and as a result her memories have been tampered with and are likely unreliable. But I guess it just makes her story all the more inspirational and like I said, at its heart, I don’t really think this was a book about education. Still a 4 star read for me despite some of these criticisms.

Chase Darkness With Me

Rating:
Author: Billy Jensen
Genres: Non-fiction, True Crime
Pub. date: Aug. 2019 (read Sep. 2019 on Audible)
Narrated by: Billy Jensen

Chase Darkness was a bit of an impulse buy. It came up in my search of “best audiobooks of 2019” (or something along those lines) and as usual, I bought it because I thought the narrator sounded good.

I recently listened to Michelle McNamara’s audiobook, I’ll be Gone in the Dark, which I really liked, so I figured I give this one a try too. The non-fiction nature of true crime translates pretty well to audio format and I was not disappointed. What I did not realize until listening to this book though, is that the author, Billy Jensen, is actually the author that finished Michelle’s book after her death. So it made for a really interesting read because he references Michelle’s book throughout and spends a chapter discussing the capture of the Golden State killer, which had not occurred at the time of publication of I’ll be Gone in the Dark.

So I do feel a bit like I stumbled upon this whole fan base of true crime and citizen solved crimes. Billy Jensen is a journalist. Unlike Michelle, he wasn’t totally focused on solving one single case, although there were crimes that have stuck with him over the years that he would really love to see solved. But Jensen’s real focus was on solving crimes through crowd sourcing on social media. He was haunted by several criminals who have never been ID’d, despite the police having decent photos or videos of them. Billy wondered if any of these crimes could be solved using social media. He experimented a bit with crowd sourcing and suddenly he was actually helping solve crimes!

That does make it sound a little bit easier than it actually was. In many cases Jensen was not able to get an ID on the criminals or killers, but in other cases, sharing crime videos and photos on platforms like facebook, and targeting the audience to a radius around where the crime was committed, did actually result in positive ID’s of the criminal!

I found this book interesting because it does look at a variety of cases instead of just one, and there is the immediate satisfaction of finding the answer to crimes that are many years old. Plus it was interesting to learn about the frustrations Jensen faced when he either couldn’t get an ID, or worse, did get an ID, but never a conviction or even an investigation because the police just couldn’t build up enough evidence. It was interesting that some of the criminals were ID’d based not on facial recognition, but recognition of their size, voice, gait, or general demeanor.

I’m not going to discuss any of the cases in my review, there wasn’t any particular case that stuck out to me. Mostly it was just interesting learning about citizen investigations. I find true crime fascinating enough, but I’m definitely not an aficionado, though it was interesting learning about people that are. There’s definitely a huge portion of people out there that are obsessed with true crime and solving decades-old crimes. Jensen is one of them and did let his obsession take over his life, especially once he actually starting solving crimes and had the police and victim’s families actively approaching him for help.

The book did end a little earlier than I was anticipating, because the last part is dedicated to citizen solves and is basically Jensen advising people who want to get involved in citizen investigations. That’s personally not me, so I skipped the last bit, but still enjoyed the book overall. It’s narrated by the author and I thought he did a good job.

I do think it enhanced the experience that I had already read Michelle McNamara’s book, so I’d maybe recommend reading hers first, though definitely not necessary. Both books had similar topics, but offer different listening experiences.

The Golden Compass

Rating:
Author: Philip Pullman
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: 1995 (read on Audible Sep. 2019)

The Golden Compass was a re-read for me. I started the series back when I was in University, but I never finished it because University is just a huge giant time suck that doesn’t allow you to read for pleasure. I read the first two books, but never got around to the final book.

I had heard lots of great things about the series and my husband raved about it, so I expected to love it, but ended up being very underwhelmed by it. I think I would have been unlikely to return to it had I not stumbled upon the full cast audiobooks and known there was a tv series coming out later this year. But I’m so glad I made a second attempt at the series because I have been absolutely loving it on Audible!

The Golden Compass is set in a world similar to ours, but with some substantial differences. In this world, everyone has a daemon, which is a sort of animal companion that is bonded to you. Children’s daemon’s can change and take any animal form, while adults daemon’s eventually settle into one form. The story starts with our protagonist Lyra, a young girl whose age I can’t recall (let’s say ~10 or 11), hiding in the retiring room at Oxford and overhearing a very interesting discussion surrounding the concept of Dust.

Lyra is an orphan who grew up at Oxford, surrounded by scholars and street urchins. She’s a bold girl who’s not afraid to boss the other children around and has a terrible habit of lying. She doesn’t know what Dust is, but the scholars are fascinated by this Dust and are enthralled to learn that Lyra’s Uncle, Lord Asriel, has been able to photograph it in the North. Lyra’s curiousity is piqued and she becomes desperate to explore the North and see the Dust and magnificent aurora for herself.

At the same time, mysterious things are happening at Oxford and children start disappearing. To explain the disappearances, the other children blame the mysterious Gobblers, who are said to kidnap and eat children. Suddenly Lyra finds herself engulfed in the plot and travelling to the North to save her friend from the Gobblers and find out more about Dust and why everyone is so concerned about it.

The first thing I’ll say about this book is that I’m a bit shocked it’s a children’s book. I know children read all kinds of horrific stuff without being affected by it, but this book has some seriously crazy shit in it. But more impressively, it has a seriously convoluted plot, which is what impresses me more about it as a children’s book.

I will always maintain that the best children’s books are the books that appeal to both children and adults. The Golden Compass is definitely one of those books that is sold to children, but really targets adults. There are so many levels to the storytelling that it can really be enjoyed at any age. Children enjoy it for its strong protagonist and fantastical elements, like flying witches and armoured bears, while adults will enjoy it for its mature themes about religion and the church.

Yes, you read that right, the underlying themes of this book centre most prominently on the church and its power. Pullman explores other themes like the loss of innocence, morality, and the existence of souls, but at its core this is a book about the role religion plays in our society and how religious doctrine has snuck its way into our governments and legal systems.

The religious overtones are subtle for most of The Golden Compass, but it becomes more clear towards the end of the book where Pullman plans to take this series. There’s a great air of mystery throughout most of this book – what is dust, who are the Gobblers, what is the Magisterium doing – but once we start getting answers to some of these questions, it becomes clear how far the power of the church reaches. They have a great fear of sin, which causes them to commit unspeakable atrocities.

The church, or Magisterium, is strongly reminiscent of the catholic church, however, I think Pullman’s themes apply to really any branch of the christian church. I’m about halfway through the second book now (or I was at the time of writing this – I’ve since finished the series) and I do find Pullman a bit heavy handed at times, but sometimes exaggeration is required to make a point and do I think he makes several relevant arguments. The “church” in general is a very powerful institution, and no matter what religion you look at (christianity, islam, hinduism, etc), it has very much infused itself into modern governance. The question is, does the church belong in our governance systems?

Personally, I think no. The core message of most religious texts is simple – love others. If that was as much as we tried to infuse into our government, I’d say sure, but unfortunately the church is much more caught up in control, and that’s where it gets dangerous. The christian church in America (and yes Canada), is very caught up in controlling everything from women’s reproductive rights, to marriage rights, to access to healthcare, to scientific freedom, and what can be taught in schools. Then if you look further into institutions like the catholic church, they’re also interested in controlling families by keeping women out of positions of influence.

But why is the church so interested in this control? If your mandate is to love others, why does any of that other stuff matter. For me, everything that the right-wing christians are selling in America right now is about protecting the long held power and privilege of straight, white men.

One of the best ways that I think they do this is through misdirection. One example is the anti-choice movement. They would have us believe that they’re all about fetus rights and the sanctity of life, but it’s really about power and control. If the anti-choice supporters actually believed in the sanctity of life and protecting women and children, they would support access to birth control, healthcare, welfare, and sex education. There is no wealth and power without poverty and those in power want to maintain all the privileges they’ve become accustomed to.

But a lot of it leads back to this notion of “sin”. The church condemns women who want abortions as immoral, gay marriage as abhorrent, and science as the loss of faith. But this fear of sin is what drives the need to control it. Religion generally acknowledges that everyone sins, but all these additional rules and restrictions just make it that much easier to “sin”.  The theme of sin is only introduced at the end of The Golden Compass, but I’m interested to see where Pullman takes it in the rest of the series because the word “sin” means different things to different people and part of the problem is that we all have our own definition of what constitutes “sin”.

In Lyra’s world, the magisterium wants to eliminate sin from the world, and in their quest to do that, they cause incredible harm. Not unlike the way the church still alienates everyone who is different or who does not fit within their narrow view of what is “right”.

Anyways, I didn’t expect to get into such an in-depth discussion on religion, but these are issues that I do spend a lot of time thinking about. I do want to keep the ideas of the church (or organized religion) separate from spirituality though because I do think they are two completely different things. You can condemn the church as an institution, without condemning the idea of spirituality and the existence of a greater being.

So I did like this book a lot more on the second read through and I’m interested to see where Pullman takes these themes in the next two books. The full cast for this audiobook was fantastic. Lyra drove me nuts sometimes because she can be really obtuse and made a lot of stupid decisions, but she’s a child and she has a lot of spunk, so I can forgive her for that. Mrs. Coulter was deliciously evil, Lord Asriel enraging, and Iorek endearing.

But mostly what I liked was how wild the plot was. I truly never knew what was coming in this book. There were so many twists and turns and it had a huge amount of depth. I love stories that have a lot of balls in the air and maintain several different plotlines at the same time, while weaving an air of mystery under the whole story. Pullman did this very well and when we arrive at the conclusion of the novel, it really just feels like the beginning.

A Woman is No Man

Rating:
Author: Etaf Rum
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Aug. 2019 on Audible)

I have failed this book by waiting so long to write my review for it. I have been in a major book slump for months now. I’ve still been reading a decent number of books, but I haven’t really been excited about it or super motivated to read. I’ve been relying mostly on audiobooks to propel me through the drought, one of which was A Woman is No Man.

This was pretty high on my most anticipated list for 2019. I’m not really sure how it got on my radar, but I love all the diversity we’ve been getting lately and I was really excited to read it.

I originally gave this 4 stars, but with the time that has passed since then, it sticks out in my mind as more of a 3 star read. I really liked Isra’s story and found it really interesting and upsetting to read about the experience she had moving to America and trying to fit in with her new family. A Woman is No Man highlights the stories of Palestinians who have immigrated to America and the challenges they face in trying to maintain their culture while adapting to the vastly different American culture.

Isra grew up in Palestine, but was sent to America to marry Adam and live with his family. As expected, Isra struggles with the change at first, but mostly because she is extremely isolated. Though she lives in America, Adam’s family act as if they are still living in Palestine and do everything they can to hold on to their culture. Adam is seen as the provider for the family and his mother is very much the matriarch of the family. She is hard on Isra and the family doesn’t permit her to leave to house (because what would people think of a woman out on her own without her husband!).

Isra does start to adapt and works hard to please her husband. They are thrilled when she becomes pregnant, but place a huge amount of pressure on her to birth a boy and are immediately disappointed when she births a girl instead (Deya). I really liked Isra’s story and it’s her voice that really carried me through the book. She is extremely oppressed, with a violent husband and a threatening and overbearing mother-in-law. She becomes depressed and develops a very unhealthy relationship to her daughters. She loves Deya, but the pressure to produce a son is overwhelming and it infiltrates its way into her relationship with Deya and poisons it.

Isra’s story is the story of millions of women. She is told she is less than for being a woman and she is totally at the mercy of her husband’s family. It’s enraging to read her story, but also extremely truthful.

The other part of the book focuses on Deya, her daughter. We know from the beginning that Deya’s parents died when she was young and that she is being raised by her grandmother (Isra’s mother in law). I didn’t like Deya’s story as much, but it does provide insight into another part of the immigrant experience. Though Isra was unhappy, because she was marginalized she just accepted what she was told and never fought back against it. It was just accepted that this is the way things are. But Deya grew up in America and attended public school, so while her grandparents have tried to raise her as a good Palestinian girl, she has learned to question things. Her grandmother wants nothing more than to marry her off, but Deya wants to go to college and tries to rebel against her family.

I couldn’t relate as much with Deya though. I tried to understand why she struggled to disobey her grandparents and just went along with their attempts to marry her off, but I wanted her to take a bigger stand against them. I understood that Isra had no support outside of Adam’s family, she had no where to turn, but Deya would likely have had other support networks. But their family still mostly lived and worked entirely within the Palestinian community, so I guess it would be hard to break out of those cultural traditions. This is a minor criticism though because I am not the target audience for this book and have to acknowledge that my experience is different. Deya’s narrative probably means the world to someone who grew up in similar circumstances.

I also didn’t really like the end of the book. It reminded me a little bit of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows – not the tone of course – but that at the end the entire story just seemed to descend into this crazy soap opera. It seemed a little bit over the top and I wanted to hit Sarah for being so cryptic and not helpful. Like Deya is a teenager, help and support her in trying to figure things out instead of being like, “no, you have to do it yourself”. That’s stupid. There’s power in asking for help and it’s belittling to decide that another person is better off without your help. Let them make that decision on their own.

So overall I’m between a 3 and a 4, but I’ll leave it at 4 stars. Definitely some great themes and a very promising debut novel.