Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Other F-Word by Natasha Friend




"That's all they wanted, wasn't it? Milo thought. To know where they came from? It wasn't right, it wasn't wrong, it just was."

In the 90s, test-tube babies, as babies conceived in vitro fertilization were called back then, were headline news and a huge topic of conversation in the LGBT community. I remember regular conversations with lesbian friends about who'd they'd prefer to have as their sperm donor if they decided to go that route to have a child. A stranger via a sperm bank? A family member? A friend? Gay guys were scrutinized on the dance floor by their lesbian friends like never before. I also had a friend who donated her eggs, which is a much more complicated and painful procedure than donating sperm.

One of the main arguments against using a sperm bank was that the kids wouldn't know who their dad was beyond a number and some basic descriptive information. Some countered that it was the same as being adopted. There were more issues, of course, and this novel addresses many of them.

I was drawn to this book but a bit skeptical. The description gave me pause:
A fresh, humorous, and timely YA novel about two teens conceived via in vitro fertilization who go in search for answers about their donor.

Milo has two great moms, but he's never known what it's like to have a dad. When Milo's doctor suggests asking his biological father to undergo genetic testing to shed some light on Milo's extreme allergies, he realizes this is a golden opportunity to find the man he's always wondered about.

Hollis's mom Leigh hasn't been the same since her other mom, Pam, passed away seven years ago. But suddenly, Leigh seems happy—giddy, even—by the thought of reconnecting with Hollis's half-brother Milo. Hollis and Milo were conceived using the same sperm donor. They met once, years ago, before Pam died.

Now Milo has reached out to Hollis to help him find their donor. Along the way, they locate three other donor siblings, and they discover the true meaning of the other F-word: family.
Trigger alert! I thought. Such a novel could be rife with homophobic sentiments and cringe-worthy scenes of heteronormativity. I don't read a lot of LGBT novels due to the obligatory gay bashing scene and/or homophobic attitudes presented as "facts," but this novel is a breath of fresh air.

As the description states, the story is about a teenaged boy named Milo who lives in Brooklyn and a teenaged girl named Hollis from Minnesota, both of whom have lesbian moms. They met once when they were little kids and at the beginning of the novel are brought together again as teens. They track down more half siblings--kids whose heterosexual parents couldn't conceive. There's also Milo's best friend, JJ, a major character in the story, who is adopted.

There's so much that is gracefully packed into this story. There are the big issues at hand: what the kids struggle with, how the in vitro kids have similar yet different issues from the adopted, and how the parents cope with their own challenges regarding their decisions and fears. Also touched upon are numbing one's feelings, dating, bullying, gender vs genes, and grief after losing a parent/partner, among other things.

I was pleasantly surprised by this tender and seemingly "real" novel. I put "real" in quotation marks because I don't have direct experience with these issues, but I have friends who've dealt with a variety of them, both when they were children and now as parents. From what I know of their stories, this novel rings true.

In the end, being a teenager is hard no matter where you come from and who your parent/s is/are. As Milo's friend JJ says, "None of them get us, dude...They're parents."

Title: The Other F-Word
Author: Natasha Friend
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Publishing Group / Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (Release date: March 7, 2017)
Bottom Line: Highly recommend to teens and YA readers interested in non-traditional family stories and LGBT issues.
Source: Review copy via NetGalley

Monday, February 27, 2017

Patricia Cornwell Takes Another Stab at Jack The Ripper

RIPPER: THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER SICKERT by Patricia Cornwell hits bookstores tomorrow (2/28/17).


Corwell is not the first person to pin the Jack the Ripper crimes on Walter Sickert (1860-1942). The work of several investigators before her lead to him. She was the first to apply cutting-edge forensic technology to the remaining evidence, which, when combined with details of the time period, makes for a fascinating investigation and a thrilling read.

I read Cornwell's first book on the subject, PORTRAIT OF A KILLER: JACK THE RIPPER -- CASE CLOSED, when it first came out in 2002. On tour for that book, Cornwell came to Chicago where I then lived. Borders and the Chicago Public Library co-hosted the event, which was held in the beautiful Winter Garden atop the Harold Washington Library. I no longer own that book, as I passed it on to a fellow Cornwell fan, so I didn't refer to it for this review, but I can say that her new effort is meatier, much prettier, and still just as horrifying the second time around.

As for the pretty side of things: it is printed using both black and red text. There is an abundance of informative photos and illustrations. It is over 500 pages long and heavy as a brick, yet it is the thickness of a 300-page book. The paper is thinner than that used in the average hardcover nonfiction book, but it is high quality, almost glossy.

As for horrifying, I mean, of course, the content. Cornwell paints vivid descriptions of the crimes and
the times. Some of the content of this updated and expanded book resonated with me from reading Cornwell's first book-length work on the subject, as well as CHASING THE RIPPER, an Amazon short that came out in 2014, but other information is new. Cornwell addresses the criticisms of both her investigation (such as the erroneous claim that she destroyed paintings by Sickert to acquire his DNA) and the first book (she was presumptuous to say "case closed"). She claims she sometimes wishes she'd never gotten involved with the case because it has become all consuming and she's spent millions of her own dollars on the research. I enjoyed reading about how she got involved in the case and how the research has developed over the years.

Cornwell (source)
Those of you familiar with Cornwell's fiction know that she's committed to seeking justice for the victims of horrendous crimes. In the case of Jack the Ripper, she believes there were probably many more victims of his deranged violence than were attributed to him due to contemporary police procedures and class biases of the day.

The brutal descriptions and actual crime scene and morgue photographs make me squeamish. I'm no fan of true crime, but what I found most interesting is Cornwell's descriptions of late 19th century medical and police procedures. Did you know fistulas were rather common in the 19th century? Many people were born with them and/or developed them. Walter Sickert was born with one on his penis (or possibly his anus) and underwent three corrective surgeries as a child, which would have been exceedingly painful, probably not successful, and possibly mutilated his penis. Can you imagine having surgery without anesthesia? His condition would have had to be desperate for his parents to put him through that. Cornwell believes his fistula and the horrific surgeries may have led to Sickert's psychological derangement.
Literary side-bar: Charles Dickens (1812-1870) developed a fistula around his anus and had a successful reparative surgery in 1841.
In 2002, that first Ripper book had a lot of pre-publication buzz. I read the book because I was a relatively new fan of Cornwell's fiction (I started reading her in 1999) and I thought it would be interesting to see how she applied modern investigative techniques and technology to a historic--and still open--case. Plus, I love reading about the 19th century. This updated and expanded book is definitely worth a revisit.

Author: Patricia Cornwell
Title: Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer, February 28, 2017
Source: Review copy
Bottom line: Highly recommend for true crime readers and/or those interested in 19th-century crime and history, particularly medical and police techniques. Art enthusiasts may also find it interesting as Cornwell compares Sickert's paintings to crime scene evidence.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje


The English Patient was published in 1992 and won the Man Booker Prize (along with Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth). The movie adaptation followed in 1996 and won an Oscar for Best Picture, among other categories.

I've been waiting to see the movie until I read the book. It's taken me awhile to get around to it, like, 25 years. When I came across a $1 copy of the book at a library sale last year, I bought it. These days when I really want to see a movie I don't wait to read the book.

The story is about four very different people who find themselves in an Italian villa/monastery at the end of World War II. Parts of the story told via characters' memories take place in North Africa, England, India, and Canada.


It was a challenging read at times. After I realized Ondaatje was presenting the characters with writing crafted in their own voices, it got a bit easier, particularly in sections dealing with the character who most annoyed me, the English patient himself. He was overly dramatic and pompous. He's actually a bit of a Lancelot character--seemingly above such things as love until he finds himself hopelessly attracted to and then madly in love with a married woman. Oh, how the mighty fall. In the movie, he was softened a bit, made charming by Ralph Fiennes. (Colin Firth plays the cuckold.)

Ondaatje does a superb job crafting his characters--obviously, the character of the English patient was so well drawn that he got under my skin, as he is probably meant to. In the book, the main love story is between Hana, a young Canadian nurse, and Kip, a Sikh sapper in the British Army. In the movie, this interracial love affair plays second fiddle to that of the English patient's love affair with Katherine, both of whom are white. The movie presents the character of Kip as an exotic and sexualized masculine element. He is relegated to the role of the female--with his long hair flowing, he's shown bare-chested in sexualized scenes that reverse the male gaze as Hana looks upon him.

One of the themes that the movie carries over from the book is how things take on different uses under extreme conditions. Hana uses books from the villa/monastery's library to repair stairs that have been destroyed. She uses a crucifix as a scarecrow in the garden where she's growing vegetables. In a scene from the desert in North Africa, a healer uses his cupped feet as a bowl to mix medicine. Hana's use of the books and crucifix show her resourcefulness, but symbolically these scenes also depict the idea that in war the knowledge in books and the trappings of religion can be useless or at least their original purpose is temporarily suspended.

It's been just about a week since I finished this book and as I continue to dwell on scenes and characters my esteem for the novel grows. When I first finished it I thought it was "just okay." Then after watching the movie, I liked it even more. Writing this post has increased my appreciation of the book even more.

Funny how that happens with some books. Alternately there are those books that I adore and praise immediately upon finishing that I now barely recall (or even forget I've read!). Scrolling through Goodreads and looking at the star ratings that I've given some books makes me cringe.

The Book Cougars discussed both the book and the movie as a joint read/watch in episode 7.



Author: Michael Ondaatje
Title: The English Patient 
Publisher: 1st published by Bloomsbury, 1992. Edition read: Vintage International, 1993. 
Bottom line: You'll probably want to read this one if you're into literary fiction about WWII.  If you're not into either, proceed with caution. From my Goodreads review: Some lovely scenes, some lovely sentences, but lots of beautiful writing just for the sake of beautiful writing annoyed me after a while. I yelled (in my mind, so as not to scare the dog), "Get on with the story already!" multiple times.
Reading challenge: score one for the #readmyowndamnbooks challenge.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Library Extension: An Amazing Plug-in for Library Users

Firefox has been my browser of choice for years now, but last month I decided to try something new and am giving Chrome a try.

Around the time I made this change, I happened to see a tweet by Austin Kleon about Library Extension. It's a tool that tells you if a book you're looking at on Amazon or Goodreads (and other sites, I image) is available at your local library.

I added the extension immediately, but was bummed to find that my local library wasn't yet included, so I added the next closest library to me. I also put in a request with Library Extension to add my library. Andrew wrote me back the same day and said he updated the extension to include my library. How cool is that?  I love this tool and thought you might, too.

Here's a screenshot of how it looks on Goodreads:


The Library Extension box takes just a few seconds to load/populate the information. It even tells you what formats are/are not available.

You can install the extension from their website (https://www.libraryextension.com) or from the App Store (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/library-extension/chkgcmmjoejpekoegkedcpifgfhpjmec). 

A Firefox version is in the works and you can sign-up to be notified when its available.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

January New Books in the House, Blogoversary Mention

Happy Blogoversary to Me

My seven year blogoversary came and went on January 19th. I'd been hemming and hawing about what to write for it. I started several angry posts about bigotry, civility in politics, the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million, how the Russians may have helped elect a corrupt businessman/unqualified billionaire who's afraid to release his tax returns, and how the Electoral College failed to protect against demagoguery and foreign interference, but I deleted all of those drafts. People who are way more knowledgeable and eloquent have already written about these things.

Instead, I've decided what I really want to do is recommit to my book blog. I have two major areas on which I'd like to focus in 2017:

1) To be more involved in the larger scheme of things, I'll write more about the issues that come up in my reading regarding diversity and equality. This can be anything from highlighting an author's background to highlighting pros/cons/complexities in a book regarding issues that interest me, particularly around depictions of gender, sexuality, race, and age. 
2) I'll do more to document my bookish life--the books I read as well as the literary things I do, such as post more about the libraries I visit and other literary adventures. Maybe I'll even blog my own starts and stops at writing fiction.

New Books in the House

The last book that I purchased in 2016 was Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist, which I'm currently reading. Today I'm going to share all the new books that have come into my house thus far in 2017. This is something I'll aim to do on a monthly basis this year mainly for the purposes of self-documentation, but also to see if you have opinions on the books that have found their way into my life.

Let me know what you think! 👍  or 👎  or 🤷‍♀️.

Girl at War by Sara Novic (WildmooBooks.com)
Book mail!
My friend Russell, who blogs at Ink and Paper Blog, sent me this copy of Girl at War by Sara Novic. He saw my request for recommendations on Goodreads for books about women at war. Thanks, Russell! This one is patiently waiting near the top of my TBR.

January library haul! March, Queer, Something in the Blood (WildmooBooks.com)
Library haul! Was amazed to find all three volumes of March on display. 
I typically work at my local library several times a week and this year I'm going to resist the temptation to check out books during each time I'm there. I have dozens of books at home that I want to get to and will have a much better chance at actually reading them if I'm not hoarding library books. Exercising book discipline is hard.

Pictured above are:
  • March Trilogy by Andrew Aydin, John Lewis, and Nate Powell
  • Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele 
  • Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker by David J. Skal

January bookstore haul from the Book Barn (WildmooBooks.com)
Book Barn Haul -- Love their new pride bumper sticker. 

On Saturday I went to The Book Barn in Niantic, CT with my friend Jennifer. My intention was to buy one book, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, but they didn't have it (at least not at the two locations we went to. They have four locations in town. I know, it's crazy book over-load and fucking awesome!). 

Books pictured above:
  • That Summer in Paris: Memories of Tangled Friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Some Others by Morley Callaghan. A smelly old paperback that caught my eye. Callaghan was friends with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and "some others." This is his memoir about the summer of 1929 when all the boys got together after writing (or instead of writing) to drink and box. I'm tired of Hemingway and have never really been into Fitzgerald, but apparently I can't step away from the bookshelf when I see a book about them.
  • Jonah's Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston. I love Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. I've been thinking about re-reading that novel for the 3 or 4th time and instead decided to try another novel by her. But you know how it is when you love a book and so also love the author and don't want to risk reading another book by her that you might not like and that could potentially sour your earlier love? That. Gonna risk it.
  • I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Conde. Never heard of the author or this book, but it caught my eye and the first page drew me in. The back cover calls it a blend of fictional with the factual. Tituba was the only black victim of the Salem witch trials.
  • The Vampire of Venice Beach by Jennifer Colt. Looks fun, plus it has a Borders sticker on the back. Also, while I was looking at it Jennifer snuck up behind my like some kind of book recommending vampire and said, "Colt is a fun writer," so I am opening my home to yet another vampire.
  • Beneath the Bleeding by Val McDermid. It's been a while since I read some Val. The first page made me want to read more.
  • Darktown by Thomas Mullen. I've heard such great things about this one and couldn't pass it up. Crime novel set in 1948 Atlanta that revolves around the first black police officers hired by the city.
  • Writers in Residence by Glynne Robinson Betts. This one was miss-shelved in the US Presidents section so it jumped out at me. Black and white photographs of author homes, offices, etc., and not the usual suspects.

The Hidden Life of Trees and Hidden Figures from RJ Julia (WildmooBooks.com)
Short stack from R.J. Julia Booksellers
On the way home from The Book Barn we stopped at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison to pickup a copy of Giovanni's Room, but they didn't have it either. However, I didn't leave empty handed. These two came home with me:
  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben. I love trees and this book has been recommended by a couple friends whose opinion I value.
  • Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. Purchased this for my wife, Laura, who loved the movie. I haven't seen it yet. Laura recently found out that an old friend's father worked with Katherine Goble Johnson, one of the women featured in the book/film. They're still friends and he went to the premier with her.
  • I didn't realize the hidden theme until typing this.
What's going on for you book-wise in January? Are you on a buying spree...doing some retail therapy? Are you on a book-buying freeze this year? Exclusively using the library?

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