Ash – Reflection: Sexuality

14196204508_b158d03706_zPhoto credit: every flag together is the peaceful warrior : rainbow country, san francisco (2014)torbakhopper | CC 2.0

An ex reached out to me recently and it caused me to spend a bit of time thinking about my sexuality. I have learned over the years that for me, at least, sexuality is this complicated, grey mess, which I might not ever fully disentangle, especially if romantic attachment is included, incorrectly, under sexuality. Part of the reason sexuality has been a complex topic for me is that during my formative sexual years, I had no access to books which featured anything besides a straight romance. Which caused me to think: is Ash an opening to a broader discussion on the great variation within sexuality?

While in my review, I was critical of the lack of clarity around what Ash was feeling, as I ponder asexuality, I wonder whether my criticism might have been in haste. To be clear, I am not myself asexual, but I fall on the spectrum and have identified as grey-ace for awhile, though the label demisexual is a clearer fit. It’s this grey area of asexuality that may have shown up in Ash, as quite often Ash doesn’t appear to be sexually attracted to the two potential mates, but in the case of the Huntress, there is a clear romantic sort of attraction. I initially chalked it up to the innocence of first love, but now I wonder if it was a bit more complicated than that.

But maybe a more important question is does it matter? In my reading of Ash, I felt the romantic storyline was unclear and vague and I was critical of that. But should I have been? Is there some simplicity in simply not driving a point strongly home and just letting whatever be, be? Quite possibly. Sometimes I feel I struggle with sexual identity simply because I put too much importance on certainty and labels. (Which is interesting consider the teenage version of me did a lot to shirk sexual labels for years.) In my attempt to read more diverse books, written by diverse authors, I have become a bit too focused on what specific diversity is showing up in a book. But how much does that truly add to my experience of reading?

This topic was brought up in my reflection of Wonder where I was critical of a person of privilege (able-bodied) writing about the experiences of a person that lacks that privilege (physical deformity). While I still strongly believe in the importance of #OwnVoices and have found I greatly prefer those stories, the discussion in the comments did cause me to hesitate on whether I was closing myself off into a too narrow box. When I first conceived of this site, I planned on discussing books written by white American women and non-American whites. But then I came across various sites on diversity and felt I was not doing justice to the voices that needed to be lifted up enough if I did not narrow my focus. While I think there was good intent here, and it lead to me reading some amazing stories like Juliet Takes a Breath and The Hour of Daydreams I would not otherwise have read, I think it has become too strong of a focus for me, to the point that I am now in a significant reading slump. For a while I have been slipping into the slump by ignoring the books I want to read based on my mood in favor of reading those that meet the strict criteria for this blog and I finally fell in a serious enough slump I haven’t finished a book in over a week and nothing much has interested me sense.

For me, it is time to take a critical reflection on how I am approaching book reviewing and what it is I am placing emphasis on. Ultimately, my critiques of Ash’s lack of clarity around sexuality did not drive down the rating of it, so I stand by the review; I just wonder whether taking a step back from my critical framework would reignite the spark I had when I started this blog and reinvigorate my reading again. I do think that ultimately, the tone of reviews and reflections are going to shift a bit. The focus in reflections already has and I am happy with this change. There may be more joy in accepting the grey than trying to define things. I think there was in Ash and it’s a rare gift to read a book where there is a vagueness that rings true of youth, innocence, and coming into one’s sexuality. It reminded me of that time in my youth and it’s why I ultimately enjoyed reading Ash, even if I didn’t fall in love with it the way I thought it would.

What parts of your identity are more grey, fuzzy, and hard to define? How comfortable are you with the greyness? How comfortable are you with greyness in books?

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Wonder – Reflection: Ableism and #OwnVoices

16951605420_4ecb7ff1cb_kPhoto credit: Writer’s Block | Isabelle Gallino | CC 2.0

Before I became disabled, ableism was not something I thought much about nor was I truly aware of the extent it is embedded in our society and in our internal voices. Ableism is defined as discrimination in favor of able-bodied people, but such a definition calls to mind things like discrimination in hiring or access to a building. Yes, these are aspects of ableism, but ableism goes beyond these things. It is pervasive in our society in an insidious way where most of us, even those of us who are victims of it, do not quite recognize it for what it is.

I had considered ranting about ableism and how books like Wonder feed into this mindset that there is some perfection we should all be trying to achieve. There are people who advocate euthanasia for children on the autism spectrum. This is equivalent to forced sterilizations of “imblices” and other degenerates which occurred in our history and it sickens me to think that there are such similar conversations going on today.

But honestly, such a rant wouldn’t be entirely genuine as I am not disabled with a visible or obvious disability. Instead, I have an invisible illness and while ableism is rampant towards people with invisible illness, it isn’t exactly or always the same as the ableism faced by those with visible illness or difference. In my case, I would prefer a world in which I could be fixed, so I could go back to my old self, but I also strongly believe there is nothing about me that needs to be fixed in the way society seems to think I need to be. After all, in America, we are most often judged on our productivity and a person on disability is deemed unworthy since they do not contribute. I do not think I need fixing in this sense and recognize that I have value regardless of productivity.

I already discussed this some when I reflected on the book, The Little Queen. So that’s not the direction I want this post to go in. I don’t know exactly the direction I want this post to go in. I feel the need to share something to atone for reviewing a book that falls within the parameters of this blog (author of color), but yet falls into the same problems of books by white authors writing outside their experience about marginalized groups. It’s made me stop to consider more carefully what specifically is the aim of reading books by authors of traditionally marginalized groups if those books do not fall within the realm of #OwnVoices. I don’t have an answer for that yet. In fact, I did not realize I needed an answer for that until I sat down to write this post. But it does partly help explain why I’ve struggled to write reviews for a few books I read awhile ago. When a book is outside of the #OwnVoices story, yet tries to write of such experiences, something does not sit well with me. It turns out, that the book I am currently reading falls into that category and there are moments I consider bailing; not because the story isn’t good or it’s not well written, but because I cannot imagine how the author can be true to his main character which has lived an experience so vastly different from his own.

Does it matter who writes the diversity as long as there is diversity? Is it possible for a writer from a privileged group to write a true account of character from a marginalized group? How do we know what is an #OwnVoices story and what isn’t? Do we demand authors tell us their history and background to then determine whether it is an #OwnVoices story? How responsible are we for what we read?

The Golden House – Reflection: Self-Care

32674732605_592af8cde0_o.pngPhoto credit: Selfcare | Cajsa Lilliehook | CC 2.0

This reflection will be a bit different than the previous format. While I will still be reflecting on a topic, it will be one the book inspired, instead of one based on the book itself. It’s a subtle difference, but I like to be transparent.

When Nica fell ill, my reading amount plummeted. It wasn’t intentional, but there were many long, very emotional days and I did not have the strength to read at night. It only worsened when Nica was released and needed around the clock care. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me at all, even with this blog as most people are understanding of such situations. But it did bother me, a lot, because my ARC reading schedule was already so very tight that if I slowed down reading, I was going to miss release deadlines for books I had requested. Admittedly, when I requested all the books I did, I never expected to be approved for them all since I had been denied most requests on Netgalley previously, but many weeks ago, I was approved for them all and set up a schedule I thought I could maintain even while reading other books that aren’t “required” or “work” or whatever label I throw on the ARCs which make them feel like a chore to review. I was doing great, until I wasn’t and the guilt mounted.

I tried to remedy this by first picking ARCs I thought I would most enjoy, like Girls Made of Snow and Glass, but that book was a bit disappointing and all I wanted to do was read a good book by a tried and true author, but that list of ARCs was suffocating. So, I picked up the next best ARC that was about to come out and started reading. But immediately, I wasn’t feeling the book, The Golden House. I knew that it was a me problem – that I just wasn’t in a space to deal with high literary fiction on the incredible scale that is Rushdie, but I felt obligated. I felt required to continue with this book. After all, it releases today. But it clearly wasn’t working for me to read this just before bed, so I set aside a large chunk of time to just read. And I did. I read and read and read and felt worse and worse and worse. See, it’s not just that Nica was recently diagnosed with cancer or still needs more care than normal, it’s also that I have my own surgery this week, I was in a car accident the night I went to pick up Nica from the hospital that I’m still in pain from and fighting the driver’s insurance, there’s been some family drama, and the fall semester has started so I now will be caring for my nephew much more. It’s a lot to deal with all at once, especially as a person with chronic pain and chronic illness. I could feel my mental health taking a hit. There was something about The Golden House that did not sit well with me and it ended up bringing all these issues to a head for me after my marathon reading session. Yet still, I felt like I must read it.

Balancing self-care with my responsibilities has been something I’ve struggled with most of my life. I haven’t ever had a well balanced work-life balance and it’s my life than suffers, not my work. Even through the worst of Nica’s recovery, I was writing blog posts through tears. I felt obligated to keep to the schedule I promised for both blog posts and ARCs. But I hit a breaking point last night. A hard, bad breaking point. Then, I had a thought. What if I just didn’t finish The Golden House right now? What if I just put it aside and read something light and fluffy, by an author I know can just make me happy? And like that, my anxiety lifted. It was exactly what I needed.

But what is the ideal balance between commitments and self-care? How does one balance the commitments made to readers and/ or publishers? This is an even more challenging question for me to tackle now than before when I had a 9 to 5 job. There was a boss to discuss this with and sick days to use. But now, I am the boss and there are no sick days. There are no coworkers to cover when I can’t be there. Either the work is done or it is not and I cannot easily, last minute, come up with alternative arrangements. Trust me, I am a much worse boss than most of my bosses in real life were. I do not value self-care for myself, so I don’t take it. Which was the problem in the first place. Had I simply stopped back when Nica was first critically ill and said, I’m only sleeping a few hours at a time and randomly crying throughout the day – I’m not going to write any blog posts, maybe I wouldn’t have had to hit the wall I hit last night. The wall that if it breaks causes me to fall into a minor mental breakdown. A wall that is the last defense before the spiral downward starts in earnest. I am not happy with how close I came to slamming through that wall and frankly, I’m not out of the woods yet. It’s only going to get more stressful for me before it gets better. But this time, I know I need to prioritize self-care.

Be forewarned that there might not be posts for the end of this week. I refuse to write blog posts from my hospital bed 🙂

How do you manage self-care? How do you find work-life balance when you are a self-employed blogger, writer, etc.?

The Shadow of the Wind – Reflection: Sexism

23682460491_1547feaeed_oPhoto credit: Ad busting: Stop sexism | luckyfotostream | CC 1.0

When I was reading The Shadow of the Wind I found myself getting angry and frustrated with the level of constant sexism. Worse though, I started attributing it to Spanish culture, even though I know this was simply one account of how things might have been in Spanish after the war. I kept flashing back to my time in Spain as a teenager and struggling to navigate a more aggressive sexual culture than what I had experienced in Midwestern America. I was uncomfortable with that experience and the book reminded me of that discomfort. But this time, I was uncomfortable with my discomfort.

When I watched the television show, Mad Men, I was not particularly bothered by the sexism. Yes, it angers me that that’s how it used to be, but I expect to see it during that time period. So why was I unable to chalk up the sexism in The Shadow of the Wind up to the time period? Is racism driving my concern that this type of sexism isn’t simply the time period, but part of a culture.

In the United States, there is a perception that in Latin American cultures, there is an aggressive sexual culture where men after forward and crass about their desires. I have previously dismissed this as likely a racist view of a culture people do not understand. Yet, when I was reading The Shadow of the Wind, I found myself assuming this was more of a cultural issue than a time period issue. I let a stereotype become true because I saw it in one book set in Spain.

I am still sorting out my reaction to the sexism in the book. I dislike sexism and I have no problem with my revulsion to some of the scenes in the book. Yet, I fear I focused too much on it to the point where I missed out enjoying a good book because I was so angry at a culture for treating women that way. I read this book with my perception of the world and was not able to fully put that aside. While I stand by my rating of the book, this is something I need to be more aware of in the future as I come across books with scenes I detest. I give American authors leeway I failed to give a Spanish author and I want to do better in the future.

When reading a book set in another time period, in a culture different from your own, how do you understand the rampant sexism in the book? Is it something to chalk up to a different era or a different culture? Should there be criticism for a book reflecting a reality? When do you let such things go?

The Underground Railroad – Reflection: Privilege

3769037680_44652f2a55_zPhoto credit: Privilege | Stephen Dann | CC 2.0

This is another hard reflection for me to write. In order to be honest about how The Underground Railroad impacted me, I have to confront my privilege. As a white person, I have the privilege to ignore the horrors of slavery and their lasting impact. I have had the ability to have a general sense of its horrors, but never fully understand them. My privilege has allowed me to live in relative comfort thinking it wasn’t much different from how I was taught in school it was. After reading The Underground Railroad, I had a choice on whether to continue to live in the comfort of that privilege or acknowledge that I had hid behind my privilege all these years.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but to a certain extent, I like to bury my head in the sand. While this is in some ways a metaphor, it was also how I handled scary situations as a child. When there was an unnerving scene on TV, I would stick my head between the back of the couch and the couch pillows. My parents used to joke I was an ostrich. But even then, I wanted to hide instead of comforting what makes me uncomfortable. To this day, I still want to hide when I feel uncomfortable, though I don’t stick my head behind pillows anymore. But I do disengage. Disengagement and feigned ignorance has been my shameful secret to how I cope with America’s painful past.

Even as a young child, I paid attention to politics and as I learned about America’s shameful past, from slavery to Native American genocide to colonialism and the like, I distanced myself from America and disengaged from American politics. I loved politics and political behavior, but focused on comparative politics over American politics because I could not love a country which had such an awful past. But over the years, I learned that these awful pasts exist in most countries and the best way to love a country is to try to repair the damage.

I switched to American politics in my PhD work and became more actively engaged in politics. Before I had to stop working due to disability, I was working in politics. I had made progress on learning to love a country that had such an awful past. What I hadn’t worked on was confronting the full reality of that past nor the underlying institutions that exist to perpetuate it still today.

The Underground Railroad does not only show the horrors of slavery, and horrors is not a strong enough word to describe at least one of the scenes in the book, but it also shows the horrors of the institutions created outside of slavery perpetuating second class citizenship and indefinite servitude. It is not the history of slavery per se that has led to the institutionalized racism of the day, but rather the institutions which were created around slavery specifically to ensure that former slaves and freeborn blacks did not obtain too much power after slavery fell. While some people did not believe slavery would fall, others saw that it was not sustainable and put into place measures to ensure white privilege and black struggle for intuity.

Nothing made that more obvious to me than the fictionalized depictions of North and South Carolina. Even if I wrote spoilers here, it would not be possible to to truly feel the impact of those chapters without reading the book. These fictionalized accounts of reality highlight the real effects these policies had, even when they came from “good” intentions. In many ways, the depictions of what happened in these two states will haunt me more than the horrors of slavery in Georgia. Nearly anyone can see how immoral slavery is when faced with accounts like those of what happened in Georgia; but it is a lot harder for any of us to see the horrors of institutions designed with the best intentions until someone like Whitehead takes them to their limits and shows us the true outcome.

It is not as though I was entirely unaware of some of what was depicted in the Carolinas. I knew of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cervical cells were taken without her consent and used for medical research. As a PhD student in a science, one learns about the research that was once done on people of traditionally marginalized groups and performed on them without their consent. But knowing generally and living it through the eyes of a character are two different things. Though Cora does not specifically witness nor experience medical research without consent, she is privy to other immoral medical situations, and it is through her and other characters’ reactions that I understood the legacy of such actions. Black people have a reason to not trust medical personnel, the government, and whites in general, but it was not until I The Underground Railroad did I understand that connection.

It is incredibly hard for me to admit this, not only because it bruises my pride which believes that I am clever, but also because it highlights my white privilege and my choices to hide my head in the sand. I’ve been told time and again by readers I trust that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a powerful, well-written read, but I have yet to read it. I did not dive into the history of research abuses the way I have other bits of information I come across. I haven’t read personal accounts of slavery or watched the famous movies around them. I am uncomfortable with seeing humans treated in inhumane ways on a level that is painful to me. But reading The Underground Railroad has shown me that choosing to not see historical reality means I not only do not understand the institutions in place currently but also my role in maintaining those institutions.

Part of why I did not want to know more is because I do not know what to do with this knowledge. It is a heavy burden, but one I do not know how to resolve. I am a person who struggles to see the value in short-term goals and small wins, though I am trying to move toward a path where I can see the value in them. What I want to do is save the world, but as I will discuss in my reflection on The Hate U Give, there are serious problems with that framework. Which means I have work to do and I have to end this post feeling as though I am leaving the topic unresolved. But I am stepping into the vulnerability and sitting here with the discomfort. I am trying to do as Brene Brown suggests and not puff up or run from the discomfort. This is where I am right now. I’m not proud of it and I do not want to be here, but it is where I am. I know I will gain more insight by staying here and reflecting than I will by I taking action or hiding behind my privilege. This is me, raw and without all the answers. I feel naked, but I am trusting the process.

How do you face the discomfort of privilege, whatever that means to you?

The Little Queen – Reflection: What We Do

3575482180_3d8d8b0980_oPhoto credit: and who are you?Mitsuko Tonouchi | CC 2.0

I loved this children’s story and there were so many beautiful lines, but by far my favorite was this one:

“Asking what one did was like asking who they were, and that was too simple a question for a very complex answer.”

It is a very concise way of explaining why I have disliked the “what do you do” question for a long time. People are more than a job or a career and they do much, much more than simply work. We are all complex beings with complex lives. There are complex reasons for why someone is a cashier or a lawyer. There are complex careers in which a title is an insufficient answer. Yet, American culture tends to boil everything down to one simple question: what do you do.

One gains a keen understanding of just how often that question is asked in everyday life when her response is: I don’t work anymore as I’m now on disability retirement. Yes, that person is me and yes, I have to say that more often than you might think. At visit to the doctor’s office: medical assistant or nurse getting my vitals – so are you heading back to work after this appointment or do you have the day off; doctor – so what do you do. On a dating app: potential match: so what do you do; me: oh I crochet, read, garden, play video games, hang out with my nephew, and spend time with friends; potential match (clearly a bit frustrated): no, what do you do for work; me: I’m currently unable to work but receive money from disability retirement; potential match: …; me: are you still there; potential match: …

Yes, it happens quite often that a potential love interest stops talking to me pretty much the second they find out I do not have a job, even when I point out I have an income. Most are kind enough to wait until the conversation comes to a natural end, but still, they never respond to future attempts to contact them. Why? Because American society places so much value on what someone does as a career that not having one somehow automatically makes someone less valuable. Before you disagree, take an honest step back and consider whether you have done this. I did before I was disabled. I did not think twice about it back then. That is how ingrained it is in our society.

While it is ingrained in all of us Americans to ask that what do you do question at some point in a conversation with a new person, after reading the quoted line above, I find myself asking why we ask it. What information about a person do we gain by asking that question, besides literally what they do for a job? Does it tell us about their hopes and dreams? Does it tell us whether they are a good person? Does it tell us whether we will like them? Does it tell us what they fear or who they love? Maybe, but most likely not. We may assume a lot of things about the person based on their job: oh, he’s a cashier, he must not have a lot of ambition or she’s a lawyer, she must be a skilled liar and make a lot of money. But those assumptions do not truly answer the very complex question of who is this person. In fact, the question of what do you do and the assumptions that follow may in fact prevent us from learning who the person truly is. For example, I met a gentleman who answered the what he did question by telling me he was an overnight stocker at a retail store, even though they had encouraged him to become a supervisor. He said he didn’t want to deal with the stress of management. He also mentioned that what he really wanted to do was to work in law enforcement and was hoping to do security for this retailer. I dismissed him thinking he was not very ambitious or hardworking, but it turned out that he suffered from severe epileptic seizures and was being responsible by minimizing the stress which triggered his seizures.

So, why do we start by asking people what they do? I do not know exactly, but I know I now better understand the folly of asking that question after reading this book. People are much too complex to be boiled down to a job. I encourage everyone to make a greater commitment to asking creative questions that will answer the question we really want to know the answer to – who are you as a person. I will certainly not be the one asking the what do you do question first going forward.

What do you think about asking people what they do? Is it too simple a question for a very complex answer?

A Man Called Ove – Reflection: Representation and Diversity

8750275571_5fda61700d_zPhoto credit: The Diversity MaskGeorge A. Spiva Center for the Arts | CC by 2.0

Trigger Warning: Suicide mention

A few years ago, I suddenly and unexpectedly developed a chronic pain condition as a result of a very minor injury. That chronic pain condition had an autoimmune component, which triggered a long list of health-related issues. Within six months of the initial injury, I was no longer able to work. My life was ripped out from underneath me and all of a sudden, everything was different, harder, longer, worse, and I did not know if I could go on. Thoughts of suicide began to creep into my head. At the same time, something else phenomenal happened; I gained an entire community of people willing to give as much of themselves as they could in order to be there for me. After watching the movie, Collateral Beauty, I have been calling it my collateral beauty. I lost a lot, but gained even more.

That’s not to say that it is not hard sometimes to adjust to this new life, which constantly is shifting under my feet. I’ve wanted to see my story, my loss, my pain, my grappling with how to go on in someone else’s story. I have read a few books with the hope of hearing my life echoed in them, but none have resonated. Enter, A Man Called Ove, and my heart sang. Here was my story, for the most part – a person whose early life was filled with tragedy and loss; an introvert who believes in doing right and working hard, finds the one thing that brings sense, structure, calm, and meaning into the world is ripped away from her/ him. But among that loss is so much beauty, it is almost too bright to look at. I needed this story. I needed this story more than I knew and more than I can explain here. Because my soul has been dying and I needed to see that another person’s soul also was dying, but that the light they gained was enough. I needed to feel this in those dark moments when it is just still a tad bit too hard and the pain threatens to swallow me whole.

This is why representation matters. We need to see stories of ourselves and feel just a little less alone. We need to carry in our hearts the knowledge that we are not the only ones. Even in our hyper-connected world, it can be easy to feel alone. Other people on the internet can feel one-dimensional and even people in real life can hold a lot of themselves back. It is the magic of books where we get to see that internal struggle, those darks thoughts, the things we don’t talk about, and feel more whole for having seen we are not alone. Representation in books matters so much exactly because it can show all the sides of what it is to be a flawed, beautiful human.

But this leads to the question of who can write that representation? Does it matter that this story, the one I finally connected with, was written by a straight white Swedish guy? Does that make it less representative? Wouldn’t it have been better if an American disabled lesbian had written the story – someone more like me? I do not have a great answer for those questions. They are questions I have been grappling with for nearly two decades now. What I can say is that, on the whole, it is hard for authors to write outside of their own perspectives. This is not a critique, but a fact of life. We all are stuck in our realities and ways of viewing the world. At best, we can try to overcome them and sometimes succeed. But it is also important to remember that there are some aspects to life that are universal, loss being one of them. Because of that, I could have potentially seen my loss in nearly any story about loss, but this one resonated with me because it captured a few other aspects of myself as well. Which brings me back to the statement that representation matters. The problem with continuing to allow marginalized voices to be marginalized is that all sorts of important representation is not out there for people to connect with, but also, there are all sorts of universal aspects of representation that are not out there either. This means that there are stories we will not read with the potential to connect us and show us that even among our greatest differences, there are commonalities, namely, we are all human. If A Man Called Ove teaches us anything, it is that even the most different people can be connected through a bit of vulnerability and humanity and that connection is what makes life worth living. So yes, this blog will continue to focus on traditionally marginalized voices, and though one could make a case that a Swedish voice is uncommon in American literature and could thus fall under the concept of “traditionally marginalized voices,” it is a bit of a stretch. But from time to time, when extremely compelling, other books which do not strictly fall within traditionally marginalized voices may be reviewed here. After all, ways of diversifying perspectives comes in many forms and I’d rather error on the side of inclusivity over exclusivity. A Man Called Ove impacted my perspective, so for now, it is on this blog. Plus, it serves as a great launching point of discussion for what makes a book diverse.

What do you think? How do you feel about representation that comes from a person of a traditional majority group? What does representation mean to you? Is a perspective outside your country of origin diverse enough, or does it need to be outside a larger culture (for example, non-American versus non-Western)? Share your thoughts below!