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Archive for April, 2021

Book Review: Corregidora by Gayl Jones

Cover of the book Corregidora

Summary:
First published in 1975, this explores the adult life of Ursa Corregidora, a Black woman blues singer haunted by trauma – both intergenerational and the violent loss of her fertility. Her great-grandmother and grandmother both were enslaved by Corregidora – a Portuguese enslaver in Brazil. He raped both of them, meaning he was the father to all the Corregidora women until Ursa herself. Her female ancestors constantly told her the importance of keeping the truth of their suffering alive through telling the story down through the family. So what will happen to the story now that Ursa, an only child, can no longer have children of her own?

Review:
This made it to my to be read pile before the current surge in interest in the history of the blues, partially coming from the newly released movie The US vs. Billie Holiday. This book demonstrates how clearly the blues and the trauma inflicted on Black folks in the US are intertwined, with the blues granting an outlet for speaking on at least some of the suffering but also a source of Black joy.

I have seen some reviews talk about how this book is about Ursa’s anger. I strongly disagree. This book is about Ursa’s intergenerational and current trauma, but she is absolutely not, as the GoodReads summary states, “consumed by her hatred of the nineteenth-century slavemaster [Corregidora].” Ursa suffers from trauma and struggles to deal with this trauma, but she is not consumed by hatred. I dislike how this summary seems to place the blame for her suffering upon Ursa. Ursa is doing the best she can with a whole pile of trauma. She’s not perfect, but, in my opinion, this isn’t some cautionary tale about being consumed by hatred. It’s an eloquent depiction of the intergenerational trauma of slavery and racism.

It is so immediately understandable why Ursa’s whole world is rocked when she loses her fertility due to abuse at the hands of her husband. (This happens very early in the book and is not a spoiler). Not only does she have a drive to have children that many women have, but she also has the lifelong expectation that she will fight injustice and white supremacy by passing the true story of what happened to the women in her family down along to the next generation. How can she manage her life when it becomes impossible for her to fulfill that expectation?

This book is not just about fertility/infertility and intergenerational trauma but also about the blues. Why Ursa is so drawn to the blues and what she is willing to give up and fight for in order to continue to sing them. The balance of moving among these themes is handled very well.

There are also some difficult moments where we see that Ursa is homophobic. She has a female friend who engages in relationships with other women and Ursa is, at the very least, uncomfortable with this. However, I do not think the book is necessarily in agreement with Ursa. Time is spent discussing why two Black women might be empowered by loving each other. However, time is also dedicated to discussing how white women have also raped enslaved (and servant) Black women, and that memory is part of what makes Ursa so uncomfortable. It is not an easy topic, and there is also the additional layer that Ursa finds this out right after she’s lost her fertility and others are questioning whether she counts as a woman anymore due to this. I think this section is handled honestly but readers who are more sensitive to negative reactions to queerness should be aware of its presence in this book.

This book is an engaging, powerful, and in many ways, unexpected, read. While I think everyone could get something out of this, I specifically want to mention that if you’ve read the white women’s feminist classics of the 1960s and 1970s, you definitely need to pick this one up and diversify your perspective.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 192 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies

Cover of the book Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed

Summary:
Catrina was 31 and very tired of never quite being sure if she could even make the rent on her box-room in a home she shared with four adult roommates (plus one child). With the cost of housing in the UK, she knew the odds were stacked against her to both be able to afford better housing and to have time for her artistic pursuits. So she decided to opt out by taking up residence in her father’s abandoned shed in Cornwall. She doesn’t have a toilet but she does have time to surf, write, and make music. This memoir both chronicles her decision and beginnings in the shed, as well as gives deep consideration to the housing crisis, consumerism, and finding the time to truly live.

Review:
I was immediately intrigued by the name of this book. It’s not why I live in a tiny house. It very explicitly calls it a shed. When I saw this was set in the UK, I was even more intrigued. As an American, my pre-existing understanding was that the UK has a robust system for caring for the poor, thinking specifically of the dole and council housing. It seemed to me that this must have been a choice to live in a shed, and I wanted to know more about this counter-cultural choice. This is indeed a beautiful counter-cultural memoir that surprised me by illuminating how much I didn’t know about the realities of the UK’s housing situation currently.

Catrina artfully weaves in both facts about housing in the UK and her own thoughts on modern culture within the story of her moving to and setting up the shed. (I would call it her first year in the shed, but the author’s note is that she actually condensed several years into one to make it more of a story). For example, while she asks her father for permission to live in his old small business’s shed, we find out that the shed is not zoned for housing, so, while she has the owner’s permission, what she is doing is still technically illegal. I also learned a lot about lords and how much of her area of Cornwall is actually owned by a lord with a castle on an island who will randomly make decisions like to charge for parking when previously people just parked for free to enjoy the ocean. Obviously a lord has no need for this money. I am still jarred by the idea of an actual lord running most of the show in a town. This is just one of the many examples of the inequities that remain in the UK that I had not previously known about.

When not discussing housing, Catrina explores gardening, surfing, making music, and writing. She discusses how living in the shed rent-free enables her to take low-paying jobs that leave her with enough time and energy to enjoy these pursuits. Living in the shed puts her closer to nature, and she becomes a bit obsessed with Walden (as a New Englander, I really wanted to enlighten her about how Walden Pond isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and how many moneyed connections, including in his own family, Thoreau actually had, partially thanks to having graduated from Harvard). While this may seem like a digression, it actually leads me quite smoothly into my main critique of the book, which is that I do wish the author demonstrated a bit more insight into her own privilege. She only can live in the shed because her father bought and paid for it. There is intergenerational assistance and provision here, even if she doesn’t recognize it as such. I’m not saying that it’s the same thing as having a trust fund handed to you, but it’s also not the same thing as her friends who squat in sheds of their own making on public land. Similarly, she, for example, showers at the homes of the people who she gardens for (often with their permission, but not always). She couldn’t take these moments of comfort she loves so much if those people hadn’t bought into the housing game. She may feel she’s opted out of society, but has she really?

Those who enjoy memoir as a way to gain insight into a different type of life than their own will not be disappointed by this book. This book made me think about what I am doing in my life because I want to versus what I am doing just because my culture pointed me here, and I appreciate that. I also enjoyed getting to vicariously surf in Cornwall.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Cover of the book "The Good Sister."

Summary:
Fern and Rose are fraternal twins. Rose is smart, driven, and Fern’s protector. Fern doesn’t understand the world and so Rose has protected her, ever since they were small. For example, Fern didn’t understand that they spent every day in the library one year when they were little because they were homeless. Just one example of the many ways their mother failed them. In fact, Fern even became a librarian, she remembered that year so fondly. It’s a good thing she has Rose. When Rose struggles with infertility with her husband, Fern hatches a plan to repay Rose for being such a good sister. She’ll get pregnant and give the baby to her. But of course, not everything goes according to plan.

Review:
Sally Hepworth writes psychological thrillers starring casts of women in Australia. Sometimes they feature larger casts of women and other times it’s a couple of women pitted against each other. This is mostly the latter category.

I had my suspicions about the mystery early but thought that must not be it because it was so simplistic. I am sorry to report – it was indeed it. Some psychological thrillers lean a bit too heavily on the trope of – one person in this world is “crazy!” and did unpredictable “crazy!” things and there is no helping them because they are just so “crazy!” so let’s lock them up. I’m not a big fan of this trope for two reasons: 1) people are more complex than that 2) it’s a bit of a cheat to the reader because then things can happen that are unpredictable and make no sense. However, I get it that it’s a trope in psychological thrillers and am usually willing to give it a bit of a pass. In this case, however, the reader is told this character probably has Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. There’s a character who has told their therapist all about them, and that therapist hypothesizes that this character might have one of these two illnesses. Everyone else in the book just accepts this and moves on. I am not saying people with these personality disorders never do bad things or hurt others, but the same can be said of all types of people. Plus, the character’s actions aren’t made out to be about them as a person but rather a symptom of their illness. It reminds me of how Schizophrenia used to be treated in literature. This character doesn’t even get the decency of having the state investigate their mental health or a clear diagnosis. It both unnecessarily maligns two of the most maligned types of mental illnesses and creates an entirely two-dimensional character.

Then there’s the representation of Autism. From the beginning, it’s clear that Fern is Autistic (I am not using person-first language as many in the Autistic community prefer claiming the word as a part of who they are, rather than as an illness), but she is depicted in such a stereotypical way that it hurt to read. For example, constantly bringing up how she doesn’t like to look people in the eyes and belaboring the point at random times when she might make eye contact. Her sensory episodes felt as if they were written by someone outside of her body rather than by her – problematic since it was written in the first person. The whole first half of the book has a lot of anti-Autistic sentiment, including wondering whether or not Fern could actually be capable of raising a baby. Are these reversed at the end of the book? Somewhat. But to me the damage is done by wondering about it in the first half.

So why am I still giving this book three stars? I have to admit that it was a page turner – I had to know what happened to Fern and the baby growing inside her. I couldn’t stop reading until I knew. The energy of must-find-out that is needed in a thriller was there, even if I was disappointed by the characterization, representation, and ultimately found the solution to be a bit flat.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Cover of the book "Winter Counts."

Summary:
Virgil Wounded Horse does his best to find his way making a life and a living on the Rosebud Indian Reservation (the Lakota people) in South Dakota – newly sober from alcohol, the legal guardian of his teenage nephew, and working as a hired vigilante. When heroin finds its way onto the reservation and directly impacts his nephew, he finds himself working to stop the threat of the cartels to his people alongside his ex-girlfriend.

Review:
This is simultaneously a wholesome and gritty thriller. Wholesome in that Virgil’s commitment to his sobriety, his family, and his people is full of honor and family values in the face of so many challenges. Gritty in that there are colorful depictions of violence as Virgil does his vigilante work and pursues the cartel. In a way it reminds me of Breaking Bad in the early seasons – someone doing something outside of the law for his family – only it’s outside of the law to stop the drugs, not to make them.

There was a lot I enjoyed here. The different setting and voice for this gritty mystery kept me engaged in a genre I’ve read a lot in. The mystery is solid. I had my suspicions but I didn’t have everything figured out before the end. So, yes, it’s not quite as simple as an outside cartel but it’s not a super obvious answer either. I also really like how the ex-girlfriend becomes such a key part of the story. Virgil listens to and respects her, even when he doesn’t immediately agree with her, which was so refreshing to read. I similarly like that we come into Virgil’s life after he’s already sober. This allows the book to explore him putting his life back together as a sober person and dealing with some really tough shit – demonstrating that things don’t get easy automatically just because you’re sober. I appreciated very much how thoughtfully the author shared his Lakota culture with the readers while simultaneously respecting what aspects of it need to stay private and sacred. As a person who has the Sioux Chef book, I appreciated so much the inclusion of Indigenous cuisine via an Indigenous chef and food truck coming to the reservation.

While I wouldn’t call the depictions and discussions of violence gratuitous as they are necessary to the plot, they are graphic. I thought it never went further than it needed to. However, it is important for potential readers to know they are there. There are discussions of off-scene cartel vengeance and rape of women and underaged girls. There are on-scene descriptions of fist-fights and gun fights.

Those who like grittier thrillers and either want a unique setting in the genre or want a mystery investigator who is sober will enjoy this read. I hope we’ll see more of Virgil in the future.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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