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Book Review: Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano

Workboots sit under a bright blue sky.Summary:
What do you call the approximately 1 out of 5 working class American kids who go to college and move into the white collar world?  Journalist Alfred Lubrano calls them Straddlers, and the world they live in Limbo.  Through interviewing experts on social mobility and class, therapists, and Straddlers themselves, Lubrano seeks to establish the unique challenges and triumphs of moving up the social ladder from blue to white in America.

Review:
I picked this up because I happen to be one of the Straddlers Lubrano is talking about, and I was curious to know both what about my experiences are common among all Straddlers and pieces of advice on navigating the interesting experience of being a Straddler.  The book brings to light the often overlooked issue of how changing classes impacts a person’s life, as well as real cultural differences among the blue-collar and white-collar classes in America.

Lubrano begins his book by defining blue and white collar.  A blue collar person can make more money than a white collar person (think of a successful plumber versus a struggling journalist).  Blue versus white collar isn’t about how much income a person generates, according to Lubrano.  What really makes the difference is 1) education level and 2) type of work.  The blue collar person may have an associate’s degree or a trade degree or certification.  The white collar person will have, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree.  The blue collar person generally works with their hands or in service industries.  The white collar person works in an office or on a computer.  Thus, what generally begins the change from blue to white collar is attending a four-year college.

The book next establishes the blue collar background the Straddler comes from, as well as establishing statistics on class mobility and class differences.  By establishing firmly the blue collar background the Straddler comes from and how that affects their thought patterns and approaches, Lubrano lays the groundwork for highlighting the unique struggles Straddlers go through in college and later at their white collar jobs and in their white collar surroundings.  The blue collar class elements Lubrano highlights include: being taught that working hard will get you what you want (the ideal of a meritocracy at all levels of society), distrust of the boss/upper-levels of management, intense loyalty to community and fellow workers, high value on obedience and conformity to community, patriotism, straight talking, and emotions being close to the surface and easily erupting.

The next section deals with the blue collar kid starting college.  Both blue collar families that push college and those that degrade it are discussed, as well as the reasons for both reactions by blue collar parents to college.  On the one hand, there are the parents who view college as a straight-shot meritocracy to a better job, better life, and better ability to live your dreams.  On the other hand, there are the parents who are afraid that they will lose standing in their own home if their child outsmarts or outshines them.  By and large, however, most blue collar parents fall in the former category.  Lubrano points out that blue collar parents don’t intimately know or understand the white collar world they are sending their children into, and thus unknowingly often give them bad information or false hopes.  To the blue collar parent, a college degree is a golden ticket, and so the blue collar child is pushed into a culture they are unprepared for.

Straddlers’ parents have such plans for their kids. With strong hopes but scant information, many push their progeny toward the vague realm of Something Better–the glorious middle class. Imbued with these dreams, Straddlers lurch awkwardly out of sheltering enclaves into unknown realms. On their sometimes troubled way, they become educated and awaken to class differences between the past and their would-be future. Priorities shift. Some values change, while some remain constant. Unlike many they meet in the new, white-collar world, these people are hybrids. That duality is their strength and their struggle, and will comfort and vex them throughout their days. (loc 611)

Next, the book tackles the blue collar / white collar culture clash that begins to occur when a blue collar person attends college and will continue throughout their life as a Straddler.  Lubrano does an eloquent job of addressing both how the Straddler struggles to understand the white collar world she now inhabits, as well as how the Straddler starts to change and no longer fits in among her family and blue collar people she grew up with.  The changes that often make a Straddler no longer fit in among her family include: language, leaving religion, and dietary choices.  College makes the blue collar kids change, and often their families are not expecting that.  Suddenly, the child speaks like a stranger, eats like a stranger, and no longer feels attached to the family religion. The culture clash between the working class college student and her new peers is perhaps a bit more obvious.  The monetary differences are clear immediately.  Peers often don’t understand the need to work or the high value of a dollar to their blue collar classmate.  More subtle and far-reaching than the different approaches to money, though, are the different approaches to life.  White collar kids are raised with self-esteem and feelings of entitlement that blue collar kids never knew existed.  They navigate campus with a sureness of belonging, and that surety will aid them throughout their careers.

The book next tackles how these class differences affect the Straddler’s career.  This is the most fascinating part of the book.  Most people probably expect that a blue collar kid going to college will experience some culture clashes and struggles with the family, but the idea that these struggles will continue past college is not obvious.  College is supposed to prep everyone for a career, but the fact is, oftentimes colleges leave the Straddler student floundering on their own. There are generally no classes on how to be white collar, you’re just supposed to know.  And it’s not always easy for the Straddler to just pick this up on their own.  Lubrano highlights the key areas in which the blue collar culture the Straddler was raised with clashes with the expectations of a white collar job and can hurt a career.

If you come from the working class, you haven’t got a clue how to conduct yourself when you first land in an office. You’re lost if you can’t navigate the landscape–if you follow blue-collar mores and speak your mind, directly challenging authority. Without tact and subtlety, without the ability to practice politics amongst the cubicles, an executive with a blue-collar background will not rise. (loc 2473)

Among the issues Lubrano highlights as frequently arising for Straddlers are a tendency to be lacking in tact, an innate disgust for and inability to handle the inauthenticity demanded by office politics, and a lack of understanding of the manner of dress expected in white collar jobs.  Additionally, blue collar homes often denigrate the boss or the man, demanding only loyalty to fellow workers.  White collar culture, on the other hand, demands loyalty to firm, not your coworkers, as well as an expectation that you will automatically desire to rise up the ladder and become the man.  Perhaps the most difficult skill for Straddlers to learn and appreciate is networking.  Blue collar homes teach you to leave work at work.  Family time is a sacred space.  White collar jobs expect extraneous socializing in the form of networking, additionally they expect the white collar workers’ whole family to participate in their career, when needed.  (Think of a networking dinner in the worker’s home).  This entire concept rubs the Straddler the wrong way.  Networking feels inauthentic and wrong, and the family space feels violated.  Additionally, the Straddler was raised believing hard work advances you, not who you know.  The idea that you advance farther by networking than by working hard can often sicken a Straddler.

I didn’t realize that doing a job well is no guarantee of advancement and opportunity. There are ways to get ahead that have nothing to do with hard work. But blue-collar people are taught that that’s a person’s only currency–you sell your labor and give the boss an honest eight hours….Along with blatant kissing up, networking and socializing with bosses and colleagues also are dirty words to some Straddlers. It all smacks of phoniness and is antithetical to their blue-collar backgrounds, which emphasize honesty in human relations–”real” relationships. (loc 2735)

The book next discusses Straddler’s romantic lives and experiences parenting their own white collar children.  Unless a Straddler dates another Straddler, they will end up dating someone who does not communicate the same way they do.  If they date a blue collar person, the same issues they have with their own family arise.  If they date a white collar (born and raised) person, then issues in communication similar to the ones they experience at work come up.  If the Straddler marries a blue collar person, that person will often feel threatened by their academic interests.  If the Straddler marries a white collar person, communication is often an issue.  White collar people are taught to manage their emotions and shut down when upset.  The Straddler was raised with emotions at the surface in a passionate manner.  This can freak out the white collar person, and in turn, the relative calm of the white collar partner can drive the Straddler crazy.

When it comes to kids, most Straddlers talk a lot about trying to keep their kids from having a sense of entitlement.  They want them to connect to their blue collar roots, to appreciate blue collar work, and to have blue collar values.  The Straddler wants their child to have to struggle, because they value the personal growth they themselves got out of it.

The book closes out with a discussion of what makes a successful Straddler.  Ideally, the Straddler will become bicultural.  Able to navigate both blue and white collar worlds, and appreciate the positive in both. Unashamed of where they came from and unashamed of where they ended up.

The more successful Straddlers–and by this I mean people who are comfortable with their lives–embrace their middle-class reality while honoring their blue-collar roots. Though they live in limbo, they choose to concentrate on the upside and what makes them unique. (loc 4175)

The book addresses a topic that badly needs to be addressed.  If one in five working class kids becomes a Straddler, that’s a huge sociological group that is often not discussed.  However, there are some weak points in the book.  Although Lubrano acknowledges that Straddlers can come from the city or rural areas, since he grew up in Brooklyn, he tends to focus in on those who come from the city.  He could have sought out more Straddlers to interview who grew up rural poor to get a firmer grasp on what their life experiences are like.  There are some subtle differences between city and rural blue collar.  Similarly, Lubrano mostly interviews people of the same generation as himself.  He conducts one series of interviews with three people from a younger generation, but primarily he interviews people from the same age-range.  Although it’s obvious these issues are consistent across generations, it would be a stronger book with multiple generation’s voices.  Similarly, the book came out in 2005, and an updated edition would be nice.

Overall, this is an engaging read that addresses the sociological issue of moving from blue collar to white collar class.  Interviews with both Straddlers and experts brighten and enlighten the text, although the book would benefit from a bit more variety in the Straddlers interviewed.  Recommended to anyone who is a Straddler themselves, as well as those who may educate or work with Straddlers and those with an interest in class differences.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown

January 14, 2014 5 comments

cover_giftsimperfectionSummary:
Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, is a social work research professor.  She’s spent years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.  In this book, she presents her research on what she calls “Wholehearted living,” a way of living shared by the most content people she has interviewed in her years of research.  Dr. Brown argues that the key to a happy, fulfilled life is to engage with the world from a place of worthiness.  The book also offers 10 guideposts on how to fully achieve Wholehearted living.

Review:
Dr. Brown was a guest speaker on the only podcast I listen to (On Being with Krista Tippett).  Her episode where she discussed the power of vulnerability struck such a chord with me that I sought out one of her books to read.  This was the first one I could get my hands on.  Although at first the text seems simplistic, particularly compared to the podcast I listened to, with time the overarching picture Dr. Brown is painting becomes clear, and it truly is inspirational.

The guideposts each consist of one thing to cultivate and one thing to let go of.  Each guidepost ends with suggestions for working on both.  For instance, guidepost two is cultivate self-compassion and let go of perfectionism.  The chapter ends with a link to an online quiz to see which areas of self-compassion you need more work on.  I like that Dr. Brown gives the reader both something to stop doing and something to replace it with.  It’s easy to say, “Don’t do this,” but it’s much harder to give someone something positive to replace it with.  Some of the guideposts felt more relevant than others, but that will definitely be a personal thing for each reader.  For instance, I didn’t really need someone to tell me to get creative instead of comparing myself to others, but I did need to hear about cultivating calm and stillness and letting go of anxiety.  How useful you will find the book will probably be related to how many guideposts are applicable to your own life.  Skim through the table of contents and see how the different guideposts resonate with you.

Dr. Brown’s advice is based on scientific research, but she also brings a real person element to her book.  She is very honest with the reader about her own vulnerabilities as a person and as a woman and which guideposts she struggles the most with herself.  Some of her stories may seem a bit silly at first to the reader, particularly since Dr. Brown’s life seems to be a relatively easy one, but ultimately they lend a sense of connection and realness to the book that allows the reader to ponder the information at a deeper level.

The issues she addresses are quite universal, including: the desire to fit in, shame, authenticity, perfectionism, resilience, hope, addiction, and power.  At first what she states may seem obvious or too simple, but the reader will find themselves returning to these simple sentences later on at key moments and saying, “Huh, it’s not as obvious or as simple as I thought at first.”  Here are just a few examples:

Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. (page 26)

Healthy striving is self-focused–How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused–What will they think? (page 5)

I define calm as creating perspective and mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity. (page 106)

When we value being cool and in control over granting ourselves the freedom to unleash the passionate, goofy, heartfelt, and soulful expressions of who we are, we betray ourselves. When we consistently betray ourselves, we can expect to do the same to the people we love. (page 123)

Although the book can at first seem obvious and Dr. Brown’s personal examples overly simple, this book actually takes a complex topic and clearly explains it at a personable level, complete with suggested methods to implement the changes Dr. Brown suggests.  This book presents the scientifically-researched fact that a happy, fulfilled life comes from living authentically and being kinder to yourself.  Recommended to anyone feeling frazzled, stressed, or generally dissatisfied with their life.  Dr. Brown’s book shows another, simpler way to be.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Alien in the Family by Gini Koch (Series, #3)

October 3, 2013 1 comment

A blonde woman in a wedding dress holding a gun is surrounded by aliens in three-piece suits. Summary:
Kitty loves being engaged to Martini, her super-sexy alien fiancee from Alpha Centaurion. But she’s not super into the whole wedding planning thing.  The issue gets pushed to the forefront, though, when Martini’s estranged extended family on AC announces their intent to visit and determine the worthiness of the marriage.  It seems Martini is actually royalty.  Meanwhile, some new aliens crop up, and they just so happen to be Amazonian terrorists.  It’s an awful lot for the Super-Being Exterminator team to handle.

Review:
This is a hard review to write, because I *loved* the first two books in the series but this one left such a sour taste in my mouth, I won’t be continuing on.

The overarching plot is good.  Yes, it’s a bit ridiculous that Martini is royalty, but anyone who’s read the first two books in the series should expect and embrace the ridiculousness at this point.  The added twists from the AC homeworld make the wedding plot more interesting and unique.  Every wedding is unique in its own way, but this gives Kitty and Martini’s wedding a decidedly paranormal romance flair.  I didn’t find the Amazonian terrorist plot particularly necessary but it was well-done and kept the action moving.

The writing continues to be tongue-in-cheek dirty wit.

I hated having to be someplace on time, it took away so many potential orgasms. (page 40)

But the relationship between Martini and Kitty gave me reason to pause this time around.  They continue to have excellent chemistry, which is fun to see.  But there are two glaring issues in the relationship.  Martini is overly jealous, in a cartoonish, immature way.  He doesn’t get jealous in a way that is sexy. For instance, he doesn’t see men looking at Kitty and hold her hand to show they’re together.  He actually growls. And yells. And clearly doesn’t trust Kitty.  Of course, that lack of trust could be justified since Kitty repeatedly wonders if she’s choosing to marry the right man.  Not just that, she thinks about whether she should marry any myriad of her guy friends and ex-lovers.  Plus, she continues to flirt with just about anyone, in spite of Martini telling her it makes him uncomfortable.  These are issues that should have been worked out prior to an engagement, and they don’t bode well for a future marriage.  I wouldn’t mind the issues, but the couple are presented as the ideal couple.  They aren’t presented as a couple who has some issues to add some realistic drama to the story.  This is paranormal romance.  The main romantic couple *should* be a bit idealized, but they aren’t.

A much, MUCH bigger issue to me though is how rape is handled in the book.  This comes up in two different scenes.  There is a scene where Kitty is fighting some bad guys and accidentally ends up in a room with a football team visiting Vegas.  Half of the team makes a very overt attempt to gang rape her, but the other half of the team (plus an alien pet Kitty picks up early in the book) puts a stop to it.  Then later the leader of the rapey half of the team comes to help fight the bad guys and apologizes, and Kitty recommends that they be added to the secret forces.  She shrugs off the rape attempt as everyone makes mistakes and they apologized and essentially recommends they get hired to her company.  I’m ok with a heroine narrowly escaping a rape attempt, as that could happen.  I’m not ok with the heroine then shrugging it off, accepting an apology, basically saying that a rape attempt is just a mistake, and trying to help the career of the attempted rapist. What. The. Hell?!

In the second scene, Kitty is hanging out with her friend, Chuckie.  Chuckie is, at this point in time, her boss. He’s also her almost life-long friend, she’s had sex with him in the past, he’s asked her to marry him before, and she’s periodically wondered throughout this book if maybe she should be marrying him instead of Martini.  At the end of their conversation, they’re getting ready to go, and this happens:

He [Chuckie] took my [Kitty’s] shoulders and turned me around. “God, it’s as bad from the back. Really, go put on some clothes.”
“I don’t have a wrap, okay?”
“Find one. Before I rape you.” He gave me a gentle push toward the bedroom.
“Fine, fine.” (page 434)

So, Kitty’s friend: A) judges her clothing and deems it immodest B) orders her to change her outfit C) casually jokes about raping her D) victim blames rape victims with his comment implying clothing causes rape.  And of course Kitty just takes this all in stride and doesn’t see anything at all inappropriate about what Chuckie says.

There is just far too much casual boys-will-be-boys acceptance of rape and rape culture in this book that supposedly features a strong female lead and *romance*.  And a wedding! Paranormal romance fans deserve better.  Men deserve to be treated as not mindless animals who will tackle anything in a sexy dress.  Women deserve better than to be blamed for rapists’ behavior.  Toss in the relationship issues between Martini and Kitty, while the relationship is treated by the book an ideal one, and no amount of sexy humor, wedding dresses, and aliens could save it for me.  I’m very disappointed in the turn this series took.  If you’re interested in the series, I would recommend reading the first two and stopping there.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Previous Books in Series:
Touched by an Alien, review
Alien Tango, review

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet in red against a gray background.Summary:
Cain explains how the Extrovert Ideal became the norm in Western culture then proceeds to define the reality of the existence of both introverts and extroverts, not just among humans, but in the non-human animal kingdom as well.  She explains the pluses and minuses of both personalities and provides advice for individuals, parents, and businesses in bringing out the best potential in both.

Review:
This book has been all the rage among book bloggers, which probably isn’t that surprising.  Readers tend to be introverts, and the book’s title certainly implies that it’s all about us.  In actuality though, although the book does have a focus on introverts, it also contains lots of information on extroverts and how we are all different but equally valuable to the world.  Indeed, the Introduction features a statement that basically defines the point of the book as a whole:

Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality—the “north and south of temperament,” as one scientist puts it—is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.  (page 2)

After the Introduction, the book is divided into four parts: The Extrovert Ideal, Your Biology Your Self, Do All Cultures Have an Extrovert Ideal, and How to Love How to Work.  As someone who was a History major in undergrad, I found the first section completely fascinating.  It explains how western culture, particularly American culture, went from an introvert ideal to an extrovert one.  It, not surprisingly, was all tied up with the Industrial Revolution.  Before the Industrial Revolution people mostly interacted with people they had known most of their lives or who they would have time to get to know.  After, if you wanted to make it in the business world, you had to make an amazing first impression.  This push to give off the aura of friendly and awesome edged out the prior expectation to develop a moral character.  This section also talks about how Evangelical Protestants take the Extrovert Ideal to an even greater extreme:

If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love. It’s not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly.  (page 69)

I’ve taken the Meyers-Brigg personality test multiple times at various points in my life. I am always solidly an INTJ.  The I is for introvert.  I was also raised Evangelical (although I am now an Agnostic).  This section rocked my world.  I even mentioned on GoodReads that it basically explained my life to me.  Cain talks about how difficult it can be to be an introverted child or young person being raised in a culture of Extrovert Ideal.  I wasn’t just raised in the American one (who just so happen to be the most extroverted people on the planet, page 186), but I was also raised in the most Extrovert Ideal culture within that culture–Evangelical.  It’s no wonder I had some issues figuring out who I am and being ok with that. I can barely fathom what a difference it would have made in loving and accepting myself if I’d even just been told it is just as ok to worship alone in the woods as to be loud and proud about it in public.

The next section is more sciencey and discusses the biology behind personality differences.  This section can definitely be empowering as it lets people know precisely how you became an introvert or extrovert.  The overarching philosophy is that more sensitive babies, as in ones who are more easily startled or frightened of strangers, are predispositioned to become introverts.  Nurture also affects this, of course.  Cain discusses the good qualities of both highly sensitive and less sensitive kids and how how they are raised can either bring out the good or the bad in either natural temperament.  Of course this is a great area for parents and those who work with kids, but it also explains to the reader how they got this way and what false ideas they might have about themselves.  For me, this is the section that explained to me why I’m so passionate about causes like vegetarianism and mental illness advocacy.  Introverts tend to be oriented around causes.  An example of an introvert/extrovert pair who both got things done in their own way that Cain uses is Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.  This is a wisely chosen example because both are people to look up to who played to their own personality strengths.

Personally I wasn’t so into the next section.  As compared to the other sections that are three chapters, this one consists of only one.  It essentially compares Asian culture to Western culture since Asian culture tends to idealize introversion over extroversion.  I felt that this chapter was a bit rushed and less in-depth.  Cain tried to cover both the experiences of Asian-Americans and all Asian culture as a whole.  I understand that she wanted to address multicultural understandings of personality, but it does seem that this topic could be a book in and of itself.  It felt a bit similar to the instances when in my job as an education and reference librarian that I tell a student their topic is too broad to possibly cover in one paper (or one thesis).  It seems that a quick chapter on introversion versus extroversion worldwide could have been mentioned in the first section as a comparison without devoting a whole section to it.  Similarly, the issues specific to immigrants to America from nations with an Introvert Ideal would have worked well in a different section.  This would have felt more integrated and flowed better.

The final section contains advice on using your personality to your advantage in your life and also on how to strike a compromise with someone you care about of a different personality type.  Overall, this section was well-written, although I felt not enough attention was given to “pseudo-extroverts,” introverts who have learned to pass as extroverts.  This is a fascinating topic, particularly to an introvert who is constantly mistaken for an extrovert.  I think this is the reality for a lot of people, and it deserved a bit more attention and research.  For instance, Cain says in passing:

Emotional labor, which is the effort we make to control and change our own emotions, is associated with stress, burnout, and even physical symptoms like an increase in cardiovascular disease. (page 223)

I really wanted to know more about this!  Particularly since I care so much about health and wellness.  It almost seemed as if pseudo-extroversion deserved its own chapter.

The rest of the section though was great and quite helpful.  I think if everyone followed the advice in it on dealing with other personality types and creating a loving environment for kids on both ends of the introvert/extrovert spectrum that we would have a much more positive world.  Perhaps her best piece of relationship advice is A Free Trait Agreement.

A Free Trait Agreement acknowledges that we’ll each act out of character some of the time—in exchange for being ourselves the rest of the time.  (page 221)

So for a couple consisting of an introvert and an extrovert they will go out some Friday nights and stay in and snuggle and read others.  Preferably about 50/50.  Mutual compromise.  It’d be good to keep this in mind more often.

Overall, this is a well-written, accessible book regarding personality psychology and the history of it.  It does flounder in some places and could have used another once-over for structure and focus, but it is well worth your time to read.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Falling For Me: How I Hung Curtains, Learned to Cook, Traveled to Seville, and Fell in Love by Anna David

January 31, 2012 9 comments

Polka-dot book coverSummary:
Anna David is a successful writer in her mid 30s living in NYC when an overwhelming depression hits her.  She’s still single.  What’s wrong with her?  While fighting off tears in the self-help section, she finds a copy of Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown, which was a bestseller in the 1960s.  Essentially a guide to being happy single while still keeping an eye open for Mr. Right, Anna instantly connects with Helen Gurley Brown and decides to spend the next year challenging herself and taking advantage of everything being single has to offer.

Review:
It should really need no explaining why I picked this book up.  I’ve always been the relationship type (even when I tried not to be), but I also won’t settle for just anybody, and sometimes that combination leads to some ennui.  I was hoping I would find a connection to and insight from Anna, and I was certainly right about that.

The very first chapter has Anna breaking down in line for food in her head, basically saying, “I’m going to be alone forever,” and going on from there adding that she’ll be the crazy old maid cat lady and going further and further on into ridiculousness that really doesn’t seem that ridiculous when it’s your brain saying it to yourself.  I knew instantly that Anna and I would get along.

As opposed to a lot of other single gal memoirs, the focus is neither just love yourself the way you are nor fake everything to land a man.  It’s more like….Do you have any idea how lucky you are to even have this phase in your life?  You’re single!  You can do anything, go anywhere, decorate however you want, and etc…  Anna realizes that she hasn’t been taking full advantage of the things being single affords to her.  Things like deciding to house swap and live for a month in Seville (try doing that with a baby) or taking French classes in the evening or spending the day rollerblading and winding up in a park in the sun.  So Anna isn’t just trudging along being herself.  She’s pushing herself to try new things, go new places, and yes the future Mr. Anna may be there, but even if he’s not, she’s still having a fun time doing it.

The book also addresses another common issue among single women and, well, people in general–grass is always greener syndrome.  Anna eventually realizes that she seems to think all of her problems will just disappear if and when she gets married, when that is really not the case at all if you pay an iota of attention to married couples.

One specific line in S&SG that I keep thinking of—“I’ve never met a completely happy single girl or a completely happy married one”—and how it’s helped me to see that I’m somehow convinced that getting to the next stage will make me instantly joyous.  (page 36)

The other thing that is sooo relatable that Anna talks about is how it’s so easy to become so desperate for a partner that you start trying to change yourself for him or worry constantly about whether or not you’re good enough for him, when that’s not how dating is supposed to work!

You spend all your time trying to manipulate a guy into wanting you to be his girlfriend when what you should be doing is enjoying yourself and then later figuring out if you even want him as a boyfriend.  (page 205)

There are definitely things about Anna that I don’t like or I disagree with (for instance, she eats veal and foie gras, ahem, the book almost got thrown across the room at that point), but even though we’re different, we’re also the same.  We’re two single gals who are wondering why everyone else seems to be coupling up but me?  What Anna slowly realizes over her year-long experiment is that there is no timeline for love and marriage.  It’s not like it’s a game of musical chairs and she’ll be left the only one without one.  Maybe her music is just playing at a different speed.  I think that’s a really important thing to remember and touching to see someone else struggling with, because it’s far too easy to start pressuring ourselves and the men we date into situations that just aren’t right for either of us.  It’ll happen when it happens.

This is a rare instance when I feel the need to sort of reveal the ending.  I was worried the book would end with Anna abundantly happy in a relationship, kind of like Eat, Pray, Love, which honestly would only have made me more depressed.  Like the book was all about yay singlehood but I still landed a man, right?  But no.  Who Anna falls in love with is not a man, but herself.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand: I used to not really believe I deserved thick, gorgeous panels for my windows or to pull books from a bookshelf specifically selected for my apartment. It didn’t occur to me that I was worth cooking homemade chicken soup for or dressing in beautiful clothes. I thought I was half a person because I didn’t have a partner but that when I had one, I’d do those things for him. Now I see that I’m entirely whole so that if and when I find him, we can be two whole people together, not the person and a half we would have been.  (page 305)

Yes, yes, yes!  Finally.  A book about being single and loving yourself and taking care of yourself and being a whole person as just you.  Sure, the professionals tell us that, but it’s super-nice to get to hear it from a gal who could easily be somebody I have bimonthly cocktails with.

I highly recommend this book to any single ladies in their 20s and up.  It’s a nice reminder that we’re not the only ones learning to love ourselves and be patient for the right person.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Book Review: The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy

January 24, 2012 2 comments

Woma in red cloche hat.Summary:
It’s 2007, and Reba is a journalist living in El Paso, Texas, with her fiance, border patrol guard, Riki.  She hasn’t been able to bring herself to be fully honest with him about her dark childhood overshadowed by her Vietnam Vet father’s struggle with depression and PTSD.  Christmas is coming up, and she is interviewing Elsie, the owner of the local German bakery.  Elsie has some intense secrets of her own that show it’s not always easy to know what’s right when your country and family go wrong.

Review:
I have an intense love for WWII stories, and I immediately was drawn to the idea of intergenerational similarities and learning from an older generation innate in this book’s plot.  It is a complex tale that McCoy expertly weaves, managing to show how people are the same, yet different, across race, time, and gender.

Reba’s and Elsie’s tales are about two very different kinds of bravery.  Reba has a wounded soul that she must be brave enough to reveal to the man she loves.  She lives in fear of turning into her father or losing herself entirely in the love for another, the way her mother did.  She faces a struggle that I have heard voiced by many in my generation–do I risk myself and my career for love or do I continue on alone?    To this end, then, the most memorable parts of Reba’s story, for me, are when Elsie advises her on love in real life, as opposed to the love you see in movies and fairy tales.

I’ve never been fooled by the romantic, grand gestures. Love is all about the little things, the everyday considerations, kindnesses, and pardons.  (location 482)

The truth is, everyone has a dark side. If you can see and forgive his dark side and he can see and forgive yours, then you have something.   (location 844)

One issue I had with the book, though, is that although we see Elsie’s two relationships before her husband in stark clarity and reality, we never really see what it is that made her ultimately choose her own husband.  We see their meeting and first “date,” yes, but that’s kind of it.  I felt the book was building up to what ultimately made Elsie choose her American husband and move to Texas, but we only see snippets of this, whereas we see a lot of Elsie’s interactions with her prior two boyfriends.  That was a big disappointment to me, because I wanted to know how Elsie knew he was the one, and how she herself was brave enough to take the leap she encourages Reba to make.

I am sure most people will most intensely react to the story of Elsie’s actions to attempt to save a Jewish boy during WWII and may even wish that was the only real story told.  Elsie’s life during wartime Germany.  It is definitely the stronger of the two stories, but I so enjoyed the lesson in valuing and listening to those older than you that we see through Reba meeting and learning from Elsie that I must say I like the book just the way it is.  Is it different? Yes.  But that’s part of what makes it stand out in a slew of WWII fiction.  Elsie did this brave thing, and her whole life she never knew if it really made much of a difference.  She just lived her life, married, had a daughter, was kind to a journalist.  In a sense, it makes her story seem more realistic.  Less like something from “The Greatest Generation” and more like something possible to accomplish for anyone with a strong will and willingness to make up her own mind.

One critique I have that slowed the book down for me and made it less enjoyable are the insertion of letters between Elsie and her sister, Hazel, who is in the Lebensborn program.  Compared to the rest of the book, the letters were slow-moving and only moderately interesting.  I can’t help but feel shorter letters would have gotten the same message across without slowing down the story quite so much.  Yes, the inclusion of the sister was necessary to the story, but I feel like she got too much stage time, as it were.

I also have to say that I really hate the cover.  It reflects none of the spirit or warmth of the book itself.  The story is wrapped in warm ovens, scents of cinnamon, and bravery, and yet we get the back of a woman’s head with an inexplicable gingham strip at the bottom? Yeesh.

Overall, this is a life-affirming story that teaches the value of connecting with the older generations and cautions against thoughtless nationalism.  I highly recommend it to fans of literary and WWII fiction alike.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving by Donna Britt

January 19, 2012 2 comments

Old photograph in bottom right corner of Britt's family.Summary:
Now in her fifties, Donna Britt, an award-winning and ground-breaking black, female journalist, takes a look back at her life to see what has influenced her the most.  She is unsurprised to find that her life has largely been affected by loving and giving to brothers–black men she’s both related to and not.  From growing up surrounded by three blood brothers, to loving brothers, to raising them, Britt discusses the universal influence heterosexual women’s love for men has on their lives, as well as the unique aspect of loving a race of men persecuted in the United States and raising her three boys in the face of the odds stacked against them.

Review:
Britt’s career as a writer shows in her memoir.  It is the most well put-together memoir I’ve read in quite some time.  Each chapter looks at a key event in her life in order of it being lived, but also looks at the impact those events had on her as a person.  She does this by starting with a photograph and an anecdote related to the event, then moves on to describing the event in detail.  Everything in her life, though, is impacted by her brother, Darrell’s, death at the hands of two policemen in his early 20s.  This terribly unjust incident and how it flavors the rest of her life is the simplest and most effective anti police brutality message I’ve ever read.  Was her brother threatening the officers? Maybe.  But all it would have taken was for those two men to aim to stop rather than to kill to prevent the loss of someone’s loved one.  Britt says later in her memoir that she knows that those officers just saw “a crazy black man” and not a person, and it is now her goal to always see the person, not the stereotype.

Britt, like other memoirists I’ve enjoyed, never takes a “poor me” attitude or tone, in spite of the fact that she really could given the loss of her brother, being raped, and a first marriage to a man who soon got lost in cocaine addiction.  Not to mention her second husband’s affair.  Yet, through all of this, Britt’s resilience is evident.  She constantly tries to improve not just the world but herself.  Britt has an ability to look at herself without rose-tinted glasses.  She knows her own faults, primarily that she’s a perfectionist and expects too much from people.  I think that’s what makes her so relatable and sympathetic.  She’s an imperfect person struggling in an imperfect world, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t right about the injustices she’s seen throughout her life.

I think any female reader who has a brother can understand the other central question in Britt’s memoir–How exactly did these boys who were our brothers who loved us and pranked us and guarded us with their fists when we were young grow up into these baffling men?  Boys are easy to understand.  Men, not so much.  That’s even the case with Britt’s own brothers, one of whom grew from a rebel into a religious man who changes his name from Steve to Melech and whom she barely speaks to anymore.  Why is it when boys become men and we go from girls to women that communication becomes so hard?  Hard, but rewarding and not impossible.  Sure, no answers are offered, but it’s nice to see this experience through someone else’s eyes.

Beyond social justice and the universal communication difficulties between men and women, Britt’s memoir also clearly demonstrates an issue that is sometimes hard to explain–that of privilege.  Those born with privilege sometimes have a hard time understanding what, exactly, it is those without it are speaking about.  I sometimes wonder myself if I’d understand privilege if I’d been born a white MAN instead of a white WOMAN.  Britt with a gift of subtlety makes this clear.  She talks about needing to be extra perfect, extra good in order to combat the stereotype of the useless black children.  Of feeling like she’s representing the entire race when she’s the only black student in her graduate class.  Of the fact that maybe if her brother had been white and acting crazy the cops might not have shot him.  Of being extra concerned when her son shoplifts because he probably wouldn’t get away with just a slap on the wrist if he got caught.  Instead of talking loudly about privilege, it’s simply evident throughout her entire life and the lives of those around her.  I would hope that anyone reading this would start to see how inequality survives today, even if it’s not as institutionalized as it once was.

Overall, this is a powerful memoir by a humble woman that again demonstrates why it’s important to listen to the life stories of those older than us.  There is always something to learn or to relate to from their life journey.  I, naturally, don’t always agree with Britt or her choices, but I respect her commitment to living the best life she can.

I recommend this memoir to fans of the genre, especially, but also to those with an interest in racism in 20th century America and relationships between men and women.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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