Where They Came From

A few days later, the vacation ended. I flew back to pine trees, over-cast skies, and a Michigan winter that could sputter till May. My tan faded. My tongue forgot the taste of tocino and Tagalog. I stepped out of tsinelas and back into my suburban life as if I had never left.

This is how Jay Reguero, the narrator of Randy Ribay’s profoundly moving Patron Saints of Nothing, recounts readjusting to his life in America after a visit with his Filipino family. Though Jay was born in the Philippines, his parents moved to the US when he was a young child and he has only been back once. Jay’s life has been very comfortable, and very stereotypically American – now a high school senior, he is preoccupied with friends, girls, video games, and angst over his collegiate future. 

9780525554912

This all changes in an instant, however, when Jay’s father drops a bomb in his lap. Jay’s Filipino cousin Jun has been killed. Jun and Jay are the same age and had been long time pen pals before eventually falling out of contact. Jay is upset to hear about Jun, but the circumstances surrounding his death make things far worse. His father explains that Jun had run away from home, begun using and selling drugs, and was killed as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s extreme, brutally violent “war on drugs.” Jay cannot reconcile this version of Jun with the sweet, caring young man he knew and is frustrated by his extended family’s refusal to divulge more details about Jun’s death. Jay decides to take matters into his own hands, travelling to the Philippines on his spring break to stay with his family and learn more about the last years of Jun’s life and the events that led to his death. 

In Manila, Jay butts heads with his uncle, a powerful pro-Duterte police officer, and finds himself increasingly disgusted by how quickly his family has buried all memories of Jun. Jay is also haunted by guilt for letting his friendship with Jun fade away, and both ashamed and frustrated to discover how little he knows and understands about the country where he was born. As Jay makes connections and begins to untangle the mysteries of Jun’s life and death, he must also reckon with his own family history, his disconnection with Filipino culture, and his own role in deciding his future. 

Ribay is a beautiful writer with the rare ability to immerse the reader in a specific time and place. In Patron Saints of Nothing, he deftly explores and illuminates many of the complicated, nuanced ideas connected to identity and perceived otherness that immigrants are forced to contend with daily. Jay, who has a Filipino father and a white American mother, must contend with the all-too-common microaggressions at home, yet is not “Filipino enough” in the eyes of his family in the Philippines. It is perhaps this feeling of being caught in the middle that explains why Ribay’s dedication for this book reads “For the hyphenated.” 

418pMGyT21L

Jay’s experiences returning to the Philippines reminded me of another incredible book I read earlier this year. Sabina Khan’s The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali is an intense, propulsive book about a young woman caught between cultures and the expectations they place on young people. Rukhsana is the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants. She is a talented student of physics, eager to attend a top university program in California even if that means going against the wishes of her parents who want her to stay closer to home. Rukhsana has gotten adept at balancing the pressures of her life and the demands of her traditional Muslim parents. Though it bothers her that her brother often gets preferential treatment, she plays the role of dutiful daughter while also making plans for her future and sneaking out to parties with her friends. 

Rukhsana’s carefully constructed world crashes down when her mother catches her in the worst possible scenario – making out with her girlfriend. Her parents had no idea that Rukhsana is gay and they refuse to accept this reality. To say they do not handle it well is an understatement. They start with prayers, threats, and plans to arrange a marriage for Rukhsana, then push things further, sending Rukhsana to live with family in Bangladesh under false pretenses while they train her to be a dutiful wife and find her a suitable husband. 

This is all traumatic and terrifying for Rukhsana, who has suddenly lost the girl she loves, her dreams for the future, and any illusion that her family supports her. But Rukhsana is extremely resilient and a bit of a bad-ass, and soon finds allies in Bangladesh as she searches for a way to stand up to her family, save her future, and thwart their wedding plans. While in Bangladesh, Rukhsana seizes the opportunity to learn more about Bengali culture and the things that her parents have endured and fought through in their lives. While Khan does not hold back when criticizing the violent homophobia and misogyny that persist in Bangladesh (and unfortunately are still mirrored here in the United States), she also uses Rukhsana’s difficult journey to highlight the brave people who fight to make society more equitable and accepting for all people. 

Both Jay’s and Rukhsana’s stories are deeply upsetting at times. They also have incredible redemptive arcs that show the power of family and community to learn, adapt, and become more accepting in both small and large ways. Though not the primary focus of these two stories, both books also deal with the sacrifices that immigrant families make and the ways they face adversity and build community in a new homeland.  At a time when language targeting immigrants is being weaponized to target our friends, family, and neighbors, I will be pushing myself to reinforce that the Library is a safe and welcoming place for everyone, and to read more stories about the people who strengthen our communities with their presence.

Houston: City of Magic

Despite living in Washington for nearly 15 years, I still associate summer with heat and humidity. The Houston branch of my family will tell you that the weather there will give you a “nice summer glow.” I say the icky sticky makes showering a nearly wasted effort and breathing deeply indoors is a luxury taken for granted. After reading the first part of the Hidden Legacy series by Ilona Andrews, I now think of magic, mystery, murder, and mega romance when I think of Houston.

In this series, Ilona Andrews (pseudonym for husband-wife writing team Ilona and Andrew Gordon) invites the reader into a Houston we’ve never seen before. I’ll let Andrews explain:

In 1863 in a world much like our own, European scientists discovered the Osiris serum, a concoction which brought out one’s magic talents. These talents were many and varied. The serum spread throughout the world.  Eventually the world realized the consequences of awakening godlike powers in ordinary people. The serum was locked away, but it was too late. The magic talents passed on from parents to their children and changed the course of human history forever. The future of entire nations shifted in the span of a few short decades.  Those who previously married for status, money, and power now married for magic, because strong magic would give them everything.

Now, a century and a half later, families with strong hereditary magic have evolved into dynasties. It is a world where the more magic you have, the more powerful, the wealthier, and the more prominent you are. Some magic talents are destructive. Some are subtle. But no magic user should be taken lightly.

Magic rules the world. Families with multiple magic users over more than one generation can form a House. Houses almost come across like mob families in that they are very powerful and often skirt the laws–or break them entirely.

But what if you’re a magic user who has spent your whole life hiding your talents? Being a part of a House means you generally have at least one target on your back at any given moment. The more powerful the House, the more powerful your enemies. Sometimes it’s safer to live your life with your magic hidden, especially if your powers are not well-understood and strike fear into the hearts of established Houses. Because if you are feared, you could be taken out.

Nevada is basically a human lie-detector. Catalina is a siren; she can make anyone instantly love her. And Arabella can shift into a giant beast that cannot be physically restrained. Basically, if the government found out that the sisters had these extremely rare magical talents they would be locked away in secure facilities, forced to work for them.

Yeah. No thanks! I’d rather keep my secrets to myself, too.

But such is life for the Baylor family, who are not a House because they have kept the daughters’ abilities secret. Nevada, her maternal grandmother, mother, two sisters, and two cousins all live in a large warehouse that is part home and part headquarters for their family investigation firm. Grandma brings in extra cash retrofitting vehicles for Houston’s elite Houses, and Mom is a retired military sniper. Everyone pitches in with the family business, but none is more dedicated and shoulders the burdens like Nevada. Ever since her father died of cancer and left the business in her care, she has made it her personal mission to see the family business succeed.

To ensure continued success, Baylor Investigations has three rules everyone follows:
Rule 1: they stay bought. When a client hires the family, they are loyal to them.
Rule 2: they don’t break the law, keeping them out of jail and safe from litigation.
Rule 3: most important: at the end of the day, they still have to be able to look their reflections in the eye.

These rules pop up frequently, because the Baylors, and Nevada in particular, are constantly up against powerful and deadly forces who nearly always ask them to break their personal principles in order to stop catastrophic consequences.

Powerful rogue magic users are rampaging through Houston and threatening to topple the world’s House hierarchy. These acts of terrorism have the magic community and the general population on high alert. Enter Mad Rogan, one of the most powerful telekinetics on record. He is working on the fringes to stop the terrorists and crosses paths with Nevada. At first thinking she’s a part of the conspiracy, he eventually learns to work with her in order to stop anarchy and protect society.

This is a high-concept urban fantasy/romance series where the stakes are high and the characters are well-written and relatable, despite the whole magic thing. The first three novels follow the terrorism arc with Nevada and Mad Rogan the protagonists. The novella (and the soon-to-be-published next arc) follow Catalina and her own adventures.

I’m a sucker for a series that dedicates a book to each sibling in a large, loving, and somewhat looney family. But stretch that series out with multiple books per character in a way that doesn’t feel stretched out at all but in fact feels absolutely perfect and wonderful and I think I’m obsessed? Yes. I am here for it. And now that I’ve finished what’s been published so far in the Hidden Legacy series, I’m going back to the other Ilona Andrews series and seeing what trouble I can get into.

I recommend the Hidden Legacy series for fans of superhero comics and movies, those who dig a good family saga, romance lovers, and anyone who fell in love with Harry Dresden. But don’t stop there. Fall down the Ilona Andrews rabbit hole with me. You just know it’s going to be magical.

He’s a Real Nowhere Man

Sometimes you find an absolute gem of a book in the least likely of places. For me, that unlikely place was in a grocery store.

When my mom was alive, I’d go grocery shopping with her. Unfailingly, I would find her in the book aisle after having looked for her for what seemed like an hour. She’d almost always get a paperback, one of those bodice rippers with a man in a kilt filling the cover. Mom liked her time traveling romance books. I got a lot of my love of reading from her.

So it isn’t too surprising that I ended up in the book aisle of Safeway recently. I started to peruse the shelves and discovered a book that looked like I’d want to devour it in a day. Hard to say whether Lisa Jewell’s I Found You found me or I found it.

Alice is a single mother raising three kids. Saying she has bad luck with men is an understatement. Recently, a man has washed up on the beach. Alice decides to go and see if the man needs help. He tells her he can’t remember his name or how he got there. Alice detects something in him, some tragedy and trauma, enough to hollow out his brain and leave him with giant gaps of time he can’t account for. She decides to take him in, get his clothing dry and make some phone calls.

Meanwhile, Lily is newly married and still head over heels in love with her husband who swept her away from her home country of Russia. But one day he doesn’t come home at all. Lily begins to panic because her husband is a routine fiend. She sets out in a foreign land to find her him.

The amnesiac Alice discovered on the beach spends the night in the backyard of a cottage owned by Alice’s mother-in-law. Alice introduces her three children to him. Alice’s youngest child decides to call him Frank. Bits and bobs of his memory are coming back. Alice and Frank set out to see if anything else can be found.

Lily is hitting brick walls when it comes to finding answers to her questions about her missing husband. The lives of Alice, Frank, and Lily are about to collide with horrifying results. This was one of those books where I continued to think about the characters after I finished the book and hope they were finding good days, if not awesome days.

But, I also talk to the toaster.

I need a life.

Send help.

A Southern Goth-Ick

Kristen Arnett is one my favorite people to follow on Twitter. She’s a librarian and author whose sharp-witted posts are laced with a healthy dose of dark humor. Whether she is talking about interactions at her library, the writing process, love for her local 7-11 or even non-convenience-store-centered relationships, her posts leave me cackling (and squirming when they hit too close to home). So it was no surprise that I devoured her exquisite and unsettling debut novel, Mostly Dead Things

2d4c8fb365e1620f-ARNETTheadshotcolor2017Mostly Dead Things follows Jessa, a taxidermist in central Florida, whose life is teetering on the precipice. The main thread of the story finds Jessa struggling in the wake of her father’s suicide. Though her father was in many ways a negligent parent to Jessa, he was also a massive presence in her life. He taught her that taxidermy is more than a grisly chore, that there is art in taking dead animals and recreating moments that capture the full beauty of their lives. He also passed her the routine, expectations, and burdens that came to define her life. After finding his dead body and dealing with the mess he left behind, Jessa is eager to bury herself in her work, focusing on the dead things she can fix not the gaping wounds in her own psyche. She drinks too much, limits relationships to a steady stream of casual hook-ups and struggles in vain to claw free from the ghosts of her past.

Jessa finds no solace with her surviving family members. She has long had a complicated relationship with her brother, Milo. They share a deep almost unspeakable pain that traces back to the day that Milo’s wife, Brynn, abandoned him and their children. Before Brynn was Milo’s wife, she was Jessa’s best friend and secret lover. This dynamic did not change when Milo and Brynn wed. Jessa loved Brynn deeply and Brynn seemed to enjoy both siblings’ adoration and attention. Though Jessa helps take care of Milo’s two children, their own relations remain tenuous at best. 

Mostly-Dead-Things-Cover-RGB-2-800x1236

Jessa’s mother is a different issue altogether. Following her husband’s death, she has found solace in creating new displays out of his taxidermy projects. These works sexualize and contort the animals in strange and grotesque ways. For Jessa this upsetting and disrespectful treatment of her father’s work is incomprehensible and borders on blasphemy. And this is just where Jessa’s troubles begin. Her mother begins to work with a local gallery owner to display her art for a wider audience. Jessa is determined to stop this show, but is also slipping into a contentious romantic relationship with the gallery owner. Jessa continues to drink too much and struggles to keep her business afloat, while her niece and nephew embrace the family business with too much enthusiasm and too little concern for laws and ethics. With her mother’s gallery opening fast approaching and old wounds reopening in all of her relationships, Jessa must figure out how to regain some semblance of control and balance in her increasingly messy life.  

I’m a pretty squeamish guy and I will admit that this book includes descriptions of the taxidermy process that were outside my comfort zone. Yet even the goriest narratives felt natural and well-placed coming through Jessa’s voice. Arnett does not hold back. Her descriptions of love, sex, aging, and Jessa’s work are raw and often glamorless. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Jessa has endured years of emotional abuse at the hands of both her father and Brynn, and has suffered dearly as a result. With her wry voice and unique humor, it is impossible not to root for Jessa even at her lowest lows. And it is equally difficult to resist marveling at Arnett’s wrenching but sardonic meditations on love, loss, and abandonment and her ability to make both the saddest and the grossest of situations laugh-till-you-cry hilarious. Arnett recently tweeted a one-star review of her book that simply read “Dead Animals.” So I will end by saying five stars: dead animals.

The Truth is Out There (But Probably Not in Textbooks)

Dedicated to all American history teachers
who teach against their textbooks
(and their ranks keep growing)

And so begins the updated edition of Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. “Every teacher, every student of history, every citizen should read this book,” said Howard Zinn. The San Francisco Chronicle called it, “an extremely convincing plea for truth in education.” My husband exasperatingly declared, “I can’t believe you still haven’t read this book, Carol!”

Since this month’s reading challenge is to read a book about American history, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to see what all the buzz is about–and finally let my husband rest his weary voice.

First, let’s be clear: the author is not bashing teachers! He knows that teachers need to teach from the textbooks provided. And the books are only as good as their authors. Some authors are better than others, but overall the state of textbooks–American history textbooks specifically–need to be reformed. As the author points out in the introduction when discussing how most textbooks are 1,200 pages or more:

Indeed, state and local textbook committees should not select *any* 1,200 page hardcover book. As the introduction to the second edition points out, there is no pedagogical justification for such large tomes. Their only reason for being is economic. These textbooks now retail for more than $100 and cost more than $70 even when ordered in quantity by states and school districts. It’s easy to understand why publishers keep on making them. It’s harder to understand why school districts keep buying them.

Topics range from the Vietnam War, the truth about Columbus, and how we have a bad habit of creating heroes out of people who were, at best, regular folks and at worst, total monsters. The book focuses on educational texts, sure, but the point it’s really trying to get across is that we need to educate children and teens to think critically and apply skepticism, not cynicism, to everything they consume: books, internet sites, news reports, and social media posts. This starts in the classroom and it starts with teaching critical thinking skills.

Let me reassure you that there are photographs. Sure, they’re in black and white, but I’m always reassured that a history book won’t be too dry and boring if I can find illustrations, maps, photographs, or other visual helpers to keep my brain engaged if it wants to wander. Many of the images in this book come directly from the textbooks the author reviewed.

Sometimes the representative textbook photos are good, like showing two images representing early Native American societies, one showing an organized society and the other showing people on horseback seemingly wandering. The caption asks students to discern which happened before white settlers arrived and which was after. This builds critical thinking skills and encourages students to find information to support their conclusions. It also busts the lie we’ve been told about how indigenous communities were uncivilized people who welcomed white saviors.

Other times, the representative textbook photos are reeeeeally not good. For instance, a racist cartoon that is still printed in high school textbooks with either no context or a skewed viewpoint. Stating your opinion–especially when it’s racist and contrary to reality–as fact does not make it a fact. But this is what students are taught and tested on. When we teach our children racist views as a requirement of their education, is it any wonder our society has problems with systemic racism and the inability to tell fact from fake news?

This all means that often the illustrations included in textbooks do a great disservice to the students forced to use them in class. It’s just one layer upon many that make up the cracks in our educational foundation. A foundation that is in serious need of repair.

I just checked this book out today. I’ll be reading it this month to complete the reading challenge and I just know I will be completely insufferable as I plague friends and strangers alike with the misinformation, misrepresentations, censorship, and outright lies we’ve all been fed. But this is good, and it’s exactly what the author was going for. He wants people to think and learn and grow and challenge the way we’ve been taught American history. We must stand up for facts, and push back against the BS.

Have you read this classic? I’d love to hear the most shocking or surprising fact you learned from the book. From what I can tell so far skimming, there are an embarrassing amount to choose from.

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

The Chain by Adrian Mckinty is the kind of book I find very frightening. No zombies or vampires, but the kind of stuff that can REALLY happen!

With a regular chain letter, if you don’t pass it on either something “bad” will happen or you are promised great things if you do pass it on; but there is no real incentive to pass it on. In this story, the masterminds behind the chain letter make sure that something really bad happens and in order to make it better you must “pass it on.”

Imagine that you get a phone call saying your child has been kidnapped. In order to get your child back, you must pay a ransom and kidnap another child! Only after the parents of the child you kidnap pay the ransom and kidnap another child will you get your own child back. And that’s where it ends…..or does it?

After contacting past abductees families, Rachel realizes that her family will forever be part of the chain, unless she can find a way to keep herself and her family safe.

Read this exciting story of single parent Rachel and her daughter Kylie. Rachel’s brother-in-law helps her do the bad deeds she needs to do to get Kylie back, because, obviously, you cannot go to the police. As they end up getting deeper and deeper into the kidnapping they realize that even if they wanted to go to the police, they are now criminals. This tale becomes even more exciting as they try to not just break the chain, but take it apart link by link.

I must add that I was very disappointed that I took this to read on my three-week vacation…. as I couldn’t put it down and finished it in four days!

Sometimes Dead is Better

I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary when I was 10 or 11. My brother (who is 2/1/2 years older than me) had finished it and left it on the couch. I picked it up and began reading. That book sealed the deal on me wanting to be a writer.

Stephen King has admitted that Pet Sematary disturbs him more than his other horror novels because the plot included every parent’s worst fear: the loss of a child. Back in the 1980s, Stephen King and his family moved to rural Maine. The country road in front of their home was anything but empty and quiet. Large semis often barreled down the road, claiming beloved pets and inadvertently teaching kids about death. King said his youngest child, still getting the tricky thing of walking down, had made his way to the edge of the road where a semi was rocketing down.

King couldn’t remember if he’d tackled the toddler in time or the child just tripped, preventing what could have been every parent’s worst nightmare. The seeds of the novel were planted when he discovered a pet cemetery behind his house. He didn’t have a place to write in in his new house, so he wrote in a room in the grocery store across from that road made for tragedy.

In Pet Sematary (misspelled by the children who made the place their pets final resting ground) Louis Creed and his family move to the rural town of Ludlow, Maine. Louis was an ER doctor in Chicago, but wanted a quiet place where he could spend more time with his wife and two children. He takes a job as infirmary doctor at the university and begins to settle his family.

His new neighbor Jud Crandall, a nimble 80-year-old man, introduces the Creed family to the pet cemetery near the woods behind their home. Generations of neighborhood children have buried their pets there. Many were claimed by the hell-bent for leather semis on that country road.

Louis’ 5-year-old daughter Ellie, like all children, starts to ask questions about death and why her beloved cat Church won’t live as long as her. He explains that death is a natural thing, earning the wrath of his wife Rachel who believes death isn’t to be talked about. Her anger might be because of a tragedy in her youth with her older sister dying at home while Rachel was the only one there.

The road claims Ellie’s cat, Church. Jud, who has become a good friend to Louis, tells him about a place beyond the pet cemetery, ground that belonged to a local tribe. The earth there is bad, the ground stony. Jud tells Louis he has to bury the cat himself.

The next day Louis is surprised by the return a much changed Church and even tugs a bit of plastic from the garbage bag he buried the cat in out of the feline’s mouth. Jud regrets telling Louis about the place beyond the pet cemetery and tells a couple horror stories of his own from the 80 years he’s lived in the same house. The hard ground is sour. What comes back from the soil is not the same that went in.

From there on out, Pet Sematary delves deeper into loss and darkness and what a man will do to keep his family together.

After finishing Pet Sematary, King gave it his usual 6-week cooling off period and read it again. He was so disturbed by the story that he stuck it in a drawer and left it alone until another book was needed to fulfill his contract with Doubleday. Decades after its publication, it’s a book that still manages to disturb readers.